Top Ten Tips for Beginner Mountain Hiking
May 5, 2017 / By Chris Oudean
There’s nothing more satisfying than reaching the summit of a mountain and taking in the hard earned vistas of breathtaking landscapes far below. The challenges of reaching the summit can be enough to discourage a newcomer to this activity, but with the right preparation and determination, almost anyone can hike a mountain. Here are a few key tips to accomplishing your goals and joining the community of mountain hikers!
-Please note that these tips are only for mountains with up to a 5000 foot elevation gain and peak altitude. Anything beyond this altitude will need additional special considerations for possible altitude sickness. Even at 5000 feet elevation, altitude sickness has been known to occur in certain individuals. Be prepared and be safe.
– Falls Creek Trail Overlook, Chugach State Park, Alaska. Click picture for full size version.
Don’t just go out and buy the most expensive shoes you can find for hiking. Even the fanciest shoes may not be the best for the region you are hiking in. First of all, know where you are hiking and what demands may be put on your body. If you’re hiking on shale and over sharp rocks, look for shoes with aggressive traction that have a rigid sole. Some shoes even come with a toe guard in front, which can be especially handy in rocky areas. If this isn’t as big a problem, it’s still a good idea to look for rigid soles. This will help prevent shifting inside your shoes that can lead to painful blisters.
Low-cut or above the ankle boot cuts can be tough to choose. It’s usually a matter of heat and maneuverability. If you want to protect yourself from spraining an ankle, go for the high cut boots. You will potentially sacrifice breathability though so you may opt to risk it if you’re in hot weather and go for low-cut. You can get the best of both worlds if you find a shoe with lots of breathability.
Breathability is perhaps one of the most important factors in finding a good shoe. Humidity buildup is you worst enemy when fighting raisin toes and blisters. There is nothing worse than being stuck on a mountain with soggy sweat soaked feet full of blisters. Many hikers will fall into the waterproof trap and forget to ensure their shoes can breath. Keeping water out does not work if you keep humidity in. To combat this, you have to find a happy medium. Look for shoes that have mesh materials along the top of your feet to allow heat to escape. Many of these will come with a water resistant coating that can help repel light rain, but in heavy rain, you’re most likely getting your feet wet no matter what you do. If this happens, wouldn’t you rather have some vents to help release the moisture if the rain stops?
Your shoes will not last. It doesn’t matter how fancy they are, or what material they use. It’s just a matter of time before they fall apart. Knowing this going in will ensure you’re not focused on the best of the best. Buy for utility, and only for what you need to make it up the mountain as comfortable as possible.
The last tip I will give is to buy slightly larger shoes than your normal size. This is an old runner’s trick. You can always lace the up tight on your way up, but I guarantee you’ll be loosening them up at some point. Your feet can swell a lot during extended physical activity, dramatically so at times. As long as it’s not excessive, It’s nothing to be concerned over, it’s just the body’s natural defense over repeated impacts against your feet. In marathons, your feet can swell a whole 1/2 size larger than normal, and stay that way well after you’ve finished the race. The same thing can happy while your trudging up that steep mountain slope. Be sure not to buy too large though, as you will want to lace your boots up enough to prevent your feet from slipping around. The more your feet can move around in your shoes, the more likely you may develop blisters along the way.
– Hope Trail overlooking Turnagain Arm, Chugach State Park, Alaska. Click picture for full size version.
No matter where you’re hiking, it’s a 100% guarantee that the weather at the base of the mountain will not be the same at the top. For this reason, you need to plan to change your clothing configuration around 2-3 times throughout your hike. The best way to pull this off without hauling a bunch of extra weight is to buy clothes with the intention of layering. No single layer is designed to accomplish everything you need, but as a whole, you’re covered for many different conditions.
The basics of layering can be whittled down to 3 layer types: your base layer, your middle layer, and your shell layer. For the base layer, choose clothing that fits comfortably against your skin that has some sort of moisture wicking properties. This helps prevent hypothermia in cool weather, improves venting perspiration in hot weather, and increases overall comfort.
Your middle layer is for insulation. There are a lot of options out there, but the basic tips are to look for lightweight fabrics that carry maximum insulating properties. One of our favorites is synthetic insulation. This is less expensive than down, and still does a very good job at insulating without much added weight. Also, synthetic still insulates even when it’s wet whereas goose down does not.
