Diet and exercise can help build our physical capacity and our confidence before stepping out onto a trail. The right gear can provide protection, comfort, and security. Sooner or later, though, we stop preparing and start to hike. That brings us to the final stage of getting ready: planning an actual hike. Veteran hikers may plan almost instinctively, but if you’re just starting to hike you’ll want to follow an organized sequence before each hike.
Using Day Hikes
When we think of hiking we often think of great adventures: through hikes on well-known trails, hikes in exotic locations, extended trips with heavy loads, and vast amounts of gear. In reality, the vast majority of our hikes will be day hikes: out and back in a single day. There’s nothing wrong with that. Day hikes offer all kinds of advantages for both new and veteran hikers. They can be goals in their own right and critical parts of our preparation for longer treks.
Day hikes allow hiking with a relatively light load, which makes it easier to cover distance and leaves space to bring along a few little luxuries. Packing is quick and easy compared to packing for a multiday trip. That doesn’t mean you can neglect the essentials: you’ll still need protection from sun and rain, adequate water, emergency communications, and other trail basics. Traveling without overnight gear makes it fairly easy to accommodate those basics in a light, compact load that keeps your mind on the hike, not the load.
Day hikes offer almost infinite variety. A day hike can be a casual stroll on level ground or a punishing long-distance walk over steep hills on difficult surfaces. That makes them ideal for training purposes. If you’re considering a longer hike, a well-chosen day hike allows you to test yourself on different terrain, build your stamina, and get a sense of how ready you are to take on new challenges. Because day hikes tend to be relatively close to home or a trip base and your load is usually light, you’re less likely to get into trouble on a day hike and it’s easier to arrange help if you do. That makes a day hike a great way to test limits, as long as you don’t overdo it!
Day hikes are also a great way to assess your compatibility with other hikers. If you’ve just joined a group or met a potential hiking buddy a day hike will let you test each other out with minimal commitment.
Many areas have a variety of established day hiking trails at various levels of difficulty. Many of them offer the same kind of scenery and natural exposure that you’d get from longer hikes. You may not be in deep wilderness, but you’re walking outdoors in a natural environment and that’s what hiking is all about.
For the beginner or intermediate hiker, day hikes offer an ideal way to build fitness, competence, and confidence on the trail. Easily accessible day hikes in your area often become your bread and butter hikes, places you come back to over and over again for a physical workout, mental and emotional relief, and some time in the great outdoors!
Choosing Your Trail
A great day on the trail starts with the right trail. By this time you have a decent assessment of your own fitness and an idea of what you’re ready to bite off. If you’re starting out, it’s probably best to start small: one of the great things about hiking is that even a hike that’s easy for you isn’t wasted time. It’s still fun, it’s still exercise, it’s still time outdoors, and you come away knowing that you’re ready for more. That’s a win all around, so if you’re not sure don’t hesitate to start with a hike that’s well within your capacity.
There are three key elements to consider when preparing for a hike.
Distance. Knowing how many miles you’ll hike is a good start. Don’t be intimidated by distance: even if you’re slow and you rest frequently, steady walking can eat up more miles than you’d think!
Gradient. How much elevation you gain and lose is a key element in the level of stress a hike places on your body. Many hikers fear steep or expended climbs, and they can be exhausting, but steep descents can also be difficult, especially for hikers with foot, ankle, or knee problems.
Surface. A smooth, flat train is much easier to walk on than a rough, rocky, rooty, or off-camber (sloping from side to side) trail. Rough surfaces require stronger, more supportive footwear (which can be heavier and more tiring) and increase the likelihood of turned ankles and foot injuries. A hike on a rough surface can be much more tiring than a hike of similar distance and gradient on a smooth surface.
Time. The time it takes to finish a hike depends on all of the features above. The standard rule for estimating time is to allow one hour for every 3 miles of distance and add another hour for every 2000 feet of climbing. Many older hikers prefer an hour for every 2 miles and an extra hour for every 1000 feet of climbing. These are general guides: experience will teach you to estimate your own speed. Remember that large groups move more slowly than small ones!
Reliable information is the key to deciding whether a trail is right for you. One great way to be sure you have reliable information is to hike in national or state parks. Many parks have designated trails with clear difficulty ratings. Park websites or brochures may describe hikes in detail. If you have questions you can often call park ranger offices and get the information you need: park rangers want to keep you safe and are usually a great resource.
