This has been a stressful time. As the worldwide pandemic continues and the country faces old challenges and new, throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and most of the east coast of America, more and more folks are discovering or re-discovering the gift of hiking on public land. One of the great benefits of hiking is that when you find the right place to go, it can be easily done with proper social distancing.
Research on the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of spending time in nature, sometimes called 'forest bathing', seems to be everywhere these days. For whatever reason you are heading out, it is a good idea to prepare! Below are some simple steps to get you started.
Hiking is for Every Body
Hiking - the act of walking for a generally unspecified amount of time, usually on unpaved trails on public lands - is for every body.
If you can walk, then you can hike. In fact, accessible trails and adaptable programs in many communities and tools that will assist you in your goal of enjoying public lands and spaces through hiking even if walking is not possible or poses a challenge for you. The important thing is to plan ahead, be safe, and stay within your comfort zone.
You don't need to live near a park or public forest to hike. 'Urban hiking', which is the act of walking through a city just for the sake of walking through a city, is also an option!
Getting Started is Easier than You Think
Never considered yourself a hiker but ready to give it a try? Maybe you haven't been in the woods in decades but want to get back out there, or you are more hesitant to get outside without a group of experienced friends? This guide serves as a reminder that hitting the trails can be easy with just a little bit of planning.
Hiking these days can also certainly be serious business - with long distance hiking, thru hiking and speed hiking all regularly in the outdoor recreation news.
Most of us are still just out for a fun afternoon walk or weekend wander, loving the chance to disconnect, get some exercise, reconnect with the natural world, and just take a closer look at the real world with our family.
Finding the right place for your first hike is the first step. Ask around in your local online community about great places for beginning hikers to explore, check out our Purple Lizard Adventure Blog or contact your local outdoor shop or outfitter for some suggestions. You may find that state or local park websites are a good place to find useful information (State Parks often have accessible trails perfect for beginners). As you look for your hiking location, it is a good idea to choose a place with several options so if you get to your destination and it seems too busy, you can head on down the road to the next trailhead until you find one without a crowd. Make sure you know what the latest info is for the area you plan to hike - some parks will have limited services, and there is a chance important options like public restrooms are closed. Our COVID resource page has helpful links to keep you in the know about the forests we map.
When you are just getting started, it's always best to go with a buddy! Of course, in today's situation around the globe, it may be best to limit your hiking partner to housemates and immediate family members. If you do choose to go out with a group, the CDC recommends limiting your group to less than 10, and to keep a 6-foot minimum distance from each other. While this may sound strange, it is actually a common practice for experienced hikers to hike apart from each other. By hiking apart, each hiker can absorb the sights and sounds of the natural world around them while still feeling safe and secure with a hiking partner nearby.
Whether you are alone or with someone else, be sure to start with short hikes to known areas within your fitness level and where you can easily get help if you need it. Remember, walking in the woods is more challenging than walking on flat surfaces, and mileage is not a measure of difficulty. Some short hikes go straight up the side of a mountain, so study your map and choose wisely.
Take your time! Don't hike on a tight schedule. Part of the beauty of being out in the woods is creating some spaciousness in your life. Be sure to leave yourself a few hours cushion so you can stop and smell the roses during your hike, rest as needed, and enjoy the experience.
Let someone know where you are: Every outdoor enthusiast needs a 'front country buddy' - a reliable and trusted friend who doesn't go out on adventures with you, but will notice if you don't come home in time - and will call the proper authorities if needed. Always tell your front country buddy when you're leaving, where you're going, and when you're expected to return home.
Clothing and Footwear
Serious long distance thru-hikers these days are shattering speed records every year; and tons of fancy, high-tech, ultra-light hiking and backpacking gear is available to keep these folks breaking records. With all of this kind of media attention, one would think that everyone is a hardcore thru-hiker with hundreds of dollars in high tech gear.
But don't be fooled by all the gear hype, while there are lots of great technical advantages to hiking clothing these days, you don't have to go out and spend hundred dollars on your beginning hiking wardrobe. You already have everything you need.
Keep it simple and follow these general guidelines to start. Shorts and a t-shirt will work fine for some hikes, but long pants and long sleeves are even better at protecting you from the sun, insects, and thorny plants.
You will definitely want a pair of comfortable shoes with good traction. Flip-flops are ok for a walk in the park but out on the trail it's better to have more protection for your toes and stability for walking on loose surfaces.
Grab a backpack that is comfortable - nothing fancy is needed - an old schoolbag will work just fine to start. Even for relatively short hikes, the safe way to hike is to bring along some basic supplies. Fill it with a bottle or two of water (staying hydrated is very important), some snacks, a flashlight, and any first-aid gear that you may need (think prescription meds, band-aids for blisters and an epi-pen if you have a serious allergy to bees).
Most importantly, bring a map of your local area and know how to use it!
Hikers use real maps for a reason.
Remember, your cell phone is usually not the best and certainly not the only tool to rely on when it comes to hiking. Cell phones don't work everywhere, and even cell-phone map apps that don't rely on data won't help you if your phone is lost, wet, or dead.
What kind of map do you need? Many state parks provide paper maps, and paper maps work fine on sunny days (be aware they will quickly disintegrate in the rain), guidebooks work great as long as they're not out-of-date (note: trails tend to change every few years and guidebooks are often out of date).
Accurate, waterproof maps are, hands down, your best resource. That's where we come into the equation. Although no map is perfect and the natural world is constantly changing, Purple Lizard Maps are updated frequently, and they are completely waterproof, so you can use them to get out of the woods quickly when that unexpected summer rainstorm starts to dump on you. Don't forget, no matter where you hike or with whom, pull out your map to verify your location frequently - especially at all trail intersections.
One of the best things about getting outside is slowing down and appreciating where you are, and having some fun! Taking your journey into the world of hiking step by step and enjoying yourself is always the best way to go.