Hiking 101: The Basics

Robin Sheppard

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Hiking vs. Walking

Hiking. Walking. Is there a difference? For our purposes we'll assume there is, and we'll let Wikipedia's definition of hiking explain what we're talking about:

Hiking is a form of walking, undertaken with the specific purpose of exploring and enjoying the scenery. It usually takes place on trails in rural or wilderness areas.

Pretty clear and simple. But it also implies some differences between hiking and "ordinary" walking. Since it's usually done on trails, it generally requires different footwear than, say, walking around downtown Sacramento.


The first difference is usually footwear, although the lines between "regular" footwear and "hiking" footwear have recently become blurred. This is partly because some people prefer to wear their "hiking" boots all the time, and partly because the wisdom of wearing heavy, special-purpose boots when hiking is starting to be questioned. While heavy boots with soles with a thick profile and high heels are recommended to avoid twisted ankles after a misstep, an alternative philosophy is to use light trainers with thin soles so one can feel the ground one walks on and avoid making missteps in the first place. In addition, heavy boots put a lot of weight where it is least desirable and are thus exhausting.

Finally, there's the simple fact that more and more of us are starting to crowd into the same limited areas. When I lived in Alaska, I could drive my car 15 miles to the trail head, hike 3 miles to my favorite fishing hole, fish all day, and hike back at the end of the day without having seen another person the whole time. And there are a lot of Californians who can remember when hiking or camping in the Desolation Wilderness didn't require permits.

More people, sadly, translates into more ecological damage. Lightweight footwear is simply less damaging than heavy footwear.

But if you need heavy footwear, then by all means use it! There are a lot of people who for various reasons need extra ankle support. Especially in this case, your footwear is also a safety issue.

Regardless of what shoe or boot you choose, you'll need socks. Special attention should be given to socks. Remember those hand-knit socks your maiden aunt used to give you for Christmas? The ones that had the seam right up the middle so that wearing them made it feel like walking on ice skates? Don't wear them hiking. You'd also do well to stay away from socks with an irritating ridge above the toes.

Choose socks that are comfortable. Thicker socks will cushion your feet better than thin ones, but when you're hiking up to Yosemite Falls in July and it's 105 F on the valley floor, you'll probably want something other than thick wool socks. On the other hand, if you miss a step and your foot goes in the creek, wool dries faster than cotton when you're wearing it.

Hiking Etiquette

With more and more people taking to the trails, there are bound to be conflicts. By observing some basic common-sense ideas, you can keep such problems to a minimum.

  1. On a hill, people going up the hill generally have the right-of-way over people going down the hill.
  2. When taking a break along the trail, move as far to the edge as you can, leaving room for people to get around you.
  3. Enjoy the silence. Let nature's sounds prevail. Leave your boom-box at home. Talk quietly.
  4. Please be considerate of others and don't smoke. I enjoy an occasional pipe in the evening, but I never take any smoking materials with me when I'm hiking or camping.

I'm trying to keep this article short, so that's it for my own ideas. A more in-depth guide to trail etiquette can be found at http://www.abc-of-hiking.com/hiking-etiquette/hiking-etiquette.asp

The 10+ Essentials

The original "10 Essentials" list began to show up in mountaineering magazines in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then others have been added because of environmental considerations (sun screen, lip balm, water treatment) or technological advancements (GPS, cell phone). My own list is up to 14.

When hiking in a group, as with the Sacramento Hikers Meetup Group, it isn't absolutely essential that everyone bring each and every one of these items, but if it's only one or two of you, then it becomes more important that each of you carry each item.

With that in mind, here are the 10-Plus Essentials of Hiking:

  1. Map (in a watertight case)
  2. Compass (plus an optional GPS receiver)
  3. Extra clothing (men's, women's, kids')
  4. Extra food and water
  5. First-aid kit
  6. Headlamp or flashlight (with extra batteries)
  7. Matches (storm proof, or in a watertight container)
  8. Fire starter
  9. Knife (or multi-use camp tool)
  10. Sunglasses
  11. Sunscreen
  12. Water filter (or other method of water treatment)
  13. Whistle
  14. Food storage device

1. Map: if you're hiking on an unmistakable trail or will be away from people, a map is essential. But not just any map: those undetailed handout maps you can pick up at the trail-head are fine for finding points of interest along the trail, but they're next to useless if you get lost. They don't have enough detail to help you figure out where you are and how to get to where you want to be. Carry a good topographic map that covers the area of your hike.

