The walking dread
Ah, the great outdoors. So spirit lifting, so soul soothing, so…simple? Not always, especially if you’re unprepared for your adventure. Hitting a wilderness trail or setting off on a weekend walk in an exciting new location should be a pleasure. But those paths are littered with potential pitfalls and dramas on every scale, from forgetting to pack a sweater to getting stranded without a map. Make sure your trek is a walk in the park by avoiding these common hiking mistakes.
Wearing the wrong footwear
There isn’t a one size fits all when it comes to hiking footwear. Barefoot-style shoes can be great for gripping if the trail is steep (and you’re used to wearing the style). They can also mean painful toes if any part of the route is uneven or scattered with sharp stones. Decent hiking boots are perfect for multi-terrain trails, though it’s worth investing in waterproof ones if there’s any chance you might have to splash through a stream or wade through a wet meadow.
Failing to break in your boots
So you’ve found your dream hiking boots/trail shoes/trainers and can’t wait to take them out and about. But do wait, because there are few things more guaranteed to ruin a lovely hike than new shoes that pinch, rub and bring your feet out in painful blisters. And, by the time you realize the error of your ways, you may have a long, painful journey back to the start. Outdoor brand Gore-Tex recommends spending a few weeks breaking boots in before taking them on an adventure.
Forgetting about first aid
Make your motto: prepare for the worst and hope it doesn’t happen. Or maybe something snappier. A mini first-aid kit with essentials like bandages, ointment and a foil blanket could prove a lifesaver, or at least a pain minimizer, for you or someone else who needs a little help on the trail. Put it this way: you won’t regret taking one. The Red Cross has a handy guide on what it should contain.
Underestimating your thirst
This is one essential you really shouldn’t scrimp on. If it’s a hot day, there won’t be enough water in the world to quench your thirst on a long hike, especially if you’re tackling hills. If it’s cloudy or even downright chilly, you’ll still work up a thirst. Take the biggest bottle you can manage, and ideally one in a material like stainless steel to keep the water beautifully cold.
Forgetting a filter
If you’re going on a long hike and don’t fancy carrying a gallon of water in your backpack, invest in a water filter or pack some purification tablets. Outdoor specialists REI has a guide to using them. Assuming you’re hiking near a stream, lake or river, you can ensure the water is definitely safe to drink. (Never assume it is OK to drink straight from a source, even an apparently idyllic mountain spring.)
Scrimping on snacks
That tiny cereal bar and brown banana might seem like plenty when you’re setting off. But they’ll quickly look pretty sad when you spy others with their flasks of soup, fancy sandwiches and pots filled with refreshing, delicious looking crunchy vegetables. You could ask them to share, but that might seem a bit rude. Instead, take a little more than you think you’ll need. That way you won’t go hungry even if you decide to extend your hike.
Failing to factor in down time
Snacks are important for sustenance, but sometimes they are also a way to enhance a perfect pause during your hike. You don’t need to pack a full picnic (unless you want to). When you stumble across the perfect stream, cove, lookout point or just a really inviting, smooth rock, stopping to unpack a flask of tea or coffee and a flapjack will make it feel even more heavenly.
Cotton is known for its breathability, but many outdoor experts strongly recommend against wearing it on a long hike. According to outdoor clothing brand Gore-Tex, moisture from sweat fills air pockets in the fabric, leaving a wet layer than can cause a chill – or even hypothermia – when it’s cold. Look for specialist outdoor clothing that transfers sweat to the outside and away from the skin.
Leaving without layers
Whether it’s freezing cold or boiling hot when you leave the house, the weather can always change during your walk, especially if there are any elevation changes. The parking lot and the mountain peak may often just as well be on different continents. You’ll be pretty miserable if all you have is a thin top or jumper with nothing on underneath. Think thin layers that can be piled on or stripped off as the climate changes – and as your body warms up from the exercise.
Forgetting to pack waterproofs
Again, it’s easy to look outside and, buoyed by blue cloudless skies, stroll out in just a T-shirt and shorts. But even the most seemingly perfect of days can turn with a whisk of the wind and a lone black cloud, and being stuck in the pouring rain miles from shelter isn’t much fun. Not after the first few minutes, anyway. Take a waterproof that scrunches up small, just in case. It’ll double up as something to sit on too.
Not packing a whistle
The walk will probably be fine. You probably won’t get stuck or come across any grizzly bears or strangely aggressive sheep. You probably won’t need a whistle at all. But that’s no reason not to pack one. A whistle can be invaluable in scrapes from falling over and spraining your ankle to alerting someone that you’re stuck down a hole or warding off a potential attacker. It could save your life, in fact – not bad for something that takes up very little room and weight.
Leaving a map behind
Yes, most smartphones have maps nowadays. But that’s no use if you run out of battery or are hiking in an area with poor or no signal, both of which are pretty likely scenarios. Satellite maps are often little use in wilderness areas, anyway – all you’re likely to see is a sea of green with a few squiggles. Go old-school and pack a paper map that clearly marks out the trails plus any help points, restrooms and visitor centers.
Not being able to read your map
You’ve nailed the previous point and brought a map with you, but what type of map is it? And which way around does it go? Like most maps that come with your phone, a standard road map probably won’t be much help when you’re trying to work out which path to take (and what path you’re actually on). Choose a topographic map that shows the differing terrain on the trail and gives a close-up look at the area – and learn how to read it before you set off.
