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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Raise the Adventure Bar

10 tips to make an average hike extraordinary

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

Finding a ruin can be the goal (and the best memory) of a hike. (JS)
Finding a ruin can be the goal (and the best memory) of a hike. (JS)

What makes a lasting memory?

For hikers, it’s either an incredible trip where everything works, or a bloodstained disaster that leaves you limping home. Since this blog fixates on calamities, let’s accentuate the positive. How can you transform a dull weekend hike into a great adventure? The answer: Set higher goals.

What if instead of settling for the safe and familiar, you ventured outside your typical stomping grounds? What if you set metrics beyond miles hiked and calories burned? Not only will these new goals get you off the couch, they will make future trips more memorable.

Ready for more adventure? Here are 10 ideas and the tools to make it happen.

1. Climb a highpoint.
Why climb a mountain? Not only “Because it’s there,” but also for the physical challenge and extra adventure. Plus, hiking at elevation reveals dynamic landscapes and spectacular views. The trick, however, is finding a local highpoint—especially a new one to summit. Your local promontory doesn’t need to be a snow-capped Himalayan peak. It can be a ridgeline, a knoll, a viewpoint, or a bluff overlooking a river valley.

Most parks and recreation areas include highpoints because they are exciting places to go. Find them by scanning topographical maps for high ground, looking for trails that switchback, or inquiring about routes with elevation gain. If you live in an elevation-challenged state (we hear you, Kansas…), find hikes near rivers where trails dip up and down during crossings. Two websites devoted to elevation are and Both portals provide routes, driving directions, and trip logs for peaks ranging from Ohio’s modest Campbell Hill (1,549 feet) to New Hampshire’s malevolent Mount Washington (6,288 feet).

2. Locate a lost city.
Hundreds of archaeological sites—from dilapidated ghost towns to overgrown cemeteries to shuttered mines—are hidden in wild places waiting to be re-discovered. To find them, an intrepid hiker needs a few clues, a good map or GPS skills, and some old-fashioned luck.

While living in northern New Mexico, I learned about a 600-year-old pueblo city located high in the Jemez Mountains. After getting an approximate GPS fix of the ruins from the local U.S. Forest Service office (they warned me against collecting artifacts), I bombsighted the coordinates into my GPS and planned my own Indiana Jones-esque adventure. Finding the pueblo ruins wasn’t hard—the crumbling stone towers stood clustered at the base of ponderosa pines not far from a fire road. But the thrill of discovery hooked me, and inspired future expeditions to locate (and respectively explore) more vanished settlements reclaimed by nature. To find out what might be lurking in the woods near you, scour map legends for symbols representing archaeological sites. You can also read about the history of the area before it became a park. And don’t ignore telling place names. After all, a spot like “Sam’s Point” on New York’s Shawangunks Ridge might have a good story behind it.

3. Seek out wildlife.
Most hikers encounter animals by chance. Improve your odds by searching for wildlife on their schedule and terrain. After all, the only thing better than waking up to the yaps of a coyote pack at 4 a.m. is being out in the pre-dawn woods watching them. Big mammals, such as deer, moose, elk, and bears, mimic Europeans and take a long siesta during the middle of the day. They are most active at dusk and dawn, as are nocturnal animals like rodents and owls. Big-winged raptors like hawks and vultures, however, require late-afternoon thermals to soar overhead. The timing of seasons can play a role, too. Hormone-fueled elk bulls are highly visible (and audible) during the fall rut, while raptors follow consistent spring and fall migration routes.

When it comes to location, gray jays and mice will hang around your campsite. But you’ll need to stake out transition zones like forest clearings, lake shores, and ridgelines to spot wilder animals. Some species are predictable: Moose never venture far from water, while bighorn sheep prefer steeply slanted slopes above treeline. Get into position early, dress in neutral colors, and stay still and silent for at least 30 minutes to allow your eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness. For more spotting tips, check out last June’s “Where to Spot Wildlife” guide.

4. Make a gourmet meal.
Plan multiple courses, pack real plates and utensils, add a bottle of wine, or create a fabulous dessert that cooks while you eat the main course.

5. Hike like Linnaeus.
Pack a regional field guide and attempt to identify as many species of plants and animals that you observe. For kids: Reward correct IDs with candy.

6. Cook over a campfire.
Make sure fires are permitted, then plan to cook a dinner over open flames or hot coals. My favorite: frozen steaks, plus potatoes and veggies wrapped up in a foil cocoon. And don’t forget the s’mores.

7. Survive by your wits.
Challenge yourself to light a one-match fire, subsist (safely) on minimal equipment, or build a wilderness shelter to sleep in overnight.

8. Go stargazing.
Bring a fold-out star chart, a red-tinted headlamp, or go high tech with the Starmap app for the iPad ($1) or iPhone ($12).

9. Take a child on a first hike.
Fight back against America’s obesity epidemic by teaching a child to appreciate and explore nature. For more tips, check out the grassroots successes profiled in “Last Child on the Couch.” 

