As a physical activity, hiking is one of the most rewarding things that people can do. Experiencing nature while pushing forward through the obstacles it provides is tiring yet satisfying. Whether this is your first hike, or you are simply brushing up on the basics before experiencing a hike in a new climate, the following information can help you plan your next adventure.
Of course, avoiding getting hurt, injured, or sick is an important component of enjoying this exercise; No one wants to cap a day out with a stay in the hospital. Beyond general preparation, hikers need to bring adequate food and water, wear proper clothing and footwear, and pack the right equipment for protection. This is true for brief visits of an hour or two as well as week-long backpacking treks through unfamiliar territory.
By knowing what you should do in various scenarios, you can better ensure your health and happiness from beginning to end.
Table of Contents
- Physical Assessment & Conditioning
- Hike Preparation
- Strength in Numbers
- Avoiding Sickness or Injury
- Safe Hiking in the Heat
- Cold Weather Hiking Tips
- Rain/Lightning Safety
- How to Prevent and Manage Getting Lost
- Senior Hiking Tips
- Staying Safe With Children
Almost anyone can hike, but any hike will require the use of a body's muscles to varying degrees. People who consider themselves in good physical shape still need to prepare for the kind of exercise they will be doing on the trail. Each path has its own quirks, such as:
- walking through deep dry material, like sand,
- trails with a steep incline or decline,
- climbing up or over rocks,
- packed dirt or rocks that can get slippery,
- icy trails that could lead to injury.
If people want to start hiking, one of the best ways to get used to it is to take short, fairly flat hikes within easy driving distance. Hikers who have no joint problems and perform aerobic exercise on a regular basis may be able to use this practice to condition the right muscle groups and determine their weak spots.
Exercises to Prepare for Hiking
Hikers can address the common problems they could face while hiking by focusing on increasing the strength of specific muscle groups, while minimizing joint stress and injury. Walking up and down steep hills is hard on hips, knees, and ankles. Squats help to strengthen muscles around the joints, as well as improving flexibility and balance. People can target weak areas with exercises like calf raises, wall sits and hip stretches.
The stronger the muscles used for hiking, the less stress on nearby joints. People should engage in a regular routine of walking, jogging, or biking that increases in duration and intensity. Climbing stairs can help to get people used to upward and downward action, but practice going up and down steep hills is often more effective conditioning for this activity. Additional exercises to build and tone the quadriceps, calves, back, and shoulders will provide necessary support for equipment. As people get closer to the hike, they may choose to add their backpack to their exercise routine.
The degree to which people need to prepare depends on their experience and the complication of the hike. Planning for the unexpected helps to keep an emergency from turning into a tragedy. Hikers with little experience in the local outdoors should try to stick to trails that are well-marked, easy to find, and relatively short in length. Before anyone tries a new route, they should inspect the trail and see if they can read reviews of hikes people took in similar weather. Researching local weather patterns and the climate expected in the area (especially if it significantly climbs or drops in elevation) will help people choose a good time to go. Close to the anticipated hiking start date, they can look at weather forecasts and prepare for all temperatures and other concerns during the hike.
Anyone who goes on a hike could possibly get injured or lost, even when they go in a small group. Setting a predictable and well-considered schedule will make it easier for others to follow the trail. A good plan includes an estimated start and end time, time for breaks and meals, and alternatives in case of delays or detours. People who intend to hike alone should make sure that someone knows where they are, with the following information:
- day and time of the planned hike
- name and location of the trail
- names and contact information for close friends and/or family members
These details should be left at home and in the car, so that people can provide help if necessary.
People are so accustomed to using their smartphones for everything from GPS positioning to flashlights that it might be a bit of an adjustment to not have that technology at hand.
Although many trails offer steady and quick access to mobile technology (in the form of cellular and data) through satellite, hikers should not rely on it as a guarantee of communication wherever they go. The best advice for people going out of reach of general communication methods to minimize the need to ask for help, by packing appropriately and knowing what to do in case of emergency.
Sometimes, hikers have no choice but to call for assistance. Many GPS devices can offer offline location guidance, which is a boon for people hiking off the trail or those who get lost. These tools may also feature the ability to communicate with someone who works in local emergency rescue, although that service is often subscription-based.
