Leveling Up (Hiking)
January 18, 2017 10:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for tips and stories from regular hikers about how you got "better". What helped early on, what gear made your life better and you wish you had had it much earlier, judging trail difficulties, etc.

Personal background: I hate exercise. That may be a hyperbole. I like it in theory, and I was mildly active as a child with dance and tennis, but I've never loved it. The exercise high remains elusive. I managed two years of weight lifting in college because I paid for a personal trainer, and each weekend I went but never got excited about it -- but I loved the results! I gained actual weight for the first time since puberty stopped, I filled out, and I generally felt great about how I looked. I was just dragging my feet like a walking pout the entire time.

Last year: After being relatively sedentary for a few years, minus the acceptable amount of walking per day on my commute, I joined a two-day bus tour where the group of us walked, climbed, and sweated all over various castles in central Japan. The month after, I spent two days at the base of Mt. Fuji exploring the lava caves and surrounding forests. In fall, I hiked two small mountains and started looking for more nearby options I could do in a day trip. I hate exercise, but it's obvious something is working.

1. How did you start hiking? How often did you go?
2. What things did you wish you knew earlier?
3. What's your favorite piece of gear that you'd now never go without? ("Non-essentials" is subjective, but things that make your life easier)
4. Especially for solo hikers, how do you determine your limits on trail difficulties? Did you ease into higher trails or just take a chance?

I've seen prior threads on gear lists, what to take on day hikes, etc. ITT, I'm looking more for advice (evangelizing?) from experienced hikers on how to make this an actual hobby that sticks, and how to get better at it.

I also realize some of these answers may be to check out local hiking groups, but so far I have enjoyed my outings much more alone, where I can set my own schedule.
posted by lesser weasel to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
For solo hikes I started near-ish others: I would be on the ridge line when others were in the valley floor.
posted by kerf at 10:23 PM on January 18, 2017

My favorite piece of gear is my 11L Osprey Pack. It is the most amazing pack because:
- It fits well and moves with me - as close to having no pack as possible. It's sized, which is unusual for small packs.
- The back panel is molded (also unusual for 11L packs), which keeps it out of direct contact with my back and makes it extra comfortable
- It's just big enough to hold a LONG day's worth of supplies in 3 season weather - down jacket, shell, 3L water bladder + 2 nalgenes, hiking poles, lunch, many snacks, headlamp, etc. I will never need a larger pack for day hikes.
- When there's nothing in it, it's about the size of your average Camelback (i.e. small). I will never need a smaller pack for day hikes.
posted by asphericalcow at 10:57 PM on January 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Trekking poles + a little cannabis (sativa) + funky playlist + headphones + Z-Coil shoes = me as a happy and pain-free self-motivated hiker.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:58 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I always hiked to some extent but I got much more active in the last couple years. Depressingly (because I'm not an exercise fan either) gym + diet helped increase endurance so I enjoy the hikes way more, more like I did when I was 10 years younger and in better shape. Like you I also mostly hike solo.

My favorite thing is a fanny pack (technically "lumbar pack") with space for two water bottles and pouch for wallet, map, keys, phone, deli sandwich and piece of fruit. Doesn't get my back sweaty like a backpack but holds plenty for any reasonable length hike. (On preview, I admit reasonable length for me and asphericalcow may differ.)

Also, while this seems simple, a guide book of the "100 best hikes in your area." I should have been using mine more, earlier. Even on parks I was already going to I have to admit the guide has put together better trails & views than I usually found on my own, plus many things that are maybe a 20 minute drive further away but turn out to be worth it.

In terms of endurance started paying attention to elevation too and by now this lets me plan what I can handle with may more confidence.
posted by mark k at 11:10 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

A good small camera and the ability to read a map. I will hike all over creation to get a photo I really want and I'm never afriad to get lost as I learned to read a top I very well as a kid. Like you, I often prefer to hike alone.

To really level up you can always get a high energy dog :)
posted by fshgrl at 11:16 PM on January 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've found the All Trails app super helpful in finding good nearby hikes that match my desired length, elevation gain, and difficulty. You can record your route on top of their route so it's very easy to see if you get off track.

