Beginner’s guide to hiking

Hiking. Incredible views, fresh crisp air, the sounds and smells of nature. But not just that, hiking is great cardio and an excellent lower body workout.

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Walking is medicine. It’s not just a convenient form of exercise; walking is good for almost anything that ails you. There is something about leaving your house, unplugging from the internet, shedding the things that cause you stress, and escaping for 30 minutes or so that is truly unbeatable. Whether you walk alone, a friend or man’s best friend, walking is soothing for the soul and a tonic to the body!

Hiking then, is like walking on steroids. Hiking, is incredibly purposeful and demanding and really takes your walking up a notch. If walking is big medicine, hiking is REALLY BIG medicine!

The Benefits of Hiking

Walking might be the sort of thing you can do after dinner, at lunch time to break up your day, a means of getting to and from work or the store, as a workout, or simply as an alternative to driving. Hiking is all about the journey.

It probably involves getting off the beaten track, having a nature bath (not an actual bath, but the metaphorical kind where you let the sounds and sights of nature to envelope and embrace you), exploring somewhere new, carrying some supplies and, if you are feeling especially adventurous, maybe an overnight stop for a bit of camping.

Hiking delivers a great lower body workout and, if you have to shoulder a heavy load in the form of a kit-laden rucksack, you’ll find your upper body and core get a good workout too – especially when you hike up hills.

WHAT TO WEAR HIKING

Hiking requires some equipment and as, potentially, you could be using this equipment for hours if not days at a time, make sure it’s the right equipment for the type of hiking adventure.

Beginner's guide to hiking - Winter Clothes

When you’re doing aerobic activities outdoors, you cannot control the temperature or weather conditions. Therefore, it is vital that you layer your clothing. Layering allows you to take off or add garments when the weather or your activity level changes.

The traditional three-layer system is composed of a:

      1. Base layer
      2. Insulating layer
      3. Outer (shell) layer

A base layer is worn at all times, while the insulating and outer layers are only worn if conditions require them.

When choosing your layers consider:

  • External factors – weather, route, difficulty, and duration of your trip
  • Personal factors – whether your metabolism runs hot or cold.

For any hike, it is wise to bring all three layers to be properly prepared.

Remember you can always strip off layers if you get too warm, but you can’t put on what you did not carry with you.

1.

THE BASE LAYER

KEEPS YOU DRY
(from yourself)

The function of the base layer is moisture management – to wick moisture (perspiration) away from your skin. In other words, the base layer keeps you dry. While it’s nice to feel dry, and not drenched with sweat on a hot day, the base layer is essential in cool or cold conditions, because it stops you from getting cold or even hypothermic. This layer is always worn.

Base layers can be lightweight, midweight and heavyweight. By and large, the heavier base layers tend to keep you warmer.

As it is worn next to the skin, opt for a base layer made with a soft, comfortable fabric and that is odor-resistant.

Underwear

Go for seamless, non-chafing underwear with a supportive fit to ensure comfort.

Whether its basic underwear such as bras, briefs, and boxers and bras or long underwear in the winter, your underwear should also be made from wicking fabric.

Bra: Avoid a bra with metal or plastic clasp parts, as these can rub against your skin, especially if  your backpack straps end up sitting on top of the bra strap parts. Therefore, opt for a pullover sports bra without clasps instead.

Tops (Shirts)

A summer shirt is essentially a base layer. Therefore, choose modern technical hiking tops made of wicking material, as the sweat will be drawn away from your skin through the fabric to help with cooling. This means your skin will be pleasantly cooled instead of being weighed down by a sweat-soaked T-shirt.

Wicking tops cost more than a basic cotton T-shirt. However, while a cotton T-shirt can still be okay on a dry, super hot summer’s day, it’s definitely a no-go in winter, because it will soak up water and leave you chilled and prone to hypothermia.

In cool conditions you can wear a wicking long-sleeve top and warm weather a wicking short-sleeve T-shirt. However, for a sunny day it might be wise to opt for a long-sleeve UPF-rated top to protect yourself from the sun.

