Blunders often made by hiking beginners – Yes we have worn denim before

Doug Williams
 
Weather, clothing and Illumination are all important

When hiking, careless hikers are more likely to step on Diamondback Rattlers, tumble off a cliff, and otherwise get themselves into trouble. And, quite frankly, our country needs more outdoor people, not less, so we’re trying to help out.

Here are some answers to a few of your camping, training, hiking, cooking, and you-name-it questions. I’m no Everest-scaling, bear-wrestling old-time pioneer, but I’ve hiked enough miles to recognize the mistakes first-time hikers tend to make.

The Top 10 Beginner Hiker Blunders 

Don’t wear denim

Denim is primarily made of cotton. Cotton retains moisture instead of repelling it away like wool and polyester fabrics, so wearing jeans (and a jean jacket for that matter) is a poor choice for any hike, especially in rainy or cold weather.

Once cotton gets wet, it takes a long time to dry and the moisture on your skin siphons away body heat through convection, leaving you feeling very cold. You will become more susceptible to hypothermia, hence the adage ‘cotton kills.’

 

Be cautious of denim

Jeans are the absolute worst of all cotton clothing because they can ice up in below-freezing weather. I learned this lesson the hard way on my first hike in New Hampshire, and I’ve remained cotton-free ever since.

So, if you ever see hikers wearing jeans remind them, first, of the hazards of wearing cotton and next, that the 1980s are over and that jeans are no longer fashionable.

Wal-Mart Purchases – Buying your tent or sleeping bag

Although Sam Walton was an Eagle Scout, he didn’t become the richest man in America by selling first-rate camping and hiking gear at super low prices. Yes, Wal-Mart does sell an Ozark Trails sleeping bag for $10, but I wouldn’t use it on a real trail in the Ozarks.

 

It’s fine to buy your beef jerky, propane canisters, and trail mix ingredients at discount retail stores, but for the gear that matters most, like rain gear, sleeping bags, footwear, and tents, purchase from reliable brands and specialty outdoor stores.

Using a road map to hike trails

Not all lines connect the dots, and not all dotted lines are made equal. Thus, the map that helps you get to the trailhead parking lot won’t help you navigate a trail.

 

Road maps won’t help on the trails

Detailed USGS geographic maps are the very best for navigating the backcountry, but they are often too detailed for quick reading. Designated trails maps that include topographical features like peaks, ridges, valleys, and rivers, as well as key information like the location of trail heads and hiking distance, are much easier to acquire and use.

Visitor centers and bookstores regularly stock maps and guidebooks for local trails, while the National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated series are terrific for U.S. leisure hot spots anywhere in the country. Another very useful source is backpacker.com to obtain new print & go weekend planners, which include driving directions, gear checklists, and waypoints for dozens of popular hiking attractions.

Packing a first aid kit as if you’re landing on Normandy Beach 

Gauze bandages? Check. Morphine? Check. M1 rifle? What? Most beginner hikers either forget to bring a first-aid kit, or they pack an entire pharmacy. Neither is the right approach: you should bring a first-aid kit appropriate for the length of your trip, your medical knowledge, and the size of your group along with any individual medication or medical needs required.

 

Try not to go over the top on your FAK

Medical knowledge appropriate to your first aid kit contents is very important. If you don’t know how to use a first-aid item you’re not familiar with, you probably shouldn’t be carrying it. It just doesn’t make sense packing obscure first aid supplies you’ll probably never use, especially when you can pack additional bandages and painkillers.

Basic essentials for a first-aid kit for most outings should be; adhesive bandages (various sizes), sterile gauze, moleskin, medical or duct tape, antibiotic ointment, ibuprofen, Benadryl, and alcohol wipes.

Being overheard proclaiming, “Lightning can’t strike me – I’m not carrying anything metallic.”

If you think lightning only strikes metal objects, think about this ancient Chinese proverb: ‘The highest blade of grass is the first to be severed by the scythe’. Now make some substitutions: Boneheaded hiker instead of tall grass and exterminated by 100 million volts of lightning juice rather than the scythe and you’ve got the ‘professors’ updated version of the proverb.

What this means is that you absolutely must get down from exposed peaks and ridges when a thunderstorm is brewing. Lightning is drawn to high, isolated objects, which could be anything from a lone tree to a clueless hiker standing on a peak.

You don’t necessarily have to be touching an object either. The lightning could strike the ground next to you, and the current may jump the gap to you.

 

Example of what lightning can do

Secondary strikes can be just as deadly as the primary strike. Furthermore, lightning can strike targets up to 10 miles from the center of a storm. Trust me on that; I’ve been involved in a few close encounters to prove it. Instead of staying high, get into a forest, a gully, a ravine, or the base point of rolling hills.

Going ultra-light without ultra-experience – achieve it gradually 

A novice backpacker going ultra-light is like a vegetarian immediately becoming a vegan! It takes time to gain the confidence and experience before you dial down to a new, safe system.

According to some definitions, ultra-light hiking suggests having a base pack weight (your gear minus food and water) of 10 to 12 pounds. The advantage, of course, is that you have less weight to carry on your trek, but your safety net is lowered. If things go wrong, like if you fall in a river or animals steal your food, you have fewer backup provisions like warm, dry clothes, food, and fuel.

The more experience you have in the wild, the safer it will be for you to go ultra-light. You’re better prepared with skills to avoid such mishaps and you can rely on your experiences if they do occur. However, even expert mountaineers can pay the price for going ultra-light. Think of Joe Simpson of Touching the Void fame: During an ascent of Siula Grande in the Andes, serious weather prolonged their climb, which caused them to run out of fuel that was used for melting snow for water. This later would contribute to Simpson’s fall into a crevasse.

