How to: The Hiker's Checklist

A beginner's guide to hitting the trails
Staff Writer

Sure, hiking seems like an activity that shouldn't require much instruction. Pick a trail, put one foot in front of the other, gaze at the sublime views, avoid _____ (grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, Sasquatch , etc.).  But there's a little more to it than that, and basic mistakes are more common than you might think, according to Dave Heldreth, a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructor who has logged thousands of backcountry miles. Here, his seven rules for new hikers and a quick refresher for the rest of us:

Bring enough water.
Seriously. Sounds basic, but lack of water is one of the main reasons that new hikers get into trouble, Heldreth says. On average, you should be drinking four liters each day—and plan for one liter per two hours while on the trail. (It also never hurts to overpack on the H2O in your daypack, just in case.) If a bad mood sets in, ramp up your intake: “Dehydration makes people irritable.”

And snacks.
You’ll be happier—and more likely to stay alert enough to make smart decisions—if your blood sugar isn’t through the floor. “People are surprised at this, but especially on the trail, sugar is your friend,” Heldreth notes. So stash a Snickers. “The chocolate will give you an instant boost, and the peanuts will help you stay up.” Consider packing enough food for twice as long as you intend to be out.

Calculate time, distance and elevation properly.
“A lot of people—especially men—overestimate how far they’ve gone or can go,” Heldreth says, and hiking is surprisingly slower than sidewalk walking. Without a heavy pack, the average person treks 2 mph—any more than 3 and you’re really hauling. Remember, for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained, add an hour to how long your route will take. And if you’re moderately fit, a four-miler is a good day.

Remember a map and compass (and/or a GPS).
Do research on your route (maps are available at national park ranger stations, or for a less-traveled path, check out the USGS topographic maps). Then, stay on course by paying attention to your location. "Many people who get in trouble are unprepared, get lost and then freak out,” Heldreth notes. For backup, leave a copy of your planned route and predicted timetable with a friend (who can take action if you're MIA), and always carry your cell for emergencies.

Carry something warm to wear, even if it’s sunny—and a headlamp for that same reason.
Just because it’s warm and light when you set out doesn’t mean that this can’t change, sometimes unexpectedly. Temperatures drop as your elevation rises, and weather is less predictable at higher altitudes. Plus, if you or someone in your group gets lost or hurt, you could end up having to camp out. Opt for performance, sweat-wicking materials when possible to help keep you comfortable, and avoid cotton at all costs—when it gets wet, it stays wet (and cold).

Mind your feet.
You don’t have to rush to the nearest REI to splurge on cutting-edge ultrahikers, but you do need to be sure to wear comfortable, sturdy shoes with some kind of tread on them. (Check out our guide to buying your first pair of hiking boots.) Running shoes are are often fine. Don’t even think about flip flops—they offer no support and won't be of much help if you step on something sharp.

Use common sense.
Carry a basic first aid kit. Skip toting both knife and lighter, especially in very dry areas (“A lighter can just get you into trouble, and a knife doesn’t really do much good,” Heldreth says.).  A cell phone is fine to have, but don't count on it in case of emergency.  Don’t go solo on your first big hike—in fact, try to find someone more experienced to take you out. Do some planning, and don’t forget the basics.

Happy trails. 

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