From the Lost Coast Trail in Northern California to the famous Appalachian Trail, America is a hiker’s paradise. There are endless miles of stunning nature waiting for you to explore, and depending on where you live, you may not need to travel far to enjoy a scenic stroll or even an overnight camping trip.
If you’re considering gearing up and heading out on your first grand wilderness adventure, it’s important that you do it right. After all, nature, while beautiful, can also be unforgiving. Fortunately, as long as you take the time to prepare properly and learn some basic safety tips, exploring the great outdoors can be an extremely rewarding hobby.
Research the Location
It’s important to recognize that hiking isn’t just a physical activity—it’s very much a mental one, too. On paper, you might think that walking around in the woods is straightforward, and it can be depending on the terrain; however, if you plan on doing any serious hiking, it’s crucial that you spend some time getting familiar with the location before strapping on your boots.
For example, if you’re planning on camping, your best bet as a first-timer is to find popular campgrounds in your area. Yes, there’s something alluring about the path less traveled, but rushing into hikes beyond your skill level just isn’t worth the risk. Instead, start with a beginner-friendly spot that’s known and used regularly, ideally with civilization nearby.
Spend some time getting to know not just your specific hiking destination but also the surrounding areas. This is always a good practice, but it’s especially critical when you’re traveling for the first time in a new place. You don’t want to find yourself wading through a swamp because you didn’t research your hike in advance!
Research location-specific details that could put a damper on your trip. For example, in California, you may want to find out if there have been forest fires nearby. Or, in Vermont, approximately 50% of ticks carry Lyme disease, according to the Burlington Free Press, so that would be something to keep in mind if you were trekking any of Vermont’s gorgeous mountains and trails.
Pack Essential Supplies
Once you’re confident in your location, it’s time to gather the equipment you’ll need. As a general rule of thumb, always bring more food and water than you think you’re going to require. Even if it weighs you down a bit, it’s always better to have too much than not enough.
Other helpful items include a compass and/or GPS unit, a waterproof watch, fire-starting tools, and backup maps. Be sure to bring your mobile phone (and ideally a portable solar charger) while also keeping in mind that you may not be able to rely on it.
While researching the terrain, you should also be taking note of any potential weather conditions that could come as a surprise. Does it get freezing cold at night? Be sure to pack clothing layers and an extra blanket. Is there even a remote possibility that it could rain? Pack a poncho.
Even experienced hikers can run into problems if they don’t pack the right gear. Take Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, for instance. It is known for its erratic weather conditions, especially at the top of the mountain—wind speeds can hit 231 MPH at the peak. Now imagine spending the day climbing the mountain only to have to turn back because you didn’t bring proper protection.
It’s easy to overlook common sense items if you’re not vigilant, so make a list, check it twice, and then check it again. It’s always better to be over-prepared than to regret poor packing practices.
Prepare for the Physical Strain
Hiking is physically demanding. While a brief stroll through a national park might be manageable, you don’t want to realize that you’re fatigued while you’re in the middle of the woods. Before embarking on any sort of major hike, it’s essential that you get in shape so that you can trust in your physical ability to complete the journey.
Exercising doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, if you’re interested in hiking, you’ll probably also enjoy other outdoor activities that are also a workout, such as biking, boating, or running. Joining a local sports league is another great way to burn some calories while making new friends.
You can even get in shape for your big hike with a small hike. Just take it step-by-step. Never go out unless you’re 100% confident in your abilities. Say you’re hiking in Colorado — before climbing Pikes Peak, you could try hiking a smaller sibling in Estes Park. Try to find similar terrain for practicing before you take on the main event.
Bring a Friend
While hiking alone can be an enriching experience, it’s wise to go on your first few hikes with at least one other friend, ideally someone with more experience than you. Nature isn’t always predictable, and having a second person makes a huge difference if an emergency situation should occur.
Before heading out, it’s important that you communicate with your hiking partner(s). You should be aware of their skill levels as well as any physical limitations that could hinder your progress. Only travel with people you trust and whose company you enjoy. Once you’re out there, you don’t want any sort of drama to stand in the way of your good time or your safety.
Take Care of Your Health
When you’re away from the comforts of home, you’re vulnerable. It’s all too easy to overlook your physical and mental wellbeing when you’re focused on the task at hand. Make sure you drink plenty of water, eat nutritious food, and get rest when needed.
While staying healthy on vacation may seem obvious, you especially don’t want to be feeling sick or weary when you’re in the woods away from modern comforts. That means you may want to skip that extra alcoholic drink the night before or fall asleep a little earlier than usual. Be conscious of how the decisions you make now will affect how you feel later.
Have Fun (But Proceed with Caution)
There’s a lot to consider when planning your first few hiking trips. That said, it gets easier with each adventure. Each journey is a chance to learn from past blunders. At the same time, your goal is to avoid common pitfalls whenever possible, so don’t take prep lightly. Have fun with it while remembering that nature can be dangerous. As long as you stay aware and mindful before, during, and after your trip, hiking is nourishment for the body, mind, and soul.