Another great source of information is individual hikers, especially hikers you know. They have a great advantage: they know the trail and they also know you. If you have friends who hike, ask them for recommendations. Outdoor shops or other outdoor-related businesses in your area can also be a good source of recommendations.
Choosing Your Companions
Hiking is a group sport. Some people do hike alone, but that’s for people with considerable expertise, confidence, and familiarity. For anything but experts, and especially for older hikers with potential health issues, companions are a must. Even one is better than none, but four is often the ideal number. If one person is injured or incapacitated one can stay with the individual and the other two can go for help.
Hiking buddies are an essential part of the sport. They can also make or break a hike. Time spent outdoors with old or new friends that are flexible, accommodating, and share your pace and your approach to the sport can add to your experience and make a hike far more rewarding. Tension or personal issues within a group can make a day miserable.
Older hikers have a real advantage in assessing potential hiking companions: experience. Whether or not we have hiking experience, most of us have plenty of experience dealing with people and judging character. That matters: no matter how compatible our skills, fitness levels, and hike preferences are, if we don’t get along as people it’s not going to work!
We can’t evaluate people until we’ve met some, so let’s look at some ways to meet hiking buddies.
Ask your friends. If you have friends that hike, talk to them. Even if they have more experience than you they will often be willing to take an easy hike with you and help you into the sport. You may find that you already know people who hike or are interested in hiking, or that you have friends who know other hikers. Nothing beats a personal referral.
Look for organized groups. Many areas have active hiking clubs. Run some online searches for hiking clubs in your area. Hiking groups usually welcome new members and often organize beginner outings, a great way to get on the trail with more experienced hikers who can help you out and recommend other trails at your level. Look for a Sierra Club chapter in your area.
Use the internet. Check any neighborhood message forums or other local internet resources for hiking-related discussions. If you live near a popular hiking destination, do searches for discussions of that destination. Sites like meetup.com may put you in contact with groups or individual hikers in your area.
Go where other hikers go. Local outdoor shops or other outdoor-oriented businesses may have bulletin boards or other resources to help you join up with other hikers. Your local outdoor shop has a huge incentive to help you get involved in the sport: every new hiker is a potential return customer for them. They’ll know of any groups in your area and may even set you up with individuals.
If you have access to a state or national park, ask the park office about hiking groups that frequent the area and include older hikers. They’ll know their regulars and they may be able to set you up with regular groups.
Take a class. Many areas where hiking is popular have groups offering regular classes in wilderness first aid and other hiking skills. A wilderness first aid class is a great place to meet potential hiking buddies: both of you will know that you’re with someone who takes the sport seriously and knows what to do in an emergency!
Take a guided trek. Outdoor service companies in many areas provide guided hikes. You’ll have to pay something, but you’ll gain the advantage of a hike with an experienced leader who’s committed to looking after you. You’ll also meet other hikers and make connections that could help you start developing your own group of hikers.
Once you’ve met some possibilities, you’ll need to check them out, and they’ll need to check you out. It’s usually good to meet in person before you agree to do a hike together, just to get a sense of each other and how you relate in person. You have a common interest to start with, but not all people get along and it’s good to know if you do before embarking on a hike together. If you do decide to hike the first time you meet, choose a short, relatively easy hike so you can decide whether you’re a good fit.
Hiking relationships, like all relationships, are built around communication. You need to be open about your experience level, self-assessed fitness, and any health issues you may have. The other people in your group should do the same. You want an adaptable group that will adjust and support members that may be slower or having difficulty, not people that will treat a weaker group member as a liability. This is less an assessment of fitness or experience than an assessment of character. It’s entirely possible to mix people of very different fitness and experience levels in one group, as long as everybody knows what they’re getting into and everybody’s willing to adjust to the needs of other group members.
Planning Around Water
Water is one of the single most necessary things to bring on any hike: adequate hydration is a must. Water is also one of the heaviest things you’ll bring on a hike, which creates a conflict between your desire to bring as much water as you need and your desire to keep your pack as light as possible.
For most hikers, a quart of water per two hours of planned hiking is a reasonable guideline. If you use a water bottle, make sure it’s accessible. You want to sip small amounts of water frequently, not take a stop every hour and guzzle half a quart! Many hikers find that a hydration pack encourages constant sipping and good water management.
