Hiking is an enjoyable pastime that millions and millions of people partake of every year, all across the globe. There is just something about setting out down the trail in the middle of an otherwise pristine natural environment that recharges your mind and soul. It is good to get away from it all sometimes!
For preppers, hiking also takes on a special significance because it forms a cornerstone of our preparations, namely being our primary mode of locomotion when we are forced to bug out on foot.
However, in my experience it seems to me that the majority of preppers, of any experience level, aren’t really practicing this part of their plan. Sure, you can always grab your pack and take off but, if you haven’t been putting in the work ahead of time it is going to be a hell of a lot more grueling than it needs to be.
Some preppers have neglected hiking out of laziness, but others might be a little bit intimidated or just not know where to start. We will put an end to that today with this introductory guide to hiking. By the time you reach the end of this guide you’ll be ready to plan, prepare for and execute a hike properly.
Getting Started with Hiking
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of hiking, it is useful to define what hiking is. Or rather, what hiking means to us. It sounds simple, and at the end of the day I suppose it is, but the answers to complex questions are often found by doing the simple stuff well.
A hike is nothing more than an extended foray, jaunt, ramble or walk through a natural setting. A hike might be a there-and-back-again affair (round trip) or it might be a one-way passage (thru-hike) with a destination in mind, as it would be in the case of a typical bug out. That is all there is to it.
Now, the hike itself could be anything but simple, or easy. A pleasure hike could last as little as one or two hours, or it could be a grueling multi-day affair in the case of an overland hike or a legitimate bug out.
A hike of any intensity and any duration will mandate the carrying of supplies and provisions, both to take care of your body’s requirements and to take care of the risks attendant with being outdoors.
Short hikes will require fewer supplies, hopefully, while longer hikes will require proportionally more supplies. But there is no free lunch, hauling supplies means carrying extra weight and the more you carry the heavier your load will become.
Carrying even five or 10 additional pounds will definitely be noticeable over a distance, and you can imagine how difficult and exhausting it will be trying to haul a fully loaded bug-out bag that weighs dozens of pounds.
In short, you’re going to need to know a few things to get ready for executing your first hike. First you’ll need to equip yourself, both with appropriate clothing and additional gear.
Then you’ll need to know where you are going and how you’ll get there, and also what the terrain will be like under the current climate conditions. Lastly, you need to know how to conduct yourself out on the trail so you don’t get lost, get hurt or wind up with a bad outcome.
We will explore and examine all of these factors in detail in the following sections, but before we get down to the nitty-gritty allow me to share some advice with you, advice that I wished I would have been told as a beginner.
Words of Wisdom for Beginning Hikers
Everybody started somewhere, and though you might have big dreams about bushwhacking down remote trails and even more remote country all by your lonesome I can promise you that you’d be wise to listen to the following advice.
Hiking may not be especially perilous when you are sticking to the bunny trails, but there is always ample opportunity for injury and even death anywhere in the wilder parts of the world.
Keep Your Initial Outings Fast and Easy
If you are reading this article I’m assuming that you are a beginning hiker, or someone who has only a few minimally-directed outings under their belt. For that reason, it is imperative that you generally take it easy on your first few hikes.
You might be in good physical condition or you might not be, but believe me when I tell you that hiking, and especially hiking with a load on your back, is going to work muscles that you never knew you had.
Even if the trail is easy, the going is slow and the load is light you are likely going to notice peculiar soreness when the hike is over.
This is because all sorts of stabilizer muscles throughout your shoulders, core and legs are going to be put to work on terrain that is not perfectly flat and perfectly smooth laminate flooring or pavement.
You don’t want to risk a “blowout”, meaning a strain, sprain or break resulting from a trip and fall, even if you are only hiking along a popular and populated trail near your “neck of the woods”.
Overexerting yourself, even if it doesn’t lead to disaster, will only serve to slow down your training and other endeavors. Take it easy on easy trails until you have a few hikes under your belt and you have knocked the rust off otherwise unused muscles.
Minimize Unnecessary Risks
Staying safe on the trail is all about minimizing risks, not inflating them. There have probably been more unhappy outcomes for hikers because they “outran their headlights” or underestimated the effects that ambient conditions or other obstacles would have on their timetable or the difficulty of the hike.