The shell layer is all about protecting you from the elements. Anything from wind, snow, or rain, you’ll need to think long and hard about this one. Choosing the right shell layer can also depend on the middle layer you’ve chosen. If you opt for heavily insulating middle layers, you can get away with a thinner shell layer that perhaps is rain repellent and can be a windbreaker. Otherwise, if you anticipate cooler weather, you may just go with a shell layer that includes an insulating layer too. If you anticipate cool weather near the top, you may even want to consider two insulating layers that you can wear together or separately. If you have a jacket that includes an insulating lining that can be removed, you can use the same jacket for multiple climate conditions. REI is all about this method, so you’ll be in good hands if you shop here.
The essential sack on your back that will carry all of your stuff needs to be, in a word, comfortable. For day hikes, you can get away with a simple hydration pack if you don’t plan to be out for many hours in bad weather, otherwise a day pack would work better. We prefer an aluminum framed one, with a mesh lining that stretches across your back, includes a curved airway for your back to get fresh air, zippers on top and bottom for quick access, an adjustable belt strap with zippered pockets for snacks, an interior water pouch, shoulder straps with multiple adjustment options and cushioning, and a chest strap. Having a backpack that allows for quick strap adjustments around your waist and shoulders will help immensely in honing in your comfort level under load. You may also find that you prefer a different fit and weight distribution on different parts of your hike, like your way up or down.
Be sure to try out packs in the store and always weigh it down with the weights provided. If a store doesn’t carry any weights, you can bring your own, but any good outfitter should have these. Keep in mind that they come in different sizes as well, and having one too large or small can make it impossible to get comfortable. Many manufacturers will state the compatible torso length on the product tag, so knowing this will help. Measure your torso (length between the neck, at the C7 Vertebra, and the lower back, at the iliac crest) and compare your options.
There are tons of accessories out there that can make a significant difference on your hiking experience. I personally prefer these options:
- Hats: A dense, but thin beanie is my go-to. I prefer the Smartwool brand. The fabric is comfortable, not itchy on my forehead, and insulating while also very thin.
- Gloves: My all time favorites are the Seirus Xtreme All Weather Gloves. Water resistance, insulating, comfortable, and standing the test of time are all reasons why I love this product.
- Socks: Thin material toe socks are a great way to avoid blisters. Check out Injinji.
- Sunglasses: Anything with polarized lenses.
- Trekking Poles: Collapsible, lightweight, with quality handle grips. More on this later.
- Rain cover for backpack: They come in tiny little pouches and can hide easily in your backpack until you need them most. I always have one just in case.
- Rain/windbreaker pants: Absolute lifesavers when you need them.
- Crampons : Yaktrax are excellent for hiking on snow or ice.
- Gaiters: Fantastic for keeping out snow, rain, pebbles, & dirt out of your shoes.
– Wolverine Peak Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska. Click picture for full size version.
5. Trekking Poles
This handy tool can be an easily overlooked accessory. You might consider this as unnecessary, but there are lots of great reasons to seriously consider buying some for any hike. Try to find ones that are both lightweight and sturdy, with adjustable lengths, wrist straps, & shock absorption.
Be sure your poles are adjusted so that when in use, your arms are around a 90’ bend at the elbow in mid stride.
Here are some of the many benefits of trekking poles:
- Ascending: Shifting your load and increasing stability can drastically accelerate your ascension speed.
- Descending: Extending your poles while descending can make a huge difference in tackling obstacles, increasing balance, reducing the pressures against your feet and legs, and help prevent back and core muscle strain.
- River crossing: They provide much needed stability while wading through water.
- Snow & Mud: Things can get pretty slippery, and having two more contacts on the ground can make all the difference.
- Logs: Use then to stabilize yourself when stepping over fallen logs across the trail
- Wind: Often times the peak of a mountain can have unpredictable wind gusts. Planting yourself leaning towards the wind against your trekking poles is a handy trick to enduring these.
Water is a key ingredient to not only a good hike, but a safe one. Without enough of it, all sorts of bad things can happen. If fact, being dehydrated can lead to what is called brain fog, which can cause you to make all sorts of potentially unwise decisions that may put you in serious danger. There’s a lot of study about how much water you should consume during physical activity, but there’s no easy answer. As your fitness level increases, your body becomes more efficient at water retention, and it will take more physical exertion for you to sweat as profusely as before. If you are overweight and out of shape, you may sweat so much there might not seem there would ever be enough H2O on your back to keep you hydrated.
