Copyright © 2016
By Ralph F. Couey
I’m entering my third year as a day hiker, and while nobody’s ever going to confuse me with Earl Shaffer or even Bill Bryson, I have learned a few things that might be of value to someone who is contemplating spending some time in the woods and on the trail. These are things an expert may neglect to tell you, mainly because their knowledge is vast and complex.
Hiking is many things. It’s great exercise, for sure. But it’s also a way to flee the urban jungle and reconnect with the wilderness. It is a fine way to challenge one’s self physically, mentally, and emotionally, learning the sometimes hard lesson about false limits.
Hikers form a broad, loosely defined community, nearly all of them wonderfully nice people who, when encountered on the trail, will treat you with warmth, friendliness, and dignity. The link all hikers share is the deep affection for what some feel is the vanishing wilderness, and the wonder of nature to be found therein.
Hiking can be hard, and requires energy and stamina in abundance. Therefore, if you’re serious about undertaking a wilderness hike, it’s best to get in at least better shape. In most locales, there are city parks and recreation areas with winding trails, usually asphalt. It’s best to start there, and build distance. You should be able to complete 4 to 5 miles in a reasonable amount of time without feeling like your require a visit to the emergency room. Once you can do that on those flat courses, find sidewalks in your area that climb hills. Most wilderness trails don’t have very many flat sections. You’re either going up a steep hill, or heading down the other side. This is strenuous aerobic-type work, so you should do what you can to “build your wind.”
Tennis shoes are fine for asphalt trails. But wilderness trails are a combination of sharp rocks, exposed roots, stream crossings, and muddy patches. Good footwear is essential. Get guidance when choosing your footgear. REI is a great place to start, because the people who sell shoes and boots are real honest-to-God hikers who can give you great advice. Also, REI will let you bring them back and exchange them. So if the pair your chose felt great in the store, but caused you all kinds of painful grief on the trail, you can bring them back and exchange them for a different pair. Once a year, the REI stores will hold a sale where these exchanged boots are available for a reduced price.
Basically, you need a shoe with a tough sole, waterproofing, and for people like me, ankle support. The bottoms should have some lugs because there are times when you will need to dig in during climbs or descents. You can get hiking shoes/boots in low rise, mid-rise (just above the ankle) and full rise (roughly mid-calf). After a long time spent in contemplation, I chose a pair of Hi-Tec Altitude IV boots. They’ve done me very well, once they were broken in. My only complaint was that the tops made my ankle bone hurt. I solved that by loosening the top laces.
Footwear eaten here.
Hiking clothes are important, particularly in areas where heat and humidity can be a problem. Cotton clothes, like jeans and t-shirts, while comfortable are not good for hiking. As you sweat (and you WILL sweat) cotton absorbs that moisture and the clothes will become heavier and more burdensome. Also, that held moisture will abrade skin in tender places, an agony nobody wants. Googling “hiking clothes” will take you to an abundance of websites (of course REI if you prefer the in-person experience). Hiking clothes are made of light-weight, but extremely tough materials that don’t absorb sweat, but instead wick it away from your skin. Stay with long sleeves and long pants, as they will protect your skin from sunburn, and also help with the inevitable thorns and branches along the way.
Woods are buggy places, so it behooves the new hiker to pre-treat your new gear with Permethrin, a repellent which is human friendly yet will definitely fend off the insects, even the stinging kind. Some hiking clothes come already treated. Preparing your clothes is easy. Go outside (or at least to an open garage) and hang the clothes up. Then spray them according to the instructions, and allow them to dry for an hour or two. Permethrin is persistent, and will stay on clothes for 20 or 30 launderings, usually an entire summer for most people.
Apply sun screen. Sunburn will sneak up on you.
Hiking poles, or trekking poles, are a nice addition. It’s easy to lose your balance while traversing rocky fields or fording streams, and personally, my poles have saved me from some epic face plants. They’re also useful for probing the far side of rocks and fallen trees before stepping over them, in case there are critters there who might object to you disturbing their siesta. Nobody likes walking through spider webs, and I use my poles quite often to clear those annoying sticky silk strings which arachnids tend to stretch between trees in hopes of snagging insects. These come in a variety of brands and types. Mine are made by a company called Black Diamond and are made out of carbon fiber. But, you choose what’s right for you.
Hats are useful. The most common choice of hikers is the so-called bucket hat, or a variation thereof. Basically, you need one that will help wick away sweat from your head before it drains into your eyes, a mesh crown for ventilation, and a broad enough brim to keep the rain off your face, and the sun off the back of your neck. These can also be treated with Permethrin.
Worked very well under a tropical sun.
Never go hiking without some kind of identification on your person. You don’t need a full wallet, which can get sweaty by the way. Most places that sell wallets also sell small items, just big enough for your driver’s license. I also carry a piece of paper with my medical information and a short list of emergency contacts. There are, generally speaking, almost no places to spend money on a trail, but it wouldn’t hurt to tuck a twenty or a credit card in there as well.
When on the trail, I take a backpack, one made by Camelbak with a 3-liter reservoir. Hiking in the summer, it is imperative that you take water or sports drinks along with you. Some hikers, more committed than I, will back a water filtration system and take their fluids from a convenient stream. Heat and humidity will sap your strength and if you don’t replace the water and electrolytes you sweat out, you can get into serious medical trouble. I also carry a first-aid kit, containing band aids, a roll of gauze and medical tape, hydrogen peroxide, antiseptic spray, and a small pair of scissors. The forest, while beautiful and peaceful, is also a very dirty and germy place, and even a small cut or scrape can be problematic if not treated. I also carry a roll of duct tape. Why? Because when I was a Boy Scout, I once watched someone make a very good splint using that and a couple of stout sticks.
