Hiking Guide: What to Know Before Hitting a Trail For The First Time
Trekking is one of the healthiest and most relaxing activities there is. It’s a great way to get out of your routine, relief stress effectively and improve your mental health while getting some great exercise. Consequently it’s one of the few things on this world that can improve your overall health and quality of life at the same time.
In order to enjoy yourself though, and reap all these benefits, you have to do it right and above all in a responsible and safe manner. Throwing water and a couple of snacks in a backpack before setting for this amazing trail you read somewhere, without any preparation may be a bad idea. So here is a hiking guide that not only will make your hikes safer but also much more enjoyable.
Why You Should Try Hiking at Least Once in Your Life
Let me say something from the beginning; hiking is for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re fit or if you never exercise. You can still walk a flat trail in the woods and enjoy the calmness around you, while unwinding and spending time with people you like or finding your inner peace by hiking solo. Even the humblest of trails will offer you similar benefits to hiking a day on Pacific Crest Trail or Camino de Santiago.
First things first: Hiking Shoes
This is the alpha and omega of hiking. Hike in a good pair and you’ll never give them a second thought. Get it wrong and they will be in your mind for every painful second your torture lasts.
You can hike in boots or in sport shoes, the important part is to have a good fit. Some people try the first boots that look good on the shelf (they look like they can walk a mountain by themselves, right?), put them on, walk around the shop for a bit and finally buy them.
That is a terrible idea. And the reason is because, it leaves the most important aspect of hiking (walking) to chance. As you will read further on, you never want to leave things to chance when you go out there, no matter how easy your hike will be.
The proper way of doing it, is to first find a good pair of thick socks. I have several pairs made from merino wool and synthetic materials and I prefer the former. Their job is to provide a cushion between your foot and the shoe and also to make a snug fit possible while eliminating pressure points that can hurt your foot during prolonged walking. They tend to be a bit expensive but you don’t need more than a pair or two for starters.
You should always try new hiking shoes in the socks that you will hike with. Sometimes you may have to go up half a size, that’s fine. Put both shoes on and tie them properly. Walk around a bit and make sure that your toes don’t touch the front while they still have some space to move up and down in the toe box. Also check for any tightness on the sides. There are shoes for flat feet and there are models for high arched feet. Try at least 3 different pairs before you make a decision (ordering from the internet is a bad idea unless you’ve owned the same model before).
If there is a ramp in the shop try walking it down. Many times a seemingly comfortable boot will wreck your foot on a downhill by allowing it to move forth, which will make your toes touch the front. That’s why sometimes a pair that seems the most comfortable initially might not be the perfect for your foot shape.
And last but not least: Never wear new shoes for hiking. Don’t leave things to chance. Walk in them at least for two or three days before going for your first hike. As you get more experienced, you will know which of your pairs is more comfortable for a short trail and which is maybe not that comfortable but will be better for multi day hiking trips. Carrying weight is also a factor.
Choose the Right Trail for You
The goal is to have fun. You won’t enjoy the landscape much if you are stopping every ten meters and gasp for air (is your backpack too heavy?). Or if your muscles get so strained that you will start getting one cramp after another.
Hiking a trail is a goal that you set and accomplish like everything else. Set the bar right and you will be rewarded, set it too high and you might have to turn back before you reach that mountain peak. Not very good for your self-esteem but don’t forget that making it safe home is the most important goal of all.
Leave Nothing to Chance
Like everything in life, a hiking trip can go wrong. A sudden illness, an accident or a turn of the weather. If this happens, you will need all the knowledge you can get about the area, and that is why you should never leave anything to chance. Being prepared will give you a margin to work with the problem and get out of a potentially tight situation. It might also give you the chance to help someone else who is in a tight corner and that is a great thing to do and very common among hikers.
There are many parameters that can turn a joyful trekking trip into a dangerous and miserable experience. If you hike on the limit of your potential then any deviation from what you are expecting, even a small one, can be very bad. That amazing mountain lake with the astonishing views might look extremely tempting but maybe it’s too early to give it a go yet.
