Getting into Hiking: 20 Most Common Questions
Hiking can be a life-changing activity for many people, and if not life-changing, it is often something that adds enrichment, exercise, and adventure to people’s lives. Getting into hiking does not have to be difficult, but there are many important things to keep in mind. And like the boy scouts say: be prepared. To be properly prepared, you’ll want to have the appropriate gear, clothing, food, footwear, first-aid equipment, and more.
In this article, we cover day hiking questions and preparedness. Backpacking trips are a different topic and we have articles about how to get into backpacking if that’s more what you’re interested in.
Hiking Clothing and Footwear
Best Clothes to Wear for Hiking
What to wear when hiking is an important consideration. The right clothing can lead to a safe and comfortable experience, while the wrong clothing can lead to a very uncomfortable and even dangerous foray into the outdoors.
In general, you want to wear non-cotton clothing, usually wool or polyester (see exceptions below under “Special Clothing for Hiking in the Desert.”) You also want to avoid thick articles like heavy coats. Instead, carry multiple, lighter layers that you can add or shed as the temperature changes. One exception to this rule is if you’re hiking in the winter when a down jacket may be a valuable layer. Finally, it’s important to have a rain jacket and pants if you’re hiking in the mountains or in an area with cooler temperatures and a chance of precipitation.
Special Clothing Considerations for Hiking in the Mountains
If you’re hiking in the higher mountains like the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascades, the White Mountains, or Smoky Mountains, you will want to completely avoid cotton layers. Mountain environments can often have dramatic, sudden shifts in temperature, as well as year-round precipitation. Cotton fibers soak up water (including sweat) and hang on to it, taking a significant amount of time to dry. If you’re wearing cotton and are wet from sweat or rain, you could run into trouble if the weather turns. If you’re wet when temperatures drop and the wind picks up, it can be a dangerous or even deadly combination. Polyester and wool, on the other hand, do not absorb water in the same way that cotton does, and they dry much more quickly. Having a base layer (the layer directly against your skin) made of wool or polyester will help keep the moisture away from your body and allow you to maintain your body temperature more effectively even in inclement weather.
Special Clothing Considerations for Hiking in the Desert
If you’re hiking in the desert, you actually do want to have some cotton layers available. The reason for this is the exact reason you do not want cotton in the mountains: because it holds onto moisture and accelerates the cooling effect. In the desert, where moisture and coolness are what you want to hang onto, cotton is a miracle fiber and it’s best to have it directly against your skin. However, you do want to also have non-cotton layers that you can change into if the temperatures do drop, which often happens at night in the desert.
Best Shoes or Boots to Wear When Hiking
For many years, hikers almost exclusively wore ankle-high boots, but this habit has changed dramatically in the past decade. Wearing low-top hiking shoes is now accepted as a safe and more comfortable option than full-height hiking boots. Low-top hiking shoes are built with a sturdy sole underfoot to protect your feet from the rocks and irregularities of nature’s ground surfaces.
In general, low top hiking shoes are best for day hiking unless you’re going to be hiking in extremely rugged terrain (such as boulder fields, steep scree, on snowfields, slippery tidal zones, in very wet conditions, or in areas with an abundance of poisonous snakes. Depending on where and what you’re hiking, you may find other reasons to day hike with ankle-high boots. If you have the tendency to roll your ankles, you may love the extra protection of boots!
Fitting Your Hiking Shoes or Boots
The two biggest problem areas concerning footwear are your heels and your toes. When you’re fitting yourself for new hiking footwear, you should pay attention to these two main areas. If the shoes are too large, your heels will slip when you’re hiking uphill and cause blisters. If the shoes are too small, your toes will run into the front of your shoes when hiking downhill and cause issues (hiking in the Grand Canyon is famous for something called “canyon toe” where the downhill hiking actually causes people to lose their toenails. Fun, right?!)
