As a child, I have fond memories of disappearing with a backpack filled with essentials – water, a blanket, a book, and a snack. I’d make a little nest in the grass and read in the shade of the shelter-belt of trees surrounding my family’s farm. It was magical – the sound of the birds, the sunlight filtering through the leaves, the absence of my mother asking me to wash dishes. (Sorry, mom!)
I loved those days, so it’s somewhat surprising that I never got into hiking until much later – four years ago, to be precise. It was the mountains that convinced me to be a hiker – the only way to get on top of these mountains is on foot, so I set off to see what I could see, and in the process, I fell in love. Not with the mountaintops, mind you. I can’t say the summit commands my attention for all that long. Rather, fell for the journey. I love the birds and the bugs, the sunlight filtering through the leaves. I suppose, in some way, I love that it takes me back to those summer days of my youth, escaping the dirty dishes.
If you’ve never been on a hike, it can, at first, seem a little daunting, especially if you haven’t done much of it before, and even more so if you’re doing it with little kids.
So, here I’ll offer some tips to make it easier. Hiking is, in my view, one of the best, most accessible forms of active leisure (some might call it “exercise,” but I think that takes some of the fun out of it.) So many recreational activities have high “entry” costs – mountain biking, for instance, will set you back gobs of money, just to get on a bike. (That’s not to mention the helmet, the shoes, the weird spandexy clothes, the extra mechanical gear, repair costs, etc.) To hike, you just head into the woods. That’s it!
But… to make it a more enjoyable experience, it pays to do a little prep work and gather a few useful supplies. Let’s start with the basics.
First, a backpack. I have a few packs but the one I use the most is the smallest and least expensive – a very simple, ultra-light pack I bought off of Amazon four years ago (and it’s still going strong).
Another essential is a pair of good shoes. Yes, you could hike barefoot – or in flipflops, like I have – but I really recommend good shoes. I saw a child wearing cowboy boots (!!!) on a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains one time, and my heart broke for that kid. Seriously: Don’t wear anything with a heel or uncomfortable straps. And don’t take your kid into the woods wearing cowboy boots! Any pair of athletic shoes will do fine, so long as you are comfortable in them. I prefer Keen hiking boots, but that’s just my preference. Pick what works for you.
Also incredibly important: Water. Of all the hiking gear, I’d say decent shoes and enough water are the two most important factors that will make your hike a pleasant experience. I recommend at least one cup of water per person, per mile. So, for a two mile hike for two people, a quart of water will suffice. If it’s hot out, or you’re a thirsty person, pack extra water. I never thought I’d be the kind of person who bought a special bottle to put water in, but after tiring of the sound of water sloshing in a bottle in my bag, I finally broke down and bought a couple of these collapsible bottles. I love them, and now I don’t know what took me so long to buy them. Do not plan to drink water from streams, unless you have some kind of filter. (For a day hike, you really don’t need a filter – it’s easiest to just take a couple of liters of water and not have to mess with it. For longer, multi-day hikes, (about which I plan to write a post…) a filter is essential.
Appropriate attire is also important. By this I mostly mean: don’t wear jeans. Jeans just aren’t good hiking attire. The cotton will wick moisture out of the air, and jeans aren’t sufficiently flexible to let your legs move as you climb. Other than a prohibition on jeans, anything will do. I love hiking in merino wool dresses, which a lot of people find ridiculous, but it works great for me.
See? Dresses are just fine for hiking! And tree climbing! Merino wool is a favorite fabric of mine because of how well it works in both cold and warm weather. It keeps me warm in cool weather, and keeps me cool in hot weather. It also doesn’t hold odors like synthetic or cotton clothes do, so even after I get all sweaty hiking, I don’t feel gross. (Downside: Merino sheep must subsist on a diet of platinum and gold, because their wool is crazy expensive.)
Check the weather before you go, and see if rain gear is needed. If so, pack it. Even if it’s not needed, pack it. (At least pack an ultralight poncho.) A lot of people dislike hiking in the rain, but I’ve done a lot of it and find it incredibly pleasant. For one, no one else hikes in the rain, so you get to have the woods to yourself. And besides that, the sound of the rain, the lushness of the wet forest, the fresh smells, the softness of the ground under your feet… it’s all just pretty heavenly.
Other necessary items: Sunglasses, hat, ponytail band, a map of the trail, and tissues (for when nature calls while you’re out in nature).
You may say: I don’t need a map. I’ve got my phone! But trust me… the odds that your phone’s GPS will work when you most need it (whilst lost in the woods as sunset looms) are not good at all. Print out a map of the trail before you go. Or, at the very least, take a photo of the map of the trail that’s on the sign at the trailhead. You may be thinking… “I’ll remember which way to go!” No, you won’t. You’ll get to a sign post and think… “Which way do I go? What color blazes am I looking for? Where am I? WHY DIDN’T I LISTEN TO THAT WISE WOMAN ON THE INTERNETS??????!!!!” Pack a map. You will not regret it.
A final necessary item: Food! I tend to over-pack food, but I think that’s just fine, and I’ve never had a hiking partner complain about it. Most hikers seem content with a snack bar, but those never appeal to me when I’m in the woods. A fellow hiker pointed out yesterday: maybe it’s the greater connection to the earth that makes me crave “real” food. And she may be right! My favorite hiking snacks are apples, oranges, pears, grapes, nuts and seeds, dried fruit (mangoes and figs especially), homemade bread, nice cheese, olives, and dark chocolate. A favorite picnic food is kale and quinoa salad, which tastes great at room/forest temperature.
Items you may wish to pack, but which aren’t always necessary:
flashlight or headlamp
space blanket or emergency sleeping bag
rag or small towel (I prefer microfiber)
small bag for collecting trash (including tissues – yes, they’re biodegradable, but that doesn’t mean other people want to look at them)
plastic grocery bag (makes a handy and free dry seat when the ground is soggy and wet)
I also keep a first aid kit in my backpack. Mine contains:
an assortment of bandages
ointment (both an antibiotic ointment and a plant-based healing cream called Goop)
pain reliever for sprains or bruises
small bar of soap (washing an insect bite is the best way to remove the sting)
insect repellent (I use products containing lemon eucalyptus essential oil, which the CDC lists as an approved ingredient.
anti-itch cream (I use a homemade one with plantain-infused oil)
mineral-based sunscreen (look for titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredients)
To keep the first aid kit small, I put all these things in tiny containers and medicine-sized baggies. If the kit is small, it stays in my bag. If it’s too big, I inevitably leave it behind, which does me no good.
Other optional things to pack:
If you have a little one (not yet potty trained), don’t forget diapers and wipes. A kid-carrier is great, though I tend to let my toddler hike rather than carry him. (Of course, I’ll carry him if he’s tired and asks me to carry him, but in general, he’s a great hiker and his own little legs carry him for miles!)
Nature guides, little books to help you identify trees, plants, mushrooms, animal tracks, etc., can be very fun and useful on a hike. Yes, there are apps that do this, but they tend not to work when you’re in the deep woods.
A hammock can be really nice if you want to take a mid-hike nap.
And for a picnic, having a twin-size sheet (thin polyester is lightweight and will pack down very small) is great.
The last – but maybe the most important – thing to take with you is a sense of adventure.
See you in the woods!