Hiking Tips and Tricks for Enthusiastic Beginners
I love to exercise outdoors, especially in the summer. I’m not much of a runner or biker. I like to walk, but I get bored on my typical route. Hiking gives me the complete experience—lots of exercise, views, fresh air, sunshine, companionship, and a sense of challenge and accomplishment. I’ve hiked all my life, starting as a little girl on Mount Mansfield’s Sunset Ridge Trail, the Tetons in Wyoming in 1990, and the Hunger and Elmore Mountain trails in central Vermont in the last couple of decades.
Last year, I experienced hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where many challenging hikes await—the Presidential Range and the 48 4,000-footers. Yep, that’s 48 peaks that are at least 4,000 feet in elevation! My husband and I, along with our 10-year-old Border Collie, Terra, tackled four of these peaks last summer, and are planning our next set for this summer and fall. While all our hikes were successful and rewarding, we learned lessons along the way and I now have a handful of tips I like to share with my friends who are planning similar adventures.
One person’s hike can be another’s expedition. Knowing what to expect in terms of trail conditions, elevation, timing, and weather is critical to a hike’s success. My trick is to work up to my goal hike. If I want to hike a challenging 4,000-foot (or more) peak by late-summer, I start with some prep hikes. For instance, start with a walk in the woods that includes a couple of hills, and work up to a 2- to 3-mile hike with some steeper, vertical sections (like Elmore Mountain). After that, hike a mountain that’s close to your goal elevation. This will condition you, physically and mentally, to manage expectations and learn your limits before you take on a big hike.
Weather and timing
Hiking is glorious on calm, clear, cool, dry days; and can be miserable on hot, humid, wet, windy days. Watch the weather and plan accordingly. Avoid slippery conditions if possible, which are especially scary on the way down. If the weather is not great on the hike day, and you can reschedule to a better day, do it. You won’t regret it. If you must stick to your date, then prepare for poor conditions, knowing that a challenging hike is in store. Always remember that summit conditions can be very different than the ones at the base, so prepare for cold and wind.
What to bring
Weight is everything! Think about it—the more you bring, the heavier you are and the harder those uphills and downhills are, so bring what you need but no more than that. Day hike essentials include a light backpack, layers of breathable, lightweight clothing—a hat (and gloves if it’s chilly), a raincoat/windbreaker, water, energy food and snacks, good wool socks, hiking footwear, sunscreen, bug dope, a small knife, and a first aid kit. Lightweight emergency gear is also a must—a small flashlight or headlamp, emergency Mylar blanket, matches, and a compass. My latest must-haves are trekking poles. They are lightweight and provide stability, especially on the downhills when you’re fatigued and prone to twist an ankle. A cell phone is nice to have to check your map app, and to take some pictures. Safety first, though—no selfies near the trail edge!
How to hike
Whether you are hiking solo or bringing friends, be sure someone else knows where and when you are planning to hike and is expecting you to check in with them upon your return. I like to consult a terrain map before the hike and bring it along so I can periodically check my general location and adjust my timing as needed for the descent. Have a plan for who to contact in case of an emergency and consider hike safe programs that may cover rescue and response expenses.
Hiking alone? Depending on the difficulty level of the hill, a solo hike can present extra safety concerns. Notify a friend of your plan, be extra diligent in packing the right gear, know your limits, and make conservative choices. Don’t start out too late in the day and don’t stray from your plan.
Bringing friends? Make sure they bring their own gear and understand the expectations. Everyone has a different pace and requirements for rest, food, and drink. If you agree to spread out to meet different pace levels, designate check-in points. I hike with my husband of 29 years, so we know each other’s abilities and limitations, which usually makes for a predictable pace. Respect the space of other groups, yield to uphill hikers, and let groups pass who are moving at a faster pace.
Bringing your best (furry) friend? Check to see if your trail of choice is dog-friendly. My dog, Terra, is an expert hiker, but she is older, and I need to pay attention to her needs. I check trail maps and online reviews by other hikers to gauge if the trail is reasonable for her. I bring some dog snacks, extra water, and a collapsible bowl in case the trail doesn’t have much in the way of streams. While Terra is great roaming free, I keep a leash close in case other dogs are friendly, or other hikers are clearly nervous about dogs. Make sure your dog’s vaccinations and tags are up to date and pick up after your dog. Leave no trace, and this goes for food scraps (Terra ate a discarded sandwich one time), and human and pet waste.
Where to go
There are many mountain and state park trails that are great for beginning and intermediate hikers. Check out some of the resources available online to learn more about trails in the area, conditions, reviews from other hikers, parking directions, gear suggestions, and pet restrictions and advice.
About Laurie Fielder
Laurie directs VSECU’s statewide VGreen energy savings loan program. Previously, she worked for the weatherization program at the Central Vermont Community Action Council (now Capstone), and for a successful residential solar installer. She enjoys helping Vermonters learn about efficiency and renewable financing options that maximize the savings of these smart investments. She lives in Woodbury with her family and enjoys the outdoors, walking the dog, and tackling home improvement projects.