Take a Hike! The Essentials of Wilderness Exploration
Tips you need for a successful wilderness adventure.
At roughly 11,000 feet, Convict Creek bubbles out of a natural spring near Red Slate Mountain, fed via an expansive watershed located in the Inyo National Forest of central California. It meanders down the steep valleys of the Sierra Nevada mountains, towards Constance Lake and Mildred Lake, passing several more remote lakes before finally reaching Convict Lake, which is named after an 1871 shootout between a posse and a group of escapees from Carson City’s prison.
There, at the trail’s head, you can leave the trappings of society behind you, as the tangerine rusted iron in the Sevehah cliffs of Laurel Mountain provides a magnificent backdrop to this part of the Sherwin Lakes trail system. Rugged, breathtaking and inspiring, hiking can be a cathartic, purifying and liberating experience if done right. Done wrong, it can be an utter nightmare.
Case in point:
Sixty-six-year-old Geraldine Largay, a nurse from Tennessee and an inexperienced hiker, tried to tackle the remaining 200 miles of the Appalachian Trail solo, after her hiking companion needed to cut her trip short. On July 22, 2013, Largay strayed from the trail to go to the bathroom and was unable to find her way back. Her phone wasn’t getting a signal, and the more she searched, the more lost she became. She decided to set up a camp and weigh her options.
Largay kept a journal detailing her month lost in the woods. In an entry dated August 18, knowing the inevitable was quickly approaching, she wrote:
“When you find my body, please call my husband, George, and my daughter, Kerry. It will be the greatest kindness for them to know that I am dead and where you found me—no matter how many years from now.” Her remains were found by a logging crew in 2015, two years later.
10 Hiking Essentials
The following list covers items that are suggested for hikes of various lengths. It’s best to customize the list to suit your needs and hike. Choose your gear wisely, and don’t forget to bring essentials, such as medicines that you may require. Also, it’s always good to familiarize yourself on how best to use your gear before you head out.
- Map and compass (and info on how to use them)
- Water and a way to purify it
- Extra layers of clothes and rain gear
- Fire-starting methods and/or matches (kept dry)
- Multi-tool or reliable knife
- Simple first-aid kit
- Flashlight or headlamp
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- Quality boots/hiking shoes/socks
- Hiking poles
Taking a walk in a city park, with well-marked paths, all within sight of the parking lot, is one thing; a trek into the unforgiving wilderness is a completely different animal. Go too far, choose a trail too rough, don’t bring the right gear or don’t plan for unforeseen situations, and any outdoor adventure can turn dangerous, maybe deadly. There are several things you need to accomplish before the first boot hits the trail.
Being as knowledgeable about what lies ahead of you is the most important first step. Walking blindly into the wilderness is just inviting a misadventure. Research the area by using online resources, trail maps, hiking reviews and one of the many hiking/camping websites that outline the trails in that area. Know what weather you’re likely to encounter, and don’t be afraid to postpone the trip.
Before you leave, make a trip plan, outlining exactly where you plan to go, who is in your party and when you plan to return. Leave it with a trusted friend or family member, and keep him/her abreast of any changes, also notifying them when you’ve safely returned.
Knowledge and Skill:
Hiking and camping in remote areas requires the knowledge of a dozen different specializations. Mountaineering, forestry, weather forecasting, first aid, navigation/map reading and environmental causes are all important areas you’ll need to brush up on. You don’t have to be a guru on the subtle differences between the types of pine trees or the sounds of different bear growls, but you should know, at least, how to tell if there are bears in your area, and what to do if you stumble across one.
Determine Your Fitness Level
It is time to look in the mirror and give yourself an honest talk about your fitness level. Be honest: can you run or walk a mile without traumatic results? Do you have knee problems, joint pain in your ankles, foot issues, arthritis, or any kind of hip or back problems? Do you have asthma, heart problems, lung issues or circulatory concerns?
These shouldn’t prevent you from hiking, but they should limit your choices of hikes, at least at the beginning of your new hobby. Pushing your body unnecessarily will create strains on whatever your weaknesses are. This is why a few training hikes are so important, as they will give you a benchmark on which to base your abilities.
If you are wheezy after only a few hundred yards of relatively flat terrain, you might want to reconsider attempting to reach Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier (a strenuous hike with a 4,700-foot elevation change in 4.5 miles). Instead, build up to it by undertaking more conservative trails.
Choose the Right Kind of Hike
You have to start somewhere, right? Waking up one random morning and throwing a bunch of gear into your pack on the way to tackling the Appalachian Trail (it’s 2,190 miles long) isn’t a wise move, and it’s one that will likely end in failure. When a person fails early on at something difficult, they’re less likely to continue trying.
Like any hobby or activity that requires physical exertion, you have to work at it, build up to big hikes, and flesh out what works and doesn’t work with your gear, your needs and your abilities. Start with small goals and work at them. Keep the hike close to home so you can get back quickly if something goes awry or if you feel you’ve overextended yourself.
