The benefits of time in the outdoors – physical and mental health – are two of the top reasons people head outside. As the Minnesota Ambassador for Women Who Hike, I’ve been privileged to watch women who seek out ways to get outside. I have a glimpse into the reasons they hike. Their concerns, worries and celebrations. Nearly every woman has taken up hiking for the health benefits.
My journey to hiking was rather accidental. My son, a Boy Scout, signed up for a high adventure trip to Philmont Scout Ranch for 10 days of backpacking. It sounded like a wonderful experience to share with him. At 47 years old I signed up to be an adult advisor for the group. I had no idea what I was getting into. We trained for months. Then, on the top of a ridge in the Carson National Forest I had my catharsis. I realized fear had held me back from leading an adventurous life. I committed to take more risks and in the process, I was deeply changed.
Whenever I need to destress or work through a challenging decision, I make my way to a hiking trail.The beautiful thing about hiking is that it’s simply walking. You don’t need the best or most expensive gear. There is likely a wonderful place not far from your doorstep to do it. Even in a city.
I’ve leaned into hiking as a way to deal with challenges, build friendships and slow down. An hour on a trail calms me and gives me a fresh perspective. The trails in Minnesota and beyond have presented me with time to deal with the loss of my mom, becoming an empty nester, a job loss and more. I altered my adventures during the pandemic by challenging myself to “micro adventures” in my community. I’ve processed the complicated questions of social justice and colonialism with dirt under my feet. Trails feel like home. I’m happiest sleeping under the stars in the woods away from the bustle of civilization. Whenever I need to destress or work through a challenging decision, I make my way to a hiking trail.
Through my son’s Scouting experience, I was introduced to people who taught the skills needed to take a short walk in the woods or an adventure in the wilderness. I learned my limits and to respect them when situations didn’t feel right. I took classes on first aid and navigation. I’ve learned resilience, to fall and get back up again. I was vulnerable by asking questions. I kept getting outside over and over again.
When I first started hiking, I wasn’t really aware of how many trails were right in my neighborhood, let alone anywhere else. I had an idea that hikers were adventurers taking on big mountains and needed expensive gear. What I learned is that getting started can be pretty simple. Start with the basics and add gear as you go. The basic things to consider are:
- Finding a trail
- What the weather will be like
- What you’ll wear
- What to bring along
- Communicating your plan
Finding a trail
There are so many trails, often right outside of your front door or nearby. A slight shift of perspective on what constitutes a trail opens up options. For me it’s meant dirt under my feet despite knowing there are really good, paved trails to explore. I’ve found city, county and state park department’s websites helpful. Many parks have maps online for download or printing before you go.
Another way to find trails is with an phone app. Hikers use AllTrails, Avenza, Gaia GPS or Strava. Each offers similar features; most have a free option in addition to a paid one (with more features) and they all nearly work even if you don’t have cell service. My personal choice is AllTrails. I used the free version until I was sure I liked it and then upgraded to the Pro version. The pro version allows me access to download maps, record my hikes and to share my hike information. Trail options can be overwhelming so start small. Pick somewhere near home and expand from there as you gain more experience and confidence.
Check the weather
Check the weather forecast in the location you are hiking on the day that you are hiking. Knowing this information will help you to determine what you need to wear and bring with you. Or even cancel if the weather conditions aren’t safe. I can’t stress enough that you do this for the place that you are hiking, not where you live, even if it’s only an hour away. Weather can vary in just a few miles. A hike on a lake shore will have different conditions from a hike just a few miles away in a forest. Of all the steps in hiking this is one I never skip.
After you’ve checked the weather, you’ll have a better idea of what to wear. My rule of thumb is to keep my feet happy first because if they aren’t, I will be miserable. Hiking footwear doesn’t have to be expensive. It needs to be well fitting so that your feet won’t slide around. You’ll be less likely to get blisters or twist your ankle on uneven trails.
