Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How to: Getting Started Hiking


Hikers near the East Peak of Mt. Tamalpias


Hundreds of thousands of people head out on to the trails each day and only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of them will be injured in fact in a given day more will probably be injured driving to the trailhead than on the trail. Still, the fear, rational or not is enough to keep plenty of people off the trails. I've had friends (very smart people mind you) announce to me they won't go in to the woods because they are afraid of everything from twisting an ankle to a yeti attack (yes, really). Yet there is so much evidence to suggest that getting "off the grid" is actually good for our health, self-esteem, and mind.

The best way to manage the fear is to know what the real risks are, and more importantly how easy it is to manage them. A few very simple rules can very quickly negate, virtually all risks you take heading into the wild.

1. Stay on the trail
2. Bring ample food and water
3. Know when to turn around
4. Pay Attention to Posted Signs

  • Stay on the trail - The most important single thing you can do is stay on the trail! Trails are maintained, mostly cleared of the kinds of little rocks and branches that might cause a twisted ankle. The brush is cleared away keeping hikers from brushing up against poison oak or poison ivy and there are very places for ticks and snakes and spiders to hide. Just by staying on the trail you have virtually eliminated the chance of getting lost, hurting yourself, or being exposed to creepy crawlies. Further going off trail is very bad for the environment as well as it disturbs the hidden natural processes at work. Staying on the trail also means if you start to feel lost you can just turn around.

  • Bring Food and Water - Starvation is actually not a real risk you run when you hike, it takes more than a week to actually starve to death but having plenty of snacks to munch on will help keep your energy levels up and keep you sharp and reduce the chances you dragging your feet and twisting an ankle. Water is actually more important, especially in the summer or on an exposed hike. Most of the water in streams near trails is not drinkable because of water-born parasites so packing water in is necessary. Our bodies loose water quickly when we hike, it's used to help fuel our muscles and keep us cool when we sweat so replenishing that water is of high importance. A "Nalgene" or similar container should be sufficient for most hikes under 8 miles.


  • Make sure to get back to the trailhead before the sun sets.

  • Know when to turn around- If as a beginning hiker you even start to feel lost, retracing your steps is a good idea. Making sure you can get back to the car before dark is equally important, predatory animals are active hunters at dusk and while even if you see one it is unlikley to do anything than run away from you, unless you have extra pants in the car you could have a very wet and uncomfortable drive home. I once hiked 10 miles just to turn around 15 minutes from the summit of the mountain, because 15 minutes up takes 30 minutes to get back down (plus any time you spend at the top). This is especially true when you hike in the winter. Keeping an eye, not only on the sun, but on the clouds is a good idea, without proper gear hiking in the rain can also be a miserable experience, and snow, hail, and lightning can all be quite dangerous.



  • I've seen more than 100 of these signs, and never a mountain lion.

  • Pay Attention to Signs- The agencies that maintain trails and park systems are typically very good at warning about the specific dangers that exist on particular trails. Wide open trails in the American West for example are sometimes home to rattle snakes and trails through tall grasses are often home to deer ticks. Almost always these dangers are called to the hikers attention so they can be especially cautious. By no means should signs cause panic, if the trail was unsafe it would be closed but walking with caution and heightened attention is a smart idea.

These rules of course just scratch the surface, libraries of books don't even fully cover all the skills wilderness veterans carry in their heads. Hiking, however, is a fairly safe activity and by knowing physical limitations and following these simple rules.

For more tips, information, and guides visit the how-to center.


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