Sure, you might have been down a particular trail a couple times already when the sun is shining and the birds are chirping, and so you think that a little bit of wet weather won’t make that big of a difference. You toss a lightweight parka in your pack and take off.
Unfortunately for you, a “light misting rain” is actually weatherman code-speak for “biblical deluge”, and now the trail is a muddy, washed-out bog and you are soaked to your britches, shivering and cold.
There are many other risk factors like this besides, and could include unfamiliarity with an otherwise easy and simple trail, reduced visibility, extreme heat and so forth. Going in too light or under-equipped is also an unnecessary risk.
Shaving weight out of your load is always a virtue unless you are removing absolutely necessary life support emergency equipment.
Be smart, be prudent and don’t take stupid risks when hiking.
Don’t Screw Around on the Trail!
Chalk it up to enthusiasm, excitement or a reignited sense of wonder but horseplay, goofing off, screwing around and general chicanery is quite commonly seen when out on the hiking trail.
It’s great to be pumped up about your newfound activity, even if it is a practice session for a decidedly serious real event, but one should not underestimate the circumstance.
There are many dangers scattered around on the trail, no matter where you are in the world or what season it is.
There are ample opportunities for a nasty slip, trip and fall, long drops off the edge of a hill or mountain, deep or quickly moving bodies of water, various dangerous or harmful life forms and more.
Let us not mention the ever-present and constantly lurking risk of exposure. More than anything else, exposure will threaten the careless and the foolhardy with death.
You might be out on a fun pleasure hike but the dangers that will await you are the same. Look at it another way: You aren’t in your home, on your street, in town or at work, you are out in the middle of nature with comparatively very few people around to help you if something goes wrong.
The farther out you get into less populated trails and areas, the more the danger increases.
Simple accidents that would otherwise make for humorous stories at the water cooler can take on terrifying and life-threatening significance in the remote corners of the world. Even when you are enjoying yourself, take the activity seriously.
Preparing for Your First Outing
Okay, I will climb down off my soapbox now, but I do sincerely hope you have taken the advice in the previous section to heart. Keeping all that in mind, now we get down to the nuts and bolts of planning and preparing for your first, proper hike.
There is plenty to do, but much of it is easy, and it shouldn’t take you more than a couple of days at most to get ready for your outing.
The following action items will get you ready to hit the trail in no time:
Locate and Investigate Appropriate Trails
First things first, we need to figure out where we are going and how we are going to get there, i.e. we need to pick out a trail to hike. You might already have a trail in mind, but even if that is the case there is yet more to do.
Thankfully, the information age has made connecting with fellow hikers and various resources to investigate and research good, potential trails extremely simple and easy.
Whatever resource you use you should be looking for trails that are rated as easy or beginner level and whatever climate you are currently living in.
If you come across a trail that is named or nicknamed something like “Dr. Dan’s Death-Defying Trail of Doom” or something similar, it goes without saying you should avoid it. Keep your ego where it belongs.
An ideal trail for a first or beginning hike is one that is about 5 mi. long, probably less, and should not feature any substantial or sustained elevation changes, either up or down. It should also be a trail that is easily navigable just by walking it, no scrambling, no tiptoeing, abseiling, belaying or anything like that.
Take your time, read reviews and reach out to fellow hikers on social media, enthusiast forums or other online resources to really get a feel for the trail before you head out.
If the trail is located in a park, preserve or other installation don’t be afraid to contact them to get the most up-to-date information, and to make sure the trail is open.
Choose Season- and Climate Appropriate Clothing
On a very short hike down an easy trail in nice weather, you can probably get away with wearing just about anything. For more intense and longer hikes, like the kind you’ll typically experience during an on-foot bug out, correct clothing choice is as critical as any other gear selection you make.
In fact, failing to dress properly according to the weather and the activity is one of the most common, and most serious, mistakes that beginning hikers will make.
Proper attire selection as well as assessing different garments and fabrics according to their qualities for the task at hand is an immense body of study in hiking circles but I’m not going to get into all that now, instead providing you with only a 30,000 foot view.
Broadly speaking, in hot or mild conditions you should be wearing lightweight, airy clothing that will dry quickly.