Mind Your Time:
Your first few hikes don’t even have to be overnighters. They can simply be day hikes into the surrounding mountains on well-established trails (there are probably plenty of fire roads or old logging roads in your local hills). Pick a hike based on how much time you have. Only have an afternoon? Keep it to a two or three miles. Go slow or pick a pace that you’re comfortable with. Plan for plenty of rest stops, and don’t be afraid to turn around before you’ve reached your destination.
To start, choose a trail that is relatively flat, with little change in elevation. Don’t overdo it, as you build up your strengths, experiences and knowledge of what your body is able to accomplish. Passing by the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest is no place to make these revelations about yourself. There’s a good reason that mountain is littered with over 200 corpses; don’t be one of them by not taking baby steps first.
There are likely dozens of trails around your city or town that provide ample challenges and impressive rewards. There are several websites that will point you to many trails around your zip code (trails.com is one).
Traversing a simple and wide, well-traveled trail will speak volumes about your abilities. Once you are comfortable, then push your boundaries for more challenging hikes. After a few local hikes, put together a two- or three-mile overnighter that will take you into somewhat familiar territory. As long as you are exploring your surroundings and building strength and experience, you’re hiking.
Wear the Right Clothes
It is easy to spot the newbie on the trail. He’s wearing jeans and his hiking boots are really nice, so nice in fact that they are brand new. Usually, he’s wet, cold and limping. Denim is made from cotton, and cotton is a notoriously poor choice to wear if you plan on sweat or getting wet. Instead of wicking away moisture, like wool or synthetic fabrics, cotton retains water. Not only will cotton siphon away body heat when you need it (or trap it when you don’t), but it takes forever to dry, and can ice up when the temps take a plunge.
The important thing to consider is versatility. Your clothes should be able to be altered to reflect the weather around you. Pants that unzip to become shorts, and long-sleeve shirts that can be rolled up or unbuttoned altogether, are smart choices.
If you prepare for the worst by layering light shirts and jackets in the morning, you can slowly peel back the layers as the day gets warmer, and slowly put them back on as the evening cools down.
Boots and shoes can be the most important pieces of gear you’ll buy for hiking, and there are pros and cons to any kind of footwear, from big clunky hiking boots to running shoes and “barefoot” five-toe shoes. It is a matter of what makes you comfortable. Many times, ill-fitting hiking boots can be heavy and awkward, clamping down on your ankles in uncomfortable places while leaving unnecessary space around the toes. If you’re not used to wearing them (or if they are the wrong boot for the activity), they can cause you to have an improper footfall.
On the flipside, if they fit perfectly, hiking boots have impressive grip, provide excellent support for untested ankles, and well protect the foot from the dangers of rocky terrain. They are made for long-distance treks, and can support heavier loads if you’re backpacking. Often, they feature a very high cut that wraps around the ankles for maximum support. They also have stiff midsoles and are extremely durable.
They should fit snug everywhere but not tight. No part should feel constrained, but you should have enough room to wiggle your toes. It is best to try on new hiking boots at the end of the day (your feet are larger then from swelling), and with the socks you plan to wear. Spend some time breaking them in by wearing them for at least a few miles of general walking before hitting the trail.
Like anything, there are many types of socks to choose from, from liners and lightweight socks to thick socks designed for cold mountain trails. They can be made of wool, synthetic material designed to insulate (Hollofil, Thermax, Thermastat), synthetic materials designed to wick away moisture (polypropylene or CoolMax), silk and cotton (never buy cotton socks for hiking).
The best choice for beginners are lightweight socks, which are best for warm conditions and easy trails. They are relatively thin socks that wick moisture, and accent comfort over warmth. Consider also wearing liners, which are very thin socks that go between your foot and the sock that further wick away sweat, and limit the amount of slip between the sock and your foot, keeping blisters to a minimum.
Notes on Treating Foot Injuries:
If you have appropriately fitting boots, the correct socks and liners for the terrain and weather, and a descent pair of hiking sticks, these once-common foot maladies should be few and far between. But that doesn’t mean they don’t happen, and you might be with a fellow hiker that befalls one or more of them while trekking down the trail. Be prepared to prevent, and treat them as soon as they are discovered.
Prevention: Keep your toenails trimmed, your socks changed daily (or if they get wet), and air your feet regularly while on the trail. If you are prone to blisters, consider taping them up. You can sprinkle foot powder (or cornstarch) in your boot, dab a dot or two of petroleum jelly onto typical hot spots, or apply a layer of moleskin to the affected area.
Treatment: Broken blisters should be disinfected immediately and bandaged. If it is medium to large and unbroken, prick it with a sterile needle and drain it. If the skin is dirty or ragged, slice it off around the open wound, and apply plenty of disinfectant (alcohol, hand sanitizer, iodine, etc.). Many serious hikers and trail runners keep superglue handy. After pricking and draining the blister, they disinfect the area and fill the cavity with superglue. It bonds the skin to the wound, but the chemicals in the glue pack a sting.
