Walking: just putting one foot in front of the other, right? How hard can that be? Yes, a walking trip is something that anyone can do, but it is also something that needs preparation.
Hiking boots that don’t fit, a water bottle that isn’t big enough, a phone battery that never lasts – these are the things that pass from mere annoyance to sheer torture – even abject danger – on a long walk. Don’t fall into these easy-to-avoid first-timer traps – stay on track with our top hiking tips.
1. Put your best foot forward
First things first: boots. Do. Not. Scrimp. This cannot be emphasised enough. Your boots are your best friend on the trail and you need to spend some time picking them out. Get help at your local outdoor store and test out as many pairs as it takes to find a comfortable fit.
Don’t ignore the faux mountain slopes in the store, either – have a walk up and down them, jump, wiggle your toes. The most common mistake is thinking boots will stretch out – but a size too small is the surest way to a black toenail. Buy bigger if in doubt. And pick up spare laces too. If yours snap on the trail these will be worth their weight in Gore-Tex.
2. Stick to the path
Sounds simple, but taking a “shortcut” is how most people end up lost. It may look quicker to “cut a corner”, but that corner could be hiding a swamp, thick jungle, a steep slope, anything.
Follow the signs, stick to marked routes and accept that the person who marked out the trail probably does know best.
3. Take a guide
Concerned about being alone out there? If you’re at all unsure about where you’re going, or whether you can hack it, join a group. Numerous operators (Macs Adventure, Headwater, Ramblers) offer guided group walks around the UK, Europe, the USA and further afield – and there is, after all, safety in numbers. Many also offer self-guided walking holidays, with all route notes provided.
4. Don’t descend into madness
Everything is flat on a map – but you and your muscles both know that this is far from reality. Learn to read the contours, the circular lines that join points of the same height together, on your map and you’ll be able to see the height change and prepare for – or avoid – steep ascents and descents.
Remember that contour lines closer together mean the slope is steeper, and that downhill can actually be much harder on the muscles than uphill. Reduce the number of miles you plan to walk if the terrain is steep and you’ll avoid burning thigh muscles.
5. Wrap up
Clothing is your protection against the elements and thin layers are best. Pack a microfleece (the lightest you can find), good quality waterproofs (jacket and trousers) and a hat and gloves if you’re somewhere cold or at altitude, and don’t forget the suncream and a sun hat if it’s going to be hot.
A thin scarf is great for covering up against the sun, sitting on, drying yourself off with and a number of other things that make it an essential.
6. Stock up
If you’re walking in a remote area you’ll need to bring everything, including water and food, with you. Pack ingredients to make sandwiches (don’t forget a knife), nuts and chocolate as energy-giving snacks and a Camelbak hydration pack filled with water. Soluble vitamin C tablets can be added to water for an extra burst of energy.
7. Get in shape
Think you can walk 15 miles in one day because it takes you 20 minutes to dash to the train station each morning? Think again.
Walking for a sustained period through rough terrain is an entirely different game. So if you’ve booked the Inca Trail start with a hike in your local park and work up to build your stamina.
8. Grab a pole
Walking poles split opinion, but most serious walkers carry one – and swear by it. A pole gives you an extra limb, one that you can use for additional balance, or simply to check out the depth of puddles or just how thick that undergrowth is.
9. Respect the mountain
How often do we hear about someone being rescued from Ben Nevis or the Rockies? Never forget that the mountain is king and cares not a jot for you, the hiker.
Always check the weather locally before heading out and don’t start ascending those peaks if it’s closing in or a storm is en route. Wrap up warm, and take a whistle and a torch, these will be invaluable if for some reason you do need to attract attention.
10. Get appy
There are dozens of apps out there for hikers, but one of our favourites is Endomondo. Tap the play button as you start walking and it will monitor how far you walk, what your elevation gain or loss is and log your route on a map. It will even tell you how much water you should drink and how many calories you’ve burned.
11. Get high safely
Some of the world’s best hikes (the Inca Trail, the Annapurna Circuit) take place at altitude and this is not something to take lightly. Altitude sickness can kill, and it may start with a simple headache or nausea. If you feel mildly hungover, short of breath even when resting, or dizzy, seek help immediately and descend as far as possible. There is no cure apart from descending, so never try to push on.
Altitude sickness can usually be avoided by acclimatising slowly, so spend a couple of days resting at altitude before walking. Drink plenty of water too and avoid alcohol too.
12. Bring batteries
For everything. That torch, your camera, your mobile phone. Check and charge everything fully before you head out and bring spares. For your phone, which could turn out to be your lifeline, pack the MiPow Power Tube 3000. It has an integral cable and can charge your phone more than once. It will also sync with your phone, making it beep if you accidentally leave it behind.