Today is officially the first day of summer!
That means that many of us have extra time to enjoy fun outdoor activities. I love being outdoors hiking, backpacking, and tent or hammock camping. This GUCI Nature Exploration series is designed to enhance your outdoor activities with everything from safety and best practices to reviews of areas, close to your homes, where you can still enjoy the outdoors while safely social distancing. This first installment presents a few simple tips to make your day hike safer and much more fun!
Let me begin by saying that there are many different kinds of hikes that you can attempt. The key to having a successful hike is being honest with yourself. What do you want to get from this journey? How far can you truly walk before becoming tired? How rustic do you truly want to get? Being honest in your answers to these questions will greatly increase the chances of being successful out on the trails. Many people love to hike on fully paved trails wearing sandals, and that’s great! Others demand backwoods trails with only blazes to guide them, and that is great too! Just be honest with yourself, because being on a rugged backwoods trail with spiders, bugs, animals, and rough terrain is only fun if you truly want to be there. No matter what type of hike you are going on, the following tips will improve your experience every time.
Let’s begin with preparation.
Download trail maps to your phone.
Many parks will give you a paper map at the gate, but some may not be staffed everyday, especially during quarantine. Downloading the map to your phone beforehand also cuts your reliance on paper and the internet. Many of the state and national parks have spotty cellphone service at best.
Check the weather forecast for the time you will be hiking.
Some parks are an hour or two away by car. They may have a different forecast than at your house. Nothing is worse than spending hours in the car only to be rained out.
One to two days before you plan to go for a hike you should up your water intake. This will make you less susceptible to dehydration when the sweat starts flowing. Hydration is key to fighting off fatigue, disorientation, and even loss of consciousness. Pre-hydrating is like having your body study for a test. Could you have passed the test without studying? Maybe. Is the test a whole lot easier if you study? Definitely.
Now, let’s move on to the day of the hike.
Apply sweat-proof sunscreen at least 30 minutes before you go out in the sun.
Sunscreen not only protects your skin from sunburns, it also helps to regulate your body temperature. While you are exercising, your body regulates its temperature using blood flow, respiration, and perspiration (sweating). If you are in the sun, the sun’s UV rays heat you up the way a microwave pops a bag of popcorn. Sunscreen protects you against the UV rays and makes it easier for your body to control its temperature. Which puts less strain on your heart, and lowers dehydration through sweat. Be sure to reapply while on the trail!
Bring a pair of sunglasses along.
Many beginner hikers apply sunscreen but don’t protect their eyes. The sun can be just as damaging to your eyes as it is on your skin. Even if you are hiking in shaded areas like forests or canyons your eyes need protection. As a bonus, it is much easier to see your map on your phone screen with sunglasses on in the bright sun.
Bring a full water bottle and travel cup with ice.
When hiking, cold water is actually not good for you. Shocking your system with really cold water can cause headaches, chest pains, vomiting, and even loss of consciousness. Ideally you want room temperature water in your water bottle. So why did I tell you to bring a cup of ice? I keep a cup of ice locked in my car while hiking. The heat of the car will melt the ice while you are enjoying your hike. When you return to the car you now have fresh, slightly cool water to add to your bottle and your body.
I carry snacks they are simple choices like nuts and dehydrated fruit. Just be sure that anything you bring in you bring back out. That includes packaging but also extra food remains. Bits of food on or near the trail attracts animals. While this sounds like a good thing, it isn’t. Leaving food can alter the layouts of natural food webs bringing apex predators into closer contact with humans. And while it is neat to see a bear, wolf, big cat, etc. while out on the trail, too much contact causes them to lose their fear of humans. Often when an apex predator loses their fear of humans, they are put down. So please take everything you brought with you back out again.
First aid is always important.
No one wants to think about bad things happening while we are out having fun. And I’m not going to tell you to carry a huge first aid kit in a backpack. You are welcome to do so, but on a day hike I travel light. If you have an allergy to stinging insects make sure you have your EpiPen or equivalent. I also carry a simple first aid pack with band aids, alcohol pads, gauze pads, a notecard with my name, emergency contact, food allergies, and medication allergies. Most injuries on the trail are minor cuts and scrapes.
Dressing for a hike.
I never recommend hiking barefoot or in sandals, though many people do it successfully. I wear trail running shoes or hiking boots when I venture out. Most of my hikes are trail hikes with moderate to rugged terrain. I need the ankle support, foot protection, and grip of a rubber sole to deal with the various terrain. But if you are doing a quick, paved, loop trail with very little strain, then sandals may work for you. Never go barefoot.
I wear long lightweight pants, a sweat wicking shirt, and a bucket hat or sun hat when I go hiking. When I am hiking I like to keep my mind on the task at hand. I don’t want to worry about things like small scrapes and cuts from plants and terrain, or poison ivy, sumac, or oak hanging over the trail edge. All of my hiking clothes are synthetic materials that wick moisture or they are made of natural wool. Bonus: wicking fabrics don’t hold that sweat smell!
Optional items you may want to consider using.
Many hikers use bug repellant to protect them from various biting and stinging insects. I only use bug spray if I am going into deep back country where bugs are a huge problem. For most day hikes I go spray free mostly because I hate the smell.
Bear mace can be helpful when dealing with run-ins with wildlife. I only carry mace if I am in an area with mountain lions or brown bears. Most Midwest hikes don’t require this precaution.
A separate camera can be a great addition to a hike. While most people have really great cameras in their smart phones, certain shots, especially wildlife shots, turn out better with a camera.
Trekking poles can really extend the distance you are able to cover without becoming fatigued. I rarely bring them along on a day hike simply because they can be cumbersome when not in use. But if I am doing a weekend backpacking trip my trekking poles are essential.
As you can see, I could talk about this forever. Over the next few weeks check back here for more posts about hiking, the outdoors, camping, and more! I will be posting suggestions for various types of hikes all over the GUCI region. So keep checking back to find out about your area. Got hiking or camping stories, pictures, and memories that you want to share with me? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be sure to check them out! See you soon!
GUCI CLASP Fellow