Your very first hike

The weather is turning hot|cold|warm|sunny|cloudy…just like you like it.

You know that there are these dirt|gravel|paved paths in some parks but never knew what they were for.

You are intrigued, pulled by some primal urge to go outside and get some sun|pollen|wind on your face|body|brand new clothes.

You my friend, need to…

Go for a hike!

That’s right. Walking outdoors. Listening to trees and animals make all the same sounds as your “nature sounds” alarm clock that you got last year at the Boxing Day Party your friend had. That is mostly what hiking is, just walking outside. For those that may want to stick to the paved, “improved” surface trails let me tell you, walking on dirt|rock|gravel is a great experience and much different from paved surfaces. Let’s talk a little bit about…

Going for your FIRST hike.

Don’t just run out of the house and hit the trail. Let me give you a brief run down on…

What Essentials to Bring

  • Water – Bring more than you think you’ll need especially if it is hot and/or humid out. Rule of thumb is 1 liter per person per hour if it is warm|hot and/or if it is challenging terrain. Bring all the water you think you will need with you. Do not count on sources of water being available at the place you are starting your hike. I’ve been to many parks where the only water fountain is broken|turned off for the season|missing. Oh, and bring some extra water and keep it in the car for when you get back from the hike. You will appreciate that.
  • Clothing – While we are born naked, hiking naked is not common and frowned upon in many parks.
    • Shoes – Wear comfortable shoes for the terrain. Walking on a straight, flat path like the C&O Towpath in Washington DC and Maryland? Sneakers|trainers|exercise shoes should be fine. But if you are doing the Billy Goat Trail, right off of the C&O Canal, you will want something with a sturdy sole like a light hiking boot. Planning on going through/near water? Going to rain? Consider waterproof shoes.
    • Weather Gear – Check the weather before you go and ensure you have raincoats, hats, sunscreen, sunglasses, jackets and whatever is going to make you feel comfortable should the weather turn sour.
  • Backpack – I’m told that some women love purses. Well, I’m the same way about backpacks. I love them. You might think that you can just wrap your jacket around your waist and carry your water bottle on that 5 mile jaunt and you probably can. Just realize that when you go to scramble over that log|rock you will drop your water bottle because a chipmunk surprised you. Then you will watch in horror as the bottle, the ONLY water you brought on your 100 degree, 100% humidity first hike rolls down the cliff|hill|bank and disappears from view, forever. Bring something you can toss a few things into and wear on your back. It is worth it.
  • Food – This advice goes for adults only. Kids have different rules here. Bring something light to eat on the trail. Take something you enjoy. It can be healthy or not. Doesn’t matter. It’ll add to your first hike and make it more enjoyable.
  • Alcohol – Leave the alcohol at home. Alcohol dehydrates and impairs vision and reflexes. Alcohol is illegal in many public parks at State and National levels too. Just don’t.

So you have packed up all your things and you are ready to…

Pick a Place

There are many avenues that can be used to find a good first hike. Talk to friends. Visit an outfitter like REI or a sporting equipment store and ask a person there. Use Google or to find a good place for your first hike. Not sure how to do that? Let me show you 🙂 With some ideas in your head, now is the time to…

Think About Distance

This is where you need to know yourself. Do you sit behind a desk 50+ hours a week and get out of breath opening the microwave oven door? Yeah, doing that 16 mile out and back hike with 10,000 feet of elevation change may sound like a neat idea but probably should not be in your near future. Many people start out with easier hikes and move to more challenging ones. Hiking trails get “harder” to hike with elevation change (going up AND going down), the type of trail (scrambling over rocks versus a towpath), and a couple other factors. To understand the terrain, my suggestion is to…

Get a Map

If you pick a National, State or even local park, their web sites may have maps that you can print and bring with you. And yes, you have to print it AND bring it. Trust me here. When you are cold and it is starting to get dark, you’ll want to know that about 100 meters east of your current location is a road that will take you to a place that sells coffee. These things matter.

I’ve figured out that I like being on mountains and being able to see/hear water. Those hikes recharge my mental/emotional batteries the quickest. Figure out some elements of the outdoors that you and your companions like. Want to see a lot of birds|reptiles|fish? How about plants|trees|rocks? Lots of options for you to choose from.

You can get maps from REI and other outfitters or online for the park. For instance, I live in Montgomery County, Maryland and they have a web site that has links to PDFs of each park’s trail map. Your county|city|local park may have that too. Some places, such as one of my favorite local hikes at Sugarloaf Mountain, not only have trail maps you can bring with you but they print them and place copies at the trail heads so you can take a copy at the start of your hike and then leave it when you go back to your car.

Thinking about using your cell phone for a map? Maybe tracking your hike for some “count your steps program”? Cool! Charge up your phone before you go and consider (depending on your course and hike) bringing an extra battery to charge your phone. Oh, and still print the map and bring it. I’ve been on MANY hikes where I’ve brought a map just because of habit and I’ve run into some novice hikers that had no map and no idea where they were. They were very happy to purchase my home-printed map at a high price. I love capitalism. But seriously, someone else may need your copy of the trail.