Hiking Socks

Socks for hiking must fit especially well as you could be in them for many hours at a time. When choosing socks, opt for ones

  • with no obvious seams that could rub and cause blisters.
  • that are taller than your hiking shoes
  • fit well and not move around on your feet but also not be so tight that they cut into your ankles.
  • that are thicker or thinner, based on the temperature.
  • with padded heels and forefeet for a more enjoyable and comfortable hike

Take an extra pair with you, in case your socks get wet or your feet start to blister. And replace your socks if they begin to wear, get threadbare or lose their elasticity.

2.

THE MIDDLE LAYER

KEEPS YOU WARM

This layer is all about insulation, it’s designed to trap your body heat and keep you warm. The more efficiently the insulating layer retains the heat radiating from your body, the warmer it will keep you. This layer is worn when it is moderately cold and very cold.

  • Basically, the puffier or thicker the insulating layer, the warmer it is. However, the efficiency of the insulating material in retaining heat is also important.
  • Middle layers tend to be quite tight-fitting, as this increases insulating efficiency.
  • Apart from being insulating, the garment should be moisture-wicking, fast drying, and pack well to easily carry in a backpack.

Depending on the weather conditions, you may need to carry a lightweight fleece, puffy jacket or vest, a warm hat and gloves. You can wear more than one middle layer.

Tops (Pullovers/ Puffy Vests & Jackets)

Common middle layers include:

– Polyester fleece pullover

Why use:  breathability + comfort + mobility
Good for: mild, cold days
Advantage: naturally hydrophobic – even if it gets damp, a fleece stays warm and it dries quickly.
Disadvantage: does not withstand wind well

A fleece has good breathability, which means that you’re unlikely to overheat, but that also means no wind-resistance so the wind can sail right through, leaving you cold. Comes in lightweight, mid-weight and heavyweight.

– Down Insulated Jacket

Why use:  superb insulation + lightweight + breathability + durable
Good for: cold, dry conditions
Advantage: super compressible for easy packing
Disadvantage: loses most of its insulating power when wet & takes long time to dry.

A down insulated puffy jacket or vest affords highly efficient insulation, some water and wind resistance. Supremely high warmth-to-weight ratio makes down warmer than other insulating materials. Down is very resilient and will last a long time, when properly cared for.

– Synthetic Insulated Jacket

Why use:  good insulation + insulates while damp
Good for: cold, wet conditions
Advantage: more resistant to moisture – retains insulating power when damp and dries faster
Disadvantage: bulkier and does not compress well.

Affords good insulation efficiency, some water and wind resistance. A synthetic insulated puffy jacket or vest is naturally hypoallergenic and better for rainy conditions compared to down, though less insulation efficiency means it’s heavier and bulkier.

Pants

Whatever your preference for leg coverings – be it hiking pants, shorts, skirt, skort, or dress –  it’s important that they aren’t restrictive. It is vital that you can move freely and you aren’t cold or get overheated. Ideally, your leg coverings should be made of quick-drying fabrics.

Cargo pants or shorts are especially popular as you have a lot of places to put things, such as your car keys, wallet, and mobile phone and maybe even a map, compass and energy gel.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s up to you whether you wear long pants or shorts when hiking. Indeed hikers tend to not choose at all and opt for zip-off pants instead.

3.

THE OUTER LAYER

KEEPS YOU WARM + DRY
(from the weather)

The function of the outer layer is to protect you from the wind, rain and snow. Inclement weather is one of life’s unavoidable annoyances. If you put your hiking on hold every time the weather is less than ideal, you might find yourself only hiking a few rare days a year – unless you live in California. Rather than avoid poor weather, you can equip yourself so that you can hike regardless of the elements.

This layer protects you from stormy weather and it’s wise to bring a waterproof jacket (hard shell) with you – irrespective of the weather forecast. Without the crucial outer shell, wind and water can penetrate into the inner layers, and you can get chilled or even hypothermic.