From sweat or water, going around soaking wet will generally grate on your nerves and can contribute to rashes and other skin ailments, but more importantly being wet will chill you rapidly in a stiff breeze or when the temperature falls, putting you at great risk of exposure.
Obviously, in colder climates or weather you’ll need to layer appropriately but your base layer should still be a lightweight, quick drying choice.
I like wearing long sleeves and pants when hiking unless I’m hiking in screaming hot weather. This will help protect you from bugs and also from incidental hazards like twigs and branches, thorny or spiny plants and various other obstacles.
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Also, you’ll save yourself a lot of pain by investing in a good, lightweight sturdy pair of hiking boots or trail shoes. Like your clothing, these should be designed to dry quickly and shed water easily.
If possible, avoid traditional (but suboptimal) heavy boots or old fashioned military combat boots. More important than anything is to break in your boots ahead of time; firstly so you know how they treat your feet and second to ensure they do not unduly promote hotspots and blisters!
Also, it always, always pays to bring a piece of headgear, anything that will help keep the sun off your neck and face.
Also include a lightweight, warm jacket or other outer layer dependent on the coldest anticipated night time temperatures. Never, ever omit this piece of gear, as it might save your life if something goes badly wrong on your hike!
Load Up with the Right Supplies
A big part of hiking safely is bringing the right gear with you, things that will make your hike more enjoyable and also serve as a hedge against disaster if things go wrong.
From the easiest round trip trail to the lengthiest and most grueling path into the dark heart of the woods, don’t leave home without the right stuff.
Obviously, if you are hiking out as part of a legitimate bug out, you’ll be carrying this and a whole lot more but the following list serves as your basic first line gear for any outing:
- Backpack – Any good, lightweight backpack that will hold up to a little abuse will serve here. Everyone has their preference, but bigger and heavier loads will mandate a better, stronger pack.
- Map – Unless you are on a trail where you quite literally cannot get off of it and get lost, always bring a map of the area along with you. This can help orient you if you get lost.
- Compass – A compass, used together with your map, can help you figure out where you are and how to get where you need to go to pick up your trail or affect self-rescue. Even used by itself, basic direction finding is an invaluable capability in deep country.
- Flashlight (incl. spare batteries) – You might very well be hiking in an area with no lights whatsoever around, and when it gets dark it will get dark. If you are hiking in the woods it will get dark much faster than usual when beneath the canopy. A flashlight with a spare set of batteries is a mandatory inclusion in your hiking kit.
- Water Bottle / Canteen – Hydration is essential, and even more important for working bodies. You can’t just head to a water fountain or throw open a tap when you are out on a hike, so make sure you bring a sizable water bottle full of fresh water with you.
- Water Filter or Steri-Tabs – Include a compact emergency water filter like the LifeStraw with your water bottle. This will allow you to drink from even the grossest natural sources safely. As an alternative, you can stick with the tried and true steri-tabs which will chemically kill any nasty germs hiding in found water supplies.
- First-Aid Kit – There are countless ways to get hurt while on the trail, and pokes, prods, stings, sunburns, scrapes and more will await you no matter how careful you are. A nicely equipped but compact first-aid kit should be your constant companion.
- Lighter (incl. tinder) – The ability to create fire on demand is priceless capability in any survival situation. Fire will keep you warm, keep animals at bay and help you signal for help. Include a reliable lighter and a small quantity of tinder with your hiking kit.
- Knife – Similar to fire, the knife is an implement that is one of mankind’s oldest and trustiest tools. You can use a knife to help you fashion shelter or as a self-defense weapon. A small fixed blade or sturdy folding knife is an essential part of your gear selection.
- Snacks – Even for a very short hike taking along some snacks is a great idea, as this will help you keep your energy levels up and recharge your electrolytes over time. Everyone has a preference, but classic standbys like trail mix and beef jerky are always good options.
If there are any other small, lightweight inclusions that you want to toss in, feel free, but as always keep an eye on your overall weight. You don’t want to become a “kitchen sink” packer.
Also, your backpack doesn’t have to be waterproof if you carry a dry bag or even a large Ziploc freezer bag that you can store your items in to keep them safe and dry in case of a freak downpour or botched stream crossing.
