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Raise the Adventure Bar

10 tips to make an average hike extraordinary
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 Summitpost.org and Peakware.com. 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 profhike@backpacker.com.

—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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