An outer layer can be worn in:

  • mild weather – outer layer + base layer
  • colder weather – outer layer + middle layer + base layer

The outer layer (also called shell layer) should have water repellent properties to allow the water to roll off the fabric, thereby keeping you dry. It should also be breathable to allow some of the heat and moisture from your body to escape to prevent overheating.

There are several types of shells:

– Soft shells (water resistant shells)

Why use:  breathable + comfort + mobility
Good for: cold, dry environment
Protects against: light wind and rain

The inner lining, often fleece, provides warmth. In colder weather soft shells can be used as mid-layer with waterproof hard shell.

– Hard shells (rain jackets)

Why use: waterproof + durable + lightweight
Good for: full-on weather conditions – rain, snow, wind
Not so good: at wicking heavy perspiration (i.e. warmer weather) due to limited breathability

Hard shells dry quickly, are very light and take up little space. However, they are not insulated, so you’ll need add a base layer and mid-layer for warmth.

– Hybrid shells

Why use: combination of soft & hard shells
Good for: cooler, drizzly, breezy weather + high activity levels
Protects against: light wind & rain, and affords insulation, while providing movability and breathability to prevent getting too warm while active.
Not so good: for downpours – not completely waterproof

A combination of the waterproof hard shell fabrics and more breathable, flexible short shell fabrics. This versatility minimises frequent switching between layers with changing activity or temperature levels.

– Insulated shell

Why use: insulation + water-resistant
Good for: cold weather
Protects against: cold, generally also some protection against rain, snow & wind. Can be waterproofed to afford greater protection.

Insulated shells are filled with down or synthetic fill. Have some breathability.

– HIKING FOOTWEAR –

Choosing the best hiking shoes is based on a combination of personal presence and the terrain on which you’ll be venturing. There is nothing to stop you hiking in your lightweight trail-running shoes but, as you will hopefully be venturing off-road, you will be better served by wearing hiking shoes or boots.

Factors to consider when choosing footwear include traction, support, and protection:

  • Boots offer greater ankle support and are best for rugged terrain with obstacles such as rocks, as well as streams.
  • Shoes tend to be lightweight and are better on well-maintained trails with few obstacles.

Shoes and boots are made using a variety of materials – both man-made and natural. Choose a material that is breathable but also water resistant. Waxed leather or GORE-TEX lined nylon is usually best.

Before you set off on your first hike, make sure you have spent a few days walking around your home and local area breaking your boots in and checking for hot spots. Blisters can reduce even the hardest hiker to his knees and are best avoided.

HOW TO CHOOSE A HIKING BACKPACK

When hiking, you will need something to carry your food, drink, the “10 Essentials” and more; and the most comfortable way to do it is in a backpack.

Beginner's guide to hiking

Backpacks are available in a variety of sizes, which are normally described in terms of liters of capacity.

  • A small “day pack” will usually be between 11 – 20 liters in size and should be ample for a few hours out in the wilds of your local park. These compact backpacks allow you to fit an extra lightweight clothing layer, water, and a few snacks for day trips.
  • A larger “day pack” will be in the 21 – 35 liters range, which is the perfect size for most day hikes. It should be able hold an extra layer, water, food, gear, and some extras, such as a book or camera.
  • A medium sized backpack is about 36 – 50 liters and good for hikes that call for extra clothing and gear, such non-summer hiking. It’s also ideal for parents who have to carry their child’s clothing and gear.
  • A full-size pack suitable for overnight camping can hold 60 to 80+ liters.

If in doubt, buy a bigger pack rather than a smaller one as you can always partially fill a big pack but if you have too much kit to fit in a small pack, you will have to spend more money and buy second backpack.

Another consideration when selecting a backpack is the storage area arrangement. Some packs consist of a single storage compartment while others have multiple compartments and pockets so you can spread your gear around and have easy access.

Also consider is how the pack fits you. A badly fitting backpack can make hiking a miserable experience.

