Hiking should be approached with caution, respect, and common sense. Even short day hikes are wilderness experiences.
First and foremost, always tell someone where you’re going and the approximate time you expect to return. This is especially important if you hike alone. (Many experts don’t recommend solo hiking, but I do it myself, so what can I tell you except to stack the odds in your favor by telling a responsible party of your whereabouts.) Self-registry at many trailheads is another safeguard. If you have an opportunity to sign in, do so.
When driving to trailheads, always set out with a full tank of gas and a topped-off radiator. Hiking trails in wilderness areas are often accessed via logging roads or unpaved, somewhat difficult routes. Some require your vehicle to climb steep stretches of road. Check with the local rangers as to access road conditions before you start out; find out whether a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required.
Don’t leave valuables in your car at the trailhead. In fact, don’t drive a valuable car to the trailhead. And don’t assume that your trunk or your glove compartment is safe from trailhead thugs.
Pack The Essentials
Anytime you venture away from town or your vehicle, you are subject to the vicissitudes of wilderness and weather. For that reason, stock your daypack with:
- Water — more than you think you need — and extra food.
- Extra clothing, including rain gear, dry socks, hat, and gloves.
- A map and compass (and the knowledge to use them).
- First aid kit, including treatment for cuts, snake bites, and bee stings (and the knowledge to use it).
- Sunscreen and sunglasses.
- Matches (waterproof) and fire-starter (such as a candle).
- Whistle and signal mirror.
- Pocket knife.
- Insect repellent.
- Trowel or small shovel.
Dayhikers often underpack water. It’s heavy, but running out is a nuisance, and dehydration can be very dangerous, leading to disorientation even on a dayhike, and organ damage over a prolonged period. You shouldn’t drink from sources along the trail. Giardia and other dangerous bacteria and microorganisms are odorless, tasteless, and everywhere; the only safe water is that which you pack along or purify. For dayhikes, why not just pack it in?
It’s a good idea foreach hiker in your party — child and adult — to have a basic “survival” kit on their person; often, a fanny pack will do. This provides an extra measure of safety, should you become separated. The personal kit should contain some nutrient-dense food (such as Power Bars), a whistle, and a small flashlight. Those with the knowledge to use them should have a knife, a compass, waterproof matches, and a fire-starter candle as well. And everyone should carry his or her own water. Instruct children to STAY PUT if lost, to signal for help if they’re able, and not to resist or hide from rescuers.
Clothing And Gear
Long pants and long-sleeved shirts are often a good idea, especially if the trail fauna is brushy or unknown. The extra clothing recommended above might seem excessive for the dayhiker, but for hikes longer than a mile or so, it’s really a good idea to be prepared for the unexpected. A shift in weather (common in the mountains) or a change in terrain can change the climate of your hike. You can be on a hot, open, rocky ridge at 9 a.m., in a moist, cool, shady creekbed at 10, and crossing the remainder of a chilly, late-season snowfield at 11. And raingear is always in order.
A walking stick can come in handy for stream fording. (Its steady “thump, thump” along the trail can serve as a warning to unwanted trail companions such as snakes as well.) For longer hikes, or if you want to maintain a brisk pace, consider “trekking poles.” These poles, singly or in pairs, are like short ski poles, and are said to save wear and tear on the knees.
If you plan to do more than a few mile-or-less nature strolls, consider purchasing and wearing hiking boots. Tennis shoes are OK for pavement and short distances on level surfaces; running shoes offer support for forward motion, but have insufficient lateral support or midsole stability for hiking.
If a trail has any elevation gain, or surfaces described as “rocky” or “rooty,” wear hiking boots — they have tread and ankle support for a reason. If you’re new to hiking, by all means break them in by wearing them around the house, then around town, before using them on the trail.
Sally O’Neal Coates is the author of several Pacific Northwest travel guidebooks, including “Hot Showers, Soft Beds, and Dayhikes in the North Cascades.” She lives and writes in southeastern Washington State.