I haven’t made an overnight hike, mainly because I don’t have the time. But if you plan to spend the night on the trail, check the Internet for authoritative sources on how to prepare.
Choosing Your Trail
Go to Google and type “places to hike in __________” filling in the area where you live. You’d be surprised, as I was, how many trails you’ll find. My default choice is the massive Appalachian Trail, which stretches for some 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine, 550 miles of which pass through Virginia. Within an hour of home are four different places I can go to access the AT, all of which promise a challenge. If I have time to make a 90-minute trip, Shenandoah National Park is here as well.
Get a trail map. Never, ever go into the woods without a trail map. Did I mention getting a trail map?
For the first few hikes, try to pick a trail that is not too difficult. Most trails can be seen on Google Maps in the terrain mode, and that will tell you how much up and down awaits you. As you gain experience and confidence, feel free to challenge yourself. But always be realistic about your abilities. Taking on a complex technical trail (requiring the use of ropes and rock-hopping) before you’re ready risks injury.
Summer day hikes are best started early in the morning and completed by mid-afternoon. Even under the canopy of trees, the air can be stifling during the heat of the day. If you live in a region where afternoon and evening thunderstorms are commonplace, make sure you are off the ridge tops before they begin to fire up. When you arrive at the trail access, spend a little time stretching your legs. You’ll thank me for this later. Now…have fun!
Remember, It’s Not Your Neighborhood
The wilderness is where animals live. All types, from the cute and cuddly, to the big and dangerous. Spend some time online learning how to know the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes. Keep your head on a swivel, so you don’t accidently step on a copperhead snake. Trust me, they really don’t like that. Review what poisonous spiders look like. And leave your iPod at home. Your ears need to be attuned to the environment around you.
Oh yes. Bears.
In the Midwest and Eastern U.S., there are black bears in the wilderness areas. Chances are you will at some point encounter one. Knowing what to do in advance will save you a lot of grief.
Black bears are surprisingly timid. If you make enough noise coming up the trail, they will nearly always move away. If you should encounter one, there are specific actions you need to take. First of all, stop walking toward the bear. Do not stare directly at the bear. Begin speaking in a low-toned firm voice as you walk backwards. Do not turn your back on this animal, for that will trigger the bear’s predator response. Give the bear space to retreat, and it will. If the bear should come toward you, make much more noise. Raise your arms, making you look bigger. Clack your hiking poles together. If the bear persists, get your bear spray (also available at REI) out and prepare to spray it at the bear. This will be enough for most bears, and they will move away. If all else fails and you find your facing that one bear out of a thousand that just won’t be deterred, prepare to fight for your life. There was a story posted on the Internet last summer about a man in Pennsylvania who took one of his trekking poles and jammed it down the bear’s throat. The bear then fled. The man had some deep cuts, but he survived.
This all sounds very dangerous, but in the entire history of the Commonwealth of Virginia, there have been no, none, zero confirmed cases of a human becoming the victim of an unprovoked bear mauling. That’s a time span going back about 350 years, so at least here, that history is on your side.
Bears have a very sensitive nose, and if you are wearing sweet-smelling cologne or perfume, they will be attracted to that. Also, if you carry food with you, make sure it’s sealed inside plastic bags.
Oh yeah, almost forgot. Black bears climb trees, so it would behoove you to look up occasionally as you trek along.
Now these are black bears. Out west, where you are likely to encounter brown bears, your response should be completely different, as they are far more aggressive. Again, a Google search on what to do in case of a brown bear encounter will be helpful.
Don’t freak out. I’ve made nearly 50 hikes in Virginia and had three encounters. This is way, way above the average. But I did as I was taught, and things ended up just fine. I’ve spoken to many other hikers who have been on these trails for a decade or longer and have never encountered a bear. It’s very likely that you won’t see one either, so hike vigilantly, but happily.
Leave Some Crumbs
Before you leave home, tell someone who is likely to care about your continued presence in their life where you are going, specifically, and what time you expect to be back. My communication is usually like this: “I’m going to be on the Appalachian Trail south of US 50.” Or, “the Manassas Battlefield, western side.” Walking on asphalt trails, I can make a mile in 15 to 20 minutes. Hiking, however, I plan for a 30-minute mile, and estimate accordingly. If I’m hiking, say, the roller coaster section of the AT between US 50 and Virginia Route 7, that will likely be a pace closer to a 40-minute mile.
When hiking alone, I text my wife just before hitting the trail, and again when I’m off trail and headed home. Communication with loved ones is very important, since accidents can happen, such as falling and hitting your head on a rock or suffering some other kind of injury that incapacitates you to the point where you can’t walk or crawl out. If you don’t show up within a reasonable amount of time, at least the authorities know where to start their search. Don't put complete faith in your cell phone, because there will be places out there where you will have no bars.
Hiking has become a joy for me, and it can be for you as well. The forest, meadows, and hills are places where I can go and leave the rest of my life behind. the scenery is beautiful and full of life. Being out there, connecting with the real, natural world is an experience not to be missed.