How to Get into Hiking

I love hiking. I love getting outside, connecting with nature, breathing in the fresh air and getting my heart rate up on a beautiful hike. I love the mental challenge of hiking to the top of a mountain and being rewarded with breathtaking views. Hiking is the one thing that makes my world slow down, it makes me focus on every breath and every step, it makes me realize the incredible beauty of the plants, land and animals we are constantly surrounded by. When I am at the peak of a trail I am completely present and am able to put life and circumstances into perspective.  I also love hiking because it’s a fairly low impact exercise that gives my joints a break from running, yet still has all the cardiovascular and muscular challenges. Hiking has all the benefits from lowering the risk of heart disease, decreasing anxiety, lowering blood pressure, building muscular and cardiovascular strength and endurance, and improving your balance.

Hiking can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be challenging. If you’re not dressed appropriately you could be uncomfortable, getting blisters or heat rashes, if you don’t have food/water you can get irritable, and if you roll an ankle, get stung by wasps or bit by snakes, well it could turn into a scary situation. However, after a long (or short) day of a successful hike, you will find yourself in an elevated mood, ready to take on the world and you will never regret getting into hiking. So let’s get you INTO Hiking and out onto the trails with some gear suggestions, day bag essentials, basic hiking etiquette and nature skills.

She went on her first big hike &thenShe found stillness, she connected with nature, she believed in her power …

How to Get into Hiking

First, Some Hiking Basics

Hiking vs Trekking

My husband and I went trekking through Peru on the Inca Trail for 4 days

I like the distinction on stating that “Hiking involves a long energetic walk in a natural environment on hiking trails or footpaths for a day or overnight. Trekking involves a long vigorous hike in a wild natural environment for multiple days.”

I would also like to add that a hike or trek does not have to be up a mountain, it can be on rolling hills or flat trails. We will be discussing hiking in today’s blog, but many of these tips will be useful if you are looking to get into trekking as well.

Anatomy of Hiking

Hiking is a fantastic workout for your heart and lungs, but also your legs and core. While hiking you use your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, abs and hips. When hiking uphill you will notice your heart rate going up and while going downhill your legs start to burn. This is because when hiking up you are fighting gravity using all the muscles to push you uphill which requires heart pumping blood flow. When hiking downhill you are resisting tumbling downward, so you will be engaging your core and taking slow and controlled steps down, which requires way more muscle control. Hiking down requires a lot of small stabilizer muscles in your ankles and hips to work overtime so you don’t fall down the trail. If your joints are aching on a hike, then you may have overdone it, always train up and find trails suitable for your fitness and skill level.

Now, Let’s Talk Hiking Gear

A day hike (Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte -11 miles) in the fall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Having the right gear is KEY to having a successful hike or trek. Your hikes should be enjoyable and maybe a little challenging fitness wise, but not painful or uncomfortable. I have had my share of neck aches from bad backpacks, blisters from poorly fitted hiking shoes, and overall discomfort from a lack of supplies. 

Here are the Essential Hiking Gear items:

  • Hiking Bags: Look for a bag that has a spot for a hydration pack, extra storage space, and a strap that goes across BOTH the waist and chest to distribute the weight. Go to your local REI store and get properly fitted.
    • Short Day Hike (~4 hours hiking): CamelBak
    • Long Day Hike (~5-24 hours hiking): REI Co-Op (not too big, not too small)
    • Multi-day Hike(24 hours + trekking) : Deuter or Osprey brand
  • Waterproof Cover fitted for your bag size.
  • Hiking Boots: Go to your local REI or athletic store and get properly fitted. I tried on at least 20 different hiking shoes before landing on the one that was perfect for my foot. It’s worth the effort for the perfect boot!
    • Good brands: Salomon (my personal favorite), Merrell, Keen
  • Hiking Pants: Look for pants that can zip off the bottom half to adjust for changes in temperature, have lots of pockets, and an adjustable waist because your weight will fluctuate over a long hike.
  • Hiking/Trekking Poles: Look for poles that are collapsible and sturdy, with adjustable height to allow about a 90 degree bend in your elbow.
  • Hiking Socks: Look for the right height (make sure it goes beyond your boot), moisture wicking fabrics (avoid cotton socks) such as wool, warmth and breathability. I recommend the Darn Tough brand.
  • Wind and Waterproof Jacket – I always recommend you have a lightweight jacket that can squeeze into you bag on any hike. The weather can be very unpredictable on any given hike and its best to be prepared.
  • Hot weather hiking tips: Wear breathable, loose, UPF rated, and wick away clothing such as Nylon or Polyester. Cover your body from the sun where possible with a breathable ball cap, light long sleeve and neck bandana. Always wear sunscreen and maybe throw in a fan with the water squirt bottle feature.
  • Cold weather hiking tips: Wearing layers that can easily be taken on and off is key to a comfortable cold hike. Pack extra gloves, vests, hat and HotHands.