The key here is to pace yourself. If you’re sweating profusely and still have a long way to go, slow down. Sweating too much will not only increase your risk of hypothermia, but will also cause you to burn through your water faster. It may take a while, but you’ll find your pace with some experimentation. As you get more in shape, you’ll naturally go faster over time.
For your water supply, it’s all about weight vs. reward. Carry too much, and you weigh yourself down. Too little, and you risk dehydration. Look for lightweight water containers, like the popular water bags that often come with straws so you can drink as you move. You can even add ice to them and if you have them in a backpack pouch next to your back, they can cool you off on a hot day. If you’re going to be near a water source that you trust, consider carrying less water and bringing a water filter to fill up on your way down. Be very cautious though, as there can be not only pathogens, but also chemicals that could be unhealthy to consume.
Carbon filters will take care of most chemical concerns. For the microbiological filter, be sure to look for products that minimally adhere to the EPA’s NSF Protocol 231. This is the industry standard as of 2017 for backcountry water filtration standards. It will protect you against nearly all bacteria, viruses, and cysts you may encounter. We have been longtime users of the Lifesaver Bottle, and would highly recommend it. It is a little on the heavy side and takes up more space, but it’s simple, relatively quick for filtering a few liters compared to some gravity filters, and very reliable, though it may not be the best choice for filtering large amounts of water (gallons).
7. Healthy Food
As I’m sure you’ve seen, the menagerie of food products being marketed to outdoor enthusiasts is overwhelming. Though there are many great products out there, there are many things that they all have in common, and with a little time and care, you could probably save yourself a few bucks and make your own trail food. For all of your food products, you’ll want these main ingredients: salt and/ or minerals to keep your electrolytes in balance, carbohydrates that are low glycemic, and protein.
Try your best to stay away from anything with corn syrup or high levels of sodium. We constantly overeat salt in the USA, so there’s no need to overdo it. Corn syrups hide in all sorts of foods and is simply a quick non-enduring rush of energy. You’ll crash from the sugar high, and could cause muscle aches as a result. Complex carbohydrates like grains will give you lasting energy and a balanced blood sugar level. To make it a meal, adding proteins, healthy monounsaturated fats, and anything that will introduce some micronutrients or essential vitamins will really hit the spot.
Remember to always try and use natural, unprocessed ingredients and you should be just fine. If you don’t have the time to make your own and are going with ready to eat stuff, use the above general guidelines as a rule of thumb. Experiment with different types of food. I like to carry dried fruit for a faster and healthier energy boost, and bring peanut butter sandwiches for the meal breaks. Also in between those two, I’m a sucker for thick cut, potato chips kettle cooked in avocado oil.
8. Safety First
Safety is above all paramount in any hiking situation. Think very smart about what you bring, and plan for any potential scenario. In this age, there are many potentially life saving tools at your disposal that when combined may not amount to much extra weight. It’s a worthwhile investment that demands careful thought. Here are just a few things that we will bring with us depending on the situation:
- GPS Beacon
- Blood clotting pad
- Tick remover
- Flint striker or waterproof matches
- Emergency heat reflecting blanket
- Splinter (fine-point) tweezers
- Rolled gauze
- Alcohol wipes
- Antibacterial ointment
- Assorted bandages
- Ibuprofen/ Aspirin
- Multitool like swiss army knife
- Needle & thread
- Iodine pills
- Duct tape
- Nitrile gloves
There are many brands to choose from out there on these products, but I will say that for the GPS beacon, we have been using the Spot Messenger for about six years now. It’s a simple to use, decently priced GPS device. It has a tracking mode that will log your location online in real time, a button to inform private parties of your location preprogrammed with a specific message, and an emergency button that will send your location to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center that will then coordinate with local response teams to find you. It’s a very handy tool to have around if you get yourself in a bad situation.
– Mount Sopris Trail, Carbondale, Colorado. Click picture for full size version.