I used to think loops were best because you don't retrace your steps, but I've found I really enjoy reaching a summit (or other goal). The trip down/back looks totally different after the exhilaration of reaching the summit.

Also, fshgrl is totally right about the high energy dog.
posted by jshort at 11:28 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Take a short wilderness first aid class. If you're in the U.S, WMI offers 3-day classes all over the country. I think a class like that is important because it makes you think about risk management in the wilderness, which is something you have to do even in day hikes. You should also start learning how to read topographical maps.

When you're trying to evaluate hikes, think about two things: distance and how much elevation you're going to gain or lose. A good guidebook to 100 Best Local Hikes (which you can usually find in bookstores or outdoor stores) should tell you both of those things. When you're starting out and looking to challenge yourself, pick a hike that is either a bit longer than the ones you've been doing, or that has more elevation gains/losses, i.e. more up and down, than you've been doing. Don't immediately pick one that has both, because a long steep hike is a lot more challenging than just a long hike or a short steep hike.

When you're hiking uphill, practice the rest step. You don't have to pause between every step, but straightening out your legs so that your weight is on the bones, not on your muscles, gives your body a break and will let you go for longer. Don't overcompensate and lock your knee, just make sure you're not going up steep hills with legs that are always almost-straight-but-not-quite, because you'll get tired more quickly.
posted by colfax at 12:06 AM on January 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

Good hiking shoes and good hiking socks were key ingredients in learning not to hate hiking. You can go cheap on almost every other thing, but miserable feet = miserable hiker. (I love Falke hiking socks.)

If you have a local hiking group, that's a great way to get good experience of trail conditions in a safe way.
posted by frumiousb at 2:04 AM on January 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

1. How did you start hiking? How often did you go?

I started by just going. It was just something I always wanted to do. I loved exploring the woods as a child, I was obsessed with the book My Side of the Mountain, and I was "fortunate" enough to be tossed into a Hoods in the Woods group in high school where we did outward-bound type stuff in an attempt to connect with us. Then, when I was old enough to drive, I just started going.

I know you said you liked hiking alone but the thing that got me to level up the most was joining the Appalacian Mountain Club, going on a couple trips, and then befriending a more experienced hiker who became a hiking partner and mentor. He knew the trails and the mountains and taught them to me along with various skills I needed.

I also hiked alone a lot and I would sit at home and read guidebooks and maps to figure out what the best hikes were.

When I was in my peak I was hiking 2-3 weekends a month, in all four seasons. Mostly backpacking but a lot of dayhikes as well.

2. What things did you wish you knew earlier?

Fuel management. Staying hydrated, getting proper nutrition. I never thought of my body as a machine until I started hiking.

Bring an extra waste buckle for your pack and an extra nozzle for your camelbak/bladder. You'll carry them for ten years and one day you (or someone you're with) will need them and it will be worth it. Neither of these can be easily improvised.

I wish I had used hiking poles earlier. My knees would be in better shape.

Wilderness first aid. Take it. Regular first aid is nice but 911 isn't available in the woods. Take one specifically for wilderness.

3. What's your favorite piece of gear that you'd now never go without?

Hiking poles. A Camelbak hydration bladder. (not good for winter though).

A good wind/rain shell. Decent clothing. Zip-off nylon hiking pants. Good socks.

4. Especially for solo hikers, how do you determine your limits on trail difficulties? Did you ease into higher trails or just take a chance?

Whenever I hike alone I always make sure I stay on the trail so that if anything does happen to me someone will eventually stumble upon me. I always carry enough gear, food and clothing so that I could survive the night if I had to. I don't generally hike alone in winter or even questionable weather.

When I'm alone I usually don't do anything harder than I've done before. Or if it's something really hard it should be something you can easily back out of. Don't go up something alone unless you can downclimb the same route.