Chafing is never pleasant, as it usually happens in the groin area and upper thighs. However, it can occur wherever skin is rubbing against sweat-soaked clothing, like the armpits and backs of the knees. Though chaffing makes every step uncomfortable, unchecked, it could lead to infection.
Prevention: If your problem areas are your groin and thighs, consider wearing boxer briefs made from a synthetic material, which not only cover your upper thighs, but also wick away moisture from your body. Some dedicated hikers don’t wear underwear at all—and some have been known to wear only a kilt. Before starting out on the trail, lather the areas with a zinc-oxide cream (think diaper-rash cream) or a petroleum jelly, which will decrease skin-on-skin friction and protect it from moisture. Keep your clothes as clean and dry as possible, and don’t hike with your shirt tucked in (sweat will pour down your back and into your underwear).
Treatment: The treatment is similar to the prevention. Use a zinc-oxide cream and keep it area clean and dry. Medicated powders like Gold Bond, Vaseline and Bag Balm (originally used on cow udders) will help cool and lubricate the affected regions.
When you are traveling through the woods or on narrow trails through a wooded area, always wear pants unless you like trail marks all over you legs from pointy branches or a nice case of poison oak/ivy. It is important to keep as much of you body covered.
However, take into consideration the temperatures in which you are hiking. If it is going to be cold or hot, wear the appropriate pants and shirt. And since being sweaty while you are hiking is sometimes inevitable, at least invest in some clothing that will wick that sweat away from your body. Since fancy hiking shirts can be expensive, a simple breathable t-shirt might do nicely.
Any hat you are comfortable in will work. Again, consider the weather. If you are in the desert, wear a hat that well covers your ears and neck, and if it is cold, try a wool cap.
Bring the Right Gear
It is very possible—and all too common for beginning hikers—to pack too much. Their first-aid kit is similar to a battlefield medic’s, and they’ve packed enough clothes and food for a trip three times as long as the one they plan to take. Every pound of gear on your back will feel like three pounds by the end of the day, so remove anything from your pack that you might not have a use for.
Pack for the trip you are taking. Are you going for three days and covering 10 miles? If so, then, carry nine meals, enough water for three days (if there is no potable water along the way), and the gear to get you there and back (i.e. hiking sticks and a comfortable pack). Emergency supplies are a must—such as a signaling devices, navigation tools and a fire-starting apparatus; but, remember that you’re not running headlong into Armageddon.
Pack for the weather, primarily. You’ll need rain gear if it is going to rain, and warm clothing if it is going to get blustery. You’ll need a tent and a sleeping bag if you don’t plan to rough it under the stars, and you’ll need a way to purify water and cook food. That’s really it. If you’re serious about saving weight, you don’t need a change of clothes for every day of the trip. Double up, but maintain a comfortable level of layers as the weather allows.
A day or two before your trip, lay everything on the floor; as you pick up each item, ask yourself if you’ll really need it. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace can wait for you at home, and a pair of shoes for camp and another for the trail is unnecessary redundancy.
Know the Way
The vast majority of rescues that happen in the wilderness are due to a lost hiker. For the inexperienced and the unprepared, it is easy to lose your way when everything begins to look the same. The best way to avoid getting lost is to have on hand quality maps, a reliable compass and the basic skills to use them. There are huge differences between a road map for interstate travel and a topographical map for navigating the surrounding terrain. Always use paper maps, and don’t rely on wireless devices that could run out of batteries or drop a connection, regardless of how close to home you are.
Go with the Right People
Companionship on the trail is always a delightful aspect to being out in nature, but you have to consider the right people. Choose hiking partners that match your abilities, strengths and speed. Since a hiking group should travel as fast as its slowest member, that might be frustrating for quick hikers, and exhausting for slower ones. Regardless, set your own pace and stick to it.
Hiking and camping is a great place to share the responsibilities of both, and provide support and a safety net for one another during the trip. One person hauls the tent, while the other carries the majority of the food; splitting the weight evenly means that no person is lugging the bulk of the gear that you are both sharing. Just because you own it, doesn’t mean you alone have to carry it. Share the load, share the trail, share the experience.
Most importantly, go with people that you can stand to be in close proximity with for long stretches of time. You have lots of friends, but how many of those friends would you enjoy being stuck in a tent with? What about during a monsoon downpour for four or five straight days? And without having murderous urges? Probably not many.
Don’t be afraid or daunted by the unknowns on the long, dusty trail. Hiking as recreation has been popular for over 100 years, and although it can be dangerous to the unprepared, worrisome to the uninitiated, and grueling to those out of shape, the rewards of settling into a remote campsite for the weekend, or trudging through pristine valleys seemingly untouched by man, can awaken a part of your soul that you might not have known was even there. You just have to take a chance!