There’s something about the 5-mile threshold that is inexplicably daunting—sort of like an unofficial divide between an ordinary trail for everyone and genuine outdoorsperson day hike. And if you’ve never surpassed that threshold before, hiking longer trails can be a little intimidating. For those of you thinking of embarking on your first longer trek, congratulations! You’re entering into a world of wonder, and what's more is that it’s easier than you might think.
Most Google searches generate comprehensive gear lists on outdoor sites that, while fantastically thorough, can be a little overwhelming if you’ve never done it before. Here’s our attempt to simplify things.
The Basics: Water, Clothing, Food, and a map. Do you have enough water? Are you wearing appropriate clothing? Do you have some snacks? Do you have a map?
1) Invest in a hydration pack for every person in your party.
Your days of carrying Arrowhead water bottles are behind you. Not only are they outrageously wasteful, but they simply won’t hold enough water for your new ambitions. We recommend everyone has a pack that holds 3 liters (100 ounces, or the equivalent of 6 water bottles), which should be enough for most day hikes up to around the 10-mile mark. CamelBak and other name brands can be pricey, but I haven’t purchased a bottle of water in four years, so there’s that. The other key stat to look for is the amount of non-water storage the pack offers, which we suggest be at least 3-4 cubic liters. In this space, I fit all my my trail supplies: snacks, sunscreen, phone, physical maps, mini-Gold Bond, etc. Day packs in the 18-25 liter range offer even more flexibility. With one of those puppies, you can fit enough food and supplies for those all-day hikes longer than 10 miles.
Basic hydration packs are available on Amazon or at Big 5 start at around $30.
2) You (probably) already own all the clothes you need.
If this is your first venture out, you’re probably not planning on climbing Denali in the winter. We’re looking at decent weather on a dry, maintained trail when the sun is still high and bright. If you want to go to REI or Cabela’s and plunk down $500 on some hiking outfits be my guest, but chances are you actually need to spend absolutely nothing. Do you own cross trainers or running shoes? Do you own workout clothes? Do you own a hoodie? Then you have what you need to get started. If hiking develops into a passion for you, go ahead and invest in nice boots. You don’t, however, need to go spend a ton on “hiking” clothes.
3) Aim for salty snacks high in protein and fiber without spending a ton of money.
Beef jerky is the obvious answer for salty snacks high in protein, but we have just one problem with suggesting it first: Pound for pound, jerky costs the same as filet mignon. Our recommendation is to buy bulk on peanuts, roasted edamame, and wholegrain snacks like Triscuits. The high-protein, high-fiber food will give you the sustained energy you’ll need on a hike that’s longer than you may be used to. As an added bonus, separating bulk food out into reusable containers will cut down on park waste.
4) Use your phone as a convenient map.
At nearly every maintained trailhead, the National Park Service provides a map with information about what you can expect on the trail. Put your phone on airplane mode, shut down every application, and snap clear photos of all the information before you take one step into the wild. You now have a trail map without taking up additional space in your pack. If everyone is being a good little boy or girl, you won’t have to worry about battery life.
Note: It is never recommended to use your phone as your only map, especially for hikes on unmaintained trails or backpacking trips. Download and print free topographical maps at: https://www.natgeomaps.com/trail-maps/pdf-quads.
5) Do Some Research — Look for Something “Moderate”
Choosing a trail without at least having a basic idea of what you’re getting into is like drunkenly choosing to makeout with someone in the dark: Both can be dangerous when you realize what you’ve gotten yourself into. Between the NPS website, a Google search, and park rangers, there is plenty information available to see which hikes suit you best. If you’re new to the higher number of miles, try to find a trail that is described as “moderate.” Eventually, you’ll feel comfortable enough to upgrade to strenuous without batting an eye.
6) Plan On A 2 MPH Pace
When you’re trying to figure out how long your new hikes will take you, the easiest thing to do is to take the number of miles and divide it by two. A six-mile trail will take roughly three hours, eight miles will take around four hours, and...you get the idea. That usually includes time for photographs, snacks, and stopping to gasp for air on the inclines.
7) If You're Afraid of Heights, Avoid Any Trails That Mention "Exposure"
"Exposure" is a fancy term for the amount of injury-or-worse cliff edges the trail takes you near. Heights combined with the fatigue of five or six miles can be a dangerous concoction. It could literally be a matter of life or death. If exposure never comes up after you read a couple trail descriptions, you should be in the clear
8) Getting The First One Behind You Can Be A Life-Changing Experience
Overcoming your fear and conquering a longer hike in one of our National Parks can be a profound experience. The right trail on the right day will leave you with more than just an interesting Instagram. Experiencing nature several miles from the nearest road is wondrous and humbling, rewarding and invigorating. You may finish and see the world in a new light.