I do NOT rely on cell phones, apps or GPS for anything. These things are tools that can help you, sure, but they are unreliable, especially in the mountains. I never think "well, if I get into trouble I will just call for help." If you hike alone, assume you are on your own. Yes, if you're in big trouble you may need outside help but this is often true even if you're with other people.

Always have a paper map with you, preferably Tyvek.

You can spend 30 minutes learning everything you need to know about a compass for hiking but you'll almost never need your compass for anything. A compass is nice, however, for using with a map to figure out what you're looking at. In 30 years of hiking I have maybe needed a compass three times though one of those three times it probably saved my life.

Make sure someone knows where you're going and don't deviate from your plan unless you've told them you might deviate.

Be smart. In the woods you're generally pretty safe from other people but you're also alone and potentially vulnerable. Yes, that's a contradiction. People often ask what you're doing as a form of small talk but I try to be a bit vague, especially if I'm backpacking or hiking in a more remote area. Or if I get a bad vibe from someone I might say my friends are a bit behind me.

Know your limits. Most of all have fun.
posted by bondcliff at 6:29 AM on January 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

Excitement about exercise is cumulative. The week before a planned hike, take a 0.5-1 hour walk every night. That will bump your capacity enough to make actual hikes a little easier , a little more addictive.

As for gear, good wool socks. Make sure to baby powder inside your shoes and inside your socks (turn inside out, leave one hand inside, lay a stripe of powder on the plantar side, scrunch up the "inside" hand, turn right-side out, install on foot) so everything is gliding around instead of rubbing.

Even if you don't plan to sweat hard, have a fresh shirt back at the trailhead to change into. And fresh socks. And maybe some Teva sandals so your toes can breathe. Having that slight refreshing bump when you're done hiking will make you want to do it again.

(cred: intermittent photography hiker, up to 15 mi/day with 40 lb of photo gear)
posted by notsnot at 6:31 AM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Things that were really helpful to me: a friend who taught me a lot about weight and balance management on the trail: keeping your balance centred over your body, lifting and dropping your feet and centre of mass as little as possible to conserve energy (e.g. step over a log, don't step up onto it then step down). Climbing lessons, in particular, helped a lot in learning to understand foot placement. Tai Chi did too. These things made me faster and more efficient as a hiker, and so greatly increased my enjoyment. Rougher terrain went from being a hard slog to an enjoyable challenge I knew I could handle, and that I knew wouldn't leave me exhausted either.

There's no favourite gear I have, which is kind of the point---hiking doesn't need special equipment. Good socks most likely. But most of the insights I've had on gear have been about shedding pounds rather than adding them. Ray Jardine's Beyond Backpacking, while perhaps not always the best approach now, was a real revelation for me. The whole ultralight movement that spawned is an inspiration to me.

Trail difficulty can be hard to judge from just the map at the trailhead. Guidebooks and joining a local outdoor club are great ways to get insights though. Talk to people, either on line or in person.
posted by bonehead at 6:48 AM on January 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Having a goal is a good way to level up. When I started walking with the local hiking group a few years ago because I was badly overweight and needed to get moving, I remembered one day on a walk that I'd always wanted to do the Grand Canyon. That kept me going, and I started doing progressively tougher hikes. A little over two years later, there I was, walking in the front door of Phantom Ranch canteen to get a snack.

I will say I have the hiker's luxury of living in southern Arizona. I can take a short flat trail or I can do a two night trail climbing 6000 feet, and everything in between. You may or may not have a lot of options as far as hills and trail choices. But if you do, just get a little more distance, a little more elevation, and work on that as you go along. Not feeling like climbing the hill today? There's nothing wrong with a 2-3 mile walk. Just go.
posted by azpenguin at 6:58 AM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hiking poles really were a ridiculously helpful revelation for me, and then I was silly and insisted I could split a pair with my husband for way too long. Two hiking poles turn out to be way more helpful than one!
posted by ldthomps at 7:12 AM on January 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

1. How did you start hiking? How often did you go?
Our family camped. Parents prevented me from taking the trails I wanted. In college, with a hilly national forest close by and having been on track and cross country teams in high school, I hill walked for exercise about once a week. That dropped to once a month when not living within about a 20 minute drive to a place to hike.