When you’re assessing a trail, always find out whether there’s a source of potable water along the way. If there is, you can plan to refill your bottles, which can significantly reduce the weight you carry early in the hike. A portable filter or water purification tablets can be a viable fallback, but it’s best to avoid drinking untreated surface water except in an absolute emergency, even if it’s clear and seems clean.
If you’re hiking in hot weather or you sweat heavily you may want to bring extra water. You may not like the weight, but you’ll reduce it as you go and a few more pounds at the start is better than running out of water!
Use particular caution on cool, windy days. You may not feel as thirsty in cool weather and wind can evaporate sweat before you realize that you’re sweating, which means that you can dehydrate without knowing it. Bring extra water and plan to keep sipping at regular intervals, whether you’re thirsty or not.
If you’re sweating heavily and replenishing only with water you may face electrolyte depletion. If you expect a sweaty day you might want to bring an electrolyte-balance sports drink or powdered oral rehydration salts along with your usual water supply. Many sports drinks contain more salt and sugar than you need. Processing the excess puts additional demand for water on your body, so you may want to dilute your sports drink with the same quantity of water.
Planning Around the Weather
Weather is often predicted but never entirely predictable. There’s an old saying about mountain climates in particular: if you don’t like the weather, just wait, it’ll change. Whatever the forecast, be ready for extremes. Bring a broad-brimmed hat and sunscreen even if it’s cloudy, have a packable raincoat and a backpack cover handy even if it’s sunny. The best way to get the sun to come out is to forget your hat and sunscreen!
If you have a hike planned, follow weather forecasts (weather.com is a great site to check weather) and use your own judgment. If signs indicate inclement weather you may want to consider canceling a hike, especially if your planned route includes areas that are slippery when wet or there are stream crossings to be negotiated. The trail will still be there when the weather improves. Nobody wants to cancel a hike especially at the trailhead, but if there are black clouds over the route and thunder on the horizon it may be the right move. One advantage of being the oldest hiker in the group is that you get to make that call without embarrassment!
Nobody wants to think about worst-case scenarios, but somebody has to. Each member of the group should be aware of any health problems that the others have, and know what to do if there’s a problem. You should also be aware that problems can emerge without warning. Everyone in the group should know what first aid skills others have and what equipment they are bringing.
Every group should have an emergency plan. Think about what you’d do if someone is hurt and has difficulty moving. Up to what level of severity would you carry on and just help the person along? Up to what point of the trek would it be worthwhile to turn around and go back? Consider these questions before you begin walking.
If your proposed route is entirely within mobile phone coverage, a phone may be the only signaling device you need. Always know who to call: find out what rescue service has jurisdiction over your area and make sure you have their number. Learn the identifying features of your area so you can describe your location accurately. A GPS app downloaded to your smartphone can give you an exact location. If you are relying on your phone for emergency communication make sure your battery is full and avoid using your phone in ways that could deplete your battery. If you use your phone for photos or video, consider having one phone in the group reserved for emergency communication, and keep that phone protected.
If your route is out of phone coverage, consider a personal locator beacon, a satellite-based signaling device that can relay an emergency signal with your location at any time. It’s an extra cost and you’ll never want to use it, but it’s good to know you have it.
The old-school rule still applies: always let someone know where you are going and what time you expect to confirm that you’re safely finished. And even if you’re carrying a high tech locator beacon, the humble whistle is a great thing for each member of the group to have! It can help you locate each other if needed or help a rescuer locate you.
Food and Load Planning
Even on a day hike, you’ll want to eat. Most people will bring snacks and you may have a lunch plan as well. Discuss and plan this ahead of time. You may decide that each person will bring their own snacks and meal or you may decide that each person will bring compatible foods to share. Either plan works, but be sure that everybody’s working from the same plan before you leave!
The same principle applies to load planning. Each person will bring their own personal items, but there are also items that can be shared among the group. There’s usually no point in having each member of the group bring a first aid kit with identical contents or identical signaling devices. Stoves, fuel, and water filters are other items that can be spread out among group members.
If you’re hiking in a national or state park or on private property you may require a permit or permission from landowners to complete your hike. Always check in advance and make sure you have what you need!
If you’re hiking in a national or state park it’s worth checking in with the park office before you leave even if no permit is required. Let them know where you’re going, how many people are in your group, their ages, and any health issues that might affect the group. They’ll appreciate the information and you can get up-to-the-minute advice on trail and weather conditions.