OK, let’s say you have found a map, you probably need to…

Plot a Course

Figure out what is a reasonable trail to take and reasonable distance for you and your companions. Places like Sugarloaf Mountain, have descriptions of each of their trails on the map ( These descriptions are valuable tools in helping you decide not only what your primary path is but if there are “bail” places. Let’s face it. Sometimes we go somewhere and, for whatever reason, we don’t have a good time. Perhaps you go on this first hike and you find out on the trail that you are allergic to every single tree around you. Knowing that there is a shortcut to go back to your car is a great feeling.

I like doing circuit or loop hikes where you essentially walk in a circle, starting and ending at the same place and not retracing your steps at all. Out-and-back hikes where you hike for X amount of time|distance and then turn and retrace your steps is another popular course you might choose. There is no right way to do it and the trail(s) you decide to take may determine the type of hike.

Walking in the woods, on a trail is mostly slower-going than walking on a road. I normally walk around 3-4 miles per hour on the sidewalk but there are many hikes where we have to struggle to go 1-2 miles per hour. Plan for more time than you need. If you are going on a 5 mile hike on fairly even terrain and are in good shape, you may be able to pull off 2-4 miles per hour hiking. With longer hikes, you will need to take breaks. Plan for that. Plan for slowing down to appreciate the views too!

With your map and course(s) plotted, it is important to…

Tell a Friend

If you are going hiking alone or going into a remote area where there are not a lot of people, text|SnapChat|email|call a friend or family member to let them know where you are going and when to expect you back. I’ve seen things go wrong on the trail. It happens. Don’t be fooled into thinking “Well I’ll have my cell with me. I can always just call someone from the trail” because accidents will happen just when you get into that cell phone dead area where you have no signal. Thanks to my buddy Eric for reminding me about this important point. 

Since someone knows where you are going, you may want to…

Check the Weather

Going to rain today? Prepare for it. Getting sunny|hot|cold|snowy? Prep for it too. You will appreciate your preparation if inclement weather arises. One thing many people don’t think about is bringing extra towels and plastic trash bags with them in the car so that when you return and you and your gear are wet, you can dry off and protect your car from your gear.

Don’t be put off by poor weather forecasts. My family and I have had entire parks to ourselves on cold, snowy days. You see the trails and nature differently in different weather. One of my most memorable backpack hikes was on the Appalachian Trail in the rain. Myself, my son and two family friends stood on the Route I70 pedestrian overpass in the rain and waved our arms at cars and trucks until they honked their horns.

This should get you out and about on your first hike pretty well unless you are…

Bringing Kids?

Kids make hiking awesome. I loved walking with my little ones on the trails. They appreciated all the new sights and sounds so much more than my adult senses could. A red leaf on the ground. A big bug crawling across a branch. A bunch of poison ivy leaves that they made into a bouquet for their highly allergic dad. Ah…those were the days.

If you are an experienced parent, you will know that kids slow you down until they get to a certain age. At this point, you slow them down. Weird how that happens. Plan for shorter hikes with younger kids. Even if you are carrying them in a backpack carrier, shorter hikes. And add more time to the trip for kids.

Bring a ton of snacks. Healthy, sugary, whatever. Bring extra food for them. It keeps them busy (and quiet!) and gives them extra calories. Win. Win. Win.

Older kids can help plan the course (and be the course director when on the trails) and carry things. Put them to work!

At this point I should congratulate you because…

You made it! Now Appreciate it.

Oh, you just got to the trail with your backpack and everything. You are prepared and ready to tackle that road|hill|mountain. Awesome! When you are out there on the trail, away from sounds of cars and trucks. Away from the stresses of work. When you walk onto the trail and are the farthest away from what you consider “civilization”, I want you to stop. Yup. Right there on the trail. Well, step to the side of the trail and stop. Look around at the colors and shadows. How the light plays off the stream|vines|sand|trees|rocks. What sounds to you hear? I’m not trying to get all mushy on ya here but some of the coolest things I’ve experienced, times when I’ve felt most centered, was standing on some trail and just looking around, listening and, well, just being. Take pictures to bring back and show friends|use as a desktop background|email to your companions. I love taking pics of nature.

If you are in the DC/Maryland area and looking for some good recommendations for your first hike, see below:

  1. Sugarloaf Mountain – Dickerson, MD – This private mountain is open to the public and is my favorite place to visit. All the trails are very well-marked, the maps are excellent and the views from the top of the mountains are amazing. My suggestion for a good starter hike is:
    • Park in the West View parking lot
    • Take the green trail up the mountain. There are a bajillion stairs going up but there are places to rest.
    • Eat something at the top and take pics.
    • Take the red trail down the back of the mountain and make a left on the blue trail at the mountain base.
    • The blue trail takes you right back to the West View parking lot.
  2. Billy Goat Trail – Great Falls, MD – This is a more challenging trail that has it all from 50 foot rock climbs to bouldering and walking on dirty trails in the woods. The variety of paths in this 1.5 mile trail next to the Potomac river makes it a fabulous trail. Due to its location on the C&O canal, this trail is heavily used and some lines form in certain places. I suggest hitting this on off-peak times.
  3. Visit the Montgomery County Parks Page – Lots of hikes to choose from here. Pick one, pack a backpack and go!

After you finished your hike, do me a favor and Tweet your favorite part of the hike to me at @WebBreacher.


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