Everything You Need to Know for Day Hiking
What do I wear? What do I bring? Where should I go, and when? What are the dangers? Will a bear get me?
Many questions come to mind when spring temperatures entice you toward the trails. Asking a few good ones can keep you out of trouble and ensure that you’ll want to continue hiking. Here are my answers to some common questions based on personal experience and making a few of my own mistakes along the way.
What Do I Wear?
You can wear almost anything and get away with it on the trail. It’s all about function, not fashion, so let’s look at this from the ground up.
- Socks—These are among a hiker’s most important pieces of clothing. Go with wool or a wool blend sock. Avoid cotton socks unless you like blisters and soggy, smelly feet. Any tennis shoes of reasonable strength are fine for day hiking. Don’t purchase a heavy pair of hiking boots unless you just want to. I don’t even wear heavy boots when backpacking; instead, I like low-top hiking shoes. The shoe that feels good on your feet should guide your decision.
- Pants—If the weather is nice, any lightweight pants will do. If there’s any hint of cooler weather, avoid cotton. Cotton can take days to dry out in the humid Ozarks. When hiking in the Ozarks, I almost always wear long polyester pants because of undergrowth, briars, and ticks.
- Underwear—For a short day hike, you can use cotton, but as you work up to longer hikes, you’ll want a pair of undies made from a fabric other than cotton.
- Shirt – A cotton shirt in summer is alright but if there is a chance of colder temperatures or moisture, pick another fabric.
- Hat—A hat is good for sun protection and heat retention, depending on the weather. I accidentally left my hat in my car at the Grand Canyon once and was thankful I had a bandana to tie into a makeshift hat. In some conditions, a hat is a necessity!
- Rain Protection (especially in cooler temperatures)—A light rain jacket can be wadded up in the bottom of your daypack and forgotten about until needed.
- Gloves—These should be made of anything but cotton and only worn if needed. I wear cheap army surplus wool glove liners when I hike, and they’re fine. I also have some nicer gloves for colder weather but am nervous about losing them. They hook together, which is nice for storage in my pack. Finding one glove is more irritating than finding one sock in the drawer.
What Do I Bring?
The short answer is as little as possible, but there are some essentials you’ll want to have, depending on the conditions. This list is drawn from the 10 essentials that are published in many forms. Below is my list, organized roughly by personal priority.
- Water and Access to Water—Put your water in a bottle or a bladder in your pack. One expert hiker friend, Grey Owl, swears by carrot juice bottles. He gave me a couple, and I use them all the time. I carry a small Sawyer water filter in my daypack in case I run low. It doesn’t add much weight and has made me a few friends on the trail when others needed water.
- Food—This is no time to try something new in the food department. Carry snacks you normally eat.
- Extra Clothing—Think protection from the elements. If it looks like rain, carry rain protection. If it looks like cold, carry an extra layer. My all-time favorite is an insulated vest. Stuff it in the bottom of your pack and it’s like a little insurance policy against a cold snap.
- Navigation—Don’t assume that you can’t get lost on an established trail. Daniel Boone supposedly said, “I’ve never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for few weeks.” Fortunately, I’ve only been “confused” an hour or so, but it can be a little scary if you’re not prepared. A trail guide and map of the area you’re hiking can make or break your trip. A compass is essential! Even a general idea about directions can save you some grief. Don’t count on the compass app on your phone or GPS. Batteries don’t last.
- Illumination—A small headlamp or flashlight in your pack can be a big help if a hike takes longer than anticipated and you’re walking the last part of your trail in the dark. I carry a small LED light in my daypack at all times.
- Sun and Bug Protection—A little sunscreen can make you a happy and healthy hiker. Bug spray around the cuffs of your pants can discourage ticks. Check for ticks often. The longer they’re on you, the greater your chances of getting one of several tick-borne diseases. I can usually feel the little guys climbing my legs and pick them off before they attach.
- First Aid Supplies—I like a zip-lock bag with some adhesive bandages and any medicines I might need if stranded for a while. Keep it simple and light and then forget about it until you need it. Purchasing a first aid kit isn’t necessary because it will not be customized for your needs and you’ll be carrying unnecessary stuff.
- Fire—I don’t smoke, but I always have a lighter with me in case I need a fire.
- Emergency Shelter—This is simple to do. Cut a small hole close to the bottom of a large trash bag. Stuff it in the bottom of your pack and forget about it. The small opening allows you to see and breathe but protects you from the elements. I’ve never used this makeshift shelter, but it’s like another cheap insurance policy.
- Pocket Knife—Most “10 essentials lists” include a repair kit, but for day hiking I don’t carry any tools other than a small pocket knife. One of my hiking poles has some duct tape wrapped around it for emergencies. I’ve used this twice to reattach a shoe sole for other hikers.
Where Should I Go?
The short answer is, “Hike anywhere your feet will take you.” The longer answer is to put in a little thought and planning before you head out. When in doubt, hike fewer miles. Begin with 1-2 trail miles. I say trail miles because hiking on most trails is more demanding than walking on pavement. Most experienced hikers allow about one hour for every 2 miles of hiking distance.
Pick up a Five-Star Trails guidebook that covers trails in your area. I collect guidebooks like my mother collected cookbooks. It’s fun to browse through to determine your next hike. If you’re traveling, Google the area to see what hiking trails are available. I met a couple of hikers from Nebraska on the Lake Alma Trail in Arkansas. As they drove through, they checked the Web and found our trail. They were delighted with the hike and looked forward to a meal in town before hitting the road refreshed and relaxed.
When Should I Go?
The short answer is to go as often as possible. In the Ozarks, we have a large hiking window. My favorite months are October through May. September is iffy due to possible warm days. Fall and winter are prime hiking months. July and August are good months for early morning day hikes or trips to higher elevations out west or up north.
What Are the Dangers?
The dangers are few and not what you might expect. Bears and snakes are not a concern. Just don’t step on or antagonize a snake and you shouldn’t have a problem. Bear sightings are rare because of the noise hikers make, and our smell usually cues the bear to our presence. I’ve only seen two bears in Arkansas, and they were moving away from me.
Avoid these hazards through preparation (in no particular order): dehydration, heat exhaustion, hypothermia, ticks, and mosquitoes.
Deer season coincides with some of the best times of year to hike. I tie a hunter-orange bandana to my day pack year-round and avoid impersonating a deer while in the woods. I’ve never had a problem.
Tell a friend or family member your itinerary, even if it’s a short day hike. Do this whether traveling alone or in a group.
Get Linked Up and Get Out!
Join a hiking club in your area, but check the descriptions of their hikes carefully so you don’t end up exhausted or with a stress injury. Most hiking groups schedule hikes suitable for novice hikers. The truth is, experienced hardcore hikers still enjoy a nice scenic stroll with their cameras. Joining with others is a great way to accelerate your knowledge about hiking and locations to explore.
Hiking has enriched my life, enhanced my health, and connected me with wonderful people. It’s a great big beautiful world out there. Get out and enjoy it!