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Hiking Guide: What You Need to Know Before You Go
Take a Hike
One morning last summer, after yet another subway commute spent spooning strangers on a crowded train, I decided to burn up my vacation time, blow my savings, and just go hiking. In the 11 years I'd lived in New York City, I hadn't so much as seen a trail, but I had always wanted to do a multiday trek someplace way off the grid. I kept thinking, Maybe my pal, Jennifer, will come with me when her schedule clears up, or, Maybe my next boyfriend will be into backpacking. Finally I figured, What the heck, I'll go solo.
With a few clicks, I signed up online for an excursion to Mount Everest Base Camp. Before I knew it I was standing at 17,598 feet in Khumbu, Nepal, having spent eight days climbing the equivalent of eight 100-story skyscrapers. Now back in my fifth-floor walk-up, I've discovered easier ways to get my nature fix than flying to the Himalayas.
"You can find a hiking tour and trailheads a short ride from just about any city," says Jessica Wolinsky, a wilderness guide for Discover Outdoors, a New York City-based company with day trips as close as 30 minutes from midtown Manhattan. The point is, you don't have to pine for a scenic path, because hiking is one of the most doable activities no matter where you live. (And quite a calorie burner to boot: The average 140-pound woman melts about 224 calories an hour walking versus 384 when trekking uneven terrain.) Plus there's a route for everyone, whether you want a Kilimanjaro experience or something more kid-friendly.
"Hiking was always a way for me to clear my mind, so when I had children, I found a way to bring them with me," says Helen Olsson, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, and is the author of The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids. "When my youngest was a baby, I toted her in a carrier, and we would maybe get half a mile before the other two kids got tired. Now that they're 11, 8, and 6, we do full-day treks of up to four miles." The key is starting with supershort distances, stopping for regular breaks, and packing lots of snacks and water, Olsson says.
Inspired to take a walk on the wild side? Follow us!
Hit the Trail
Prepared to get your boots dirty? Pick a path near you at Trails.com. "Stick to out-and-back routes," Discover Outdoors's Jessica Wolinsky advises all newbies. And when you're ready to take a few turns, check out these tried-and-true treks.
1. For the classic American experience...
South Rim Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Designed for hikers of all abilities, this route offers epic views of the canyon carved over the past 17 million years by the Colorado River. And with shuttle-bus stops along the way, you can walk as little or as long as you want.
Length: 2.8 miles
Difficulty level: Easy
2. If you love Dr. Seuss...
Cap Rock Nature Trail, Twentynine Palms, California
You'll see the odd trees that have inspired children's book illustrators and rock bands alike in the heart of Joshua Tree National Park. Plus you'll learn cool facts about the rock formations and ecology of the Mojave Desert from informational signs along the route.
Length: 1.7 miles
Difficulty level: Easy
3. When you need a quickie near Vegas...
Red Rock Canyon Sandstone Quarry, Las Vegas
Bored with blackjack? Try your luck on this stunning hike just outside Sin City and you'll win big: An incredible view of Las Vegas awaits you at the turnaround point of this out-and-back trail.
Length: 2.5 miles
Difficulty level: Medium
4. For those who want breathtaking scenery...
Ocean Path, Acadia National Park, Maine
Don't let the lack of elevation on this mostly flat out-and-back trail fool you into thinking there's nothing to see. You'll be greeted with amazing coastal views every step of the way to Thunder Hole, a rock formation against which the ocean crashes, making a loud boom and a majestic splash just below the trail.
Length: 4 miles
Difficulty level: Easy
5. When you're visiting the Big Apple...
Manhattan Adirondacks, New York City
Tucked into the northern end of Central Park, these winding, woodsy trails are reminiscent of those in New York State's Adirondack Mountains. It's an urban hiking experience that you won't find anywhere else.
Length: About 1 mile
Difficulty level: Easy
6. If you like climbing rocks too...
Old Rag Mountain, Luray, Virginia
Pack a picnic lunch and spend the day scrambling over boulders the size of cars on this gorgeous loop trail in Shenandoah National Park. It's a popular route, so expect to share the 3,268-foot summit with weekend crowds.
Length: About 8 miles
Difficulty level: Hard
If you're looking for a trail mate, go to TrekkingPartners.com to link up with a like-minded buddy for your outdoor adventures.
Chews You Can Use
There's a reason those GORP (good old raisins and peanuts) mixes are a hit with outdoorsy types: Hiking makes you hungry! Nosh smart on the fly with these tips from Devon Metz, RD, a dietitian and hiking guide in Boulder, Colorado. (And don't forget to pocket your trash to toss later; no one likes a litterbug.)
"You don't need to eat anything if you're hiking for less than an hour," Metz says. If you're going to be out longer or if the trail is particularly strenuous, bring something small; 100 to 200 calories every two hours is plenty.
Pair carbs with protein.
"An apple and a 100-calorie portion of almonds is a terrific snack for hikers," Metz says. "The fiber in the fruit helps you feel full and the nuts provide long-lasting energy." Another option: half an energy bar with a good carb-protein balance, such as Pro Bar Old School PB&J ($3, theprobar.com).
