Hiking is an outdoor activity which consists of walking in natural environments, often on hiking trails. Hiking may be broadly grouped into three categories:
- Day hiking involves distances of less than a mile up to longer distances that can be covered in a single day.
- Long distance walking is multi-day hikes in non-wilderness areas or with significant service, such as trails, lodges and restaurants, possibly with transport for luggage.
- Wilderness backpacking involves a multi-day hiking expedition where participants carry the required supplies for overnight stay and two or more days of survival in the wilderness, and camp en route.
The categories overlap: many trails go through wilderness but have service where you are supposed to spend your nights. Much of the advice for wilderness applies between lodges or camping spots (or between the endpoints of you long day hike), but not all. Much of the advice for wilderness hikes may also apply where there is no wilderness at all, but you are carrying all your equipment, making your own food and sleeping outdoors.
Long distance walking is a tradition very much alive in Europe. There are many trails through the countryside, often leading from one village to the next, and also to towns on the way. Often they follow routes used before roads were built. These and similar trails can be and are used also for day hikes. See Long distance walking in Europe, Grande Randonnée, Walking in the United Kingdom, Rheinsteig, Rheinburgenweg and Pieterpad.
For a day hike along an easy trail little preparations are needed, and any moderately fit person can enjoy them. Families with small children may need more preparations, but a day outdoors is easily possible even with babies and pre-school children.
Hiking can often be done near home even if you live in a big city. If you or your family are not used to hiking, near home is often the best way to start. Getting away is easier and if something goes wrong or you simply do not enjoy your time, you can go home and do it differently the next time. For some, having a big experience the first time may feel important, but especially for children this is not a good option: they will be fascinated by the very small new experiences. If you do not have a wood behind your house, a picnic at some nearby destination with trails and a campfire site may be ideal until you know everybody will be comfortable with more demanding adventures.
If you do want to start with the big adventure, use a guide and make sure they understand your (lack of) experience and your preferences – and that you understand what you will have to cope with. A tourist entrepreneur told about customers who wanted an exotic adventure in the wilderness, but were horrified when they realised there would be no water toilet. What are the things you did not think of?
At many hiking destinations there are easy-to-follow trails, such that knowing how to use a map and compass is not essential (although recommended), and there may be lodges with food and accommodation. Some such trails offer the possibility to get to see wilderness without too much skill and effort. The requirements vary though. If you are not used to walk a few kilometres, then a ten kilometres mountain hike will certainly be very hard. And on some trails you may find that the trail is not at all easy to follow, or that the creek you have to cross has transformed into a fast-flowing river. Always check what to expect.
There are long and demanding trails in the wilderness with possibilities to comfortable lodging, but at this end of the scale there may instead be unmanned Spartan shelters or only a spot where to put your tent.
Wilderness backpacking often assumes you will get along without any infrastructure, even trails, with what you carry and perhaps fish from the streams and berries you pick. And if you need help, you may have to fetch it yourself. If you want to feel like returning to the days long past or truly immerse in the natural environment, this may be what you should aim for.
On long trails that follow roads or bike paths, or where the path otherwise is wide and smooth enough, using a cart or stroller (with large enough wheels) instead of a backpack can be a great way of saving your back and knees from the load. If you need to carry a few days' worth of water in a hot climate, this is a huge advantage. Make sure it is ergonomic for you. Also mind that this works only on some trails: you do not want to have to drag your cart over long stretches of duckboards, stairs, stones or loose gravel, or where the path is too narrow for it. If you do go with this option, put a backpack in the cart so that if the cart breaks you can abandon it (responsibly) and keep going.
- See also: Physical fitness
City folks are usually not accustomed to long walks with heavy packing, and usually not to the hilly and sometimes rough terrain of many trails. Even if you are fit, you should try long walks in hilly terrain before you go for any demanding hike. If aiming for real wilderness or long distance hiking, you should start with hikes you can interrupt more easily.
Ideally you build up your skills and endurance little by little, from year to year, from picnics to long wilderness hikes. If you have to train more quickly, remember to start gently anyway.
There are different philosophies about packing.There is the minimalists, who try to get along with as little as possible, and those who like to have some additional comfort. And there are the tech geeks, using all available high-tech to get as lightweight packing as possible, and traditionalists, who think that when enjoying the wilderness you should use as natural materials as possible. Most people mix and match, finding some compromise that suits them, or adapting the compromises of their fellows. It can be useful to know about the different approaches, as some specific solution advocated on the net may make more sense in some of these traditions than in others.
You should get acquainted to your equipment: footwear, clothes, backpack, camping stove, food etcetera. You want to know how to handle your tent in storm and rain and – on demanding hikes – how to repair it with the tools you will have. Footwear also have to get acquainted to you. You need as versatile equipment as possible, to be able to leave as much as possible out, and a simple tool you know well is often more versatile than a complicated one. The backpack will be heavier than ideal in any case.
You could pack some pieces of luxury whatever your choices otherwise: some have spices for otherwise dull packed food, some take that additional lens, some carry a pillow. Just limit yourself to one not too heavy item (or a few) to make sure it is worth its weight. Often the luxury item feels as luxury because it stands out: save the special food item to the evening of an especially tough day, for a birthday party in the middle of nowhere, or to celebrate your reaching the peak.
Plan your route so that mishaps do not ruin your trip, and so that you have time for enjoying it. On longer hikes it is usually advisable to have a resting day now and then.
