Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Beginner Hiking Series 2: What to bring, When to go and What type of hiking you can do.

Now that you have been on a hike or two, you are probably wondering where to go next. Sure, you could continue to do the same simple hikes (and in fact many people do just that) but many hikers will want to branch out and specialize in the types of adventures they enjoy.

Do you Prefer a well maintained trail?
Or an adventurous scramble?

Types of Hiking
So far in this series, we have only touched on hiking in it simplest form; going on a relatively short trek on well maintained trails. However, the term hiking covers many different activities that range in difficulty from leisurely walks to extremely strenuous outdoor expeditions. To give you a better understanding of the different types of hiking you can try, I have listed out some of the most popular options below.

Day Hiking
I love a good, long day hike
Day hiking is the easiest form of hiking to understand; go on a hike that lasts at most a day. Most beginning hikers will be comfortable doing day hikes in the range of 2 to 6 miles that last about 3-6 hours. Typical trails can range from flat, well maintained paths to rough and rocky routes on steep slopes. Day hiking is the perfect way to get into other types of hiking because it involves the least time commitment the least gear. All you really need is a small pack and a few supplies (see The Beginner Hiking Series 1 for what you should take) to have a great time.

Now you might assume that day hiking would only be fun for beginners; but in fact it can be made quite difficult by simply adding distance to the hike. Many highly experienced hikers (myself included) really enjoy day hikes because they require very little time and so we can do lots of them. I personally prefer day hikes in the 10-20 mile range at a walking pace that most people would probably consider a light jog. While I admit this is certainly not something a beginner is likely to enjoy, it just goes to show that you can make day hiking a very strenuous activity.

Weekender Backpacking
Before I  explain what is involved in weekender backpacking, I should clear up some confusion I heard recently. When people uninitiated in the outdoors hear the term backpacking, they probably think college kids traveling around Europe staying in hostels. Backpacking in the outdoors is much different. In this context backpacking means hiking out into the wilderness and camping somewhere while carrying all you gear and supplies in your pack.

Weekender backpacking involves camping out for 1 or 2 nights at a time, hence the weekender label. Most weekend length trips involve hiking to a campsite that is relatively close to the trail head, often as little as 4 or 5 miles. The short length of these trips make them a great avenue for new backpackers to gain some valuable experience and to learn the types of trails and camping they enjoy. It will also allow you to figure out what gear works for you and what is junk. Because the trail head (and your car) are relatively close, these trips are more forgiving than longer backpacking expeditions since you can most likely hike out to your car if something goes wrong or the weather turns nasty.

While an exhaustive list of gear required is beyond the scope of this series (look for an upcoming guide to backpacking), the basic items you will need include: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove and cooking utensils. For this type of trip you will need a backpack with a capacity in the range of 45-55 liters.

Long Duration Backpacking
Longer duration backpacking trips are basically the same as a weekend length backpacking trip, but last longer and typically cover significantly more miles. I tend to consider long duration anything longer than a weekend, but the most common trip lengths in this category last between 5 and 10 days. The miles traveled on the trip depends mostly on how fit you are and where the trip takes place. In flat terrain it is not uncommon to cover 15 to 25 miles in a day; but throw in significant altitude gain and you may only cover 5 to 10 miles per day.

While longer duration backpacking seems almost the same as a weekend trip, it can require significantly more back country experience and self sufficiency. On a weekend trip, if something goes wrong you are at most a day's hike away from help. However, if you are in the middle of a 10 day trip you may be 5 days hiking from help if something goes wrong.  An example of this was a 7 day trip I took in Yosemite a few years back. The trail we chose was a large loop and at the midpoint we were over 40 miles from the nearest road. Had something gone wrong, I would have been on my own. To ensure you have a safe and fun experience, it is important you know how to repair or fix your gear and that you pack appropriate spares and extra food to allow you to deal with un-expected situations. My rule of thumb is that unless you are going with an experienced backpacker, you shouldn't attempt a trip like this until you have at least 3 or 4 shorter trips under your belt.

Alpine Mountaineering 
Alpine mountaineering (or peak bagging) is defined as non technical climbing of mountain peaks at medium altitudes. This is not to be confused with climbing peaks like Mt. Everest or Mt. McKinley, which involve technical mountaineering at extreme altitudes.  Most alpine peaks can be climbed in a single day and many require only a sturdy pair of boots and some basic supplies to attempt. The most famous climb of this type in the United States is Mt. Whitney; the highest point in the continental US. You can find lots more information on climbing and training in my Road to Whitney blog series.

While climbing a mountain may seem pretty far removed from hiking, many Alpine climbs require hiking significant distances while on approach to the mountain itself. Once you reach the mountain you are often required to "scramble" up steep, loose rock slopes and there are rarely well maintained trails. A major concern for many hikers is the effects of altitude on the body when climbing these peaks. Due to the relatively short approaches to many climbs of this type, the body is unable to acclimatize to the altitude in time to prevent the onset of symptoms.

Sometime. this is as good as the trail gets...

The Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains are a very popular destination for this type of hiking and climbing due to the temperate weather and ease of access to numerous great mountains. While an alpine mountaineering adventure is certainly not out of the realm of possibility for a beginner, I always recommend you go with someone who is experienced at this type of climbing or hire a guide for your first trip or two. There are many dangers unique to climbing mountains that are not immediately apparent until its too late, leaving you in a dangerous or even life threatening situation.

Sometimes referred to as canyon hiking, canyoneering is essentially mountaineering in reverse. It involves descending a canyon and either camping or hiking back out. Most traditional canyoneering is non technical and requires only hiking skills; though a specific branch called "Canyoning" involves rappelling down technical sections using ropes and other gear. Canyoneering is deceptively difficult because unlike climbing a mountain where the second half is all downhill, you must climb all the way out of the canyon you just descended.