This is the reason why ultra-light hiking should be achieved gradually and not as a first-time experience. Reducing your survival pack weight is a skill you perfect after you have gained a lot of experience.

So how much weight should you carry on a typical day trek? Is it 10, 15, or 20 pounds? This will vary depending on the circumstances. If you’re trekking alone for a dozen miles on an easy trail, you can carry an under 10-pound pack of rain gear, water, headlamp, snacks, and the ever essential map, compass or GPS. But if the trail is unknown, complex or isolated, and you’re hiking in a larger group, then additional items you’ll want to add will include extra water and food, warm clothing, and a small first-aid kit which might push your weight upwards of 15 pounds.

Bringing additional survival gear, along with the skills to use it, is your best strategy to stay safe.

Wearing boots that haven’t been worn regularly

I can’t say that I’m a fan of hiking proverbs, but there’s one that I consider an absolute truth – if your feet are happy, the rest of you will be happy. I became wise to this fact during a trek in Scotland. I began with stiff leather boots I hadn’t worn in years. They practically destroyed my feet on the first day out, and I spent the next week limping up and down the ‘bonny’ green hills of Scotland.

If you begin a big trek with untested shoes or boots, trust me, neither you nor your feet will be happy! You need to break them in weeks ahead of time while walking the dog, mowing the lawn, or walking around town doing errands.

Trail shoes adapt quickly to your feet and perform more like athletic footwear, while taller, stiff boots require more time to break in.

If your footwear was recently purchased, wear them indoors at first. One good reason for this is because most outdoor stores have return policies that become void if they are worn outside. If your feet hurt, develop blisters or hot spots, apply bandages, experiment with different socks, and keep wearing them.

Another important point to remember also is that it is common for most people’s feet to swell a half size or more by the afternoon.

Don’t start your trek too late in the day 

If you have a 7 p.m. dinner reservation, showing up at 8 p.m. is bad manners. But starting a hike at 2 p.m. that was intended to begin at 10 a.m. is bad news and most of the time unsafe. It’s always best to start on time or shorten your route unless you want to become famous, with your appearance on the CNN ticker ‘Clueless Hiker Survives Freezing Night in Wilderness.’

 

Avoid night-time hikes unless you’re prepared

I learned a hard lesson this way on a 10-mile hike in New Hampshire that included a few frustrating wrong turns and ended at the trailhead parking lot just before midnight: all because the trek began four hours late.

Besides an on-time start, how fast you move matters as well. An athletic adult can hike at three mph, but that rate drops to two mph or even one mph when you factor in elevation changes, rough terrain, and rest breaks. Groups always move slower than individuals, and a snail on crutches will beat families with young children. If you find yourself starting your trek later than scheduled, stop and gather your wits about you.

Check your map for shorter routes or a cutoff trail to reach your destination before sunset. If you find yourself behind schedule, avoid the temptation of shortcuts and instead keep hiking. Be watchful of the time and be prepared to finish using headlamps, which you packed for just such an eventful situation.

The weather forecast – never to be ignored

 

Photo credit: Simon Q

A little rain probably won’t cancel a hike. Why else would we buy expensive Gore-Tex boots and waterproof jackets? But even the best equipment won’t protect you 100 percent from the soggy remains of a hurricane or an Arctic blizzard. I reviewed the website www.noaa.gov, which uses a Google Maps interface to produce five-day forecasts for exactly where I’ll be hiking.

These weather results are much more accurate than the conventional forecasts for the nearest town, which could be miles away and thousands of feet lower than a trail you are going to hike. Additionally, you can read the ‘Forecast Discussion,’ which is like listening to local meteorologists during their coffee breaks. On a recent backpacking trip, I knew ahead of time that a powerful thunderstorm would crash in the middle of the night, thanks to a NOAA forecast.

So, I had an opportunity to minimize the danger by pitching my tent away from lone trees and dangling branches by picking a sheltered campsite and tightening the guy-lines for my rain-fly. Sure enough, I was awakened at 1 a.m. to witness a ferocious, but quite harmless, atmospheric bombardment of sound and bright, flashing light. By morning the skies were blasted clear, ready for another day of trekking.

Please don’t skimp on ‘Leave No Trace’ 

Litterbug? You? No, I didn’t think so. I bet you’re a committed recycler. Maybe you even wash and re-use zip lock bags. But where do you dump the soapy water after washing dishes when you are on a camping trip? Do you really eliminate the food bits and scatter the ‘gray’ water at least 200 feet from any lake, river, stream, or campsite? And what about your soap – is it recyclable?

There are seven principles you should adhere to in order to promote ethical, low environmental impact outdoor recreation available at the website www.lnt.org. It’s easy to practice LNT’s major rules; carry trash out with you, avoid wildlife, and minimize the effect of campfires. The finer points are harder to follow, however, like removing toilet paper and starting small fires.

But since Bambi doesn’t defecate in your bedroom, you should extend the same consideration. So here are six tips to make the tough principles of LNT more attainable:

  • 40 adult strides are the equivalent of 200 feet.
  • Scrape leftover food from plates and bowls into your mouth using the rubber tip of a spatula.
  • Reduce odors by placing the moisture-absorbing packets found in shoe boxes and other packages in your trash bag, then double-bagging it.
  • Use dryer lint as a natural fire starter.
  • Leave the toilet paper home – carry versatile sanitary wipes instead.

OK, there it is, my top 10 list of beginner’s blunders. Let us know what you would add to the list!

 

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