17 May 2017

So you’re going hiking for the first time

Posted by Jessica Ball

In the spirit of my “So you’re going camping for the first time” post – which came about as a result of a Twitter conversation about racial and economic barriers to outdoor experiences –  here’s a collection of thoughts and tips for easing into your first experience with hiking, whether for a class or a field trip or research or fun. Even though you might be used to lots of walking in a suburban or urban setting, hiking comes with its own quirks and challenges that might not be readily apparent. It’s never fun to learn about them a few miles into a long hike and spend the rest of it irritated, in discomfort or just plain upset – so here are a few thoughts to get you started.

Preparing to head out to Pu’u O’o in Hawai’i – with the permission of Civil Defense, in the company of a USGS volcanologist, and wearing safety gear!

Personal safety. Everyone has a different tolerance for situations in which they feel safe, but in general, new hikers should consider a few things before they go out on a trail or in the wilderness.

  • Hike with a companion. This is non-optional if you’re going off-trail or working in the wilderness. If you get hurt or sick, being alone could mean that help won’t find you right away, no matter how well-connected you are with radios or cell phones. Even if you’re in a park where there are lots of people, depending on strangers to help you isn’t cool. Also, there are many instances of people (mainly women) who are harassed or otherwise attacked when hiking alone. Having a companion isn’t proof against this happening, but it usually helps.
  • Tell people where you’re going, how long you expect to be gone, and when you’ll come back, and pre-arrange meeting points before you go. This way people will have a good idea if you’re in trouble even if you can’t communicate with them. Some back-country hiking permits require you to file a hiking ‘plan’ before you leave, so search-and-rescue workers know when it’s time to deploy. If you’re going alone, inform a ranger as well as friends/family who can inform others if you don’t communicate with them in a reasonable amount of time. And on the subject of communication,
  • Have multiple means of communication – and NOT just cell phones. Many wilderness areas and even national parks do not have good cell coverage. Even if they do, topography might prevent good signals from getting through. If you need to communicate within a group, take hand-held radios (even cheap ones work decently well) as well as cell phones. If you’re hiking somewhere really remote, consider getting a Spot or InReach satellite device.
  • Check the weather and trail/hiking conditions ahead of time, but be prepared for those to change – fast. Bad weather can come up faster than you expect, and even the best weather forecast might not predict that microburst that drops hail on you in the middle of what’s otherwise been a mildly cloudy day. If there’s even the slightest chance of bad weather, make sure you bring the appropriate clothing and gear to shelter from it (more on that later).

A slightly extreme example of a cramped trail at Santiaguito in Guatemala. You probably won’t encounter this unless you go bushwhacking!

Hiking etiquette. Not everyone you encounter is going to know about these things or practice them, but it’s generally nice to take the ‘high road’ and make the experience more fun for everyone.

  • The slowest hiker sets the pace. This is especially important to me because I usually am the slowest hiker. It’s really upsetting to be left behind by your group because they’re not paying attention or can’t be bothered to pace themselves, but it’s also a safety issue. If someone falls behind and gets hurt or lost, people in front might not notice until they’re well out of earshot. In some places, stragglers may also attract predators that would normally be deterred by groups (like mountain lions or bears). Remember that not everyone moves at the same pace, and don’t be a jerk to people who can’t go fast. If it’s near the beginning of a hike it could be because they’re just not conditioned to it, but (in my case) it could also be because they have injuries or physical conditions that prevent them from going at your pace.
  • If you’re on a trail, don’t block it. If you’re in pairs or a group, walking side-by-side is fine if there’s no one coming, but switch to single-file to allow oncoming traffic to get by, especially if it’s a narrow trail. If you’ve stopped to look at an outcrop or other feature, leave room for other hikers to pass by you. If there’s not enough room for people to pass each other and you’re on a slope, let the uphill-going party go by – they’ve got it harder than you!
  • If you need to pass someone, say so politely. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who come up right behind me without saying anything about wanting to go around (particularly runners). This can be scary if you’re a woman and the person behind you isn’t (or if you’re a small person of any gender and the other person isn’t, etc.). Don’t assume that everyone can hear you coming – the person in front of you might be hard of hearing, deaf, listening to music, not paying attention, etc. Wait until there’s room to pass, say “excuse me” and “thanks” and go by.
  • If you’re in a park or preserve, try to stay on the trail. Off-trail hiking destroys habitats and increases erosion. Geologists might be more interested in rocks, but many places we go to look for them also contain sensitive habitats. In some cases, this means that plants and animals in those places can’t be found anywhere else in the world. While we often joke about biology “getting in the way” of the geology, it’s important to protect all natural resources when we can. Stay on trails when you can, use game paths if trails aren’t available, and tread lightly if neither is an option.
  • If you need to access private land, always get permission and inform the landowner when you’ll be there. People can get suspicious and downright hostile toward trespassers, especially if there’s something on their land that isn’t entirely legal. (*COUGH BLUE RIDGE MOONSHINE STILLS COUGH*) Even if you’re technically on public land, be aware that some people can be protective of areas adjacent to their property regardless of whether you have the right to be there. Know the local sentiment before you go, and do your best to talk to people beforehand.

Geologists hiking in the Kilauea Iki crater, Hawai’i, under threat of rain. Volcanoes are pretty extreme places to hike, but weather and rough terrain can happen anywhere!

