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Professor Hike: Top 10 Beginner Hiker Blunders

"I've made the mistakes so you don't have to."
Prof. Hike equationProf. Hike equation

Today Backpacker.com launches this new “backpacking 101” blog aimed at novice hikers as well as experts who want to refresh their skills. Why? Because careless hikers are more likely to tumble off a cliff, poke a diamondback rattler, and otherwise get themselves in trouble’s way. And frankly, our nation needs more outdoorsy people, not less.

So Backpacker asked me, the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Backpacking and Hiking ($17, Alpha, 2010), to answer all of your camping, hiking, cooking, training, you-name-it questions. I’m no gonzo, Everest-scaling, bear-wrestling hardman, but I’ve hiked enough miles to recognize which mistakes first-timers tend to make. So let’s get started with part 1 of the first post:

The Top 10 Beginner Hiker Blunders 

1. Wearing denim like Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street
News flash: Denim is cotton, so wearing jeans (and jean jackets for that matter, Mr. Depp) is a poor choice for any hike, especially in rainy or cold weather. That’s because cotton retains moisture instead of wicking it away like wool and polyester fabrics. Once cotton gets wet, it takes a long time to dry out; that moisture on your skin siphons away body heat through convection, leaving you shivering in your boots, and more susceptible to hypothermia (hence the aphorism “cotton kills”). Jeans are the worst of all cottons because they can ice up in below-freezing weather. I learned this lesson on my first hike with the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire, and I’ve remained cotton-free ever since, except on short summer hikes where getting chilled isn’t a danger. So the next time you see hikers wearing blue jeans, remind them that the 1980s are over and that Johnny Depp now prefers tri-corner hats and eye-liner.

2. Buying your tent or sleeping bag at Wal-Mart
Sam Walton was an Eagle Scout, but he didn’t become America’s richest man selling top-quality camping and hiking gear at discount prices. Yes, Wal-Mart does sell an Ozark Trails sleeping bag for $10, but I wouldn’t use it on a real Ozark Trail. It’s fine to buy your beef jerky, trail mix ingredients, and propane canisters at big-box retail stores, but trust specialty outdoor stores and reliable brands for the gear that matters most, like footwear, raingear, sleeping bags, and tents.

3. Hiking a trail with a road map
Not all dotted lines are made equal. Thus, the map that helps you find the trailhead parking lot won’t help you navigate a trail. Hyper-detailed USGS topographical maps (called “quads”) are the gold standard for backcountry navigation, but they are often overkill for popular and well-marked trails. Much easier to acquire and use are designated trail maps that include topographical features like rivers, ridges, and peaks, as well as key info like hiking mileage and trailheads. Book stores and visitor centers often stock maps and guidebooks for local trails, while National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated series is great for U.S. recreation hot spots from Acadia to Zion. And don’t forget Backpacker.com’s new Print & Go weekend planners, which include gear checklists, driving directions, and waypoints for dozens of popular hike

4. Packing a first aid kit as if you’re landing on Omaha Beach
Morphine? Check. Gauze bandages? Check. M1 rifle? What? Most novice hikers either forget to bring a first-aid kit, or pack an entire pharmacy. Neither represents the right approach. You should bring a first-aid kit appropriate for the length of your trip, the size of your group (along with any individual medical needs), and your medical knowledge. The last one is important: If you don’t know how to use a first-aid item—like a suture kit—you probably shouldn’t be carrying it. Packing obscure supplies you’ll probably never use in place of additional bandages and painkillers doesn’t make sense. Basic first-aid essentials for most outings should be: adhesive bandages (various sizes), medical or duct tape, moleskin, sterile gauze, ibuprofen, Benadryl, antibiotic ointment, and alcohol wipes.

5. Being overhead saying, “Lightning can’t strike me—I’m not carrying anything metallic.”
If you think lightning only strikes metal objects, ruminate on this ancient Chinese proverb: “The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut by the scythe.” Then substitute “knuckleheaded hiker” for the tall grass and “zapped by 100 million volts of electric juice” for the scythe, and you’ve got Professor Hike’s updated proverb on why you absolutely need to descend from exposed peaks and ridgelines when an afternoon thunderstorm is brewing. Lightning is attracted to tall, isolated objects, which could be anything from a clueless hiker standing on a summit to a lone tree. And even if you’re not touching that lone tree, the lightning might strike the ground right next to it, or the ground current may surge up you. Secondary strikes can be just as deadly. What’s more, lightning can strike targets up to 10 miles from the center of a storm. Trust me on that; I’ve got a few hair-raising tales from New Mexico to prove it. Instead, get into a forest or the low point of rolling hills, a ravine, or a gully.

6. Going ultra-light without ultra-experience
A regular backpacker going ultra-light is like a vegetarian becoming a vegan—it takes time to dial down a new, safe system. Definitions vary, but ultra-light hiking generally means having a base pack weight (your gear minus food and water) of 10 to 12 pounds. The advantage, of course, is that you have less weight to schlep, but your safety net also shrinks: You have fewer backup provisions (food, fuel, warm clothes) if things go wrong, like you fall in a river or rodents steal your food.

The more backcountry experience you have, the more safely you can go ultra-light simply because you’re better equipped with skills to, one, avoid such mishaps and, two, improvise if they do occur. However, even expert mountaineers can pay the ultralight price. Think of Joe Simpson of Touching the Void fame: During his and his partner’s ascent of Siula Grande in the Andes, bad weather prolonged their climb, causing them to run out of fuel for melting snow for water—something that later would contribute to Simpson’s fall into a crevasse.

