It’s hard to beat a good hike to lift the spirits. Season by season, the landscape changes, offering new landscapes and perspective, while the natural settings—whether it’s a lush forest or wildflower-filled meadow—are scientifically proven to improve mood and well-being. Time spent walking in the woods is almost guaranteed to put a smile on your face—that is, unless you hit the trail ill-equipped.
There’s a reason the Boy Scouts’ motto is “Be Prepared.” If you want to be safe and have fun in the Great Outdoors, it’s crucial to do some planning before you get out in it, especially if you’re putting in longer miles. You need to check the weather and review maps and trail guides to anticipate the conditions you’ll encounter. But equally important is making sure you have the right gear. Without the proper clothing, equipment, or supplies, a pleasant walk in the woods can quickly turn into a miserable slog that leaves you rain-soaked, hungry, and thirsty, with blistered feet and wounded pride—or worse.
Choosing and using the right gear, however, minimizes that possibility—and makes your adventure longer and more comfortable, as well as memorable for the right reasons. You’ll be safer, drier, and happier—and eager to stay on the trail. As you’re prepping for your next hike, keep in mind the following gear suggestions that will keep you hiking longer.
When you’re gathering gear and supplies, start from the ground up. Taking care of your feet is the most essential step to an enjoyable hike. Select a pair of wool socks in a weight that’s appropriate for the temperatures you’ll face. Wool fibers breathe and move moisture away from your skin, which prevents blisters.
Well-fitting boots or shoes come next. Don’t be afraid to wear running shoes built for trail use. Traditional heavy leather hiking boots may not be necessary unless you’re planning to cover difficult terrain with a heavy backpack.
Many boots and shoes are available in waterproof versions. There are pros and cons to both waterproof and water-resistant options. Do some research online or talk to an experienced outdoor specialty store staff member to find out what’s most appropriate for your hiking environment.
What to Wear
Even if the forecast calls for fair weather, you should anticipate possible changes. A rain jacket with a hood will keep you dry and add warmth on cool mornings and afternoons. If colder temperatures are possible, a fleece sweater, vest, hat, and thin gloves can keep you going instead of turning back to the trailhead. Dress in layers, so you can easily shed one when you warm up and/or add one when you take a break or temperatures dip.
Wear clothes designed to wick moisture away from your skin and dry quickly when wet (cotton is generally not recommended). If you slip and get soaked while crossing a stream, quick-drying materials will make it easier to dry out instead of hiking in soggy gear. Don’t be afraid to pack an extra shirt, pants, or a pair of shorts, which could come in handy.
Finally, don’t forget about sun protection. A hat with a brim is always a solid choice in sunny weather. Ubiquitous ball caps don’t protect the back of your neck from a nasty sunburn if you’re hiking across open meadows all day. Sunglasses reduce eye strain on bright days (and overcast ones, too). And an eyeglass strap attached to the frames prevents you from having to ask, “Where did I put my glasses?”
Select an appropriately sized daypack. If it’s too big, you’ll be tempted to fill the pack up with gear you may not need. If it’s too small, you may leave behind something important. Look for daypacks with adjustable straps and waist belts that help distribute the weight and manage the load.
If you plan to spend just a few hours on the trail, your packing list should include a current trail map, knife, lightweight rain jacket or poncho, water, a first-aid kit, and a snack. For a longer hike, add an extra pair of socks (in case your feet get wet in a stream), additional food and water, a fire source, and a headlamp, plus spare batteries. If you get delayed or lost and have to hike out in the dark or spend the night on the trail, you’ll be glad you have a light.
Small bottles of sunscreen and bug protection reduce the chances for minor irritations that can pester you on the trail. And you should always pack a first-aid kit, even for short hikes. There are lightweight, pre-packaged kits with a few basics to manage blisters and other minor pain and injuries. Some kits also have safety pins, a small roll of duct tape, and other tools to repair gear and clothing. Think about this: If you blow out the sole on a shoe, you can reattach it temporarily with duct tape. If you get to keep your shoe and don’t have to walk barefoot, it’s going to make a significant impact on your day.
Hikers who plan to explore especially remote trails in a state or national park should prepare for the unexpected. If you miss a trail junction, encounter a surprise storm, or twist an ankle, you might have to stay out overnight. So consider carrying a lightweight shelter. These days, more people are hiking with hammocks because they can weigh less than tents. Plus, they can feel more comfortable because they suspend you above the cold, hard ground. Also, hammocks can be outfitted with tarps and nets to block rain, wind, and bugs.
In addition to a hammock or other shelter, you can carry waterproof matches, a featherweight emergency blanket or bivy bag, charged portable power packs, and more food and water.
If you’re hiking in nature centers or wilderness preserves near metropolitan areas, most will offer detailed trail maps. But, which way is north? An inexpensive handheld compass will help you stay oriented. Basic map and compass skills will help when you plan longer hikes in more remote areas.
Also, think about your water supply. Check the temperature range for the day and plan accordingly. Plastic water bottles can fit into mesh pockets on most packs. Another option is a hydration bladder, which can hold more water and make it easier to drink so you’ll be more likely to stay hydrated. Check the park’s trail amenities before you leave to determine if you can refill your bladder far from the trailhead. When water availability is questionable or uncertain, add a water purifier to your packing list.
For longer hikes or walks on steep terrain, consider carrying trekking poles. On steep descents, they can reduce the strain on your knees. While you’re ascending, or even just walking on flat terrain, they’ll still reduce the load on your body, which can make a big difference on longer-mileage hikes. Poles also help you stay stable and balanced on rocky, uneven terrain. In rainy, wet, and muddy conditions or knee-deep stream crossings, poles can keep you confident—and on your feet.
Trekking poles come in different lengths, weights, and handle configurations. Telescoping models can be easily stored on your pack during flat sections of the trail. After a few hikes with poles, they’re likely to become a piece of must-have gear.
As you’re prepping for your trip, also think about the electronic devices you might carry. These days, it’s pretty common for hikers to carry smartphones and other electronics to capture and share images and even navigate trails. Unfortunately, smartphones, tablets, and digital cameras are power-hungry devices, so it’s a good idea to pack portable solar USB chargers. They’re compact, lightweight, weatherproof and can often charge multiple devices simultaneously. Solar power chargers also serve as a safety back-up. Calling a friend for an early pickup at a trailhead doesn’t work when your smartphone’s battery is dead.
On your next hike, be sure to bring a notebook and pencil or pen. Did you forget to bring something? Did a piece of gear perform better than expected? Taking notes during a hike will improve your experience the next time you head into the woods. Sharing your stories with friends and family could inspire them to join you, too.
If you take the time to plan your hike and outfit yourself with the right gear, you’ll indeed have some great stories to tell. On the other hand, if you fail to prepare, your trail journal might be filled with tales of woe and misery. Do yourself a favor and invest in the gear that will allow you to stay comfortable, stay on course, and make the most of some much-needed time outdoors.