Knowing how to identify a hiker’s location and relay useful information to first responders is also crucial. Two-way radios make it easy for separate parties to talk to each other, although proximity may be important in this capacity. Simple tools like a loud whistle or bright flashlight can also alert people to a person’s location.
There are a few concepts hikers need to keep in mind before they start packing and dressing for the hike. Of course, backpacking The Slovenian Mountain Hiking Trail in the middle of cold winter will not be the same as a leisurely local hike to a waterfall on a beautiful summer’s day. Hikers should aim to:
- pack layers that are easy to put on and take off
- dress for the weather of the season, not just the day
- wear clothes that are comfortable and easy to adjust as needed
- prepare for the possibility that it may get colder or hotter
When people think about the most important clothing item they can choose, shoes usually rank at the top of the list. Good shoes for hiking or backpacking may not have to be very expensive or particularly rugged. The best footwear will offer protection from the elements, adequate traction on dry and wet surfaces, and the ability to keep out rocks and dirt. Certain types of hiking boots need to be broken in, especially if they are made of a stiff material like leather. Hikers are better off to do this for at least a week or two before a long or difficult hike. Packing an extra set of shoelaces provides an added layer of preparedness, just in case.
Beyond proper clothing, people going on a brief day hike may not need to bring that much. Regardless of the level of activity, hikers should look to address the following categories with the gear they pack on any outdoor trip they take:
- Back and Neck Support: A backpack that disperses weight appropriately across the body
- Nourishment: 0.6 -1.2 kg of food per day, plus cooking implements if preferred
- Hydration: A pint of water or other hydrating liquid per hour, and tools to purify water if needed
- Temperature Control: Multiple layers, plus disposable packs to heat or cool
- Body Comfort: Changes of clothing if necessary, and trekking poles to provide extra balance
- First Aid: A kit that will address at least the most common injuries and illnesses on the trail
- Way-finding: Map, compass, or other devices to stay on the path
- Emergency Supplies: Equipment to allow lighting a fire, a flashlight, and a mirror to attract rescue
- Weather Protection: Plastic bags or coverings that can provide shelter from sudden rain or snowstorm
On the trail, food is fuel to keep going. People who pack the right kind of nutrition will find that they can keep going longer and stay focused on the task at hand. Hikers should focus on packing:
- the calories they need for the length and intensity of the hike (about 2,500-4,500 calories a day)
- foods that are lightweight and minimally bulky
- a balance of complex carbohydrates and protein
- plenty of water
Water is probably the heaviest thing that people will need to bring with them, simply because they have to consume so much of it. Experts suggest getting well-hydrated in advance of hiking, drinking at least 3-4 cups of water the day of the hike, and consuming two cups of fluid per hour on the trail.
With a variety of backpacking-friendly products available, people can take anything from dried fruit and nuts to orange chicken. Usually, hikers will be better off if they pack food they want to eat and know how to prepare. This means that people with limited outdoor cooking skill should restrict their choices to options they can easily manage. Some lightweight foods (e.g. freeze-dried) may require access to safe drinking water to reconstitute. Hikers need to factor food preparation needs into their water plan.
Some people prefer to go on a solo hike, but this is a decision to be made with caution. Inexperienced hikers have a higher risk of getting lost, sick, or injured if they are hiking on their own. Protection against the elements or from animal predators is more effective if there is more than one experienced and knowledgeable adult who can put their effort into it.
Inexperienced hikers may choose to join a hiking group or ask a friend or family member with more hiking knowledge to accompany them on their trips. This allows people to gain more solid information about the local trails ,and how to take care of themselves, than they might pick up on their own. Although multiple people on a long backpacking trip can spread out some of their supplies to lighten the load, they should confirm that everyone has the basic supplies they need in case they are separated from the group.
