Trail Tips

To compliment my Trail Trivia and Trail Hazards posts I’d like to post these hiking tips. They are general suggestions (mostly common sense), just a few things I’ve learned out on the trail. A lot of these I learned the hard way, so hopefully they will save you some angst. Don’t let this list scare you off from hiking though. These are, IMO, good points to know. Once you have it down you should be good to go.

For a more thorough treatment check out Ray Jardine’s Trail Life.

• Get enough sleep on the night before a long hike.

• In unfamiliar country and long trails without markers assign landmarks as you go to help you find your way back by turning around every so often and noting geographical features like peaks, artificial structures, boulders, unusually shaped trees and branches etc., and memorize the general way the trail back will look. Keep in mind though that because the lighting will be different later on the trail back will also look a bit different. If you need to you can bring a small notebook to put your descriptions or draw pictures or even take pics if you have a phone that has that feature. If it’s a loop trail where you won’t be heading back the same way noting landmarks is unnecessary – unless you think you might decide part way through to backtrack rather continue on the entire loop.

• If it’s to be a day hike, consider what time you expect to return, then noting what time you are setting out you can divide the day in half so that you know when to turn around. So, for example, If you start at 9:00 am and want to be back by 5:00 pm you should turn around at 1:00 pm. If you think you might forget to check the time, and if you have one, you can set the alarm on your watch. Of course your schedule will be affected by things like your walking pace to and from your turning point (you’ll probably go a bit faster on the way out than the way back when you are tired), on breaks you take along the way and so on, so mentally prepare for random things to pop up that might trip up your schedule.

• Though the likelihood of animal attack is pretty remote still it’s good to familiarize yourself with the kinds of carnivorous animals that live in your locality (e.g. bears, mountain lions etc.). A rule of thumb if you do see such wildlife is to not get between them and their young; if you do accidentally, get out of that situation as quickly (yet smoothly) and unthreateningly as you can. They love their offspring and are as fearful of your intentions as you are of them. Wild animals are aware that people often equal death. Also, watch and listen for venomous snakes along the trail and check around before you sit.

• Hiking on very hot days is not recommended as the heat can sap your energy. In fact you’ll find that your level of energy is proportional to the temperature.

• When walking, if you feel something in a shoe like a pebble or stick it’s best to stop and remove it right away otherwise the rubbing can create a painful blister. For blisters, duct tape wrapped around the toe or foot bottom helps as that will stop direct rubbing. A length of duct tape is also handy in case you split a shoe (I think Mark Watney would agree 😉 ).

• At the end of the hike (and if you need to along the way) it’s good to stretch your back. This is because the weight of the pack is compressing your spine and, as you know, in between your vertebrae are discs with nerves running through them. You know how people shrink some and complain about painful ‘bad backs’ as they get older? That’s largely because their discs get compressed over time. I try to stretch my back several times a day, but especially just before lying down for the night. I use a pull-up bar; I just hang with my legs stretched out in front of me or underneath but not supporting me for about 30 seconds to a minute. Along the trail a sturdy tree branch works too. Spine compression can be mitigated somewhat by getting a backpack with a belt that takes the weight off your shoulders and puts it on your hips. Even if you don’t hike, stretching your back regularly is a good idea. If there are any health concerns though of course consult a doctor first.

• If in tick country it’s best to put your pants in your socks and tuck your shirt in your pants. Light colored clothing helps you to spot the little critters making their way up toward your head. Also where brush crosses your path and you see them hanging on the ends waiting for some unsuspecting meal to happen along it’s good to find yourself a stick and knock them to the ground as you go by swinging the stick away from you at the brush. If you see ticks you might want to check yourself over every so often (which will entail finding a private spot).

• It’s a pity that I have to mention this, but never hike alone if you’re a woman. Best is to go with a group (men and women); a hiking club perhaps. Next is to go with a male partner or friend you trust. You can also bring a protective dog along (and can of pepper spray – know how to use it). This is not to imply that alone you are in imminent danger, but the odds are obviously greater.