Before you hike up a mountain, its a good idea to plot out your trip before you head out. Do your research on the trail and find out what type of situations you may find yourself in. Are there really steep areas, or switchbacks all the way? Will it be muddy? Are there rocky areas that could slow your ascension? Is the trail a loop or out and back? All of these can drastically change how long it takes to traverse the trail to the top. We prefer out and back trails since you’ll know what’s on the way back and can expect a slightly faster descent. If you know your body enough to time your hiking speed, you can then use the trail length and determine how soon you need to start hiking to avoid nightfall. As a general rule of thumb, it’s always best to start hiking early in the morning.
During our hikes, we have found most of the time that it takes half the time to go down as it does to go up. While on the trail, you can keep a eye on the time and at any point if you think it’s getting late, you can add up how long you’ve been on the trail and cut the time in half to get your expected return time. This isn’t a golden rule, but can be helpful when trying to figure out when to turn back. Just make sure you aren’t out after dark. Hiking at night reduces visibility, increases your risk of hypothermia, puts you at greater risk of encountering nocturnal predatory animals, and is simply just a bad idea.
10. Tell someone where you’re going
This is a simple, but necessary step. If all else fails, and you find yourself in an impossible scenario with no way back, you can at least know you told someone you were going here, and that you’d be back by sundown (or whatever time you specify). That way you don’t fall into some Hollywood movie plot-line were you’re doing all sorts of extreme crazy things to escape and it’s a miracle you make it out alive. Send a text, a quick phone call, email, whatever works just so that you know someone else knows where you’ll be.
Katie and I have been mountain hiking since 2007, mostly in Alaska and Colorado. In case you live in these regions, here are a few quick tips for you:
- Plan for unpredictable weather. I’ve hiked in rain, wind, snow, and sunshine all in one 6 hour hike.
- Bring sunscreen. It may be chilly near the top, but the sun will still burn you all the same.
- Bear spray is a must. There are more bears in Alaska than any other state in the US, so be ready for an encounter. An air horn could be a double-whammy.
- Anti-itch cream. Mosquitos are a stark reality here, and no matter what you do, you probably won’t be able to repel them. Bring some cream to relieve the ones that get through your defenses.
- Bells. Having some jingling bells on you where you expect a potential encounter with wildlife will help to alert them before you get too close. Spooked wildlife in any form is dangerous, and rest assured, the trails aren’t just used by humans.
- Start your hike early. Colorado is notorious for lightning related hiking deaths. Be sure you’re on your way back down before noon, as this is the peak time of day for thunderstorms, which are nearly impossible to predict and can form in mere minutes.
- Altitude Sickness. Read everything you can on this topic. Know the symptoms and make a plan in case it happens to you. Do not, I repeat, do not continue ascending if you are experiencing altitude sickness. It’s extremely dangerous and can be fatal.
- Rattlesnakes aren’t just on the plains. We’ve encountered these guys on top of mountains, so be prepared. Educate yourself about their behaviors so you can anticipate their reaction to your presence. Give them a wide berth when passing by. Do not try to scare them off, it won’t work and will just put you in more danger. They can strike far faster than you can react. Make sure you have a plan in advance in case you are bitten.
- Ticks suck. Be sure to bring a tick remover tool, and be fastidious about looking over yourself after a hike. You can usually find information online on known tick infested areas in Colorado since its a well known problem here.
- Bring sunscreen. Notice how I keep mentioning this? Sunburn is no joke, and can drastically increase your risk of skin cancer, which is by far the most common form of cancer. It’s especially important in Colorado, where the UV index can often get up to level 9 on the scale, indicating a very high risk of sunburn and unprotected skin can burn in mere minutes.
No matter where you’re hiking, be sure to consider safety first. Keep on persevering up that mountain, and before you know it, you’ll be basking in the triumphant glory of the peak. Mountain hiking is not only good exercise, but good therapy too! Just think what you can accomplish if you can trudge yourself all the way up to the top of a few thousand feet of elevation gain. Perhaps next time you can tackle an even taller one! Not to mention how good dinner will taste when you finally get back down. It’s the contrast we need in our lives to gauge how good we’ve really got it. How amazing does that shower feel, or the cozy blanket you snuggle under to warm up, or the delicious beverage of choice, or the furry friend who just wants to sit in your lap all day long? You can look back at all the pictures you took, in amazement at your journey, and dream of yet another one in the near future. Join the community and get addicted to mountain hiking!
– Mountain Goats along the Crow Pass Trail, Chugack State Park, Alaska
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