Not downloading an app
While we highly recommend packing a physical map rather than relying solely on your phone, apps can be invaluable, too – both for planning your route and for reference while you’re out there. AllTrails is handy for information about specific routes, while Topo GPS allows you to download detailed maps (which you could print off as a back up). Check if there are any apps specific to where you’re hiking, too, such as those for National Parks in the US.
Neglecting local knowledge
This is important, not just to find out where the best lookout points are and where the bears might be hiding (and how to avoid them). Brushing up on local knowledge by checking websites, scouring social media and chatting to people who know the area will help ensure you don’t overlook any specific rules and regulations, or stray somewhere you shouldn’t. Take a look at these stunning pictures of Europe’s best national parks.
Not being wary of wildlife
Finding out where – and what – the wild things are is among the local knowledge well worth seeking before you go. Observe any warning signs about potentially dangerous animals, from bears to snakes, and be aware of any poisonous or toxic plants. There will often be information along the trail, though sticking to clearly marked paths will greatly minimize the risk of any scary encounters.
Failing to check permits
You may need a permit to visit some places, including US National Parks and certain beauty spots. In some cases, you’ll need to purchase a permit in advance and there may be a limited number released per day – particularly if you have a popular route or hiking destination on your bucket list. Check way in advance to avoid any disappointment (and embarrassment).
Forgetting your wallet
You might not need any money on your hike, but it makes sense to take a little cash (or a credit card) just in case. You might find out there’s a small fee to use the trail or enter the park, for example, or realize you didn’t bring a map and need to purchase one from a visitor center. Or you might stumble across an ice cream van or random shop along the trail.
Straying from the path
It’s common sense, yes, but it can be oh-so-tempting to dart down an unmarked dirt path or wander into woodland just to see what’s there. But what’s there might (depending on where you’re walking) be a bear. Or a steep hill. Or a hole in the ground. If nothing else, it’s a surefire way to get lost – and possibly get you into trouble with a park ranger/farmer/conservation officer.
Taking a solo stroll is one of life’s pleasures, though it might not always be a good idea if you’re hitting a particularly remote, wild or wildlife-heavy trail. Think about whether it might be better to take a hiking buddy or walk with a group – whether that means going with friends or family, or looking up organized walks you could join in your chosen area. The support can be invaluable if there’s the slightest risk you could end up lost or stranded with no help nearby.
Forgetting to tell someone where you’re going
If you do hike alone, be sure to let at least one trusted person know where you’re going and when you expect to be back from the trail. That way, they can raise the alarm and alert any local search and rescue organizations if you fail to return within a reasonable period of time. Hopefully you’ll make it back unscathed apart from your sore, worked-out legs, but it’s well worth taking that extra precaution.
Forgetting your camera
On that note, should you stumble across a beautiful bird, fascinating fox or wondrous waterfall, you’ll wish you brought your camera. You can use a phone, of course, but some scenes deserve a zoom lens and a clear shot. Pack a compact camera with a powerful zoom. It isn’t the end of the world if an incredible scene or encounter is only committed to memory, of course, but it’s nice to have some lasting evidence. Here are some of the best travel cameras for your next adventure.
Going with the flow
Or rather, going with the crowds. Sure, the sunset will be glorious from the mountain peak, and that waterfall looks especially lovely in the late afternoon light. But you’ll most likely find your view obscured by crowds of people thinking the same thing, or be trapped amid a cluster of photographers waiting, tripods poised, for the golden hour. If it’s blissful solitude – or at least relative quiet – you’re craving, research the busiest times. And actively avoid them.
Getting your timings wrong
Talking of sunset, how are you going to descend that unlit mountain trail in the dark? Have you made doubly sure you can make it back to the park exit well before it closes? Plan stringently to work out how long your hike might take you, whether it’s an out and back or a circular route, and add at least an hour onto that to make sure there’s no risk of getting stuck or stranded.
Not taking a torch
If you are hiking to a sunset spot, take a torch. We don’t mean the one on your smartphone. It may not be bright enough, you’ll be relying on battery power, and holding a phone while navigating a steep, narrow path at dusk isn’t the most sensible idea. The same goes for hand-held torches. Pack a headlamp (the ones with a stretchy band to go around your forehead – not for cars) and you should be able to retrace your steps without a stumble.
Leaving a trace
Dropping litter and leaving behind the remnants of a picnic are the cardinal sins of hiking. That includes ‘biodegradable’ trash like apple cores and banana peels. Take a bag or box you can pack any trash into and pop it in your backpack until you find a garbage can. Organization Leave No Trace provides information on the best way to enjoy the outdoors without spoiling it. Discover the most beautiful state park in every US state.
Going downhill – fast
Super-experienced hikers and trail runners make it look so easy as they skip past everyone else, elegantly skimming over loose stones and leapfrogging ditches and dips. Unless that’s you, we suggest taking the downhill portions of your hike as carefully as the ascent, and perhaps even more so. It can be harder to keep your footing, especially as your limbs are likely to already be tired after the upward slog. Take it slowly and get back to the start in one, unscathed piece.
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