So, when selecting your footwear we recommend using the incline ramp that most outdoor stores supply for testing your shoes. Walk up the ramp and pay close attention to whether your heels slip, which would mean the shoes are too large. Then, kick the floor and notice whether your toes are slamming against the front of the shoes, which would mean the shoes are too small. What you’re looking for are minimal heel slippage and minimum toe impact. If you find your heel slipping and your toes impacting, then try a different model of shoe.
Is it Necessary to Use Special Hiking Socks?
The short answer is yes. We highly recommend purchasing special hiking socks that are a combination of wool and synthetic fibers like polyester. Small amounts of cotton are also ok (less than 20%). Having good socks will help you avoid blisters and will significantly increase your comfort level, especially on longer hikes.
When to use Hiking Gaiters
Gaiters are nylon leggings that fit over your pants or legs and cover the laces on your shoes or boots up to either above your ankle (low gaiters) or just below your knee (high gaiters.) They help keep debris out of your shoes and protect your lower legs from pesky plants like cactus, nettles, and thistles. If you’re hiking with low top hiking shoes, we heartily recommend getting a pair of low gaiters. If you’re hiking in snow or very thick mud or foliage, then you may want high gaiters.
Hiking Gear and Food
What Should I Look for in a Backpack?
The options for backpacks are abundant, to say the least: many companies create a wide range of types, sizes, and colors. Each pack model will have its own array of features. The bottom line is we recommend getting a quality pack from major companies like Deuter, Osprey, Black Diamond, Patagonia, North Face, Gregory, Kelty, and Cotopaxi. You want it to have a firm support system, a waist belt, and a sternum strap. A very handy feature to look for is also a pouch for a hydration system so you can drink while hiking.
What Size Backpack Should I Use?
In this article, we are focusing 100% on day hiking, so the size of the backpack you’ll need will be much smaller than for multi-day backpacking trips. In general, most daypacks range from 20 liters on the smaller end to 35 liters on the larger side. The smaller packs (~20 liters) are great for two to six-hour hikes on which you don’t need a lot of extra water, snacks, lunch, or extra layers. The larger backpacks (~35 liters) are better for seven to 12 hour or longer hikes on which you’ll need extra supplies, a first-aid kit, more food, more water, and extra layers.
Additionally, if you primarily hike in areas with plentiful water sources (like Washington), you may be able to use a smaller pack if you bring water filtration. If you primarily hike in the desert, you may opt for a larger pack because you’ll need to carry a lot more water.
When and How to Use Trekking Poles
On our guided hiking trips, we recommend people use trekking poles on all backpacking trips because they are immensely helpful in taking the pressure and impact off your back, knees, and ankles. They are also extremely helpful for balance on rugged or technical terrain, or during river crossings. On day hikes, we offer them but don’t fully recommend them. Either way, if you’re getting into any serious or rugged hiking, it’s a good idea to invest in a set of trekking poles and use them on the hikes and trails that challenge you.
Recommended Hydration Systems
On most hikes, we recommend carrying two to three liters of water. On some desert hikes, you’ll need more. For example, in the Grand Canyon in the summer, you should definitely carry= four to six liters if you’re doing a full-day hike. A great combination is a water bladder (like a Camelbak or Osprey hydration system) with two or three-liter capacity and a one-liter water bottle as a backup. We recommend this system in case your bladder leaks or fails, then you will have a backup.
What About a Map and Compass?
You always want to have a map of the area you’re hiking in, whether it’s digital or paper. If you carry a paper map, then it’s also valuable to have a compass as well. If you hike with a digital map, whether it’s on your phone, a GPS device, or an emergency communication device, it’s important to have a backup power source such as extra batteries, an extra battery pack, or a solar charger.
When and How to Use Hiking Crampons
Hiking crampons are a must if you’re hiking in certain areas in the winter, particularly steep or rocky trails that freeze and thaw and over time develop a solid ice layer. The most common places hiking crampons are recommended in the USA are Southwest destinations like Grand Canyon, Southern Utah’s parks, Southern California, and New Mexico. A very highly recommended brand is Kahtoola, which manufactures their products in Flagstaff, Arizona.