One of the toughest hikes I ever did was Priecne Sedlo—a demanding route through a high mountain pass in High Taras with more than 1200m elevation gain which includes rock climbing. My day kicked off fine but after a couple of hours, I started feeling my stomach a bit upset. I decided to move on, hoping that it was something temporary. It wasn’t. An hour later I came to a halt with terrible cramps on both legs, while I was perched on a granite cliff ledge. Dehydration had really gotten me. You can read all about my adventure on Priecne Sedlo here:
A bad situation brought me to my limits but the fact that I was with two experienced hikers on a busy trail saved me from the worst. Fortunately, I had left enough margin for the unexpected, so that my limits were not exceeded when the unexpected actually happened.
Ten days later, I read on the news that two hikers died of hypothermia at the base of the same mountain pass probably after they got there late in the day and darkness caught up with them. It’s pity because it wasn’t an accident, but a miscalculation that caused the tragedy. It could have been prevented.
Sometimes it all looks nice and peachy while reading about it on your computer screen but believe me, many of the times it’s not. Unfortunately, internet and the press tend to “glorify” this kind of adventures leaving out all the struggles and hardships. Mountains are not playgrounds, nature demands respect otherwise the consequences can be dire.
Research: Learn Everything About the Trail
So, what should you know about your next trail? This is a checklist with 11 points that are important:
It’s not always possible to tick off all of them but you should try to find at least the first eight. Naturally the best source of information is the internet, which is fine as long as you double-check the data. Local people (you can find them in forums and Facebook) and websites of hiking clubs and rescue teams can provide you with the most accurate and fresh info (they know things about the trail that could have happened the day before).
Helpful Apps for Hiking
A good way to get an idea of the terrain over where you are going is Google Earth. Altitudes and distances are good but seeing them visualized is invaluable. Downloading the map of the area on Google Maps (to be used offline if needed) is also a good idea and can help you out of a difficult situation (eg, heavy mist) but it will never be as accurate and detailed as a digital or paper hiking map (learn to use map and compass) of the area. Google maps don’t show trails most of the time but if you use it in conjunction with a map it’s excellent in giving you, your exact location.
Smartphones are great tools but can run out of battery or break. It’s always better to carry a paper map and compass as an alternative.
Trail Signs: How to Read Them
Properly signed trails have marks painted on trees, rocks and posts. These marks usually have more than a color and each combination (color and shape or pattern) corresponds to a certain trail. In cases where two trails use a common section, then both trail signs are painted on the way.
Every now and then, as well as on crossroads, you may come across a pole sign with an arrow, the name of the destination and maybe the pattern of the trail(s). Proper signs also have the time that will take an average person to get there.
Sometimes, in areas with flat terrain where mist and deep snow are frequent, or above the tree line, other types of signs like rock piles or crosses are being used in order to be visible from far even when visibility is low.
It would be great if an international sign system could be adopted by all countries, but for now it’s not on the horizon. There are countries like Slovakia with perfectly signed trails or Greece where they are a bit hit-and-miss.
These are images with trail signs from several countries. Sometimes it’s not unlikely to miss a spot.
What to Pack for Your Hiking Trip.
Let’s face it, when it comes down to gear, hikers and campers have an incurable addiction. I myself can spend hours reading reviews about backpacks. And of course the bigger the better right? The problem with big backpacks is that we tend to fill them with useless junk which adds weight. And weight is bad because it takes away from the fun of hiking and puts needless strain on muscles and joints.
For a single day hike, any small pack (less than 25 Litres) should be just fine as long as you keep the weight bellow 3-4kgs (6-9 pounds). For multi day trips with camping equipment, an internal frame backpack is the way to go. These packs come in sizes so they can fit different people perfectly. If you can’t decide the capacity, think that the weight difference between a 35L and a 50L of the same company can be so small that it may be worth it to get the big one (my 50L Osprey Stratos is less than 200 grams heavier than my 36L). Just don’t fill it up. Ideally you should not carry more than 20% of your weight.
If you already have a camera backpack keep in mind that most of them, are not made for hiking and will be uncomfortable over long distances. My solution for carrying camera gear is to use foam inserts inside my regular backpack. The access is not perfect like with camera backpacks but it works just fine and keeps my weight down (camera backpacks are notoriously heavy).
So, you got yourself a backpack. What are you going to put in there? Water and food of course. Especially the former is very important. Dehydration can ruin a hike pretty easily. Hydration changes from person to person so I’m talking only about myself here. For a full day hike with no drinkable water along the way, I usually carry 3 Litres of water. If it’s too hot, I even carry some more; usually in a 2.5L hydration pack (very good for frequently drinking without stopping) and a bottle.