2. What things did you wish you knew earlier?
When hiking with others, almost all exaggerated their experience, ability and fitness. I wish I known earlier how to 'read' their equipment at the trailhead, and 'read' how they walked when the trail condition meant one couldn't put a foot just anywhere. Eventually I'd use those clues to adjust a hike accordingly.

3. What's your favorite piece of gear that you'd now never go without? ("Non-essentials" is subjective, but things that make your life easier)
In forests, a bamboo walking stick with a rubber crutch tip. Excellent for prodding boulders in streams to see if they will shift under your weight. Indispensable for knocking the dew or recent rain off vegetation instead of receiving it as a shower. In semi-arid or desert, a big brimmed sun hat. Regardless of the surroundings, it helps set and establish a rhythm (without metallic sounds) that helps eat up the miles.

4. Especially for solo hikers, how do you determine your limits on trail difficulties? Did you ease into higher trails or just take a chance?
I started rock climbing at age 17. I don't think my experience would be applicable to a non-climber.
posted by Homer42 at 7:21 AM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

A pack that fits properly and has been properly adjusted, for one thing. It shouldn't strain your back. Mine is an internal frame REI women's pack, but I also have an external frame Kelty with which I've been happy in the past.

When I go hiking, I wear both hiking socks and liners, which do a really good job of eliminating friction and preventing blisters. I started carrying a collapsible walking stick after spraining my ankle on a hike up to Nambe Falls in northern New Mexico--it's particularly helpful for avoiding slips.

I also know my limits. I can do about ten miles a day on terrain that varies from rugged, steep climbs to relatively level hikes through alpine meadows. And I insist on those limits and avoid pushing farther--because fatigue causes accidents.

And when hiking turns into a slog, I listen to audiobooks on my smartphone. I know it spoils the whole "commune with nature" thing, but sometimes it helps distract me from the difficulty of the trek.

You know what, though? I haven't been doing as much hiking lately, because I've taken up kayaking. You can go a lot farther and see a lot more, and even though it's still good exercise (and yes, you can do multi-day camping trips with a touring kayak), I find it a lot less exhausting and a lot more enjoyable--often, in fact, exhilarating. Just something to think about--if hiking is something you feel you should enjoy more but somehow can't, there are other great outdoor activities whose rewards are at least commensurate with the physical exertion you put into them.
posted by tully_monster at 8:18 AM on January 19, 2017

1. How did you start hiking? How often did you go?
I grew up rural, so camping, walking, and hiking are sort of baked in. I got really into it, though, when I moved to California a decade ago. There are just so many mountains and trails around that it's easy to be tempted into it. In the beginning we'd hike maybe once a month--when it still involved a drive to a trailhead--but now we live in a hilly city with lots of greenspace and trails running throughout the neighborhoods. We do easy hikes about once a week, punctuated by more complicated hikes that involve getting on a bus or in a car to get there ideally once a month. Maybe three times each year we do a long, multi-day hike.

2. What things did you wish you knew earlier?
Having dry feet is a big deal. I'm not a fan of wool, so for me this meant paying close attention to skills to keep shoes/boots adequately sealed up from the elements (like not tucking pant legs into them, since water will just run down your pants into your shoes, no matter how "waterproof" they say they are).

3. What's your favorite piece of gear that you'd now never go without? ("Non-essentials" is subjective, but things that make your life easier)
Good, frictionless underwear! A lot of people opt for spandex or cotton/spandex blends. In winter, lightweight, thin thermal underwear (top and bottom) can set you back a pretty penny, but it's worth it. For overnight hikes, pocket bellows make it easy to get a fire started even with wet fuel.

4. Especially for solo hikers, how do you determine your limits on trail difficulties? Did you ease into higher trails or just take a chance?
Ease in. Set check points and times with someone before you go on any solo hike. Carry a whistle and a flashlight. Be prepared.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:47 AM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing getting a "best hikes [in your region]" guide book. Don't worry about getting something too comprehensive -- as you are starting out it's better to do the popular ones first. It's good to go to trails at times when you can reasonably expect to see others out there at the same time. The number of cars in the parking lot is an indication.