2. While GPS units are handy and convenient, they're no replacement for a compass. Suppose your batteries die, or you break your GPS in a fall? A good compass isn't very expensive. Of course you'll take the time to learn basic orienteering and route-finding skills before you hit the trail, right? A good place to start is http://www.compassdude.com/

3. Extra clothing, because the weather can change unexpectedly, leaving you wet and cold. And it's not all that hard to lose your balance when crossing a stream and fall in. I hadn't planned that happening on the American Canyon Trail hike, but it did. Besides, while it's a beautiful 80 right now, what if you're out all night, and the temperature drops into the 30s or 40s? Cotton is great in warmer weather, but for cold-weather hiking, wool is generally your best bet.

4. Extra food: you're not planning to be gone long, so why bother? Well, nobody plans to get lost or injured, but it still happens. Bring along some extra nutrition, even if it's just a freeze-dried meal or some energy bars.

5. First aid kit: because you never know. There are some great lightweight kits available, and they usually leave room for you to add some personal extras, such as prescription medications, etc. Mine is waterproof and weighs less than 10 ounces.

6. Headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries: again, you didn't plan to be out all night, but here you are just the same. Besides helping you find your way, it can be used for signaling.

7. Matches (storm-proof or in a watertight container): Self-explanatory. And don't rely on convenience-store matchbooks--they're too flimsy and unreliable.

8. Fire starter: something to help you get a fire going quickly. You can buy commercial fire-starters in paste or block form, or you can bring some dry tinder in a Zip-Lock bag.

9. Knife or Multi-Tool: handy for gear repair, first aid, or starting a fire. Even a folding pocket knife works. While some people like the Swiss Army-type knives with scissors, screw drivers, etc., some folks consider them luxury items. But I've never once been in a situation where I said to myself, "Gee, I sure wish I hadn't brought this pliers/can opener/screw driver/scissors/tweezers with me." On the other hand, I was hiking over the Chilkoot Pass between Alaska and the Yukon Territory when a shoulder-strap buckle on a friend's backpack broke, and we had no way to repair it.

10. Sunglasses: protect your eyesight!

11. Sunscreen: The Mayo Clinic recommends SPF 15 or better. And bring lip balm, too!

12. Water filter/purifier: That mountain stream sure looks pure, doesn't it? Well, so did that spinach you bought last week. Remember that? The spinach that gave you that nasty e. coli infection? Without recommending any particular brand, I will say that I carry a Katadyn Hiker Pro--even when I'm carrying extra water bottles. And if I'm hiking in the warmer weather, or on a multi-day hike, my day pack allows me to carry a 3-liter water bladder with built-in a drinking hose .

13. Whistle: Sure, you can always shout for help. And after 4 or 5 hours when you hear the rescuers calling your name, it's too bad—you've already shouted yourself hoarse and can't answer them. Besides, you can hear a whistle over longer distances.

14. Bear-resistant food container: these containers are like gravity: More than a good idea, it's the law! There are an increasing number of places where not using an approved bear-proof container can be your entry in the "Congratulations, you won a trip to federal court and a $5,000 fine" sweepstakes. Which is only a marginal improvement over the bear that just clawed its way into your tent to get that candy bar you left inside your pack. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here and assuming that you know better than to eat or bring food inside your tent.

Getting In Shape

This is more important than it may sound. Hiking is not walking. When I worked as a park ranger, I walked 12 miles a day. But most of those miles were on level paved or hard-packed pathways. The 3-mile hike up to the waterfall was something else again.

But even though hiking is not walking, walking is a good way to get in shape for hiking. So why didn't my 12 miles help me with the waterfall? Part of it had to do with the different muscles I was using, but most of it had to do with the fact that I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day at the time.

And yes, that's another thing that will help you get in hiking shape: quit smoking!

On Ultralight Hiking

(This is taken from http://www.geocities.com/amytys/nogolight.htm)

Oh the joys of going "Ultralight"...

The very thought brings to mind images of a hiker gracefully skipping down the trail, without a care in the world. Life is worry free for the "Ultralight" backpacker. Because you carry less than 15 lbs, sans food and water, you can get away with a "day pack". You can also leave those clumsy boots at home; all you need on your feet is a good pair of running shoes. You look more like someone who drove the average backpacker to the trailhead than someone about to embark on the trail itself.

Unencumbered, you can walk hours longer than your pack-laden friends - you need fewer rest stops and are able to spend more of the day on the trail. On any given 2-day trip, you can actually get further than just shouting distance from the trailhead - you can get away from the crowds in popular hiking areas. The days of taking "layovers" because you're tired of lugging a pack around are long gone.