"Don't wait until you're parched," Metz says. "Take small sips throughout your hike so that you're drinking about one liter per hour." Not only will you stay hydrated, you also won't mistake thirst for hunger pangs.
What to Pack
The women-specific Gregory Maya 22 daypack with a waistband strap and five pockets is spacious enough to contain all your carry-ons, including an extra hydration reservoir. ($119, gregorypacks.com)
Now See Here
You won't get lost after sunset with the Princeton Tec Bot headlamp, which can shine a light on your path for more than nine hours. ($16, princetontec.com)
Take your swigs from Camelbak's 0.6-liter spill-proof Eddy bottle for all-day hydration. ($14, camelbak.com)
Right This Way
When you can't rely on a wireless signal, the trusty Explorer Pro compass by Silva will accurately take you where you want to go. ($30, silvacompass.com)
Doctor on Call
The makeup case-size Adventure Medical Smart Traveler First Aid Kit has bandages, tweezers, antibiotic ointments, and more. ($40, paragonsports.com)
Keep your trail guide rain-, dirt-, and puddle-proof with a durable, clear vinyl SealLine Map Case. Drop it, step on it, get it wet and you'll still find your way. ($14 to $24, cascadedesigns.com/sealline)
Take in the scenery with compact, feather?weight Bushnell Powerview 10 X 25 mm binoculars. ($27, shop?bushnell.com)
Did You Know?
Carrying a backpack weighing 10 to 20 pounds increases your calorie burn by as much as 25 percent, experts say, because your body has to work harder to lug the load. Planning to strap on more than 10 pounds? Buy a pack that comes with waist and chest straps; they help evenly distribute weight across your shoulders, back, and hips.
What to Wear
What to wear and carry when roaming the range
Suit up in the lightweight and water-resistant Terrex Wind Jacket by Adidas for any unexpected gusts or raindrops during your traipse. ($135, gearcoop.com)
Pull Some Strings
The REI Split Time Tank Top has an adjustable drawstring for a stylish touch plus a UPF 50+ moisture-wicking fabric for sunny conditions at the top of your peak. ($25, rei.com)
Columbia Saturday Trail Stretch knee pants have a flattering thick waistband, five pockets for storage, and drawstrings to shorten the length. ($50, columbia.com)
Step through puddles and over rocky patches in Keen's water-resistant Ambler short hikers with a moisture-wicking fabric lining. ($100, keenfootwear.com)
What to Do in Any Situation
Five Scary Scenarios Survived!
Even a seasoned hiker can find herself between a rock and a hard place. "There is so much you can't control outdoors," says Melissa Arnot, a wilderness emergency medical technician and a mountain guide on the Eddie Bauer First Ascent team. To dodge any downers or dangers, heed these pro tips on what to do if you...
"If the map is confusing, and retracing your steps isn't an option, have a seat," Arnot says. You might realize you're not really lost. Or you may have to hunker down and wait for help to find you. That's why it's important to tell someone where you're going, she says. For far treks, consider buying a locator device such as the Spot II Satellite GPS Messenger ($150, gpscity.com), which tracks you via satellite and lets you send your exact coordinates to emergency responders.
Encounter a wild animal.
If you happen on a snake or bear, don't freak out, says Casey Anderson, a wildlife expert and naturalist and the host of America the Wild on the new Nat Geo Wild network. "A snake isn't going to chase you down. And if you don't seem threatening to a bear, it won't either." To calm yourself, "actually say out loud, 'Hi bear; I see you. I'm going to walk in the other direction now.' And then do it," Anderson says. The bear will know you're not a threat and leave you alone.
Run out of water.
Remember the rule of three: You can live without air for about three minutes, without water for three days, and without food for up to three weeks. "Even in a desert, in the United States you can probably walk out and find a drink within three days," Anderson says. If you need to quaff H2O from a natural source, stick to moving streams; stagnant ponds can be full of pathogens. To be extra safe before you sip, plop in drugstore-bought iodine tablets.
Get a spider bite.
"We have very few poisonous spiders in the U.S.," Anderson says. Even so, luck is on your side if bitten. "The symptoms often take several hours to come on, and they aren't made worse by hiking back," Arnot adds. If you fear you've been stung by a black widow or a brown recluse spider, clean the bump and cover it with a bandage. Then hightail it to a hospital, Arnot says.
Twist an ankle — or worse.
Always carry a kit with antiseptic and Band-Aids, Anderson says. For serious cuts, you can use your T-shirt to create a tourniquet. If you've broken a bone and can't walk, fashion a splint or crutch out of branches and slowly walk back to the trailhead. Or wait for help, he says; someone will find you. Also, keep your phone juiced with a solar charger — try Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus Adventure Kit ($120, brookstone.com) — in case there's cell reception for 911.
Safety First, in Six Words (or Less)
Run through these rugged rules before your next trek:
1. Tell someone where you're going.
2. Always carry water.
3. Map out the trail beforehand.
4. Bring rain gear, just in case.
5. Save berry picking for farms.
6. Racing leads to falling. Ouch!
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July/August 2012.