Ah, day hikes. All you need is your body and Mother Nature—sort of.
Actually, there's a lot of preparation that goes into hiking. Luckily, we've got the info you need to have a safe and fun trip on the trails—just check out these 10 tips for day hikes:
Choose the Right HikeAn easy rule of thumb: If you can't walk 10 miles, don't choose a hike that's 10 miles, says Jeff Alt, hiking expert and author of Four Boots One Journey. Be mindful of the altitude and time of year; if the temperature or altitude is too high, you'll need to take some days to acclimate first, he says. You might be tempted to choose a difficult trail that's out of your comfort zone, but always back off if the terrain gets too hard, says Alt. If you're still itching to try something challenging, find a group that's done the trail before, he says. You'll have the extra support from experts who know how to navigate the tough parts, and you can bond with them over accomplishing it.
Load Up on Outdoor AppsWe get it: Hikes are a time to be in touch with nature. But there are actually a handful of reasons why you should bring your smart phone. "As far as emergency procedures go, your cellphone should be at the bottom of the list because you won't always have service," says Alt—but Alt says he uses his smart phone to take photos quickly and to record birdcalls he hears on the trail so he can review them later. There are also tons of hiking apps to check out. Alt specifically recommends The Spot, a free GPS tracker that uploads real-time information on your location and condition, so people at home can track your progress.
Tell People Where You're GoingAs a safety precaution, you should always tell someone the details of your hike. That way you're covered on the rare chance that something happens to you on the trail, says Alt. "Include what trail you're taking, where you're leaving your vehicle, when you're going to return, what date should your person contact authorities if you haven't returned, and who should they call for the park emergency number," he says.
Learn the Rule of ThreesThe international signal for "I need help" is anything grouped in three, says Alt. For example: three whistle blows, three pieces of clothing left on the trail, or three fires. Park rangers are trained to look for these signals, so if you need help, they'll recognize what you’ve put out, says Alt. If you're hiking above tree line, though, pack a signal mirror—create three mirror flashes, and overhead aircrafts will be able to call in your coordinates and send help, he says.
Leave Early and Pace YourselfKnow your pace. If you're averaging two miles an hour for an eight-mile hike, you'll need at least four or five hours to complete it. Start your hike in the early morning so you have time to get back to your camp or car before it gets dark, says Alt, and give yourself extra time so you can stop along the way, he says. "If I run across that amazing view and I want to enjoy it, or that midday heat, I've got time now to just hide out in the shade of this tree and take a cat nap or something," he says. "Just gives me more time to not stress, but relax and enjoy the hike." Be mindful of the weather in the morning, and be prepared for it to change by the afternoon. "In the morning you'll be nice and cool, but by midday it can be unbearably hot," says Alt. Overall: Your best bet is to knock off most of your miles before midday—that way, you won’t get stuck in the sun or the dark, he says.
Practice Trail EtiquetteFor one: Stick to the trail, says Alt. You'll protect the environment that way. Plus, you're more prone to getting ticks off trail, he says. Another protocol to keep in mind: You should always be polite and share the trail, but the person hiking uphill has the right of way, says Alt. When a hiker going uphill approaches you head-on, stop, step to the side, and let him or her call the shot. "Sometimes they're using you as an excuse to catch their breath," he says.
Layer on ProtectionEven if you're nestled in the shade of a tree canopy, you're still being exposed to the sun, says Alt. And—ouch!—the bugs. Start with bug repellant and sunscreen, and apply both at least 30 minutes before you go out, says Kathy Kupper, National Park Service spokesperson. Put bug repellant on before you apply sunscreen so that you can keep reapplying the sunscreen, says Alt. For even more protection, wear long sleeves and pants with adjustable lengths so you can modify with the elements, says Alt. "When I'm going out doing a 20-mile day hike, I'm sweating profusely, so the bug repellant has left my skin towards the end of the day,” says Alt. "Rolling down your sleeves and zipping on your pant legs prevents some of those bites." And dressing in layers is a must, he says. Start with a short-sleeved base layer made from wicking fabric, to pull sweat away from your skin and keep you from getting too cold. Then have a middle layer like a fleece or long-sleeved shirt made from a wool blend or synthetic wicking fabric, just no cotton, says Alt. And take a waterproof shell or breathable rain parka with you in case you get hit with summer showers.
Wear the Right ShoesAny old sneakers probably won't cut it on tough trails, says Alt. Find a hiking boot with soles especially designed for absorbing shock, he says. If you're traveling with a backpack, it usually means you're carrying more pounds that you're used to, so you'll need that extra cushion under your feet. Most hiking boots have soles with a special gripping system, too, so if you step on a slippery rock, you won't take a spill. If you're going on a hike with rock scrambles, you should wear shoes that cover your ankles, so you don't twist them in the uneven terrain, says Kupper. Always wear thick synthetic or wool socks to prevent blisters and chafing, and make sure you take them when you try on hiking shoes, says Alt. "No one brand works for everyone," he says. "Just like running shoes, we all have different feet, so it's important to try (shoes) on in the store."
Use Hiking PolesThink of hiking poles as having two extra legs, says Kupper. If you feel a little bit unsteady on the trail, poles can help support you. Poles also slow down your momentum going downhill and serve as a "stair rail" support on the way up, says Alt, so you'll be able to more safely manage steep or uneven trails. They also help keep you healthy: "Poles disperse the workout to your entire body, so it takes pressure off of your knees," says Alt. And by dispersing that workout, like a cross-country skier, you're also working your upper body. (Hello, abs workout disguised as a hike!) Make sure you use two poles, though—over time, hiking with one pole could injure your back and disrupt you body symmetry, says Alt.
Pack a Snack and Enough WaterJust like with any workout, you need fuel for a hike. Some people lose their appetites while exercising at a high altitude, but it's crucial that you eat something for energy, says Alt, so take a snack you know you love. And drink small sips of water constantly throughout the hike, even when you’re not thirsty, says Kupper. "The key is to drink before you get thirsty," she says. (Learn the signs of dehydration here.) Have at least two quarts of water in easy-to-carry water bottles or backpack hydration systems, says Alt. And make sure you pack them beforehand, because you can’t always trust the water you come across on the trail.