Depending on the size of your community, either find a good active hiking forum to read or join a hiking club mailing list. Do the hikes that everyone else is doing in that season, because they probably know from years of experience which hikes are best at what time (water level, flowers, snow, overgrowth).

The All Trails app is a good idea. I went years without such tools, but there have been several times that my boyfriend's having the app saved a bunch of time finding routes. It's not the best app and you have to pay for it, but I think it's worth it.

Be willing to turn around. Have backup options, if you're attempting a tough/unknown hike.
posted by bread-eater at 12:13 PM on January 19, 2017

All of the answers upthread are great, so I'm just going to add a few things that haven't been mentioned or that I feel strongly about.

#1 Difficulty means different things in different geographies. On the east coast, difficulty is usually a proxy for how much elevation gain the trail has. In the rockies or the west coast, it can be elevation gain or technical difficulty/exposure. And, it can also mean route finding. Understanding your local definition of difficult would help you decide whether there is actual physical risk, or just risk to your ego.

#2 A couple of answers talked about map and compass. This skill has given me over the years a lot more confidence about going alone. And, it is more than just reading a map - it is cumulative experience in using all of the clues available to you to figure out where you are. Map, compass, wristwatch, trail description, watching for hash marks and cairns, knowing what trail builders will typically do and not do, recognizing how well worn a trail is, all of that stuff comes into play. Like difficulty above, it is also a little geography dependent. I find it trickier to navigate in the east when you are almost constantly under tree cover than west, where you can throw the topo map on the ground, look around for a couple of big peaks, and figure out exactly where you are. Overall, navigation is a skill I think best learned from watching more experienced people do it and ask them what they are doing. I did some orienteering in my 20s and that was also a great experience in getting comfortable with map and compass (there was a local group that did little orienteering meets every month).

#3 Get a Peterson's Guide for {trees, plants, birds}. Learn to ID the stuff that you are seeing on your hikes. I still suck at this, but it is fun.

#4 My "favorite piece of gear" is actually a ten essentials bag that I leave constantly packed and ready to go. I never have to think about what to pack for day hikes beyond clothes/water/food. I tend to carry a *lot* of extra stuff that I *might* need. The weight is negligible, and if you hike long enough, eventually you'll need all of it. I don't edit it for shorter hikes; whether it is a two mile hike in a city park or a full on adventure, I just grab the same bag. I'm that guy in every group that, when someone says, "if only we had a...", I'm saying "I've got one right here."

#5 Go help your local crew maintain a trail when they have a work day.

#6 If you travel, go on hikes at your destinations. I travel for work maybe once a month and have had a chance to do some great day hikes across the U.S. These aren't necessarily destination parks that you would see in Outside or Backpacker, just cool local parks that were near wherever I was going.

#7 Adventure is a state of mind, don't get overly hung up on always trying to do longer/harder hikes. You might find some real gems among very short/very local hikes that you don't even think of as hiking.
posted by kovacs at 5:21 PM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

For me - I found an easy trail early on that I was very fond of, and it just became a place to go habitually. No time spent thinking of contingencies or alternatives if I didn't want to. Over time I started exploring the side trails and biting off bigger chunks of the main trail. As a consistent solo hiker, on trails that are often a bit less documented, the important thing has always been to know my body and ask myself at the start and the end of every substantial challenge if it seems better to abort- the goal is to spend some time outside and to come home safe at the end, not to get to this spot or that. Best gear: good shoes, wool socks, pen knife, trekking poles in roughly that order. Once you can spend a day out and not worry about damaging your feet (not something I could do at first) you can get a lot braver about how far you go and how hard you pursue it. The pen knife has bailed me out in a few spots. And the poles seem to be saving my knees and helping more than a little with balance. They're also handy as tools in all sorts of places - probing rocks, dislodging raindrops, fending off brush, navigating ice.
posted by wotsac at 6:56 PM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

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