First-Aid Kit List
- Antiseptic wipes
- Antibacterial ointment
- An assortment of bandages
- Gauze pads in a variety of sizes
- Medical tape
- Moleskin or alternative form of blister treatment
- Ibuprofen (or other anti-inflammatory and pain relief medication)
- Insect sting treatment
- Benadryl (or other antihistamine for allergic reactions)
- Non-stick pads
- Butterfly bandages
- Safety pins
Bug Repellent Options
If you’re in an area with significant mosquitoes, ticks, or other types of biting insects, you’ll want to have insect repellent. It’s recommended to have repellent with significant amounts of DEET for maximum effectiveness. To use less DEET, wear pants and long sleeve shirts to cover up as much of your skin as possible. Head nets are also valuable if the mosquitoes are very abundant (like in Yellowstone in July.)
Recommendation for Emergency Communication Devices
If you’re going to be doing a lot of hiking in areas without cell phone service, a wise choice is to purchase an emergency communication device, many of which also double as digital orientation devices. The one we recommend is the Delorme InReach Explorer + 2 Way Communicator. This amazing technology allows you to text with people back home, initiate an emergency response with the touch of a button, and communicate your GPS location with intermittent signals.
Best Hiking Foods
We created an entire blog post about the best foods to eat when hiking. We recommend checking it out for information about what to eat on the trail! Or, if you’re sick of energy bars and are looking for real food day hiking snacks, we’ve got you covered, too.
Where to Hike
Hiking in State Parks and State-owned Land
Many places in the United States have state parks or state-owned land nearby that provide wonderful hiking opportunities. On average, these locations will not contain enough land for epic, full-day hikes. But they will provide a scenic, natural experience that gets you outside on four to six-hour journeys.
Hiking in National Parks
National parks are truly “America’s Best Idea,” as they provide incredible hiking trails and wilderness experiences. If you’re fortunate enough to live close to one of America’s world-class gems, like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Smoky Mountains, or Mount Rainier, then you have an almost endless list of options at your fingertips. If you don’t live close to a national park, then getting on a plane or in a car and venturing across the country for a hiking vacation is worth the effort. It’s important to research what you want to do beforehand, as many parks require permits for certain hikes.
Hiking on United States Forest Service Lands
The United States Forest Service (USFS) manages more than 193 million acres of public land. These lands vary from pristine, highly-protected wilderness areas to lightly protected lands with roads crisscrossing them like spider webs. However, they all offer wonderful hiking opportunities. Many USFS lands are worth a drive or flight to visit, like the national parks, if you don’t live close to them.
Hiking on Bureau of Land Management Lands
The Burea of Land Management (BLM) manages approximately 245 million acres of public land or about 10% of the total landmass of the United States. BLM lands are similar to USFS lands, but with fewer protections. BLM lands can be heavily impacted by industries like mining and drilling, but they can also contain hidden gems that are very worth exploring on foot.
Hiking Outside the USA
Of course, the world outside of the USA also contains amazing hiking opportunities. From the Canadian Rockies just across America’s northern border to the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, and many more, the world is full of places worth visiting. And hiking is a deeply enriching way to experience these places, to get to know them beyond their tourist attractions and museums, and to develop an intimate connection with place, even when you’re thousands of miles from home. It is often recommended to hike with a guide service if you’re traveling internationally for many reasons.
- Logistics involving lodging, transportation, and permits can be complex and difficult to arrange from far away.
- Many trips, like the Inca Trail and Kilimanjaro, require hiring guides.
- Some areas have significant cultural or environmental risks that guides are used to navigating.
- Guides provide a wonderful opportunity to enjoy trekking and at the same time connect culturally with the locals.
- If anything goes wrong (like earthquakes in Nepal, political unrest in South America, or hurricanes in Vietnam), the guide company – if they’re a good one – will know how to best manage the risk and put client and staff safety first.
Hiking Tips and Tricks
Hiking in Bear Country
Many places in the United States have black bears, while much fewer are home to grizzly bears. Even black bears can potentially be dangerous. However, you have no reason to worry if you prepare yourself correctly. Day hiking in bear country can generally be done safely by following the following protocols:
- Hike in groups of four or more.
