Here’s how to be smart, feel safe, and get the most out of your hike.
1. Test drive your backpack and shoes.
The two pieces of gear that can make you the most uncomfortable are your pack and your shoes because they are the two items you feel all day long. Don’t wait until your first extended backpacking trip to try them out. When you purchase a new pair of shoes, ask the store about the return policy. Tell them that you plan to take the gear on a test drive (i.e., a local day hike) to make sure they work for you.
2. Let your cell phone help you, not harm you.
Your cell phone is an amazing piece of backpacking gear. Nowadays, most smartphones include a flashlight, a compass app, GPS files, and more. That said, phones often do not have cell service in the backcountry, they can break, and they can run out of battery life (even when they are turned off). Use your phone as a back-up rather than as a primary tool on the trail. If you lose your compass or if your headlamp runs out of juice, use your phone. But otherwise, keep it turned off. And, if you do plan to use your cell phone for purposes other than an emergency, consider carrying an external battery charger with you.
3. Always pack extra food.
Carrying extra food is NEVER a bad idea. If the day is pleasant, carrying extra food may allow you to spontaneously extend your trip. If the weather is extra nasty, extra food may keep you warm and properly fueled. If you get lost, extra food will reduce your urge to panic and can allow you to get back on track without feeling famished. And, even if you don’t enjoy the extra food, you may be able to provide a little trail magic to another backpacker or thru-hiker.
4. Learn from others mistakes so that you won’t make so many.
With a little research, you can improve your outdoor skills and knowledge before you ever hit the trails. Nowadays, beginning hikers can take advantage of countless hiking and backpacking resources and the best part is that most of this wisdom is available for free. I recommend starting with the National Geographic Adventure website, checking out hiking books at your library, or reaching out to a local trail club.
5. Remember, mountains make their own weather.
Never base your gear list on the conditions outside your front door. Mountains make their own weather. Often hypothermia is a bigger threat in the summer than in the winter because hikers hit the trail unprepared for inclement weather. Always take some extra layers with you. You never know when that hot, humid summer day will transition into a lightning storm with golf-ball-size hail.
6. Personalize your hike.
To enhance your connection with the outdoors, find a way to incorporate your off-trail interests into your hiking adventure. If you like to read, bring a book. If you like to write, take a journal. If you love to cook, then spend time dehydrating delicious meals before you go. If you don’t like to cook, then leave the stove at home and just eat cold food on your hike. Are you crafty? Consider making some of your own gear. A photographer? Take a quality camera. An artist? Bring a sketchbook. A naturalist? Include plant identification book in your pack. A birder? Binoculars. Hiking by definition is just walking in a natural setting, but it can be so much more!
7. Get in shape before you go.
Getting in shape before you hit the trail can not only make the experience more enjoyable, but it can also reduce the risk of injury. Training is easy. Anything aerobic can help you get ready. So can just walking around your neighborhood (especially if you include some inclines or stairs). Also, anaerobic activities and yoga can help with your strength and balance.
8. Carry an ounce, save a life.
I am all about being lightweight and minimal on a backpacking trip, which is why I LOVE the idea of being able to save a life with just one ounce of weight. Carrying a lightweight whistle and a few dry matches can make all the difference in a search and rescue scenario. Fire will provide warmth, light, and comfort; and three blows on the whistle will let others know that you need help.
9. Leave an itinerary with someone at home.
If the movie 127 Hours taught us anything, it was to ALWAYS let someone know where you are going. Even if you are planning to bushwhack off trail, you should still let someone know the general area where you will be exploring. And you should designate a “check-in.” Instead of providing the specific hour and minute you expect to be off-trail, give your contact person a window that allows for an extra side-trip, a sprained knee, or a wrong turn. You want to have some flexibility without sending your friend into complete panic.
10. Consider taking a Wilderness First Aid Class.
A Wilderness First Aid class can not only help you manage and treat your own ailments in the backcountry, but it can also give you the knowledge and skills to save someone else’s life. The courses are affordable and can be completed in a weekend. When you are in a backcountry setting, knowledge is always the BEST piece of safety equipment.