File your “Flight Plan”
One of the simplest yet most crucial actions you can take prior to embarking on any hike is filing a “flight plan”.
No, that expression doesn’t mean you have to take a plane somewhere to get your hike underway, instead, a flight plan in this case is your itinerary- when you are departing, where you are going, along what path you’ll be traveling, and when you are expected to be back- that you can give to someone you trust who will care enough to look for you or summon help when you are overdue.
This, more than anything else, serves as your best possible hedge and protection against getting stranded or lost out in the wilderness.
Even if you don’t have anyone in your area that you would consider close there’s always something you can do, even if it is just checking in at a ranger station or leaving an envelope with instructions and pertinent details in your vehicle or in your home.
If no one knows where you have gone then they don’t even know where to begin looking, and that will waste precious time assuming that they pick up your trail at all. Help protect yourself against this unfortunate occurrence while you are out on a hike by leaving detailed instructions behind.
Check the Forecast
Last but certainly not least, before you embark on your hike, always check, double check and triple check the weather forecast for the area where you’ll be hiking. Even a mild turn in the weather could have serious consequences.
If the weather looks like it will turn bad but remain more or less navigable, dress and pack appropriately. If the weather is threatening to get really nasty, you should abort and reschedule your hike.
I get it, it is hard to believe that meteorologists can be so wrong so much of the time and keep their jobs, but checking the weather as forecasted is still the best tool we have for predicting the conditions that you will (or could) be facing.
Making Tracks and Keeping Safe on the Trail
All right! The day has come, and you have planned, dressed, packed and prepared accordingly. Time to go hiking! Now all you need to do is put one foot in front of the other, keep to the trail and enjoy yourself in The Great Outdoors.
This is all true, but there is a little bit more to it than that. How should you actually conduct yourself in this new and unfamiliar environment? What are the do’s and don’ts? What are the hazards and how do you identify them?
A little bit of knowledge will go a long way towards saving you learning (painfully) from experience!
Watch Where You Step and Grab
When out hiking it is imperative that you train yourself to look where you are placing your feet and watch where you are placing your hands. Why? Simple: Stepping in the wrong place could hurt or kill you.
You might slip on some loose rocks or stumble on a slick boulder and badly break a bone, or even dash your head open. An ill-timed trip might see you plummeting off of a high precipice. You could step in a sinkhole or animal burrow and reach a similar fate.
You have to watch where you’re placing your hands also, as grabbing a conveniently placed branch or handhold on a rock wall could see you bitten by a snake or stuck by an extremely thorny vine. You cannot afford to get badly injured when out in the wild, this means you must re-attune yourself to move through the environment with deliberation and caution.
Bad things happen when you get in a hurry out on a hike. Maybe you are eager to catch up to friends, or in a rush to get to your vehicle or get home before weather arrives or night falls. Maybe you just like to go fast. Whatever the case, rushing leads to accidents and mishaps when hiking.
Rushing means you might miss an otherwise obvious trail marker and wind up irretrievably lost. You might fail to notice any one of the aforementioned hazards and run afoul of it. If nothing else you’ll just be burning energy at a drastically higher rate, and that will lead to exhaustion and more problems.
Take your time when out on the trail unless you are in a situation where speed is absolutely of the essence, and even then the goal had better be worth it.
Beware Common Hazards
Like I said, you won’t be in the city anymore, or even in town. Things that can hurt you will be in far greater profusion out on the trail then they will on the sidewalk, though this is by no means a reason to forgo hiking. Learn what common hazards are in your area and on your specific trail.
If you’re hiking alongside a river or stream it could very well be slippery rocks. If at high altitude, any trail which runs along a cliff edge or near any other steep drop off must be respected. Learn what animal life is in your area also, insect, reptile and mammal.
More than a few hikers have met a bad end on their hike by disturbing a conveniently placed nest of wasps for beets, and in the most remote parts of the country bears and other large, dangerous mammals can still be found.
Don’t Be Afraid to Abort
Let’s face it, sometimes we all get in over our heads. Maybe you are not in as good a shape as you thought. Maybe the trail turns out to be much harder than “hikernut420” promised on that forum.