Hikers often have to deal with mild sickness or accidents during the hike. Knowing how to prevent these injuries and treat them as needed will improve people’s overall experience. Common injuries people encounter on the trail can be prevented or managed in these ways:
- Blisters: Use thicker socks and shoes that fit snugly
- Sunburn: Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, and apply sunblock
- Muscle Cramping: Stretch before starting, and stretch lightly on long breaks
- Twisted or Sprained Ankle: Wrap snugly with a fabric bandage and apply a single-use icepack
- Cuts or Scrapes: Clean the wound with antiseptic wipes and apply a protective bandage
- Dehydration: Consume more liquids and minimize sun exposure
- Insect Bites: Apply an anti-inflammatory or anti-itch cream and observe for changes
A small first-aid kit can help to make tools easy to locate and use.
Although many people prefer to hike in warmer weather, there are reasons to take care even on the best days.
Hikers often make the mistake of bringing too little clothing when they go for a hike in the heat of summer. Sunblock only goes so far to minimize burning and the loss of moisture. Proper protection for the skin and particularly the head requires adequate coverage. Hikers should invest in a hat with a brim at least 3” wide. This will reduce sun exposure on the head, neck, and face. Sunglasses with UV protection can help to prevent or reduce sunburns to the eyes and eyelids. Clothing should be lightweight and made of cotton to keep sweat with the body, creating a swamp cooler type effect.
Good nourishment and hydration is also vital for rigorous exercise in a hot climate. Hikers should plan to bring at least one liter of hydrating liquids for every two hours of the hike, including breaks. They may need to pack more in case they misjudge the duration of the hike. Although water is generally preferred, people may want to bring a small quantity of drinks containing electrolytes. These stores are often depleted through sweat as well as moisture, and need to be replenished so that people have the energy to keep going.
During dry seasons, hikers ought to avoid food preparation that requires them to build a fire or cook over another heat source. Meals that are ready to eat or snacks like trail mix can provide necessary nutrients without making hikers sweat more.
Heat-Related Conditions to Watch For
When hikers start to feel a little lightheaded or sick on the path, they may be dealing with dehydration. The body needs a lot of water to sustain physical exercise for long periods of time. Dehydration causes headaches, confusion, exhaustion, back pain, and other symptoms. In the early stages, hikers can correct the condition by taking a break, getting out of the sun, and drinking more liquids.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are conditions beyond mere dehydration. With these health concerns, the body is trying to decrease its internal temperature but not succeeding. Heat exhaustion can sometimes be treated with cool liquids and shade. Hiking companions should keep in mind that cooling a body too quickly can trigger other troublesome concerns like shock. Heat stroke is a stage past heat exhaustion, where the body is no longer sweating to lower temperature. It usually requires prompt medical attention.
Although people tend to prefer hiking while the weather is cool to mild, there are plenty of reasons to get out on the trail when the days are short and the nights are cold. Extra preparation and packing makes all the difference with winter exploring. As with summer hiking, people should invest the effort to look at the trail and make sure they are ready to deal with whatever the winter weather can throw at them.
- opting for trails that are easy to identify under snow
- considering whether they will have to walk on packed snow or ice, and how they can do it safely
- timing the hike for the warmest and lightest part of the day
- packing alternative sources of warmth, with extras in case of emergency
With these assumptions met, people still need to pack appropriately for the weather.
What to Wear
What people put on while hiking in the winter or on mountain ranges may need the most attention. Generally, experts suggest wearing three layers to protect the skin. The inside layer has wicking technology so that hikers can minimize the cycle of sweating and excess cooling. The middle layer offers insulation that reflects body heat instead of dissipating it. Outer layers block wind, moisture, and cold temperatures from infiltrating the inner layers. Hikers should consider packing extras of the inner layer so they can change if they get sweaty.
Hikers also need proper coverage for their head, neck, hands, and feet. Exposure to very cold weather can lead to frostbite even without regularly touching snow or ice. All pieces of clothing should fit properly, as items that are too tight could reduce circulation.
Winter hats should cover the ears and forehead. Face masks can allow regular breathing and minimize exposure. Gloves should have two layers: one to insulate, and an outer shell made of waterproof material. People need to pack an extra pair of thick socks that they can change if their feet start to sweat or get hot. Waterproof boots with adequate tread on snow or ice are a must. Some hikers may need boots with extra insulation.
