Hiking 101

*Photo taken at Jack’s Valley Conservancy in the Carson Valley of Nevada. You can see Michael and our sweet Luna walking the trail into the sunset. The mountains covered in snow to the right are the Sierra Nevadas, where Lake Tahoe is nestled.

Hello, my lovelies. I hope wherever you are right now, you’re having a moment of respite, a deep breath, a seat in the sun. If not, I hope you can make time for it soon. In the past, I’ve written up some good hikes I’ve taken, some of which I have done alone, others with company, but I thought it might be time to write up a quick little set of tips for people who might not be hikers yet. I know you’re out there: the people who love the idea of getting out in the woods on a trail, but you never quite get there, or maybe you get there but you don’t go very far. When you go hiking without the right shoes, without simple things like a little water or bug spray, a hike in the woods can become a nightmare instead of an adventure. If you’ll indulge me for a few minutes, I would love to offer a bit of advice about getting out in the woods (and this is not just for you newbies—folks who love the woods and don’t make time for it, this is for you, too). Let’s get into it!

First, let me regale you with the real reason I hike. It’s not just because I’m some kind of granola-munching, tree-hugging nature lover who wants everyone to save the pandas. I like pandas, I have hugged trees, I do love nature, and I actually make my own granola, but I go in the woods for two reasons: 1) I feel calmer and happier under the trees, and 2) it’s a lot more fun to walk on a trail than on a sidewalk. If I’m going to get exercise (which I like getting, because I would like my body to work when I’m 90), I prefer having some fun. A trail in the woods is a wondrous thing to get your heart pumping, and every trail offers different things to see. Just today I talked with one of my coworkers who was delighted that I shared a new trail with her, a trail right down the road from where she lives, and she had never been there. She told me her kids loved it! The view at the top of the hill, the fun little bridges, the foundation of an old historic cabin…all of it was such fun to them that she said they’ll probably go back again and again to explore and enjoy it. It made me happy that I took the time to tell her about it because it brought her such joy. That’s what I find on the trail.

When you get out in the woods, the sounds of water running over stony creek beds, the wind rustling the leaves, birds singing, and vistas of hills and valleys all delve into the part of your brain that still remembers how to be part of the natural world. Even if you live in a city, your body still remembers the rhythms of hunting, gathering, and living under the trees. If you have trouble finding that part of yourself, you may just be underprepared for the experience. For me, it all begins with a good pair of shoes. I love my Adidas Swift R hiking shoes (no, I am not getting paid to say that—they are just awesome shoes). They offer great support for your feet, which is good for the rest of your body’s alignment, they are also waterproof (a must for me, because wet feet while hiking equals blisters), and have great soles for climbing up and down inclines. The soles grip rock surfaces very well, which I love. Recently I got a good pair of insoles for my shoes, which I now use in place of whatever comes inside any of my shoes. They have changed my life. I no longer have hip pain, and my knees are improving now that they are more properly aligned from the proper foot placement. It matters. Get good shoes. I advise going to a place like EMS or REI if you can, because the people who work in those stores actually go out in the world and do the things you want to do, like hiking, backpacking, cycling, mountain biking, canoeing…you catch my drift.

After shoes, I would say the next biggest thing for me is clothing. If you’re going on a long hike and it’s hot, don’t wear jeans and a hoodie. Avoid stiff jackets or pants, or any clothing that restricts your movement. I shouldn’t have to say these things, but I’ve actually seen people going out on trails—in the Adirondacks High Peaks area, no less—in dress clothes. Please be smarter than those people. What I love most on the trail for my own comfort is a good pair of stretchy cotton pants that are loose, have lots of pockets with zippers, and also either roll up to capri length, or zip off the legs. When on the trail, conditions can change to be warmer or cooler than when you start. Wear loose layers for ease of moving, climbing, and even sitting down for a rest. My favorite shirt is actually a cotton tee, though my husband swears by his “breathable” polyester shirts and nylon pants. I do not get along well with synthetic clothing, so cotton and wool are my standards, but you have to try things to know what you like best. Whatever you do, save your money and just use what’s in your closet for now. It’s hiking, not a night at the gala. Nobody in the woods cares if you wear Northface or LL Bean or whatever other outlandishly expensive brands you think you need. Be sensible. That goes for socks, too. I wear my wick-away cotton or wool socks. Not fancy.

Aside from clothing, make sure you bring water. I love my Camelbak because it sits well on the back and shoulders, and has pockets for snacks and other little things you might want. It also keeps your hands free so you can walk without carrying anything. If you don’t have one, just use a good backpack you have at home and carry enough water to be able to drink about 8oz an hour. If it’s hot, bring more water, but use your own common sense. You don’t want to carry gallons of water for an hour-long hike. You won’t need that much water even in the desert, unless you left the house already dehydrated. For longer hikes, use your best judgement. Even when I hiked in the hot Nevada sun for a couple of hours, I never emptied my full Camelbak bladder, which holds a liter and a half of water, and I tend to drink a lot when hiking uphill. Save your fancy sports drinks for when you get home. You are unlikely to need the electrolytes unless you’re hiking in Death Valley in midday sun. Of course, you know yourself better than I do, so use your best judgement of your own body’s needs.