In the past, hiking boots were considered a must. Now there are so many options including trail runners, tennis shoes, fitted sandals like Chacos or Keen. The primary feature is that they can be tightened to your foot. No matter what you’re considering, I am adamant in recommending getting fitted at a reputable store. They can help you narrow the options quickly by asking a few questions. Getting this right during the first time is less costly in the end. It’s also important to pair your shoes and socks. Try footwear on with the socks you plan to wear so you don’t end up with blisters or sore spots.
Clothing choices also impact your comfort. Layering is important so that you stay warm and dry during the winter, and cool in the summer. Get too warm? Take a layer off. Feeling a chill? Add a layer. As you move, your body generates heat so starting out a bit cold is a good idea. You’ll warm up as you go.
In general hiking is one of the activities where cotton is not a good idea. Cotton acts as a sponge to gather and hold water. Wearing it will hold moisture close to your body and start your body’s cooling process whether you want to or not. The preferred choices for hiking clothing are synthetics, silk or merino wool (not your grandma’s itchy sweater wool! This is soft and insulates you when it’s wet). All of these will wick the moisture away from your body and still provide insulation.
The most common layering system includes:
- Base Layer: Silk, synthetic or wool fabric sits close to your skin, wicks moisture and provides insulation.
- Mid or Insulating Layer: Most often a down or synthetic fleece sweater or jacket, it can also be referred to as a “soft shell.”
- Wind/Water Resistant Layer: A rain jacket or “hard shell,” many include Gortex or a similar product allowing for the fabric to breathe.
Remember that you can wear things you already have to get started. Thrift shops, online marketplaces and sales are great options if you are on a budget. There’s no sense in spending a lot of money only to find out that hiking isn’t for you.
What to bring along
Every hiker has opinions on what to bring on a hike for their comfort and safety. A few things to consider bringing are dependent on weather, and where and how long you’ll be hiking. I carry the Ten Essentials on every hike, even in the city. I alter the list depending on who I will be with, how long we will be out and where we are going. The Ten Essentials include:
- Navigation: Printed map and/or navigation app.
- Sun Protection: Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses.
- Insulation: Extra clothes and socks, rain jacket and pants appropriate for any changes in weather.
- Illumination: Headlamp or flashlight.
- First Aid Supplies: Medications, band aids, foot care items and bug repellant.
- Fire: Matches or lighter.
- Knife and Repair Kit: Duct tape and zip ties.
- Food: Extra snacks appropriate for how many people will be with you and how long you’ll be out.
- Water: Bring more than you think you’ll need and/or a way of filtering water.
- Emergency Shelter: Tent, tarp, or emergency space blanket.
All of these items should fit in a small backpack. Start with a pack that you have and upgrade as you determine how much and where you will be hiking. I have a dedicated pack for hiking use. I check it just before I go out to make sure that it has everything I’ve replenished on my last hike. When I get home, I restock it so it’s ready the next time that I want to hike.
Communicating your plan
Know it won’t always be easy. It’s in the hard places where you’ll get the most benefit.I’ve spent a lot of time hiking alone both near my home and in remote locations. No matter what, I let someone in my family know when I head out for a hike, where I’m going, and when I expect to be back. The same is true if I’m meeting friends for a hike. Doing this ensures I have a person making sure that I’m ok or who will get help if I’m not. I also check in with Park Rangers/staff when I arrive at a park where staff are available. It allows me to get last minute updates on any conditions, wildlife, or things to see. For solo hikers it’s also an opportunity to let someone at the park know that you are on the trails. In some places where permits are required, it’s mandatory to check in before heading on the trail.
The most important part of hiking is to start. Be prepared to be challenged and learn. Know it won’t always be easy. It’s in the hard places where you’ll get the most benefit.
Ruth Wikoff-Jones is the author of Ruth’s Blue Marble blog, an ambassador for Women Who Hike Minnesota, an advocate for outdoor spaces and a Leave No Trace Trainer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to get started on your hiking adventure.
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Last Updated on May 14, 2021