People do not necessarily have to target their hikes for the most beautiful day possible. It is often difficult to predict weather changes on a long or unfamiliar hike, especially during the spring and fall. Hiking on a rainy or stormy day requires attention to four details:
- avoiding temperature control issues from getting wet
- staying at higher ground, away from water sources
- minimizing the likelihood of injury from lightning strikes
- protecting gear from damage due to moisture
Generally, people should try not to hike on days when heavy thunderstorms are expected. It is wise to continually watch the skies and be prepared to turn back when the weather turns bad.
If people get caught in a lightning storm, they should steer clear of open fields or tall, lone trees. Removing equipment that contains metal, like an external frame backpack, will help prevent attracting the lightning. Heavy rains can lead to flash-flooding, swollen streams, and landslides. People should take care where they choose to walk, and avoid crossing rivers with water flowing quickly.
Otherwise, hikers need to work through it as much as they can. Staying dry is much easier than drying out after the fact. Using bags of various sizes can keep equipment dry inside the backpack. Wearing layers made of synthetic materials will resist water better and dry out more thoroughly. People should pay attention to their temperature throughout. Rainstorms when the weather is cold can cause hypothermia more quickly. Limiting exposure to the ground will prevent loss of body heat.
At times, people will lose track of the trail. Sometimes, heavily-worn animal paths will cross the designated trail and lead hikers astray. This can turn into a big problem quickly, so people need to try to remain calm and make a plan. For people traveling in a group, stopping and calling out to other members may be all they need to direct them back to the trail. Most of the time, experts say that staying put is the best way to avoid making the problem worse. Since it is not always clear how long people will have to wait before they are found or return to the path, they should quickly inspect their surroundings. The location of water and shelter is important because people may need it.
Finding the Way
People who know the general direction of the path they are taking, as well as the direction they need to follow to get back to the trailhead, will be in a better position to find their way back. Hikers should remember the last time they were confident that they were on the right path. Breaking twigs in a circle around the spot will help to make it easier to explore the area without getting more turned around. Using a compass or GPS device can provide necessary information about direction. Following water sources, such as a creek or stream, could lead to a more open area for rescue.
People who enjoy hiking in their youth and middle age can often continue to participate in this activity as they get older. As long as hikers are prepared and honest with themselves about their abilities, they can keep hiking into their golden years. At the outset, people need to recognize how their abilities change over time. Even a fit person will not have the same kind of stamina they could have had 30 years before. Hikers who have not been on the trail for several years may want to visit the doctor for a checkup. The doctor can identify certain things that people should watch for, related to their personal health and physical fitness.
How to Stay Safe Hiking as a Senior
Senior hikers should give themselves several weeks to gear up and condition for a longer or difficult hike. People often have a better time if they set themselves up for little complication or stress on the trail. They should:
- choose hikes that present a good experience without a significant challenge to strength or stamina,
- get plenty of sleep the night before,
- bring all medications needed that day (or other days, if backpacking overnight),
- take extra breaks to rest,
- be careful when climbing, jogging, or walking on slippery surfaces,
- avoid extreme heat and cold, as older people could be more sensitive to it.
It is usually better to work up to overnight hikes or long backpacking trips with a series of day hikes that increase in duration and intensity. If senior hikers decide to go on a hike together, they should plan hikes that will accommodate the needs of the person with the least physical strength and capability. This reduces the chance of needing help on the trail.
Many parents love to introduce their love of hiking to their children from a young age. Of course, a child will not be able to complete the kinds of hikes that an adult can, but this is an excellent opportunity to impart a respect for the outdoors and a commitment to fitness and healthy living in even the youngest kids. Although most children can start to learn to hike safely at a young age, parents still need to remain in charge of them at all times. Kids have a harder time understanding and obeying the rules of the trail. They count on their parents to stay nearby, watch for possible hazards, protect them from danger, and allow them to explore in nature.
- start with hikes that are easy or familiar for adults to complete on their own,
- pack adequate clothing and footwear for all children, including those who will not be walking,
- be ready to carry small children the whole way, if necessary,
- watch for signs that kids are tired or overwhelmed and need help,
- build up to longer hikes slowly,
- allow children time to play or practice new skills.
If parents focus on these actions, they will make hiking an enjoyable activity for the whole family.