That’s why ultra-light hiking should be a gradual goal and not a first-time objective. Reducing pack weight is a skill you hone after much experimentation. So how much weight should you carry on a typical day-hike? Is it 10, 15, or 20 pounds? It all depends on the circumstances. If you’re hiking a dozen miles alone on a mellow trail, you can carry a sub-10 pound load of water, snacks, rain gear, headlamp, and the always essential map, compass or GPS. But if the trail is unfamiliar, tricky, or remote, and you’re hiking in a larger group, you might want to add a small first-aid kit, warm clothing, and extra water and food that pushes your weight north of 15 pounds. That’s because carrying more gear—along with the skills to use it—is your best strategy to reduce risk.

7. Wearing boots fresh from the box
I’m not a fan of hiking proverbs, but there’s one that I consider gospel: “If your feet are happy, the rest of you is happy.” I wised up to that fact on a 95-mile trek (Scotland’s bonny West Highland Way) that I began with stiff leather boots I hadn’t worn in eons. Those boots shredded my feet on the first day out, and I spent the next week limping up and down Scotland’s green hills. Trust me, neither you nor your feet will by happy if you begin a big trip with untested shoes or boots. Starting weeks ahead of time, you need to break them in while mowing the lawn, walking the dog, or running errands around town. Trail shoes, which perform more like athletic footwear, conform quickly to your feet, while taller, rigid boots require more break-in time. Wear recently purchased shoes indoors at first, since most outdoor stores have return policies that exclude those worn outside. If your feet hurt or develop hotspots or blisters, apply bandages, experiment with different socks, and keep at it. Remember also that most people’s feet swell a half size or more by the afternoon.

8. Starting too late in the day
Showing up an hour late for a 7 p.m. dinner reservation is bad manners. But starting at 2 p.m. a hike that you intended to begin at 10 a.m. is bad news. Unless you want your 15 minutes of fame on the CNN ticker (“Clueless Hikers Survive Freezing Nights in Wilderness”), it’s best to start on time, or shorten your route. I learned this lesson the hard way on a 10-mile hike in New Hampshire that began four hours late, included a few frustrating wrong turns, and ended at the trailhead parking lot just before midnight.

Besides an early start, how fast you move matters, too. An athletic adult hikes at 3 mph, but that rate drops to 2 or even 1 mph when you factor in rough terrain, elevation changes, and rest breaks. Groups always move slower than individuals, and a snail on crutches will beat families with toddlers. If you find yourself starting later than anticipated, check your map for shorter routes or a cut-off trail to reach your destination before sunset. If you find yourself falling behind, avoid the lure of cross-country shortcuts, and instead keep moving, watch the time, and be prepared to finish using headlamps, which you packed for just such an occasion.

9. Ignoring the weather forecast
A little rain isn’t a reason to cancel a hike. That’s why we have Gore-Tex boots and waterproof jackets, right? But even the best equipment can’t provide 100 percent protection from the soggy remnants of a hurricane or an Arctic-born blizzard. So before every trip, I review the website www.noaa.gov, which uses a Google Maps interface to generate five-day forecasts for precisely where I’ll be hiking. These results are far more accurate than the traditional forecasts for the nearest town, which could be miles away and thousands of feet lower than a trail. Plus, you can read the “Forecast Discussion,” which is like eavesdropping on local meteorologists during their coffee breaks.

Thanks to a NOAA forecast, I knew ahead of time that a powerful thunderstorm would crash a recent backpacking trip in the middle of the night. So I minimized the danger by picking a sheltered campsite, pitching my tent away from lone trees and dangling branches, and tightening the guy-lines for my rain-fly. Sure enough, I awoke at 1 a.m. to witness a ferocious—but mostly harmless—atmospheric cannonade of light and sound. And by morning, as the forecast predicted, the skies were blasted clear.

10. Skimping on Leave No Trace
Litterbug? Not you. I bet you’re a committed recycler. Maybe you even wash and re-use zipper-lock bags. But on a camping trip, where do you dump the soapy water after washing dishes? Do you really strain out the food bits and scatter the “gray” water at least 200 feet from any lake, stream, or campsite? And do you use biodegradable soap? That’s what Leave No Trace (LNT) (www.lnt.org)—seven principles promoting ethical, low-impact outdoor recreation—advises you to do. It’s easy to practice LNT’s major rules: Carry out trash, keep away from wildlife, and minimize the impact of campfires. The finer points, however—like packing out toilet paper and building small fires—are harder to follow. But since Bambi doesn’t crap up your bedroom, you should extend the same courtesy. So here are Prof. Hike’s six tips to make the tough tenets of LNT more achievable:

  • 200 feet equals 40 adult strides.  
  • Use the rubber tip of a spatula to scrap leftover food from plates and bowls into your mouth.
  • Reduce odors by placing silica gel desiccates (those moisture-absorbing packets found in shoe boxes and other packages) into your trash bag, then double-bagging it.
  • Use dryer lint as natural fire tinder.
  • Carry versatile sanitary wipes instead of flimsy toilet paper.
  • Stop washing dishes, as veteran hiker Johnny Molloy advocates in this June 2007 Backpacker article.

OK, there you have it: my top 10 list of n00b blunders. Let us know what you would add to the list!

—Jason Stevenson



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