I love hiking and going around for walks in nature, as you might have guessed by the number of articles I write about different trails I try to conquer, most recently being the Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala. I usually go for day hikes but there were times when I had no choice but sleep in a tent over night, during a 5 days hike in the Andes mountains. Recently someone was asking in a traveling group for advice on hiking for the first time, so I thought to create a guide on how to prepare for your first hike, based on my own experiences.
I wasn’t always keen on hiking. Steep terrain used to scare me. When I was little, my mother used to force me to walk all the way to my grandmother’s house, about 5 km away. I was against the idea that I would always protest for hours before and after. But as I grew up I started to travel and walk all over the corners of a new city, to explore it. Then, all of a sudden, my dream to go to Peru became real and whilst at first I didn’t even consider hiking to Machu Picchu, a couple of months in advance I decided that it was one a kind of experience, and that I should do it. By then though, the Inca trail was sold out, so I was left with only a few other choices, out of which the Salkantay trek looked the most spectacular. I won’t lie, it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I considered giving up from the first day, but I pushed and pushed further, even after I injured my knee. Five days later, as I was sitting on a rock on top of Machu Picchu waiting for the sunrise, I felt something that can’t be explained, I was proud of myself but also thankful and grateful that I was given the opportunity to follow the steps as the Incas, over 700 years later.
Where to go hiking for the first time
When you go hiking for the first time and you don’t know what to expect it is better to choose an easy trail, no longer than 2 or 3 miles. Even if you think you are in good shape, some trails can prove to be challenging and it’s better to start small and asses your fitness level and endurance before you head over directly to the mountains. The AA website is a very good resource in finding out hikes in the UK, sorted on levels of difficulty and length. I always use it when I am looking for local trails.
Try to don’t go alone on the trails, especially if you are a beginner. Some trails are very straightforward and go through villages, but some are completely remote, and you might not even have signal on your phone is something is to go wrong. If you do decide to go alone however, make sure you tell a friend where you are and give them a map with your itinerary. If you are not back by a certain time they can raise an alarm and alert the proper authorities.
If you have nobody to go hiking with but you don’t want to go alone, consider joining a local group. In my county for example there is a Facebook group called Dorset Young Walkers dedicated to people who love to hike, where meetings are organised almost every week. I am sure similar groups exist for other counties as well.
What to wear
Let’s start with the shoes. Not once I have seen people hiking the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast wearing only flip flops. This is not only stupid but also very dangerous!
Hiking boots would be your best option but if you are not going through mountains and you feel that they are too heavy, go for a pair of hiking trainers. The advantage of the hiking boots is that not only they have a great grip and don’t slip on wet surfaces, but they also have ankle protection. It takes time to adjust to a new pair of hiking boots so make sure you wear them around town before taking them out on the trail. Nobody wants blisters in the first half an hour of the hike!
The hiking trainers still have a good grip, but they lack the ankle protection. Their advantage is that they are usually very light and feel more comfortable than the boots.
Whichever option you go for make sure that your shoes are waterproof and have thick comfortable soles, with the UK weather you are bound to get wet a lot and step through muddy areas very often.
I personally suggest to try and wear long pants when hiking and this is because you never know when you have to go through a bush of poison ivy or other plants that sting.
Always check the weather and dress accordingly. It’s better to wear layers rather than just one t-shirt, especially if you leave in the morning, when the temperatures are low, and go for a day hike. You don’t need expensive clothes for hiking, but you do need breathable materials that absorb moisture and keep your body dry. A windproof and waterproof jacket is also essential.
If it’s sunny, don’t forget your hat at home, to protect your scalp and your face from getting sunburn.
Choose a backpack that has waist support. I can’t even stress enough how important this is, especially when you have to carry more than your lunch and bottle of water with you. Once you experience a waist support backpack, you never go back to a classic one. And you back will thank you for it! A waist support backpack is designed to take away the weight from your back and distribute it on your hips, making it much easier to carry. You should always remember to pack the heaviest items at the bottom and continue with the lighter ones towards the top.