Better put your eggs in two baskets when it comes to water. Last but not least don’t think that you can’t dehydrate in winter (especially at high altitudes) because you don’t sweat. I thought I was hydrating fine at Priecne Sedlo; apparently I wasn’t.
As for food, it comes down to personal preference I guess. Make sure you pack enough carbohydrates to keep your engine running. Cereal & protein bars are very popular among hikers (you can make your own too) because of their very good weight to calories ratio. Fruit is also good, and a bit of chocolate can give you energy here and there but don’t solely rely on it.
First-Aid Kit & Supplements
As for safety equipment, I always carry a small First-Aid kit (if you are in a group, make sure that at least a member of the team has one) and a survival blanket. These blankets cost next to nothing, weight next to nothing and can potentially save lives. I can’t think of any reason not to have one in your pack but I can think plenty for carrying one and none of them is particularly pleasant. It may seem like overkill but in case you get stranded outdoors it may make the difference between getting hypothermia or not.
My small First-Aid kit has the usual bandages and medic tapes plus: an antibiotic ointment, antihistamine pills (it doesn’t matter if you have allergies or not), Ibuprofen (used for fever, inflammation and as painkiller) and magnesium tablets. Magnesium helps tight muscles to relax and prevents cramps.
Getting more magnesium at least 3 days before a hiking trip is always a good idea (spinach, avocados, almonds and peanuts are foods rich in it). Also, sometimes I dissolve a tablet of electrolytes (magnesium is one of them) in a small water bottle and sip from it during some tough hikes.
Furthermore, I always carry with me a Swiss army knife and a headlamp in case I don’t make it back on time, something that can happen more often than you think. In case there are rivers or other water obstacles, I also carry a 70L light duty dry bag that can fit my whole backpack if needed.
Clothing for Hiking: How to Get dressed
The name of the game here is layering. The more layers you have, the easier you can regulate your temperature. It’s crucial not be hot (lose liquids) and of course you don’t want to be cold either. My usual set up is one or two thin compression tops (one is usually short-sleeved) plus my wind breaker which is also a breathable rain coat. Compression layers are great for the job because they are extra thin and don’t retain much liquid when they get wet. For hot days, I remove the windbreaker and one compression, if it’s cold then I add compression tops and pants accordingly. For very cold climates and snow conditions a set of thermal layer may be used.
In order to regulate my temperature properly (I sweat easily), I start my hikes with so much clothing as to feel a bit cold. When I warm up, after ten or fifteen minutes I reassess my condition and maybe remove one more layer. Naturally I lose layers on uphills and add on downhills.
In case of rain, a good breathable rain jacket and pair of pants will do a great job but can cost a bit too much. If you want something cheaper, a good rain poncho will do a great job for a fraction of the money while not making you sweat like a heavy plastic raincoat would (never use these for hiking).
I can’t stress enough the importance of maintaining proper temperature and avoid sweating during a hike. It’s the second more important thing after shoes.
Hiking Buddies: Whom to Go With
Hiking with someone, especially an experienced hiker is always safer than hiking alone, at least until you acquire some experience. If you haven’t got anyone, there are many hiking clubs organizing trips every weekend, and they are a great place to meet experienced hikers and learn from them.
In case you want to hike alone (not recommended for beginners), make sure that you let somebody know when and where you are going. If you plan to hike solo in isolated areas frequently, perhaps you should consider buying a PLB (person locator beacon). These devices have become so small with time, that you can carry them in your pocket. By activating it, a distress signal (doesn’t need phone signal to work) is sent straight to the rescue control center of the country that you have it registered.
Hiking is Life
Hiking is vitalizing, adventurous and can vastly improve your quality of life like few things can. In these times with the scourge of stress and everyday pressure affecting us all, it can give serenity and a sense of accomplishment every single time, while taking you to places where not many people have stepped on.
It is the natural antidote for the side effects of modern life and not many people know of it. Last but not least, it’s perfectly safe as long as you follow some simple rules and above all common sense. I hope that this hiking guide has answered most of your questions, if not, don’t hesitate to post any questions you have on the comments section and I’ll be happy to answer them.
So what are you waiting for? Go have an adventure!
Have you read about hiking in Zagori—the most isolated region in Greece?