In the era of 24/7 connectivity and social media and news overwhelm, more and more folks are discovering or re-discovering the joys of hiking. And for good reason - research on the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of spending time in nature (sometimes even called "forest bathing") seems to be everywhere!
Hiking can be for everybody
Hiking - the act of walking for a generally unspecified amount of time, usually on unpaved public trails on public lands - can be 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 even 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 been 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 maybe you have some friends new to hiking? 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!
Fortunately though, lots of us are still just out for a fun afternoon or weekend, loving the chance to disconnect, get some exercise, reconnect with the natural world, or just take a closer look at the real world with friends and family. With a few simple planning steps, hiking can be fun for everyone!
Finding the right place for your first hike is often the first step. Ask around in your local community about great places for beginning hikers to explore, check out our Purple Lizard Adventure Blog or your local independently owned outdoor outfitter or REI Co-op for some suggestions. You may find that state or even local parks might be good place to start (state parks often have accessible trails perfect for beginners).
When you are just getting started, it's always best to go with a buddy!
Tried recruiting a hiking partner but no takers? There are organized outdoor recreation groups in many communities that can help. Check in with your local outdoor group or independently owned outdoor retail store, or your local REI Co-op, and find out when they lead group hikes for beginners. This is a great way to get started with some experienced folks with relative ease. Plus, you may find a few future hiking buddies.
Whether you are alone or with someone else, be sure to start with short hikes to known areas within your physical fitness level and where easily get help if you need it (State Parks can sometimes be great for this purpose since they are more heavily used). Remember, walking in the woods can be more challenging than walking on flat surfaces, so mileage is not a measure of difficulty!
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. Don't forget to leave yourself a few hours cushion (at least) 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 nonetheless notice if you or you and your hiking partners 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 hard-core avid 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 several hundred dollars to acquire your beginning hiking wardrobe.
Keep it simple and follow these general guidelines to start: wear clothes that are not made of cotton (Why? Cotton gets wet and doesn't wick moisture away from skin, which can be uncomfortable -- and even dangerous when temperatures drop). Gym shorts and a synthetic t-shirt will work fine for some hikes, but long pants and long sleeves are even better at protecting you from the sun, biting insects (such as ticks and mosquitos), and skin irritating plants.
You will definitely want a sturdy pair of comfortable shoes with good traction (and remember: don't go for a hike in brand new boots - blisters Ouch!). And finally, don't forget to throw in a waterproof jacket - in case of rain.
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, etc...).
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 (although they will 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, don't forget to 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.