Before setting out for a day hike, there are a few things that you should do. Sure, you can wing it, and chances are you will have a great time with zero issues. Most of the tasks on this list are common sense, but you might forget one when you are busy and rushed for time.
You can use this list as a preparation tool to get ready for your next hike. Part of what makes hiking fun is the sense of adventure into the unknown. This unknown can also be the very thing that catches you off guard and turns a great idea to go hiking into a miserable day in the woods.
1. Get a Map of Your Hiking Route
Maps are handy on a hike. It cannot be stated enough. Knowing where you along a hiking route is such vital information that you will need when making decisions.
- How much farther to the first water crossing?
- When do we get to see the waterfall?
- Will we summit this ridge before noon?
- Should we stop here for a break or keep going?
Making decisions along the route is much easier if you know where you are.
Maps are useful for navigation. When you are confronted with trail options, having a map allows you to make a better decision about which way to go. Without the map, you may decide to take a detour that winds up taking you too far away from your vehicle as the sun sets.
If you bring a map with you, it is much harder to get lost, even if you go off-trail.
There are many options for getting a map of your hike. If you are moments away from piling into your car and heading to the trailhead, the easiest and quickest way to get a map is to print one from Google Maps.
You can search the name of the trail or the area where you plan to hike. Many hiking trails are marked on Google Maps already. Size the map to fit on a sheet of paper and then print it. Be sure to switch to the satellite overlay so that you can see terrain features more easily.
If you are planning to hike in a recreational area such as National Park or a ski resort, then there is a good chance that a map specifically for hiking trails already exists and is a free download from the internet.
The National Map website through the U.S. Geological Survey or USGS offers excellent topographical maps that you can download for free from the website. Just zoom in on the area of the United States that interests you, and then print.
I am going to the Big Bend National Park in South Texas to go hiking the week of Christmas. From the National Map website, I zoomed in on the areas that I want to hike. The maps showed the hiking routes on the topographical map. This is a free service.
2. Estimate How Long It Will Take You to Finish the Hike
Perhaps the most important bit of information you need before you start the hike is how long it will take you to finish it. Knowing how many minutes or hours it will take you to finish the hike is important for many reasons, but in particular, it gives you an idea of when you need to start.
You don’t want to start a 9 hour hike at 10 AM when the sun sets at 6 PM.
To calculate how long it will take you to finish the hike, you need two data points: the hike’s length and your average hiking speed.
To calculate the hike’s length, you can try searching on the internet if you know the name of the hike. Since you just downloaded a map, you might be able to gauge its distance that way.
For a brief guide on how fast you can hike, check out my post. Many factors will influence your hiking speed.
Most adults can hike from 2 to 3 miles per hour or about 3 to 5 kilometers per hour.
If you have time before your hiking trip, you can walk at a brisk pace over a known distance and calculate your hiking speed.
Armed with this information, you can estimate how long it will take you to complete the hike. You should factor in rest breaks and terrain factors that may slow you down.
Once you know how long it will take you to complete the hike, you can set a start time to avoid getting caught out in the dark.
3. Check the Local Weather Forecast
Weather is a real factor in hiking. I would guess that it is often the main factor in hiking accidents such as getting lost, becoming hypothermic, or suffering an injury from slipping or falling.
Take a few minutes to check the local weather forecast for the location and time you plan to hike. Inclement weather may be forecasted that should bring you a go-no-go decision moment.
In any case, just because the weather is bad does NOT mean you should not go hiking. It just means that you might need to spend more time planning.
Hiking in the rain can be beautiful. I grew up in Washington state, so if I had not been willing to hike in the rain, I would have had to cancel most trips.
Hiking in bad weather can also thin out the crowds on more popular hikes, giving you free rein to enjoy the hike alone or with your friends.
Foul weather can also offer another experience on a familiar hike, showing the natural surroundings in new colors and different attitudes.
4. Wear Appropriate Clothing
Now that you know where you are hiking, how long you will be hiking, and what the weather forecast is, you can decide what to wear. You can skip to item number 10 below, but please do not decide not to go hiking because your new hiking pants have not arrived in the mail yet.
Hiking is just walking in the woods for extended periods of time. You only need to wear clothes that are comfortable. What would you wear if you were going for a light jog or a long walk? That is all you need to go hiking. You don’t have to look like you stepped out of a Patagonia advertisement to go hiking.
You should wear clothing that wicks moisture away from your skin. Avoid wearing all cotton, but hey, you can hike in all-cotton if that is all you have. I wouldn’t recommend all cotton if it is frigid or wet and chilly. In that case, you should wear wool or any material that insulates even when damp.
Please do not avoid hiking because you don’t have proper hiking footwear. You can hike in running shoes, flip-flop sandals, or even barefoot if you are used to it. I have a pair of dress shoes that are the most comfortable shoes I own. I wouldn’t hike in them to keep them clean and scuff-free, but I could hike in them if I had to.
If you are interested in hiking footwear, you can check out my review of the boots I am currently using for hiking.
5. Bring Enough Water
Armed with the information you have now for your upcoming hike, you can gauge how much water to bring on your hike. One rule of thumb is about a liter of water for every two to three hours of hiking.