Time for the Hiking Pre-Work

Before you head out on your first big hike or trek, always do your research and your pre-work. Here a few things you should be doing before every hike: 

Me freezing at the top of a Grays Peak in Colorado (day hike – 8 miles) … not prepared for the cold
  • ALWAYS check the weather :
    • Storms: It is not safe to hike during any threat of storms. Strong winds, lightning and rain could cause large tree branches to fall and endanger your livelihood. 
    • Heat: If it will be a blistering hot day, make sure you are prepared with sunscreen, lots of extra water and be smart about whether to bring a child or a pet on a hot hike.
    • Cold: Remember that when hiking uphill, it will get colder the higher you climb. Always pack items to keep you warm, especially at the top and be aware of any icy conditions that could require crampons
  • Tell someone where you are going: If you will be alone or on a trail with small amounts of traffic, make sure to tell someone where you will be hiking.
  • Arrive early: Arrive early in order to give you time to find the trail head and parking as well as give yourself plenty of time to complete your hike during daylight. Make sure you calculate how long you think you will take on the hike (read the reviews), account for extra time if the trail is considered difficult terrain, and pack the appropriate amount of food, drink and reflective gear as well as headlamps if necessary.
  • Read the trail reviews: Download the app AllTrails to find a trail or research the one you are planning to hike and read the recent trail reviews. The comments may tell you that the GPS doesn’t take you to the parking area or whether GPS works at all or where the nearest bathrooms are. Always look for recent comments about the condition of the trail – are the trail markers clear?, is it too icy?, too muddy?, good for pets? is it actually 5 miles and not 3 miles that it has claimed on the sign?
  • Download an offline map: There is a good chance you will lose cell service and/or GPS on your hike, even on highly trafficked trails. Make sure to download an offline map of your trail through the AllTrails app or download an offline map of the area you will be hiking with Google Maps.
  • Training: If you are doing a multi-day backpacking trip or even a big 10 mile day hike, training is KEY. Practice smaller hikes with all your gear by filling your backpack with rocks/items to a similar weight you plan to trek with. Make sure your gear fits and is comfortable. I suggest doing extra core exercises as well. Having a backpack on will require your abs and back to be engaged in whole new ways, if your core isn’t strong, you will find yourself bending forward most of the hike and end up with some serious aches, pains and potential damage to your back. Here’s a 10 minute core workout you should be adding to your hiking training.

Hiking Must Knows

A day hike (Raudmelen) in Balestrand, Norway

Hiking Etiquette

  • Hikers coming uphill have the right of way, if you’re going down a trail, step aside for those climbing up 
  • Say a soft “hello” if passing hikers so not to alarm them
  • Stay on the trail and always pick up after yourself
  • Make subtle noises or shuffling as you walk to scare off animals 
    • Keep your eyes peeled for snakes or critters in summer time

Basic Wildlife Survival Tips

Reading Trail Markers

  • Check out this great article on How to Read Trail Signs, Markers and Blazes
  • Hiking difficulty can be rated differently in different parks and can be based on terrain difficulty, elevation gain, or hours to complete. This is an interesting article on all the different Hiking Trail Rating Systems. Always read the reviews of the trail and use your best judgement when picking a trail to fit your fitness and skill level.

How to use Trekking Poles/ Hiking Sticks

I love my trekking poles, but I do not use them for all my hikes. I use them for long hikes that have particularly rough trail conditions. Poles are not meant to make your hike easier, if anything it makes it a little harder because now you have extra weight and have to use your arms a lot more. Poles will assist in making your hike safer as it can assist your balance on tricky terrain both uphill and downhill. 

Hiking Day Bag Checklist

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