It's a long way down, and back up.

Probably the most famous and often underestimated canyoneering descent is the Grand Canyon. Many visitors simply do not grasp the effort that is required to make the 5,000 vertical foot climb from the bottom of the canyon. For scale, the climb to Mt. Whitney from the trail head involves an elevation gain of 6,000 ft. While altitude is not a factor in canyoneering, the deceptive ease of the descent often leads less experienced hikers to over commit and turns an otherwise fun trip into a grueling and dangerous return in 100+ degree heat.

What to Bring

What you bring on a hike really depends on three factors: where you hike, what time of year you hike and how far you hike. Since this blog is about beginner hiking I will focus the discussion on day hiking and won't be covering the equipment required for other types of trips.

Understanding where you are going to be hiking allows you to fully prepare for what you will need to take with you. The unique terrain and climate of an area requires special consideration to ensure you have what you need. Below I have listed some area specific considerations commonly encountered on hikes.

Hot, Dry climate
The desert can be a singularly unforgiving place; lack of water, vegetation and infrastructure make it a bad place to get stuck or run out of supplies. To help you best cope with a desert climate you should bring extra water and sun protection with you. I also personally recommend extra first aid supplies; I have a bad habit of getting lots of cuts and scrapes in the desert and have been known to fall into a Cholla cactus or two.

Cool, wet climate
The biggest challenge to a cooler climate is staying dry and warm. Because of this, I always recommend that you bring a full waterproof layer and the means to generate warmth in case of trouble. I always bring a Firesteel and a lighter in case I get stranded and need to stay warm. I generally don't bother lugging extra water if there are streams or lakes nearby, but I will bring a water filter or at the very least Iodine tablets to treat the water. While many people will tell you that you can safely drink the water in many places without trouble, I personally feel you should never take the risk of getting sick and prefer to play it safe. It is true that much of the water in the wilderness is safe, but if you are on a day hike, you are likely in an area frequented by lots of people, so its best not to trust any water you find.

Temperate, coastal climate
Coastal areas generally have pretty forgiving climates and don't require too many special considerations. The most common thing to worry about is rapidly changing weather. Since I live near the coast, this is one of the more common environments I find myself hiking in. I will generally bring a windbreaker layer in case clouds or fog roll in as the temperature can drop 30 degrees in as little as half an hour.

A coastal day hike

Mountainous terrain
Mountainous areas pose an interesting combination of the challenges we have discussed already. High altitudes tend to bring dry air and rapidly changing weather combined with lack of shelter. My preferred mountainous area for hiking is the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California and this often takes me to relatively high altitudes. Knowing the particular area is pretty important in the Sierras because the entire area has a somewhat desert like climate that can make conditions tough to deal with. To best deal with the weather I bring a fleece or down base layer and a waterproof windbreaker in case of rain or cold. For water I generally will bring a water filter as well as a little extra water in case of trouble. I also bring sturdier boots or shoes because many mountain trails are pretty rugged and rocky.

The weather changes fast in was clear about 20 minutes before this.

Understanding the unique challenges to different seasons is important because it can greatly impact your hiking experience. I have laid out some simple guidelines for each season below:

Nights come early in the winter so always bring a flashlight or headlamp. Due to the cooler weather its important to bring warmer clothing and shoes. I like to carry an extra pair of socks in case my feet get wet and I always make sure my boots or shoes are waterproof. I also carry extra food as staying warm burns extra calories.

Spring tends to still be cool but the weather can change rapidly, so its important to be prepared in case it cools down and rains or snows. I bring waterproof and warm layers even if I don't always use them. I also still bring lights as sunset still tends to be relatively early.

Heat is you biggest enemy in the summer. I bring extra water and sun protection and wear breathable clothing so I don't overheat. Finding water will start to become an issue in the summer unless the source is pretty large.  In the fall I carry lights and extra water as most available water sources are probably at their season low.

How Far
How far you can hike is a pretty important decision that only you can make. Knowing your limits and when to turn back can make the difference between an enjoyable hike and a potentially dangerous situation. When you are just starting out hiking you probably don't want to choose hikes longer than about 5 or 6 miles. This will allow you plenty of time to finish even at a slower pace if you get tired. However, as you progress you will naturally find longer and more adventurous hikes that appeal to you. The best way icrease your distance is to do progressively longer hikes until you know your limits and then you can pick hikes of the correct length for your fitness level. My rule of thumb is to set a turn around time for myself to ensure I don't go too far. For example, If I am on a long hike that is 10 miles out and then 10 miles back I will choose a time that I have to be heading back by no matter where I am. Since I like to start early in the morning I usually use 2pm or 3pm as my absolute turn around to ensure I get back before dark.

There are 3 simple rules you can use to help stay safe on your hikes:

Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return
This is the best way to ensure if you have a problem you receive help quickly. This way, if you are injured and can't hike out help will know where to look for you quickly.

Bring a first aid kit
This is pretty self explanatory.

Be prepared to stay out longer than you expect
A little extra food and water can make the difference if you are forced to stay out longer than expected, or even if you just happen to be hiking slower than you thought you would.

When should I hike?

The time of day you hike is largely up to you, but I generally recommend that you start early and finish early. The first reason I recommend this is because the earlier you start, the more daylight you have to hike in; this means you can take longer hikes but also gives you more time to hike out if you have a problem. The second is that most people don't get up early and the trails (and parking) will be less crowded. Many hiking areas have very limited parking and if you arrive early you are almost assured at getting a nice space.

1 comment:

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