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Mastering the art of essential hiking skills can make your excursion comfortable, memorable, and safe.
Hiking is one of the most sought-after and accessible outdoor activities that allow you to interact with nature. While it’s not complicated, it doesn’t mean it’s easy, and you should take it lightly. At first, many people think it’s just walking but on a slope and further away from home.
However, remember that when you are out in the wild, one wrong step could result in shattering or even dreadful consequences. So, a part of what separates a skilled hiker from a novice is the basic hiking skills they pick up along the way. These skills are little ways of doing things that can make a significant difference.
Sometimes they are as small as “how to walk on the trail to avoid fatigue” or “how to put on your backpack to avoid straining your muscles.” So, the more you hike, the more you pick those little things up. Especially on more challenging and remote hiking trails, you should follow essential hiking skills religiously to avoid any setbacks.
That said, a Seattle-based mountaineer, climbing, and hiking organization developed a list of hiking skills and techniques. However, we took that list a step further to ensure your safety. We believe our list of essential hiking skills will help you hike smoothly, camp more efficiently, and have more time and energy to make beautiful memories.
Essential Hiking Skills
1. Plan Your Trip
You might see planning a hiking trip as simple as picking a trail, determining a time to meet at the trailhead, and bringing a delicious lunch. However, there’s a lot more to consider. Unless you are an experienced hiker with excellent navigation skills or preparing for a backcountry trip, you will want to choose an established trail.
Firstly, you need to find a well-maintained, well-marked trail when planning your hike. Moreover, make sure to read up on a hike to gain an idea of basic waymarkers that you should keep in mind to ensure you are on track.
Other hiking skills and techniques for planning a hike include:
Distance is probably the most critical factor you should consider when choosing a hiking trail, especially if you are hiking for the first time. In this regard, make sure you select an out-and-back trail. These trails have both ways and allow you to hike out and back on the same trail. After all, you do not want to find out too late that the trail you have chosen is twice the distance you thought.
In addition to that, if you are a first-time hiker and want to experience waters in the mountains, consider trails on the shorter side. That said, a round trip of 2 to 3 miles is generally a good spot to start.
Furthermore, choose a long hike if you are an experienced hiker, have enough time, and are looking for a more challenging hike. As a professional hiker, I hike more often, and my good spot ranges between 6 to 8 miles.
Elevation gain means the amount of elevation you are going to climb on a hike. For instance, if you want to climb 500 feet, descend 200 feet, and then an additional climb of 500 feet, the total elevation would be 1,000 feet.
When looking for a beginner-friendly trail, one of the best hiking skills is to choose a trail with less than 500 feet elevation gain, unless you are very fit. While 1,000 feet of elevation gain might not sound challenging, it could be a lot, especially if you are new to hiking.
Furthermore, another essential hiking skill you should remember is that shorter trails with more elevation gain mean the trails are steeper and more strenuous. So, one of the best hiking skills and techniques for a new hiker is to start small and gradually increase elevation gain.
Considering the terrain is also one of the basic hiking skills. Keep in mind that some hikes may require walking across a seasonal stream, scrambling over rocks, or doing a bit of rock climbing. While that can be a part of your expedition, sometimes it’s good to know what kind of terrain you will experience on the trail.
In addition to that, also remember that some trails have steep drop-offs that some hikers might not find comfortable. That said, I highly recommend looking at reviews of the hike to decide if it is something you can try.
Time of the Year
Depending on where you want to hike, it is a good practice to check if the trail is easily accessible year-round. As a hiker, I’ve encountered trails that have been inaccessible due to snow and trails that have a seasonal river I wasn’t quite prepared for and had to walk through to avoid backtracking for miles.
One of the essential hiking trips is to find trails that are easy to navigate. If you just started out hiking or don’t have good navigational skills, choose a marked trail so you don’t get lost.
Checking weather conditions and the forecast before you head out for a hike is one of the most crucial and basic hiking skills. If you’re visiting a State Park, check the local forecast for the day or use a dependable source, such as National Weather Service Forecast.
Remember that getting into order and staying safe on the trail is an excellent habit. Moreover, it helps you choose the appropriate gear and clothing layers if the conditions change on the trail.
2. Thermoregulation (Temperature Maintenance)
Thermoregulation means the ability to keep you warm or cool in varying weather conditions. Learning the art of how to keep yourself cool or warm during the hike is one of the basic hiking skills and techniques, especially if you are new to hiking and carrying fewer clothes.
For instance, the most effective ways to stay warm are to keep walking, eat fatty food, layer up, and stay well hydrated. Thermoregulation also helps you understand the conditions you will likely encounter so that you can make an appropriate clothing selection.
Moreover, I highly recommend practicing thermoregulation to learn how to regulate your metabolism and body temperature and avoid heat-related illnesses.
3. Know How to Use a Map Effectively
Whether you realize it or not, maps are essential to our lives. Especially if you want to hike in the backcountry, maps are even more critical. So, one essential hiking skill is knowing how to read maps effectively. A map not only helps a hiker track their location, but it can also help them to find water, an emergency exit route, and nearby campsites.
