We were enjoying a quiet morning in a small Swiss town of Grindelwald and talking to our new friend Luca as he praised the beauties of the First - Platte Schynige trail. I remember my easily excited friend Peter almost shouting, "Dude, let's go right now, today." And we did, later that day we were on one of the most demanding trails in the Alps.
Boy were we wrong. My ankle, my knee and I have been trying to forget this hike ever since. Unsuccessfully. I will not go into what happened, let's just say that everything that could do wrong, did. But this is not about me, it's about you learning from my mistakes so that you never repeat them, so let's move on... Whether you are a hiking newbie or a pro, this article will help you acquire or tweak the hiker’s know-how, remind you of those small, but important tips & tricks. Have these few simple rules in mind and you'll be comfortable, safe and get the most out of your hike. Let's make sure that you do.
1) Do your homework – set yourself up for success
The good old ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuse will do you no good here. It’s all about looking ahead, anticipating, expecting the unexpected. As nature has its mysterious ways, rule no. 1 would be - have a precise plan. And of course, you also need to have for things not going as planned. Brainstorm on the best and worst case scenarios. Then, make a list of things you would need in the situations. With experience, the list soon becomes engraved in your brain, and you won't need to actually put it on paper, but it's one of the good habits that makes all the difference.
2) Stay cool. Eat well. Hydrate.
As an example, here's an oldie but a goodie, when it's hot, know that dipping your shirt and hat in water will greatly increase the vaporizing and cool you down. When you know beforehand you won't have the water to spare on the trail - soak a shirt, pack it in a zip-top bag and add it to your backpack. It will add some weight, but can make all the difference in the unforgiving heat. On longer trails, you will need a steady supply of ‘body fuel’. The rule of thumb is - choose calorie-dense foods like nuts, beef jerky, protein bars... Even if you were told otherwise, stay away from granola bars and trail mixes - these products are usually loaded with salt or sugar and processed grains. Stay away from these for two reasons:
- they're unhealthy
- more importantly, they'll make you thirsty
Another classic beginner's mistake is to set out without enough water. Plan to carry about one liter of liquid per person for every two hours of hiking you plan to do. A piece of advice - never drink directly from streams. Even if the water looks pristine, it is likely filled with bacteria or other organisms that can make you sick. Instead, make some extra space in your pack for a to-go water purifier.
3) Remember – you’re hiking, not hitchhiking! Dress smart. By now you probably have everything you can imagine you’ll need in your backpack; however, you don’t have a spare set of feet to throw in there. As your feet are your best friend, make comfortable hiking footwear a priority.
Hiking boots and shoes The choice between traditional above-the-ankle hiking boots and a sturdy pair of shoes depends on the terrain you'll face. On rocky terrain, you’ll want a boot with hefty soles that will protect your feet from ‘stone bruises’ and provide enough support and stability to keep you from twisting an ankle. And take it from me, your boots or shoes are no place to save a few extra bucks. Do your research, read reviews and choose the best.
Clothes There’s a saying about mountain weather - If you want it to change, wait five minutes. The best advice I could give on this note is – wear layers. Remember, you are likely to encounter a range of temperatures – the higher you go, the cooler it gets. You can hike in your jeans/shorts and a T-shirt. However, modern hiking clothes that are made to dry quickly will probably be a better choice. You’ll also want to bring a hat or a visor and some sunblock.
4) We’ve all heard the expression “Sometimes you have to get lost to find yourself” – it’s a metaphor.
Have a Topo map a and compass at hand, but more importantly - learn how to use them. Yes, I know you have a GPS enabled phone or other gadget, but you’ll remember my words when your battery dies on you out in the middle of nowhere. Technology is a good servant, but a bad master.
5) Pace yourself - mix up your hiking stride. If you are hiking with a group, let the least fit person (even if it’s a child) set the pace. You don’t just have to reach the end of the trail - if it's a one-day hike, you also have to get back. Bear in mind that on flat trails, you will be using the same muscle groups with every next step, day in, day out. And that, in my book, is a precise recipe for an injury that could ruin the trip for everybody. I've seen it one too many times. So, try mixing things up as you walk, take a few longer then a few shorter steps so that you relieve some of that repetitive stress.
6) Let somebody else know.
If you decide to embark on this adventure alone, make sure you take the time to email or call somebody and let them know about your plans – where you are and when you expect to be back, as well as any other important details that can help them find you, if needed.
7) There's such a thing as trail etiquette - learn about it and practice it
For safety, if you are hiking with a group of friends and another hiker or a smaller group approaches, step aside and let the lone hiker or the smaller group pass. And always keep in mind the “leave-no -trace” golden rule, which includes showing respect for the wildlife, always choosing the harder paths as oppose to soft land and grass, and obviously - not littering, even if that means you have to carry it for kilometres. Respect the remarkable surrounding nature is offering to you, it’ll make the experience much more wholesome.
8) Last but not least – Enjoy yourself!
This is your chance to take a break from the perpetual everyday drama of life, so enjoy it while it lasts. Go ‘offline’ with all your social media and get social with your hiking buddies. Unwind, relax, breathe in and absorb all nature has to offer. Think of some nice rituals you can do before your hike - something to put you in the mood, Have a post-hike "ritual" as well. Celebrate the success of a conquered goal and bask in the feeling of achievement just a bit longer. When you come back to ‘real life’ it will be like someone hit the reset button, I promise. Now, no pun intended…go take a hike :)
James Menta is an outdoor enthusiast from Bucharest, Romania. He spends most of his time in nature around the world, where he camps and tests camping gear. James and his team run Solelabz.com where they talk about their adventures and do comprehensive reviews of hiking shoes, sandals and boots.