Hiking provides so many benefits to us both mentally and physically. Getting on the trails can prove to be more beneficial than a regular gym workout as the variables can change with each hike. The combination of taking a vacation to reduce stress along with the physical benefits of improving your cardiovascular fitness, are bringing people to take hiking vacations all over the world.
Hiking outdoors can also bring you closer to nature which may increase your happiness and in turn make you feel more fulfilled. Due to its customizable nature, hiking can be enjoyed by all ages and all levels of fitness and it’s easy to start and continue. Here are some tips and advice to prepare beginner hikers to get them well on their way.
What to Pack
If you are an inexperienced hiker taking one of your first ever hiking holidays, there are some guidelines you should be aware of before you start packing for your trip. First of all, check with the tour operator or supplier you are using to see what items they will be providing to you on your trip. This will enable you to save money by not purchasing items that will be supplied to you when you arrive in destination, and it will also allow more packing space in your suitcase. Depending on when and where you are travelling, your tour supplier should supply you with a packing checklist of items that you need to pack for your trip. Here are some of the basics:
- Hiking Boots – this is the most important investment that you will purchase for hiking. There are a large selection of brands to choose from when you purchase a pair of hiking boots so choose a store that can help you decide which is best for you and your hiking needs. A pair of boots should provide you not only with great support and traction, but comfort is essential. Your feet support your entire body and the stress of rugged, uneven terrain can transmit upwards to your legs and to the rest of your body. If your hikes are long, this can put an enormous stress on your feet and ankles so select a boot that is durable (use a good material such as leather), water-resistant and has some good stiffness to it. You should not have to break your hiking boots in, they should feel comfortable the moment you put them on.
- Hiking Socks – the most important item after purchasing hiking boots are your socks. A great pair of socks will have thermal and moisture-wicking properties. You do not want to use the same socks that you put on your feet for everyday use. As you hike over long distances, through uneven terrain, through water or snow, you want to keep the moisture away from your feet to prevent blisters and chafing. A good pair of socks will aid in prevention of this.
- Clothing – layer, layer, layer! It doesn’t matter where you hiking, layering is an essential step for all hikers of all levels. As you hike into different climate zones, you can peel off or add on the layers as necessary. The most important thing is to remember is to keep your body dry. Your first layer, the ‘wicking’ layer is responsible for keeping the moisture away from your body to keep it dry. A fabric called polypropylene is used widely amongst hikers for both the upper and lower body. Never wear cotton! Your second layer is the ‘insulation’ layer and synthetic fabrics such as fleece are a great inexpensive option. Purchase clothes that can be easily taken off and put on again as you will change in and out of this layer as you heat up and cool down. The last layer, the ‘protective’ shell will aid in heat loss prevention. Gore-tex is a great fabric for your outer layer. When buying this layer, ensure that the coast has a built-in hood to keep out the rain, snow, and wind.
- Day Pack – remember the name is a ‘day’ pack so you are carrying it for the day only. Only pack what is essential and leave room to place your layers inside your daypack as you peel them off. There are many options when it comes to daypacks so take your time finding which pack will suit your needs. If you are going on a hiking trip with multiple day hikes that are long in duration, choose a pack that supports your back well. Daypacks that have a chest strap and a waist strap are designed to ride higher on your back to keep the weight off your lower back which will significantly help to prevent back pain and fatigue. Your day pack can also be used as your carry-on bag when you fly but check with the airline first to ensure the measurements of your daypack are compatible with the airlines. It’s also a great idea to test out your daypack before you travel on a day hike to ensure that you can carry all the items you intend to bring with you on your daily hikes.
- Water Bottle – this is an item that you will carry in your pack so when you choose your pack, make sure that you can easily access your water bottle as you are walking. Most tour operators or suppliers do not supply water bottles so make sure you pack one with you in your suitcase.
- Hiking Poles – some tour suppliers will provide hiking poles or you can rent them for a small fee when you arrive in destination. If you plan to do a lot of hiking trips, then it might be a good idea to purchase a set of hiking poles that you can pack and bring with you.
If you’re a beginner hiker, you are most likely to take a small group hiking trip for safety reasons. Being in an unfamiliar area and new to hiking can be a little daunting but having a tour leader/guide will ensure that you are safe. If you are a little more adventurous and are well travelled but not that familiar or comfortable with hiking, here are some tips for the beginner hiker to stay safe:
- Plan Ahead of Time – read up on where you are hiking. If you are hiking in a national park, you should be able to find hiking and trail information on-line or at the visitor center when you arrive. Call ahead of time to find out which trails are suited for your level of fitness and what type of terrain you might expect. Also, be prepared for the weather and check in advance of what the short and long range weather conditions will be so you can pack accordingly.
- Maps/Compass – if you are hiking on your own for the first time, always carry a map with you of the local area. Ensure that you study the map before you start hiking and that you are aware of all the symbols and what they mean. Stay on clearly marked trails and don’t take short cuts even if they do look interesting. Remember you are only hiking during the day so use the sun as your guide if you get lost. If you have a compass with you, ensure that you know how to use it. A GPS unit can be used for a serious hike but know that not all units function in every area so get the details of where you plan to hike.
- Carry a First Aid Kit – a first aid kit can be a lifesaver when you are out on your own in the wilderness. You don’t need to carry a lot but items such as gauze, band-aids, anti-bacterial cream, tweezers/knife, and aspirin, can come in handy when you least expect it. Don’t forget to pack the sunscreen and lip balm!