  • Narrow straps cut into your shoulders and if the pack does not fit snugly to your body you may find it moves around and rubs your skin.
  • The waist belt should fit comfortably around your hips. This can help keep the back firmly in place and also takes some of the weight off your shoulders.
  • It should fit according to your torso length (not overall height)

A good pack should last you many years so think of this purchase as a long term investment.

SAFETY CONSIDERATIONS

99 times out of a hundred, hiking is perfectly safe but, like a good boy scout, it always pays to be prepared. Taking a few precautions can all but eliminate even the low risk of mishap…

Beginner's guide to hiking

Plan Your Route

Even if you only intend to hike for a few hours, you should have a pretty good idea of where you are going and what time you’ll be back.

Make sure you share this information with someone who knows what time to expect you to be back and also knows what to do if you are a no-show back at base. A broken ankle isn’t usually life-threatening unless you are in the wilderness and no one knows where you are.

Make sure you tell your safety contact when you get home so they don’t mistakenly call out the search party when you are safely home and soaking your worn-out feet!

Check in with Someone

If you are doing a multi-day hike, check in with someone once a day so they know you are okay and are roughly where you are. Update them with any route changes.

If you were unlucky enough to have an accident on day three of a week-long hike but no one noticed your absence until day seven, it would be hard to establish your location. Daily check points help make it easier to pin point your position.

Bring a Smartphone

Think of your smartphone as the modern equivalent of a Swiss army knife. Not only is it the fastest way of summoning help, your smartphone is also a trail guide, GPS, camera, flash light, first aid manual and identifier of all things (i.e. flora, fauna, birds and bird song, and other wildlife).

Carry a Survival Pack

While this might sound a little alarmist, it’s merely meant to ensure that if things go sideways, you have a rudimentary survival kit to get you though minor to major mishaps.

Even on a short day hike you should still carry the “Ten Essentials” with you. However, exactly what you decide to bring should depend on your hike.

Factors to consider include the:

  • difficulty
  • duration
  • distance from help
  • weather.

The Ten Essentials for Camping & Hiking:

  1. Navigation: paper map and compass (for longer hikes consider altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon or satellite messenger).
  2. Torch: preferably headlamp, extra batteries (to see your map and the trail in the dark).
  3. Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen – regardless of season, cloud cover, or temperature.
  4. First aid kit: The trip duration/ length, trip activity, size of the group, and any special individual needs will impact the contents of your kit. Should include footcare (e.g. for blisters) and insect repellant (if appropriate). Consider bringing a compact guide on how to deal with medical emergencies.
  5. Knife: Every adult in your group should carry a knife, preferably a multitool knife (e.g. Swiss army knife).
  6. Safety Items: Butane lighter or matches (waterproof or stored in a waterproof container), fire stater; whistle to signal for help.
  7. Shelter: Carried at all times, this can be an ultralight tarp, an emergency space blanket or bivy, or even a large plastic trash bag.
  8. Extra food: At least an extra day’s worth of high calorie food (more if a long multiday trek or a winter trip), that ideally doesn’t need cooking and with a long shelf life, e.g. nuts, dried fruits, energy bars, or jerky.
  9. Extra water: As a general rule of thumb – about half a liter of water per hour for moderate temperatures/ terrain. Also carry a water filter/purifier or chemical treatment to treat water.
  10. Extra clothes: Fleece sweater at all times (depending on weather and type of trip consider waterproofs, other clothing layers, as well as insulating hat, socks, gloves).

It might sound like it’ll be a lot of hard work getting everything together and heavy to carry. However, the first 7 essential items are quite compact and will vary little between trips, so you can have it packed and ready to go.

Be sure to place these essentials in a waterproof bag (can be a Ziploc-type bag) so you know that everything will be serviceable even in the event of a storm.

This equipment could literally save your life and won’t take up much space at all so get into the habit of keeping it in your rucksack whenever you head out into the great outdoors.

Hiking is an awesome way and a great excuse to commune with nature, slip away from the hustle and bustle, create some amazing memories with friends or family and, all the while, improving physical, emotional and mental fitness.

Read more: Hiking and outdoor terms everyone should know

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