How to plan your first hiking adventure!

Are you curious about hiking, but afraid to make the plunge? Fear of the unknown will keep you on the sidelines your whole precious life if you let it. Once you get out there a few times you’ll probably laugh at your initial hesitation. My philosophy is that the more you subject yourself to what makes you uncomfortable the more you become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Make sense? Just be warned that there’s no turning back once you’re addicted to this primal sport.

Now the best way I can think to explain this in a way you all will understand is to have a pretend conversation with my imaginary friend, Gus, who wants to become a hiker. You might question my sanity after this, but I think it’ll make plenty sense if you just play along. Humor me here….

Gus: “Hey, Liz, I’m thinkin’ it’s high time I get my butt off the couch and go on a hike! What kind of gear/clothing do I need?”

Liz: “Gus, I’m glad you asked! Since this is your first hike let’s avoid any trails that require any extra navigation skills, few obstacles and steer clear of snow and ice. Here, I’ll write ya down a list of everything I think you’ll need:”

  • Comfortable clothing that you can layer to adjust for temperature changes as you go.
  • Good sturdy, comfortable shoes. No need to rush out and buy $200 REI hiking boots. You’re just testing the waters here, but when you begin to do longer, more difficult hikes that’s where you’ll want to invest in some decent kicks. Don’t be a dummy like me and wear 10 year old, cheapo boots to a high elevation lake. Look what I had to do to get home from Twin Lakes a few years back. Good thing I had spare string to tie my sole together! 🤦‍♀️

  • A small backpack that holds more snacks and water than you think you’ll need and eco friendly toilet paper. Those are the items you will definitely use. However, I do want you to carry a few more items just in case of emergency. Don’t roll your eyes at me, Gus, shit happens even to the best of us. 🙄 You’re going to need a map or compass (nothing fancy just yet), flashlight, sun protection, fire starting tools, a pocket knife and some basic first aid items. The photo below is a visual of “the 10 essentials” for hiking safety. Play it smart even if you think you’re tough.

Gus: “Okay, okay I’ll carry the extra safety stuff. Now that I am packed, how do I choose my first trail?”

Liz: “There’s so many to choose from that I’m sure it is overwhelming. Since we’re in Washington state I can give a few pointers to newbies. Here’s another list:”

  • Keep to lower elevation hikes to avoid snow and ice. You’re not equipped for that just yet. Most hikes along the coastlines will offer easy, beginner level trails. Plus, they tend to see more foot traffic to ensure clear paths and the comfort of knowing you’re not alone out there.
  • Hiking books are great resources to find detailed trail information, but often times the information can quickly become obsolete due to washouts, road closures and overall poor funding of our public lands (don’t get me on a soap box, Gus!). If you do go this route, try and buy the most up to date book you can or cross reference with other sources. I do appreciate my hiking book collection, but I want you to have a successful first hike.
  • Websites are the best source of up to date trail info, in my opinion. To keep it simple I’ll just give you two. The first link is for your local hiking trails in Washington State only and the second one is if you’re gonna be out of town. Although, “All Trails” has the local hikes as well. Use these sites for their customizable search engines to tailor a hike for yourself with the right amount of distance and elevation gain you’re comfortable with. Also, once you’ve picked your trail you can read all the latest trail reports by other hikers. This gives a wealth of information on hazards, changes to the trail and different perspectives on the course you plan to take. Here are the links:

*Washington Trails Association

The White Chuck Bench Trail Darrington, Wa

Gus: “Alright, I picked my hike. How much time should I allow?”

Liz: “Gus, I know you are in pretty decent shape, but hiking uses different muscles and requires a bit more stamina than the 30-60 minutes most put in at the gym running treadmill and pumping iron. Give yourself plenty of extra time. If it’s wintertime, like it is now, you’ll have a smaller window of daylight. Get to your trailhead early and be reasonable on how many miles you plan in comparison to how many daylight hours you have. Steeper hikes are gonna take longer, it’s tough to predict without first hand experience of your own hiking abilities, but I can promise you coming downhill on the way back is much faster than the elevation gain going up!”

Steep incline on the old Helena Ridge Trail
Steep incline on the old Helena Ridge Trail Darrington, Wa

Gus: “Um, what is this elevation gain you keep mentioning and how do I know how much I should aim for on my first hike?”

Liz: “Imagine a flight of stairs in front of you with 100 steps and all are exactly one foot high. By the time you summit the top of this ridiculous staircase you will have achieved a 100 foot elevation gain. Although, to be more realistic, a 3 mile hike with 100 feet elevation gain will likely be more gradual than a quarter mile hike with the same 100 foot gain. However, sometimes they get ya and you’re completing all the gain in one spurt of the trail.  Just use simple math and logic and you’ll be able to plan well. I suggest keeping it under a few hundred while testing your hiking legs.”

Gus: “Good to know! Any other things I should know before heading out?”

Liz: “Yep, you’re gonna need some trail passes for many of these hikes, but not all. Here’s a good link that explains your options and how to obtain the proper passes and permits to get you exploring:
Also, let a pal back home know exactly what trail you’re taking and approximately when you’ll be back. Just in case you don’t find your way back to the car. There’s usually no cell service in the wild and I think that’s a good thing. In this day and age it’s difficult to “unplug” and just be in your own thoughts. Getting out in nature is a welcome break from the modern world that I think you’ll enjoy. Now go get your hike on, brother, and let us know how it went!” ✌️


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