The net result of all this "Ultralight" stuff is that you see more of the outdoors and have the ability to cover more miles. Given any four day weekend, you should be able to get to your destination, cover anywhere from 75-100 miles, and have plenty of energy when you return to the woes of the real world.

Images such as these had me asking just one question, "Where do I sign up?"

What I should have been asking was, "What do I need to give up?" Looking at the "Ultralight" sites out there you'd think that there were no drawbacks.

You see, you can't just go to your local outfitters and buy the lightest version of all your usual gear to get down to the status of "The Ultralight Backpacker." Simply cutting off toothbrush handles and trimming margins off of maps isn't going to do it either. You must change your way of thinking, leave some gear at home, possibly modify gear that you take, and think of creative ways to use the same gear for multiple purposes (Remember that Eddie Murphy skit where he talks about his "Momma" using Wonder Bread for hamburger buns, because its just as good :)

To get down to the "Ultralight" pack weight range, you have to be ready to skimp all the way - getting by with very basic definitions of shelter, food, and, at times, comfort. Once you're down in the sub-15 lb. range, the "Ultralight" philosophy goes on to say that, with so little weight, you can comfortably put in more hours of hiking in a given day than a hiker with more of a traditional load can - more trail time equates to more miles - you'll be able to hit re-supply points and water sources more frequently so you can carry far less food and water. Not only are you carrying a light load in terms of your base gear, but the weight of your rations is substantially less.

This all sounds good but, in reality, if you pack light and only carry enough food to get from point-A to point-B in a couple of days, you are forcing yourself to adhere to the advertised 10-12 hour (20-25 mile) hiking days. This means that no matter what the weather, or how you feel, you're going to have to cover your mileage. Once you start "padding" your load to allow for "what-if's" and additional days on the trail, you go against the "Ultralight" philosophy and your pack weight starts to climb - you add on a few more days food, fuel, maybe an extra water bottle - pretty soon you have to drop the running shoes for more stable hiking boots and you're shopping around for a larger, and consequently heavier, pack.

While Andrew's philosophy applies mainly to backpacking, it contains good advice for the casual hiker. Other than the 10+ Essentials, do you really need everything, you're packing? Case in point: I'm a photographer, and I love taking pictures in the Great Outdoors. When I went to Yosemite last summer, I brought along my digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera and my tripods. I knew I was going to see some spectacular scenery, and wanted to be prepared for it.

But on last weekend's hike along the American Canyon Trail, I brought my little Nikon Coolpix L4, because it's small enough that I can slip it in my jacket, pants or shirt pocket. And I left the tripod home.

Not all of you carry cameras and tripods with you, but you get the idea. What do you bring with you that you don't need to carry? Leave it at home. Of course, there's always going to be the one thing you don't really need but want anyway, such as a pair of binoculars. If you want to bring something, and don't mind the extra weight, by all means bring it with you. After all, the whole idea behind hiking is having fun. Don't scrimp to the point that you're sacrificing.

Another example: in addition to the 10+ items, I sometimes bring my sleeping bag and one-person tent. I might find a place that's so nice I'll decide to stay an extra day. And I always bring my cook stove. And it probably has to do with genetics (my not-so-distant ancestors were Irish), but I drink a lot of tea. Thus, my stove. It's a PocketRocket, from MSR. The stove, fuel canister and kettle together weigh less than 12 ounces, and to me, it's worth the extra weight. As the late British prime minister William Gladstone once put it, "If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are too heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you."

Map and Compass Skills

Most of the hikes you'll be doing with this group don't require extensive map and compass skills. What maps they do require are pretty basic: how to get to the trail head and a general idea of where we're going. But if you decide to spend a couple of days in the Desolation Wilderness, you'll probably want a more detailed map of the area, as well as the knowledge required to read it. These are not difficult skills to learn. In fact, we're looking into a group session with REI to do just that.

If you'd rather learn on your own, here's a great place to get started: http://www.compassdude.com/


We are all interested in hiking for different reasons. Some are here for the exercise, some for socializing, and others to meet possible partners for more difficult treks. But first and foremost we're here to have fun. That's why we wrote this "manifesto" in the first place—to help you have fun! It's not meant as a be-all and end-all of hiking dos and don'ts, simply advice.

More Information

For an ever-increasing list of hiking and camping links, see my web page at http://www.robinsheppard.com/camp-hike/camp-links.html