What should you pack
The first question you have to ask yourself is how long you expect to be on the trail and based on that decide how much water you should bring. This will be the heaviest item in your backpack that you will have to carry. If you go on a few days hike, consider bringing water purifying pills and fill your bottle from the streams you pass by. In Peru I used Micropur water purifying tablets, as at those altitudes the water doesn’t reach a boiling temperature of 90C and this prevents all the bacteria to be killed. Talking about high altitudes, you might not be aware of this, but the higher you go, the more chances are that you will suffer from altitude sickness. Check out this guide on how to adjust to high altitudes and how to avoid getting sick.
According to the mountaineers guide released in 1974 and updated last in November 2017, there is a list of 10 essentials that you need to pack when you go hiking. This list is for mountain hiking, but it applies very well to day trips as well and most of the items shouldn’t miss from your backpack.
The most important thing you should have with you is a map of the trail. You can either print this, from the website you find it on, or map it in Google Maps. As your phone signal won’t be great, depending on the area where you go hiking, you should download the area you are going to from Google Maps, to use offline. Don’t forget to bring a power bank as well, because the GPS tends to drain your phone’s battery faster than other apps.
Sun protection shouldn’t also miss from your backpack, even if it’s not sunny. The UV rays go through the clouds and can still give you a sunburn. If hiking in snow, you should use extra SPF factor, as your skin can burn faster than in summer, due to the rays reflecting in the snow.
Make sure to pack a first aid kit which should include among other bandages, antiseptic, blister cushions, painkillers and antihistamines. Include insect repellent, especially if you are in a hot country or you hike near water bodies. I hiked last autumn in the hills of Tuscany and made quite a few enemies in the lines of mosquitos. I never imagined there would be so many and so vicious.
When you are planning an overnight trip, the tent you choose is very important. It has to be light but sturdy and waterproof in the same time. Showerproof is not enough, especially if hike in England. A backpacking tent would be ideal because they are sturdy but easy to pitch, waterproof and lightweight. The last thing you want is to carry a very heavy tent that weights more than the entire content of your backpack. Invest also in a lightweight but warm sleeping bag. I have a mummy type sleeping bag which fits perfectly at the bottom of my backpack and only weights about 1,5 kg.
Bring a torch. Or better, a headlamp. Whilst hiking Salkantay I was the only one who had a headlamp and implicit, the only one who had courage to go to the nearby toilet located about 100 meters away from the tents, after the sun went down. It’s gotten to the point where the other members of the group would come and borrow my torch. When I climbed Pacaya volcano, this year, I forgot to replace the batteries, so I was stuck without a torch in the dark. I stayed close by to other people but still managed to twist my ankle a couple of times because I wasn’t seeing on what I was stepping.
It’s always handy to have a knife with you, for unexpected situations, when the path is blocked by outgrown vegetation, when you need to gather firewood or when you are cooking in the wild.
There will be times when you will need to make a fire to warm up yourself or to cook. You should always be mindful about the regulation of the country you are in regarding open fires, as there are many restrictions on where you are and are not allowed to make fire. All camping sites for example will have dedicated fire pits where you can cook. For cooking and heating water, when you are on a few day’s trip, bring a small camping stove. They weight less than 100 grams and can boil a litre of water in under 4 minutes. For emergency fire, when you need to heat yourself up, bring matches or a Firestarter kit with you which you can buy at any dedicated hiking shop.
If you are hiking in the mountains, have extra warm clothes with you, like thermal long pants, socks or shirts. They will keep you warm during the night, when the temperature drops significantly.
Don’t carry bulky food with you
I have dedicated a special paragraph for food because most of us tend to bring the entire fridge with us when we go hiking. Depending on what type of hike you are doing, there are different recommendations on what food to take with you.
For a day hike you should bring with you snacks that are high in protein but don’t weight a lot in your backpack, such as nuts, protein bars, biltong, dried fruits and granola bars. Add bananas and apples.
If you are hiking overnight consider bringing packs of dried food high in protein, for extra energy, instead of cans of ready meals. They are very easy to make, by just adding hot water, and they don’t take a lot of room in your backpack. Instant soup is also great for when you need to warm yourself up.
You will be surprised on how little food you actually need to carry with you on a hike if you pack nutritious snacks instead of bulky and fatty items, like cans and homemade sandwiches. I’ve made the mistake of taking with me homemade containers of food which actually made me tired and ready for sleep instead of giving me energy. Remember however to always pack more snacks and food that you think you would eat, just in case of emergency.
Disclaimer: This article was written in collaboration with Simply Hike.
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