Any outdoor enthusiast will tell you: The best way to spend quality time with mother nature is on foot. Hiking is not only a fat-burning, low-impact aerobic exercise; it also can take you to some breathtakingly beautiful places. But it's not as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. Planning well, packing smart and keeping safety in the forefront will make the difference between a terrific trek and a horrendous hike. Here's how to make the most of your outdoor adventure.
Before You Go
Plan your route. Study the map and guidebook before heading out. Note steep climbs, river crossings, side trails and scenic viewpoints. If you're going alone, leave your itinerary and probable return time with a friend or family member. Check in when you get back.
Dress like an onion. While a cotton shirt feels cool against your skin, less-absorbent lightweight wool, polypropylene or luxurious silk are better choices for hiking because they dry faster. Your first layer should fit without being tight. Then add an insulating layer such as a wool or synthetic fleece jacket to keep you toasty on chilly mountain summits. The best top layer is a waterproof, breathable shell jacket. Choose wind- and rain-resistant pants or quick-drying shorts. Peel off or add layers as needed.
Pack smart. Line your backpack with a heavy plastic bag to keep your clothes and gear dry. Soft bulky camping gear items such as your tent, sleeping bag and air mattress go in the bottom, followed by extra clothing. Next add your portable kitchen (stove, pot, utensils, water filter). Keep your food, water, camera, rainwear and waterproof pack cover within easy reach near the top or in outer pockets. Pack rigid or sharp items away from your back. Stow car keys and wallet securely.
Eat today, diet tomorrow. Because hiking can burn about 400 calories per hour, pack high-energy, low-volume snacks and food. Good choices include nuts, dried fruit, bagels, crackers, chocolate and peanut butter. For backpacking, buy dehydrated all-in-one meals from outdoor retailer stores. And check out the bulk foods section of your local health food store, where you can find less expensive dehydrated soups, refried beans, falafel, pasta, rice and powdered milk.
Be prepared. While packing a cell phone for emergencies is a good idea, reception in the backcountry is never dependable. Even on a day hike, you should pack a whistle, flashlight or headlamp (with extra batteries), first-aid kit, pocketknife, map, compass (learn how to use it) and a plastic garbage bag or space blanket. Also include sunscreen, socks, waterproof matches and extra food.
Learn first aid. Outdoor clubs offer weekend first-aid workshops focusing on what to do when the EMTs are miles away. The knowledge will help you treat everything from blisters and bee stings to broken bones. At the very least, always carry bandages, gauze pads, medical tape and aspirin or ibuprofen.