Choosing and using your gear. Preparation before a hike can save you a lot of grief in the field. You want gear to be sturdy and comfortable. This does not mean that you have to break the bank at a fancy outdoor supplier.

  • Invest in good hiking boots and break them in before you go. Your first day on a trail is not the time to be getting used to a new pair of shoes – buy them a couple of weeks before you go and wear them around your daily routine to get used to them. They don’t have to be super-expensive – you can get away with work or army boots – but you’ll want to make sure they’re comfortable and waterproof and broken-in for your feet. (Don’t buy used boots unless they’ve barely been worn.)
  • Tape is your friend if you get blisters or “hot spots” on your feet. Use medical tape to cover spots that rub on your shoes (I have knobbly feet and have this problem no matter how well broken in my boots are – I will get blisters).
  • Duct tape works to repair shoes if absolutely necessary. It won’t hold out for a long hike, but it will usually get you back to your vehicle/camp. Don’t try to hike on taped-up shoes unless you have no other choice – you can injure your feet badly. You can also use it for any other gear that breaks or leaks – I tend to wrap a few layers around my water bottle to keep it handy.
  • Your pack should hold your stuff, be durable and comfortable. You don’t have to buy a fancy backpack, but they do tend to be more pleasant to wear all day. No matter what pack you’re using, make sure it fits your body size and shape and doesn’t rub – in most sports supply stores, you can stuff some weights in and wear it around to test this out.
  • Avoid cotton clothing. Cotton gets wet and stays that way, meaning even if you’re in a desert, you can still end up with a sweat-soaked clammy shirt at the end of the day. This is especially true of socks – if you get cotton socks wet by, say, going through a stream, they are going to stay wet. Wool or polyester blends are a safer choice.

All kitted out with field instruments, comfy clothing, protective gear, and a bear spotter in Yellowstone National Park!

What to bring on a hike depends on the length of the hike, where you’re going, what the weather will be like, and what you’re doing. There are a few things that I bring on every hike, however, whether it’s short or long.

  • Water. The rule for a desert environment or hot day is 1 gallon per person per day. This amount can go down or up depending on what you’re doing, how long you’ll be out, and what the temperature is. I like to err on the side of caution and bring a little extra water, as long as I’m comfortable carrying it, because it can always be dumped. If I know it will be an especially hot day, I’ll try to drink a half-liter or so before I set out. (Another good rule of thumb is that if you’re not stopping to relieve yourself every few hours, you’re dehydrated and you need to drink more, but this can vary by physiology). Hydration bladders are nice, but you can use just about any container, up to and including gallon jugs from the supermarket.
  • Food. Doesn’t matter if you’re only going on a short hike – if there’s a chance it might become a longer one, at least bring snacks. I get super cranky when my blood sugar gets low, so I bring more food than most people. At the very least chuck a couple of granola bars or a piece of fruit your pack.
  • A first aid kit. This can be small (aspirin, band-aids and disinfecting cream, for example) or a full-on Adventure Medical Kit (my favorites). Since I go to remote places, mine has a bunch of stuff that you probably won’t need for a day trip, but you can stock it with whatever you need. If you have a medical condition (allergies, diabetes, etc.) make sure you have whatever supplies you need and tell your companion(s) about them. If you don’t have companions, wear a medical information bracelet and/or write down your medications somewhere just in case someone else needs to help you and you can’t talk to them.
  • A map and a compass. Don’t ever rely on your phone if you get lost. While you can download maps onto a phone before a hike (in case you won’t have cell service), phones still need batteries and even with backup power, they’ll eventually run out. A paper map doesn’t need batteries. Even if it’s just a park map, even if all you do is print out something from Google, have a map. (Learning how to use a map and a compass before you go are important too!)
  • Protective clothing. Most raincoats don’t weigh a lot and won’t take up much space in your pack. Unless you are absolutely sure there won’t be rain, I’d take a raincoat. At the very least, if it gets cold and windy they’ll provide a little bit of warmth. Having a rain cover for your pack is nice and they’re relatively cheap, but you can also put your raincoat on over your pack if it’s big enough. Additionally, temperature can vary greatly over the course of the day, and (especially in the mountains) it gets cold fast when the sun goes down. Fleece doesn’t weigh a lot and is worth keeping in the bottom of your pack along with a raincoat, and hats and gloves likewise don’t take up much space or weight. Bring them!

These are all things that I consider pretty basic, and they don’t directly address how to deal with tricky situations arising from race/ethnicity/religion/gender. For the most part, the people I have encountered while hiking have been pleasant and I’ve never gotten into any truly dangerous situations. However, my experience is framed around who I am – a white woman who had the advantage of patient, understanding mentors while I was learning. Some of the unpleasant parts of hikes can be avoided using the tips I’ve given above, but for more complicated issues, you can also check out the resources below (repeated from the camping post):

Groups to support that work to expand access to the outdoors:
Outdoor Afro – http://www.outdoorafro.com/
Latino Outdoors – http://latinooutdoors.org/

Additional information and perspectives on the topic:
Hiking While Black: The Untold Story
Why Are Our Parks So White?
National Parks Have Some Work To Do To Become ‘Parks For All’
Outdoor Afro: Busting Stereotypes that Black People Don’t Camp or Hike
National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public (a report about racial and ethnic diversity among NPS visitors)
Exit Interview: I Was a Black, Female Thru-Hiker on the Appalachian Trail
For people of color, hiking isn’t always an escape
The unbearable whiteness of hiking and how to solve it