When heading out into the woods on the East Coast, expect bugs. You are going to be very unhappy in the woods without bug spray, even if you wear clothing that covers everything. Ever encounter a mosquito in Maine? They’re more like helicopters than bugs. Black flies in New Hampshire will feast on your flesh, and leave you covered in pock marks. In Western New York the mosquitos rely on sheer numbers to eat you alive in swarms. Farther south, the bugs get longer life cycles, and are often rather diligent when getting after their victims. Trust me, wear the bug spray. I actually like the Herbal Armor from All Terrain or even the “Natural Insect Repellent” from Repel. Both contain Geraniol, which is what I believe is the secret ingredient that keeps the bugs at bay. You do need to apply it every few hours because sweat will cause it to run off your skin, just like sunscreen. Both of these brands are DEET-free, which I recommend. DEET is a fairly frightening chemical. I avoid it at all costs. For the record, I know several people who have used Herbal Armor in Africa, and said it kept the bugs away even there—so I think you’re covered. Spray yourself before going on the trail, and then bring the bottle with you to reapply if you plan a hike for more than an hour or two.

Bring snacks. It gives you an excuse to sit down when you catch a nice view. So many of my favorite moments on trails has been sitting on a log or rock snacking on something while I looked out at a rushing stream, a stretch of mountains, or listened to birds calling across the forest. I love those peaceful moments of well-earned rest on the trail when I can put up my feet and refuel for the walk back. Enjoying a picnic can be even more satisfying, especially if you know a really beautiful spot on a trail you’ve already traveled. I can’t think of many more lovely ways to spend an afternoon. Many of the best meals I’ve ever had were on the trail, if for no other reason than food always tastes best when you’ve worked hard to carry it. I don’t know what it is, but the satisfaction of hauling a meal on your back is like none other. A word of caution, though: if you plan to bring a picnic, pack it in a bear can or Op bags. The bear can will ensure that animals cannot get your food, even if they try, and bears in some places of the country already know the scent of bear cans and will leave you alone. Op bags, if used correctly, can be bought at EMS (last I knew) and are military grade plastic to prevent odor from escaping. I tried these with my dogs, so I know they work. I put a raw steak in one of the bags and put it on the floor; my dogs walked right past it without any clue that a steak was sitting right under their noses. Believe me, if they knew the steak was on the floor, they would have eaten it. Really, you’re smart to carry any food in an Op bag if you can, just to be safe.

Once you have all these ducks in a row, now all you need to do is find a trail. All Trails is a fairly good app to use on your smart phone, though I have found that it doesn’t always show all trails near you. I know several trails near where I live now that don’t show up on the app. It does, however, have good maps and directions for hikes, as well as geeky stuff like elevation gain and difficulty level (which I totally love). I use the app in combination with Google searches for parks and hiking trails. If you’re not an experienced hiker, try a state park near you. Park rangers are full of knowledge about the trails in the parks, and they can give you great directions to pick a trail right for your level of ability. Usually I like a moderate to difficult level with a little elevation gain, but some people prefer a flatter walk in the woods. Whatever your level of interest, I guarantee you can find a surprising network of trails near where you live. Almost everywhere in the country is covered in trails, and you may not even realize they’re around you unless you go looking. I also like finding trails in books at the library, on websites set up by local trail conservationists, or even local hiking groups (which you can sometimes meet at the local library, just ask the librarians—they may know). Please remember to bring a trail map with you. Print one at home on paper, or make sure your phone is charged with the screen of the map still up when you leave to hike—once you get in the woods you may not have cell service. Keep that map saved on your phone as a screen shot. If you aren’t certain you know how to use trail markers or follow the directions on the map without getting lost, please bring a more experienced hiker with you until you learn the ropes. Getting lost in the woods is not what you want, so be prepared with either knowledge or help to stay safe.

With all these resources and tips, I hope you feel inspired to get out there and see beautiful things. If you lack in motivation, remind yourself that you need to live for today. We never know if we’ll have a tomorrow. Don’t wait for the perfect time. Just go and do it. Make a plan for the weekend or a day off from work, and just get everything together by the door. Have it all ready so you can just jump into your clothes and walk out the door into the bright morning sun. You’ll be so happy you took the time to appreciate what the earth created near you, and the sense of pride you’ll have when you realize how good you feel while you breathe all that oxygen from the trees. Nothing cures the blues like sunshine and fresh air, unless you combine it with endorphins from exercise. 🙂 Be good to your body and stretch before you leave, and if it’s been a long time since you hiked, plan a nice hot bath when you get home. Savor all of it, and remember to save the camera for just a few snaps here and there. Appreciate the time under the trees, at the top of the hill, or alongside the stream. Make the time, and you may discover that you want to make it happen more often.

For anyone interested in learning about backpacking (not to be confused with day hiking, which is what I describe above), I happen to have a course for beginners on my “Resources, Courses, and Short Stories” page. The course is titled “Take a Hike,” and is an email course delivered over several days. I set it up as a course offered by donation, so you can pay whatever you feel it’s worth to you. I go over gear, food, clothing, tents, sleeping apparatus, animal encounters, and much more. If it interests you, here is the link to the page so you can check it out for yourself. Do send me love letters, readers! I enjoy hearing about your experiences in the outdoors, and getting feedback about my content. My aim is to please.