- Make noise while you hike, especially in deep forests or foliage.
- Carry bear spray and know how to use it.
- Stay on the trail.
- If you see a bear, calmly move away.
- If a black bear starts coming towards you, make noise and look big. If a grizzly, starts coming your way, remain quiet, talk in a calm voice, and be prepared to use your bear spray.
If you’re hiking in grizzly country, it is even more important to follow the criteria above. Learn all about how to act during a bear encounter here.
What if I Get Lost?
The odds of getting lost on a day hike are fortunately pretty slim, but not completely outside the realm of possibility. The danger of getting lost on a day hike – vs a backpacking trip – is that you may not have the gear or food to sustainably spend one or more nights out in the wilderness. So, it’s critical that if you find that you’ve lost your way, you carefully follow the correct protocol to get yourself home safely.
First, and most importantly, do not panic. When the human mind moves into panic mode, it makes very poor decisions. The first and most important thing to do if you’ve become disoriented is sit down and try to relax. If you have a map or navigation device, pull it out and see if you can make sense of where you might be. Use a compass to determine directions and, if you are indeed lost, look for an obvious landmark that runs a long distance in a relatively straight line – like a valley, a river or creek, a hiking trail, or a road. Once you’ve got your wits about you, start hiking in the direction of that landmark. Eventually, you should come to it. Then, you want to hike along the landmark in the direction that will most immediately take you back to civilization. If you are truly disoriented and lost, then stay put and prepare yourself to wait for rescue.
The possibility of being lost is another reason to carry an emergency communication device with you. If you end up not being able to find your way, if you have a Delorme InReach Explorer or something similar, you can simply call for help. But remember, don’t panic, take your time, and do what it takes to think clearly.
Dealing with Fear of Snakes, Scorpions, Spiders, Bats and More
Many great hiking destinations are also home to a variety of intimidating creatures, large and small. The first rule of thumb is to understand the reality of the dangers these creatures pose, learn how to manage or mitigate the risk, and approach your hike thoughtfully and reasonably. The vast majority of the time, the fear of these fellow species is exaggerated when compared to the actual risk.
For example, people coming to Grand Canyon often express concern about rattlesnakes and scorpions. As the Canyon’s #1 guide service, we can definitely say that the danger posed by these creatures is very small. Rattlesnakes are extremely shy and have the lovely habit of warning us when we approach to close. Since 2005, we’ve had tens of thousands of guests and exactly zero incidents with a rattlesnake. And scorpions, although more plentiful, are very manageable. As long as you shake out your shoes each morning, the odds of getting stung are very small.
So regardless of where you’re hiking, take the time to understand the reality of the dangers, take steps to mitigate any risk, and go have fun.
Hiking in Tick Country
Ticks, which are more plentiful in the midwest and east coast than the western United States, are blood-sucking insects that can carry Lyme Disease, which is a significant health concern. When hiking in tick country, the most important step is to do a thorough check of your entire body after your hike. You’ll also want to launder your clothes. If, after getting bitten by a tick you develop a red circle around the location of the bite, be sure and visit your doctor immediately as this can be a sign of Lyme Disease. If treated immediately, Lyme Disease can be cured.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when hiking to exposed areas is avoiding thunderstorms. Exposed areas include alpine zones above treeline, edges of canyons, rock buttresses and outcroppings, and shallow caves. If you’re out in the open when a thunderstorm rolls in, and you can’t quickly retreat into a forest, you could be in big trouble. For this reason, we strongly recommend understanding the potential for thunderstorms and timing your hike to avoid them. Often in the mountains, you should begin your hike very early so you can be back to safety before early afternoon. (Especially in the summer in the Rocky Mountain West!) Every area though will have its unique circumstances, so be prepared to build your plans around nature since nature will not build her plans around us.
Wildland Trekking Hiking Adventures
As the world’s premier hiking and trekking company, Wildland believes in connecting people to fantastic environments in amazing ways. Wildland Trekking Company offers an array of incredible hiking and trekking experiences in 9 states and 11 countries. Read more about our world-class destinations.