11 Hiking Mistakes You Might Want to Avoid
By Jennifer Shultz
Whether you’re starting with short hikes or have the skills and dedication to thru-hike, carrying the right gear and monitoring the conditions effectively are critical to enjoying a safe, constructive adventure. Keeping your feet healthy, protecting your body from the elements, and monitoring the weather conditions are critical.
Make Sure You Know Your Trail
If you’re doing a loop hike on an established trail, take a phone photo and carry it with you so you know the general layout of your hike. Carefully monitor trail splits and if one version is harder than the other, check your energy level and the condition of your feet. Once you know how much tread you have left, you can choose the next leg of your path.
Monitor the Remaining Daylight
There’s not a hiking trail in the world that will be easier in the dark. If there’s a risk that you may be hiking back in the dark, make sure you carry a rain jacket and carry a fleece to keep warmth close to your skin as the sun goes down. You may be hustling to beat the darkness and happy to shed your warmer garments, but depending on where you’re hiking, darkness means cold.
Check the Weather, then Check it Again
Hiking in the rain and snow can actually be quite lovely. However, depending on the topography of the region you’re hiking, you may need to avoid certain areas on the trail to protect yourself from a dangerous slide on sticky desert soil, loose sand, or even a flash flood.
Often, if your trail is a high flood risk area, there will be rangers on the path redirecting hikers. Follow those instructions. The water level from a flash flood can rise with dangerous speed and the chances that you can safely swim out of a flood are next to nil. Flash floods are not common, but the risk must always be considered.
Not every hiking path will have cell service all the way around the loop, but do your best to stay as connected as possible, or let someone know
- the trail you’re on
- the time you left
- the time you plan to return
Even experienced hikers can turn an ankle, get a headache or just start to feel crummy. If you think that you can allow less time for the return trip because you’ll be on the descent, you’d better hope you don’t twist your foot or get a blister. Descending a rocky trail on a sore foot is actually going to go slower because you’ll be tired and that impact hurts. If possible, let someone know when you’ll be back so they can call for help if you need it but can’t.
Plan for Rough Events
In the event that you’re hurt or you get sick, having gear in your pack to stabilize a sore ankle, fix a blister, purify water and start a fire may be the difference between a great story and a really dangerous experience. Carry more snacks and water than you expect to use to keep your energy level up and protect your body and skin.
Do Get Garments and Gear that Work for You
The old cotton tee shirt that works great when you’re doing yard work is not a good hiking shirt. When you sweat, and you will, it will stick. When you cool off, it will chafe. If it gets cold at higher elevations or later in the day, you will get much colder than you ever expected. Sweating is a natural cooling process.
Wearing a wet shirt will cool your body further than sweating, which can be great if you’re ready to stop hiking. However, getting too cool in a wet shirt can make you stiff, clumsy, put you at risk of a fall, and even lead to a risk of hypothermia.
You’ll need sunscreen before you start out. If your hike will take you to greater heights, you’ll need a greater amount of sunscreen. Don’t forget lip balm and make sure to wear sunglasses to avoid the squint-ache. Since you brought a waterproof jacket, a baseball cap will be a nice addition to your hiking sun protection kit. If the jacket gets wet, you can use the baseball cap brim to keep the wet hood off your face and out of your eyes.
Remember the weather-checking requirement? If it’s going to rain, don’t hike the high country. Even rocky trails with no cover can get slippery when the rain starts, and if lightning is brewing, you’re at risk of being the tallest object on the trail. Look for pine forest for your rain hikes. The pine needle drop will keep the soil from getting too sloppy and the forest will smell great when it’s wet.
About Your Shoes
If you’re comfortable in your regular walking or running shoes, wear them. Hiking shoes can be extremely comfortable, but hiking in new shoes is never a good plan. Additionally, hiking shoes can be heavy. The deeper tread patterns will load up with mud and gravel on wet trails, making it feel like you’re walking around with paving slabs strapped to your feet. If you want new hikers, look for shoes that will easily shed water and wear them on your walks until you’re used to them.
Don’t worry about a
pack. Instead, get a pack that fits close to the body. A pack that bobbles around will upset your center of balance and put you at risk of a fall. If you like to hike in a tank when the day warms up, wear your tank to try on your pack so you can be sure the shoulder straps will not chafe. Avoid a pack with a long of hanging options close to your body; having your water bottle smack you in the leg for several miles is not a happy hike.
It’s tempting to load your pack with the items you’ll need first on top. However, you’ll spend less time reloading your pack if you put the items you need most often at the top, or load them in the outer pockets so you don’t even have to open the top. Packing your tent inside your pack can make you more stable if hiking difficult terrain. If your hiking plans mean you’ll be out for a couple of days, line it with a trash compactor bag to keep your sleeping mat and bag dry at the bottom of the pack.
Learning to backpack is like many other skills; sometimes, the best way to make sure you do it right is to do it wrong, deal with it or fix it, and do it right the next time. Avoid making huge investments in gear, shoes, or outerwear. Use what you have, and if you need to buy a rain jacket, get something a bit oversized so you can layer underneath it to stay warm.