10. Bring walkie-talkies.
Yes, it will be as cool as playing in the backyard when you were 11 years old. Maybe even better.

Overcome a hiking rut? Share your tips in a comment below or send an email to

—Jason Stevenson

idiot's guide to backpacking and hikingJason Stevenson is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

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May 14, 2012

Good List! This really makes me want to get out and explore now. Some of the best hikes I've had is when we ventured off trail.

Feb 19, 2012

-Night hike. One of my faves.
-Try to 'collect' certain types of features: waterfalls, fire towers, every trail in a certain area. Nothing more fun than collecting.

Feb 03, 2012

On the east coast, hikers use the snowsled trails to explore for up coming summer forays. No heat no bugs, plenty of time to decide which area to explore while you have the time and don't need to feel rushed to "find and go". Snow cover allows for seeking animal tracks to know the "who/what/where/when is.

Jan 04, 2012

Learn as much about the regions history as possible, then try and find historical sights. The coolest thing about most hikes, is the history around them. Others will enjoy the info.

Dec 26, 2011

#14- Bring a Rod, it's always fun to stop and take a break and fish.

Nov 24, 2011

#13 GO IN THE SNOW!!! (It's always slippery fun. Just make sure to bring a friend in case it's too slippery...)

Nov 09, 2011

A fave of my wife and mine -step off trail into a local town for a movie matinee or a buffet meal.

Oct 23, 2011

Love the tips. Taking friends into the wilderness fo their first trek is the best.

Oct 13, 2011

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Oct 09, 2011

#11: Go off trail. Pick somewhere on a map and try to get there (peak, lake, canyon). Or follow a river or ridge instead of trail. Best way to travel!

Sep 30, 2011

I like to hike familiar stomping grounds at unfamiliar times, like late at night. This works best for easy trails leading to good scenery near a full moon. Kids love it!

Sep 30, 2011

Can't say I like the idea of building wilderness shelter, because that violates just about every law and letter of the Leave No Trace philosophy. And unless that fire is in an existing fire ring, the same goes for cooking over a campfire.

Sad to see this mentioned without any caveat.

Prof. Hike
May 17, 2011

I don't want to remove all the mystery, so let me just say that the ruins on Jemez I visited are called Sayshukwa (Eagle Dwelling Place). They are near a forest road, but much more fun to hike to cross-country. Here are a few more clues:


Good luck!

May 03, 2011

Just out of curiosity, what are the GPS coordinates for that ruin you mentioned? I go up to the Jemez mountains all the time and I'd love to take a look at them.

Apr 29, 2011

Time of day matters - hike a familiar peak in the early morning to watch the sun rise from the top and it's like a whole new experience! Just bring headlamps and be safe in the dark...

Apr 29, 2011

I try to go to someplace different every time. This always makes for an interesting trip since I never know what I will come across. Unfortunately, it also means getting lost a lot on the way there and once at the park. My last trip with a friend and his son will never be forgotten, though, since we went in the wrong direction right off the bat and got stuck in a hail storm, thunder, lightening, and fog. When the spirits were down, we just all started laughing, wondering how many of our friends had ever experienced anything like this before.

Apr 29, 2011

I try to go to someplace different every time. This always makes for an interesting trip since I never know what I will come across. Unfortunately, it also means getting lost a lot on the way there and once at the park. My last trip with a friend and his son will never be forgotten, though, since we went in the wrong direction right off the bat and got stuck in a hail storm, thunder, lightening, and fog. When the spirits were down, we just all started laughing, wondering how many of our friends had ever experienced anything like this before.

FamilyTour USA
Apr 28, 2011

Jason - what a wonderful article! It takes a fresh approach to "top 10" lists, thank you for sharing this. To build on #9 many states offer a No Child Left Inside program through their State Parks dept. An online search should help people find something close to home. Thanks again!

James Taylor
Apr 28, 2011

Sometimes hiking in remote areas requires passing through small towns and villiages. While embarking on a ten day jaunt through the peruvian andes my friend and I had to pass through cusco (almost everyone makes this stop). It was june and for the entire month the entire city is alive all through the night. We arrived by bus arond 11pm and found everyone in the plaza drinking and partying. Our next bus wasn't scheduled until 6am so instead of finding a cheap place to crash, we stayed up and partied with the locals all night drinking wine and whiskey lol. We made friends and exchanged facebook contacts. Moral of the story; sometimes its the journey, not the destination.

Laurence Phillips
Apr 27, 2011

One fall evening backpacking in New Mexico's Cruces Basin (turn left north of Tres Piedras) -- we'd just finished putting on warm clothes and were getting ready to cook dinner -- my daughter and I heard the whistle of a Cumbres & Toltec steam engine echo through the basin follwed by a half-hour of elks bugling back and forth. Wow. So that's my tip for a great trip -- keep quiet and listen up.

Apr 27, 2011

Bring something good to burn or sip on. Always nice to take the edge off a bit.


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