If you plan to hike for three or more hours, you should bring a gallon of water or 3.7 liters. That is a lot of water, but you will drink it.
For a quick guide on how much water you should bring on your hike, check out my post here.
You can supplement your water with a sports drink or with juice.
I suggest hydrating before you leave for the hike. Drink enough water so that your urine is a clear, yellow color. This puts your body at an advantage once you start hiking and losing water through perspiration, respiration, and toilet use.
If you bring the water on the hike, don’t forget to drink it, even if you are not thirsty. You will be losing a surprising amount of water while hiking. In 90 minutes of brisk walking, I lost two pounds of water through sweating and breathing.
Continually drink water along the route so that you are replacing the water you are losing. Don’t wait until you are very thirsty.
6. Bring Food For the Trail
Food is really optional for me. I have hiked all day without food on purpose. For most people, though, having some food to eat along the hike will boost energy levels and morale.
For a day hike, pack food items that don’t require preparation, such as sandwiches, energy bars, or the classic trail mix of assorted nuts, dried fruit, and something sweet like chocolate. Bananas are great trail food too.
You can also make the meal the hike’s main attraction, especially if you are on a date hike! Imagine pulling out a quilted blanket, some cheese, crackers, and sparkling water, at the top of the trail.
As you might imagine, there are backpacks you can buy designed specifically for picnics on the trail. REI has one here that costs nearly $100. It would be epic, though, to have chilled white wine with those cheeses and crackers.
7. Pack Basic Hygiene and Safety Items
Backpackers and hikers often refer to the ten essential items that one should bring on any hike of any length. Again, if you don’t have one of each item on this list of essential items, don’t let that stop you from hiking. Use good judgment and enjoy the outdoors.
Here are the ten commonly accepted categories of items regarded as essential for hiking and backpacking.
- Navigation aid
- Light source
- Sun protection
- First aid kit
- Fire starting tool
- Cutting tool
- Extra food
- Extra water
- Extra clothing
If you have ticked off the items on my list in this post, then you are nearly halfway through the ten essentials already. For day hikers, you can get away with much less assuming you don’t get lost or run into terrible weather, but that won’t happen since you already downloaded a map and checked the weather forecast.
I have years of experience in the wilderness, keeping track of where I am, how much daylight is left, and how much farther I need to go. Having these ten essential items is best practice, but again, don’t cancel your three-hour hike because you don’t have a knife to carry with you. Go hike!
8. Check for Trail Access Requirements
Imagine driving three hours to a National Park to find that it is closed due to a pandemic. Or imagine arriving back at your parked car after a majestic five-hour loop hike with an amazing waterfall, only to find a parking ticket on your vehicle.
Check the internet for any requirements for accessing the hiking trail you plan to hike.
- Is there an entrance fee?
- Can you pay by credit card or cash?
- Can you pay in advance and print off a receipt to show the park ranger?
If you have not been hiking since the mid-80s, you might be surprised to know that you must purchase a pass to get access to certain federal recreational areas in many cases. Your state might also have a mandatory pass to purchase before you can access some outdoor recreational areas.
Maintaining the trails, parking lots, and ranger stations costs money. The government charges end-users to access many hiking trails. I don’t fret over paying these fees since, for the most part, the trails, toilets, and parking lots are well maintained.
9. Tell Two Different People Where You Plan to Hike
One time I rode my bike 100 miles from Eugene to Southern Oregon and did not tell anyone except a friend who had little interest in checking to see whether I arrived.
I was bombing down logging roads in the middle of nowhere. If I had fallen or had a bike malfunction, I could have been in pretty serious trouble. It was worth the look on my sister’s face when she finally started to believe that I had just spent 11 hours pedaling to her lake cabin.
Before you start your hike, you should tell two different people you trust where you are going and when you plan to return. It is also a good idea to put those two people in contact with one another. Send then a copy of the map you have downloaded. Tell them the name of the hike you plan to do.
If everything else goes wrong and you forget to do steps one through eight, at least you will know that later today or tomorrow, someone will come looking for you on your hiking route if you get in trouble.
On my really long bike ride to my sister’s lake cabin, I passed paper plate signs nailed to trees along those gravel roads that gave directions to a live-action role-playing group. Hopefully, if I had gotten into too much trouble, elves with rubber swords and fake ears might have given me some aid.
10. Do Not Buy a Bunch of Gear
Hiking is straightforward. It is just walking in the woods. It is amazingly liberating and great for boosting your mood.
Don’t spend too much time thinking about getting the absolute best gear to go on a hike. Just go hiking.
You can hike for hours in flip-flops and blue jeans. You don’t need high-tech fibers with “cool” labels on them to be a hiker. Hikers hike. The habit does not make the monk, and the best hiking gear does not make the hiker.
I hiked around the White River National Forest this summer on a quarantined retreat to the Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado while writing a chapter of my dissertation. I saw lots of famous brands in gear and clothing hiking along the trails. Much of it looked brand new.
You don’t need to buy anything to go for a day hike. You probably have items at home right now that would work, and you could even pack the ten essentials listed above by just looking through what you already own.
Use your common sense and good judgement, but be sure to go hiking.