Stuff You Need:

• I recommend 3 quarts of liquid (but not plain water) for an average day hike, and drink when you need to. Something like Gatorade (though I don’t like that brand for various reasons). Or you can buy some electrolyte/stamina tablets. It’s very important to recharge in this way as sweating and exertion will use up what’s in your body and without replacement your energy will fall, possibly dangerously so. A sign that you are in need of nutrients is if you find you begin to crave various high energy foods. Keep your drink in a non-plastic, non-glass, container so that in the heat toxins from the plastic won’t leach into the liquid (actually it’s not a good idea to put any food or drink that is, or could get hot, in plastic), and also, in the case of glass, obviously, so it doesn’t break, and because of its heavier weight (though at home I prefer glass). On the trail I use a metal 1/2 gallon Kleen Kanteen.

• For food, carbs that break down quickly into sugar like sweetened bread work well, but any quality food is ok I think. Dehydrated I’m not so sure about. Ray Jardine recommends corn pasta over wheat if you are going to bring something like casserole from home or cook on the trail. DeBoles makes a corn pasta which you can find at Whole Foods. Cream cheese on crackers has worked well for me in the past. Sweets are also good.

• Clothes: I have to be honest and say that I am an unsophisticate when it comes to particular hiking attire, as readers can probably tell by pictures in some of my posts. Always have been. That will strike some some as almost heretical, but the lack of expensive name brand clothing has never hampered my experience. ‘Course how would I know if I’ve never tried anything else? Part of the reason is that I don’t like to wear synthetics. At least in this (expensive, name brand clothing) case Ray Jardine would concur. So I just wear what I have. I do, though, try to always wear long sleeves and pants, gloves and a broad brimmed hat for sun, tick and P.O. (poison oak) reasons. None of this is to say that my casual way is best, just that it works for me. But I’m open to trying something else.

• Shoes: Now this is more important, and where I would differ with Jardine (what I’ve read at least; see also here). Regular old tennis shoes might work for flat ground but most hiking is not flat. The first thing I look for when perusing shoes is tread. I like it thick with good gaps in-between for gripping. Trust me, if the ground is steep you will slip in tennis shoes. The next thing I look for is low-topped and light weight. Though the ankle stability of high-topped is good in many cases, my ankles like the flexibility of low rise. As far as shoelaces I think that as a rule round shoelaces should be banned from the earth. I say that only because they have such a propensity to untie themselves – have you noticed? Though there are some made of material that doesn’t untie easily. Anyway, flat works best IMO. Then double tie them.

• Some sites seem almost fanatical about walking poles. I’m on the fence. While they come in handy on steep ups and especially downs, on level ground you end up holding them in your hands until the next hill. Perhaps there is some way around this but I don’t know what it is yet and don’t want to have to keep removing my pack to fasten them to the top.

• For poison ivy or oak, bring along a small bottle of rubbing alcohol and a cloth to put it on. If you do come in contact with the plant you generally have several hours to wipe down. I use the 99% kind. Alcohol cuts the oils (called urushiol) that cause the miserable rash. Learn to recognize poison oak too as there are several harmless lookalikes.

• For heat rashes caused by sweating and rubbing (for instance, legs), talcum powder works well.

• A good medical kit with all things you might need. Snake bite kit. Iodine tablets for water cleaning (only works with biologically contaminated water, not chemical). Learn how to use each item. You don’t want to be learning on the job in an emergency. Aspirin or ibuprofen (not tylenol).

• If it’s hot and/or you are doing a steep uphill that will incur a lot of sweating it’s a good idea to bring a spare shirt to change into when you’re finally at the top. Sweat can soak through and not only be uncomfortable but also cold. Tie the wet shirt to the back of your pack to dry, or hang it from a branch if you take a break. You’ll thank me for this one.

• A water filter. Note: never try to filter water you suspect may be contaminated with synthetic chemicals.

• Even though it might not work in mountainous country, bring a cell phone just in case. But please don’t use it just to chit chat when you should be experiencing your time away from civilization.

• If you think it might rain you can make a good temporary rain jacket from a large plastic trash bag, a 45 gallon bag works well. Just cut out holes for your head, arms and legs – but don’t make them too big or water will get in.

• Don’t forget food, water and a container to put it in for your dog, if you bring him. But please don’t let him chase or otherwise harass the wildlife. Bring a leash just in case.

• And most of all Leave No Trace. Take Only Photographs and Leave Only Footprints.

*As I think of others I will add them.

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