Maybe the weather has turned dreadful. Maybe mosquitoes, wasps, bees and scorpions are all out seemingly intent on claiming a bounty that is on your head. Whatever the reason, whatever the situation, the hike has just turned terrible.
Don’t hesitate to pack it in. Abort, turn back, and try again another day or plan an entirely new hike on a more favorable trail and in more favorable conditions.
It is good in the end to force yourself to go through “the suck”, but we all had to start somewhere and you know the drill, crawl before you walk and walk before you run. If you aren’t a seasoned hiker or a snake-eating outdoor survivalist don’t throw yourself in the deep end without your water wings.
Choose a Popular Trail or Get a Wingman
If you are worried about being in a remote area alone, for whatever reason, don’t despair of hiking entirely. There are many trails around the United States and the world that are perennially popular, and will quite literally have substantial amounts of foot traffic along them at pretty much any given time.
Alternately, start hitting up your friends and find out who among them is a seasoned hiker or who is an enthusiastic beginner, like yourself.
Hiking is always fun, solo or in a group, and though it is great to get out in nature alone for some high quality solitude, hiking is also a blast with a merry band of friends along.
Whatever the case, if you need more people around to feel safe or comfortable, don’t hesitate to enlist friends or family for the adventure.
Hard Mode: The Longest Hiking Trails in the U.S. and the World!
You ever wanted to try hiking a trail that will, quite literally, take you the better part of a year to complete? It is mildly ridiculous to consider when starting out, but still fun to have an enormous goal out there on the horizon as a neophyte hiker.
Below you’ll find a list of some of the longest and most intricate trails in the entire world, both here at home in the US and elsewhere. You have absolutely no chance of negotiating most of these trails in a day’s time, or even a month’s time, or even 3 month’s time!
Most hardcore hikers are content to hike several sections or a significant fraction of them, and only the most insanely dedicated and driven will manage to hike the entirety of their lengths.
If you take to hiking like a duck to water and need a bucket list item, look no further.
Great Western Loop, U.S.
This well-known and mammoth hiking trail is composed of five other long distance trails and passes through several Western states in the US.
Totaling in at a whopping 6,875 mi., the Great Western Loop stretches through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, and even a little piece of Canada. Only two men have completed the entirety of the trail, with each completion taking the better part of a year.
American Discovery Trail, U.S.
The American Discovery Trail is another colossal one, clocking in slightly shorter than the Great Western Loop at 6,800 miles.
This trail is noteworthy for stretching from coast to coast across the U.S., bifurcating near the middle into a northern and southern route before merging together again on the stretch to either ocean.
This trail goes through Washington D.C. and 15 states, and also along its length cuts through 14 national parks, 16 national forests and connects to five other national scenic trails.
Appalachian Trail, U.S.
One of the most popular, most well-known and most traveled of the big national scenic trails, the Appalachian Trail (or A.T., as seasoned hikers call it, stretches for more than 2,200 miles through more than 14 states with the vast majority of its length in force or wild lands.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail forms what is popularly called the “Triple Crown” for through hikers in the United States.
Grand Italian Trail, Italy
The Sentiero Italia, or Grand Italian Trail, is a huge, sweeping and beautiful 3,832 mi. hiking trail that covers virtually the entire territory of Italy. Along the way you’ll pass through dozens of other parks and nature reserves, 15 national parks and six UNESCO heritage sites.
Notable among trails of this size is that the Grand Italian Trail is divvied up into 368 comparatively bite-sized legs, making it easy to parcel out beautiful and invigorating sections to be completed at your leisure.
Tohoku Nature Trail, Japan
The Tohoku Nature Trail is 229 sections and 2,718 mi. of unparalleled beauty spread throughout several northern prefectures in Japan. The trail is especially noteworthy for its mild climate extremes throughout the year, making this trail accessible and completable no matter the season.
But, even though it is a shorter trail on this list of monsters and has mild weather many of its sections are particularly difficult. Bring your ‘A’ game!
Hiking is a rewarding pastime and an invaluable skill to develop for preppers. Although it is technically putting one foot in front of the other on a wilderness trail, failing to properly prepare, plan and equip yourself for a hike of any length could set you up for disaster.
But take heart, because even greenhorn hikers can quickly become seasoned trail dogs by following the advice in this guide.