Hiking Essentials: From Water Bottles and Gear to Etiquette and Safety

The thought of going hiking might bring to mind images of rugged mountain-climbers or intrepid backpackers on the Appalachian Trail, but those aren't the only types of hiking you can do. Backpackers carry all of their gear on a multi-day trek, fastpackers do the same while aiming to cover as much ground as possible by running or jogging, and thru-hikers take on long trails over the course of weeks or even months, but day hikers take it easy, enjoying the experience of being in nature while still being home before bedtime. A day hike can be as long or short as you like, and it might take place on a hilly trail through the woods or a paved path through a park. Day hiking is a great way to get started if you've never gone hiking before, and you'll still get the health benefits of exercising out in the fresh air. Being in nature can be good for your mental health, too, helping to improve your mood and lower stress levels.

Planning Your Hike

If you're thinking of taking up hiking, you'll need to start by planning out your hike. Research different trails to find one that looks appealing and is appropriate for your skill level. When you're just starting out, focus on reasonably flat, well-maintained trails. As you gain more experience, you can consider more challenging trails, like ones that go up mountains or have uneven terrain. Once you've picked out where you want to go, check to be sure that you don't need special permission to hike there; some parks might require you to get a permit before you head out on your hike.

You should also think carefully about when you plan to go hiking and make sure that the trail conditions will be good. Hiking in the rain can be a miserable experience, and even after it rains, the trail might be muddy and hard to navigate. If you're planning a hike in the spring, you should also think about whether your destination might be covered in snow or muddy from newly melted snow, especially if you're planning to hike at a higher elevation than where you live.

What to Bring and Wear

Once you've figured out where you'll go, you need to plan out your gear. Start with a backpack that's sturdy and comfortable to wear. Grab some snacks to bring on the trail, preferably ones that are easy to eat and have a mix of protein and carbs, such as energy bars or trail mix. Fill up a water bottle or two to keep yourself hydrated. Then, pack some type of navigational aid: A smartphone or GPS device will work well for most beginner hikes, but if you're heading somewhere where these devices might not get a signal, like up in the mountains or far out into the wilderness, bring a paper map and a compass. You should also pack a poncho, just in case it starts raining, and sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun. Always bring a first aid kit when you go on a hike. You should also think about bringing a flashlight or headlamp, a whistle, a jackknife, and matches or a lighter; all of these are fairly small and lightweight, and you'll be glad to have them in an emergency. You may even want to consider packing a small tent or a space blanket that you can use to rig up a temporary shelter, especially if you'll be going for a longer hike or heading into rough terrain.

Dressing appropriately for your hike can also help to keep you safe and comfortable. Start with moisture-wicking clothing, which will pull sweat away from your skin and dry quickly. Good materials to wear include wool, polyester, and nylon; avoid cotton or denim. It's often a good idea to dress in layers, which allows you to add or remove pieces during your hike as you get warmer or colder. Choose suitable footwear, like water-resistant hiking boots or sneakers with good traction. And be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen as well as bug spray.

Hiking Safety

Proper planning can help to ensure that you have a safe hike and give you peace of mind as you set off for your trail adventure. Planning a safe hike starts with choosing a trail that fits your level of experience and fitness. If this is your first hike, don't try heading up a steep mountain trail: Pick something easier, and if it feels too easy, choose a route that's a bit more challenging next time. Dressing appropriately for the trail and packing everything you might need are also important for a safe hike. And one key safety rule that you should always follow is that you should never set off on a hike without telling anyone. Ideally, you should bring someone along on your hike; that way, if you run into trouble, you'll have someone to help you. If that's not possible, choose a well-trafficked trail, so there will be other people around in case you need help. If there's a trail register, sign in when you arrive and sign out when you leave. You should also always tell someone else who's not coming along about your plans, including where you're going hiking and when you expect to be back. If you get lost and don't make it back on time, they'll know where to look for you.

Trail Etiquette

The first rule of hiking etiquette is that you should always aim to leave no trace that you were there. Stay on the trail, don't pick flowers or take anything else you see as a souvenir, and take all of your trash home with you. Keep a respectful distance from wildlife; never approach or try to feed wild animals. You should also be respectful toward other hikers. Keep your voice at a reasonable volume, and don't play loud music or do anything else to disrupt the calm atmosphere of being in nature.