Travelers go away to hike to get away from it all. The peace and quiet of the great outdoors along with being in a new destination and admiring the surrounding landscapes can make people forget sometimes where they are. However, there are certain guidelines and practices you should be aware of no matter where you are hiking in the world.
- Take In/Take Out – always leave the area in how you found it. This means whatever food items you didn’t eat or bottle of water you didn’t drink, you take it with you when you depart. You want to ensure that the next visitors hiking on the same trails don’t have to pick up your trash.
- Nature Calls – not all parks and hiking trails are supplied with washrooms for the general public. If you have to go in the wild, ensure that you do this away from a water source such as a pond or lake and off the main trail. People walk on these trails and they shouldn’t have to experience your waste. If you use toilet paper, bring a bag to dispose it in and carry it out with you when you leave.
- Respect For Others – you are walking in nature and sharing the land with the local wildlife. There is no reason why we can’t co-exist with wildlife so learn to respect their boundaries and avoid them at all cost. Also respect others using the same trail systems or parks and keep the noise to a minimum.
Many travellers shy away from hikes abroad thinking they lack physical fitness or don’t have the stamina to complete a hike. You don’t have to be a marathon runner or be a member at the local gym to go on a hiking holiday. However, you should prepare your body prior to travelling to enjoy the benefits of a hiking holiday without risking an injury. Here are some tips from a Certified Exercise Physiologist (CSEP), Art McDonald, to help you prepare for your next hiking vacation:
- Getting Into Shape – “Hiking. It’s just walking, right? ‘Walking isn’t hard…I’ll be fine’. Bah! Famous last words from many a beginner hiker. Sure, you’ll likely get through a hard hike your first time and if completing the hike is your only goal, you’ll have a good chance of future success. Having said that, if you want to enjoy the hike and minimize your risk of injury while maximizing your chances for success (with regards to completion, seeing the best views etc) then it’s worth preparing a bit ahead of time. The two main areas novice hikers and/or those that aren’t used to extended physical activity struggle with, is ankle joint stability and cardio-vascular fitness levels.
- Uneven footing puts a lot of responsibility on the ankle joint. If it’s not prepared, it is more susceptible to being injured (rolling your ankle) or at a minimum, getting fatigued more quickly than the rest of your body which will limit your distances significantly.
- One’s cardiovascular fitness level can be challenged on hikes as well. Not in the sense that you’ll be working at 85% of your maximum heart rate for hours on end but more in the sense that your recovery ability will be challenged after your first couple of hills. Also, working at 50-60% of your maximum heart rate can take its toll after an hour or two.
- Exercises – As a beginner or novice hiker, you don’t need to join a gym or hire a personal trainer to start making some improvements in the body’s ability to be successful with hiking. By the aforementioned, the most important item before you start hiking, are your hiking boots. Start with 15 minutes on the sidewalk then take a day or two off and then see how the body and feet feel. Start to add some time slowly, and then start to incorporate some uneven terrain into your hike. Many parks have wood chip trails, or granular trails. That’s a great bridge to the very uneven terrain of rocks and roots. Gradually increasing the length of your walks and gradually increasing the difficulty of the terrain turns your walks into hikes and prepares the heart, ankle and everything else for your 1/2 day and full day hikes.
A few more specific items that will help along the way include:
- Start each and every walk/hike with a slow pace. This will gradually increase the body’s blood temperature and lubricate the joints thus preparing for the more difficult portions of the hike.
- Stretching a few key areas after the hike. The ankle joint (primarily the calf and shin area) are of the utmost importance. Your quadriceps, hamstrings, low back and traps (primarily because of your back pack) are also key. Stretch for just 5-10 seconds on each muscle can make a significant difference.
- If you want to optimize your chances for success and don’t mind spending a bit of extra time on things, I also recommend simply getting yourself in better shape overall. This can include improving your cardio-vascular fitness by incorporating some running, swimming or fitness centre workouts. You can also include a few strength training exercises such as squats, push-ups, sit-ups, and a rowing type of exercise. I do recommend getting more detailed advice from a trainer to get your started if you want to take this route.”
Use Common Sense
- Stay Hydrated – even if you are hiking in cooler climates when travelling, you can still get dehydrated if you don’t properly hydrate yourself during your hike. Bring enough water with you that will last you throughout your hike. It is a good habit to hydrate yourself before you begin your hike as well. If you are hiking in climates where the temperature is warm, it’s a good idea to bring extra water even though many people will tell you to only bring what you will use. You can go days without eating but a dehydrated body will reduce your physical ability to continue hiking if it’s severe. Try to avoid drinking water from streams or lakes unless you know that it is safe to drink from.
- Emergency Items – if you have yourself booked on a self-guided hiking trip, a few items such as a whistle, a flashlight, a lighter or matches, snacks, and your cell phone can come in handy if you get lost and require assistance. Of course, at higher altitudes you might not get any cell phone reception, but a whistle can come in handy to alert people to locate you if you are lost or injured.
- Stay on the Path – if you’re new to hiking and you’re unsure of the area, hire a guide. Don’t make your holiday of a lifetime your last by getting lost. Marked trails are marked for a reason. Even the most skilled hikers stick to a trail or know the area well before they venture off to explore new surroundings.