Insta-relaxation move: Lace up your shoes and head out for a hike. It’s one of the best mini vacations you can take. “No matter how far you’re going, the pace, the weather, the trail— there is always something so beautiful to see along the way,” says Kate Zessel, an artist and avid hiker. “Hiking for me is getting back to the simplicity of just putting one foot in front of another.”
And sure, it’s all about getting away from the hustle and bustle, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of fellow enthusiasts out there.
Hiking happens to be a pretty great workout, too, while also boosting your aerobic fitness, improving your sense of balance and building stronger bones. Studies have shown it can also reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and even lower the risk of depression, according to research from Stanford University.
But before you hit the trail, there are a few basics to keep in mind. Consider the following advice from hiking enthusiasts to remain safe and make your experience as enjoyable as it ought to be.
Know Where You’re Going
There’s no shortage of places to hike, even if you live in an urban environment. When choosing, consider the distance and elevation you aim to cover in your given amount of time, says Morgan Cooper, the design director of Women’s Climb and Mountain Run Apparel at Arc’teryx. “It’s always nice to plan to get to a viewpoint or a pretty lake, which can either be out and back or a loop.” If you’re using an app for guidance, make sure you can access the map offline and get familiar with where you’re heading before you go, she adds, as you can’t rely on good coverage.
Wear the Right Shoes
Flip-flops or slip-ons may be cute for trekking from your front door to the coffee shop, but they won’t cut it on the trail. Instead, you need something with solid support and good traction, which could be a lace-up boot or a trail running shoe. “I look for how grippy the bottoms are and how long a shoe will last,” says Dawn Park, a hiking ambassador at Arc’teryx. When evaluating prospects, make sure you have a little wiggle room around your toes, since feet often swell when you’re out exploring, adds Cooper.
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Bring a Versatile Pack
Backpacks are associated closely with hiking for good reason: They’re perfect for keeping all your stuff in one place while leaving your hands free. And they don’t have to be big or bulky—a light bag (we love the Thule AllTrail X 15L) is really all you need for a day hike. “It’s important to have something comfortable that fits your body properly and can hold water, food, extra layers and whatever else you need,” says Zessel. You’ll want to pack the ten essentials of hiking, which also includes a first-aid kit, a light, sunscreen, a map, a knife, a tent and matches.
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Take Along Layers
In any outdoor activity, making sure you’re comfortable is paramount. For one thing, weather conditions can change dramatically out there, so include extra layers in that pack. “I always recommend bringing an insulated layer and a rain shell,” says Cooper.
“These two pieces, worn separately or especially worn together, can have a huge impact on comfort and safety when the weather turns.” She also advises packing a pair of gloves in cooler weather: “If your hands are warm, you’ll be happier.”
Carry Snacks (and Drinks) Along
Ample food and water are vital no matter how far you’re going. Plan on at least 500ml of the latter for every hour you’ll be outdoors—more, if the weather is hot and/or humid. Zessel’s bottom line: “Always have more than you need.” Some packs, such as the Salamon Active Skin 8 feature a hydration bladder (a pouch with a straw that fits inside a specially designed pocket), so you don’t have to be constantly opening your bag to sip.
And don’t forget the trail mix (or your preferred portable snack). “When I’m hangry I’m not the most fun to be around, so having quick bites whenever I feel sugar levels dropping is key for me,” says Park.
Bring a Plus-One
Everything is more fun with a pal, and hiking is no exception. Although there’s something to be said for solitude, for safety’s sake it’s best to have a buddy when you’re heading outdoors. Can’t find a companion? “It’s easy to find groups online through social platforms, and local outdoor stores can also be great resources,” says Cooper.
Learn Basic Trail Etiquette
You’re not at a dinner party, of course, but rules of decorum do apply even in the outdoors. “The right of way goes to whoever is going up the mountain,” says Park. If someone is moving more quickly than you are, it’s polite to step to the side and let them pass. And don’t forget to say hi. “It’s nice to be friendly,” adds Cooper, “especially since you usually don’t see that many people.” Hike responsibly and respectfully—stay on trail where possible, and do not damage the natural environment. That means respecting the trail and following leave-no-trace principles like disposing of waste properly and leaving behind what you find.
Above All, Stay Safe
You’re heading out to get away from the daily race, so feel free to take it slow. “Go at your own pace—and that includes your tempo, your breaks and your water and snack schedule,” says Zessel. “It can be easy to overexert yourself.”
And at the end of the day, keep in mind the prime objective of every hike: “Always make it back home safe,” says Park. “If you’re ever feeling uncomfortable, remember it’s okay to turn around and try again another day.”