Weather is one of the main factors in preparing for any hike; know the climate, check weather forecasts, ensure you have a good weather window, with lots of time to spare. Be aware that weather in mountainous or coastal areas can change dramatically and adjust your equipment accordingly. Heavy rainfall can cause rapid flooding of rivers. River crossings are one of the main causes of death and injury when hiking. It is almost always best to be prepared to wait for river levels to go down rather than to cross a river in flood. Also be aware of day light hours. It is never a good idea to be caught out hiking at dusk or at night. Watch your time and do not underestimate the length of the trail; you will walk considerably slower than on a flat road, and you will not be walking all the time.
Get advice from other hikers, talk to your local hiking clubs, visit local equipment retailers and outfitters. There are some excellent books availably on safety in the mountains as well as guides to weekend or day hikes. Start small and build up experience.
See also Appalachian Trail#Prepare, about a demanding long-distance trail.
Doing trail sections with two cars
Many well known hiking trails are of long distances, more than many people can tackle on a single trip. One method to do these is to walk in stages using two vehicles to get between start and finish points of a day hike. The method is simple once pointed out. You drive with two cars to the end of the trail, parking one of them there. Then everyone gets into the other car and drives to the start of the section you are walking. At the end of the hike you get back the first parked car and drive back to the start to get the other.
If you can use public transport (and perhaps a taxi for getting near the trailhead) you avoid the extra driving and the hassle of handling the cars.
- Depending where you are going, see also cold weather, pests, altitude sickness and dangerous animals.
- Often you will have to climb up a mountain to see a glacier or a lake, just to return later—in that case consider leaving your (heavy) luggage where it cannot be found and enjoy the trail without the burden, but remembering where you left your backpack before.
With maps, any hiking trip can be easily planned. The following rule of thumb is quite accurate for many regular hikers, but if these numbers don't serve you well, adjust them according to your experience.
- for each 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), you'll need one hour, much more off trails
- for each 400 meters (1300 ft) of ascent, add one hour
- for each 800 meters (2600 ft) of descent, add one hour
For a 5 miles long trip with 2600 ft of ascent, you would need four hours. Then:
- for each hour, add five to ten minutes of rest
- for each hour, add an additional five to ten minutes – in case of troubles, this will be your reserves.
So, for such a trip you should plan with about 5 hours.
Take into account the weather forecast, especially when your path is remote or difficult. Also, look at rainfall/snowfall in the days before – when the path lies in the shadows of a mountain ridge, snow may not have melted and slippery paths may not have dried until you start your trip.
The most important piece of equipment is your experience. It will never leave you, it will constantly grow, and when difficulties arise, you will depend on it. No other kind of equipment, no matter its cost, can replace your experience. Then, the second-most important piece of equipment is a map. Even if the trail is clearly visible and has useful signage: Take a map with you. It will save you a lot of trouble in case you have to spend the night on the trail, or when the weather gets worse. Without a map, you're lost – but with a map, you'll find a road where you can try to hitch-hike, you'll find shelter, or you may find an easier path.
And with all equipment: It is useful only when you know how to use it.
A last check
To each hiking trip, there are three sides. Check the risks by looking at each of them:
- the people: How is your health and the health of your partners? Do you have enough stamina? Does your ability match the difficulty of the route? Do you have enough experience? Do you carry the right equipment?
- the route: How long? How difficult? How difficult is navigation/orientation? Will you meet the most difficult part in the beginning, or at the end?
- the circumstances: How does current, past and forecasted weather affect the route?
It is impossible to minimize or cancel all dangers. But if you know about a danger, you can offset it by choosing a safety factor. For example, if it is raining heavily, you can choose a route without river crossings. Or if you feel unprepared, add larger time reserves.
Write a plan
On each trip, there are many instances where you can decide between three alternatives:
- when conditions are good, carry on
- when conditions are bad, choose an alternative path
- when conditions are bad and an alternative path does not exist, turn back.
So, create and carry a written plan that says when and where you have to make a decision. This forces you to be conscious of the time, the weather conditions, your well-being, and above all – the risks.
In remote areas, wind, heat and cold are significant dangers to an injured or a sick person. Finding some kind of shelter is extremely important – that is why you should always carry a map! When looking for lost persons, rescue personnel will always check shelters and their guest books.
There is a trade-off between getting good shelter, and avoiding transport that may be hard for the injured or sick person (and arduous for you). Often it is better to build a shelter where you are or somewhere close.
Always keep in mind the phone numbers of the rescue agencies. For example, in Europe, 112 is the number for all kinds of emergencies. When calling for help, have your map ready to explain your location.
When using a mobile phone is not possible, you must send somebody to call for help. If possible, send two people with written instructions (make a copy for those staying, as that will allow you to check whether changed plans are compatible with the instructions, or whether the instructions were ambiguous). Determine what path they should use, and whether they should come back to give assistance.
When you see or hear a helicopter, use the international signs for help. If you do not need help, make a "N" with your arms to signal "No help needed": One hand pointing to the ground, one hand pointing to the sky. If you need help, make a "Y" with your arms for "Yes, we need help": Point both hands to the sky. This is saving valuable time for the helicopter crew.
When a helicopter is landing, stand with your back to the wind, and your face to the helicopter (the pilot wants to land against the wind). Kneel on the ground, protect your eyes, and do not move. In case of bad vision (fog, night, rain, snowfall), the helicopter crew needs your body as a landing aid. For that reason, wear bright clothing when directing a helicopter.
Australia and New Zealand
- Tramping in New Zealand; New Zealand is popular for both day hikes and multi-day hikes, with a network of trails and huts to cater for most abilities. The country has a number of Great Walks which offer both private and public accommodation as well as guided hiking. These include the following:
- Grande Randonnée, Long distance walking in Europe, pilgrimages
- Hiking in the Nordic countries
- United Kingdom - see Walking in the United Kingdom
- United States of America