Fortunately, today, maps are readily available in many forms. For instance, you can have a GPS unit with built-in maps or use your smartphone for navigation. However, be sure to download maps ahead of time because you’ll often be hiking in areas without cell reception.
Also, remember that hiking and wilderness maps differ slightly from regular maps. For example, hiking maps often contain important details, such as elevation changes, waterway navigation, and campsite locations.
In addition, a map also helps you prepare better and ahead of time for any unpredicted circumstances you might encounter while also allowing you to scout a location before heading out. Planning is crucial before the hike, mainly if you visit your chosen trail for the first time.
Furthermore, remember that using an outdoor map is different than pulling up an app on your smartphone and entering your destination address. So, one of the basic hiking skills and techniques is how to use a hiking map. I highly recommend using a hiking map, even on easy hikes.
4. Carry Enough Water
Not getting enough water for long periods makes the muscles and body weak. In addition to being always thirsty, you might also experience adverse health effects. For instance, your immune system will be compromised, possibly endangering your body to many illnesses, including hypothermia and dehydration.
Remember that your body uses a lot of energy to go up the trail. Therefore, it will need a lot of water to stay calm and hydrated. While there are many ways to keep yourself hydrated outdoors, the easiest one is to carry enough water with you as long as it is a shorter hike. Additionally, you will also need a rigid bottle that doesn’t leak and that you can carry easily.
In addition to that, learning how to purify water is one of the essential hiking skills, especially if you are hiking in an area with lakes or streams. It involves a unique but easy-to-use device, so you don’t have to drink directly from the lake or stream.
5. Pack Extra Food to Fuel Yourself
Packing a few ounces of extra food is one of the basic hiking skills and techniques experienced hikers use to fuel themselves. Keep in mind that a few things, such as a lengthy detour, an injury, or getting lost or rugged terrain, can keep you out longer than expected. So, having extra food is a smart strategy to keep morale and energy.
Besides the length of your hiking trail, having a couple of hiking snacks is always great. They can be your best companion and can pick you up if your energy starts lagging. In addition to hiking snacks, if you think you will be on the trail during your meal time, consider carrying freeze-dried meals.
These meals can be pretty yummy since they have come a long way lately. However, be sure you can boil water and have something to eat. Additionally, I highly recommend healthy trail mix, nuts, and protein bars because you can easily carry them in your pack.
That said, while carrying extra food is worth it, also be sure to have plenty of water and non-perishable foods. After all, you can never be sure when you will get back and go home during your hike.
6. Get an Appropriate Hiking Outfit
One of the essential hiking skills is to know how to dress appropriately. Combined with checking the forecast, this is one of the basic hiking skills that can help you dress according to the conditions. In this regard, it is best to pack a few extra clothes beyond those required for the hike. This will also assist you in preparing better for changing weather or an unplanned night out.
Here is how you can choose an appropriate hiking outfit:
· Safety First
The outfit you choose largely depends on the environment you are going to hike in, along with the expected weather forecast. For instance, if you’re in an area with a Lyme disease outbreak, it would be best to be extra cautious and wear long sleeves and long pants treated with insect repellant. In addition to that, if you are hiking in the rain, make sure to have a windproof jacket as well since rain and wide go hand-in-hand.
· Your Comfort Level
Have you ever heard the term “cotton is rotten?” Sweat helps our body to regulate temperature during a hike. Remember that cotton is known for sweat retention, which keeps you hot in warmer and chill in colder conditions.
On the other hand, clothes made of wicking materials, such as nylon, polyester, and merino wool, help move sweat away from the body. Additionally, they also keep you comfortable throughout your hike.
Moreover, the fit of your hiking clothes is also crucial, so make sure to avoid wearing clothes that are too fit and tight. Remember that clothes that are too tight can limit your motion and makes your hiking a miserable experience. Instead, you can choose a roomier fit that provides more comfort and flexibility while hiking.
· Clothing Versatility
Remember that quality hiking gear comes with a hefty price tag, so choose an outfit you can use for multiple purposes. Two major points of a hiking outfit are lightweight, long sleeves hiking shirts that can be rolled up and convertible trousers that zip off into shorts.
7. Pick Your Footwear Wisely
In addition to getting appropriate hiking clothes, choosing proper footwear is also essential. As a footwear specialist, I highly recommend investing in high-quality shoes and socks that are right for you. Remember that nothing can ruin your delightful walk quiet, like painful feet.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you must purchase heavy, clunky shoes that are fully waterproof but offer no comfort. Instead, go for boots specifically designed for outstanding comfort and superior quality.
Moreover, one of the basic hiking skills when purchasing outdoor shoes is to wear them and take a few steps to ensure they are comfortable and tailored for the size and shape of your feet.
8. Pace Yourself
Picking a speed, you can easily maintain throughout your hike is one of the essential hiking skills. Instead of getting off to a speedy, unrealistic pace, pick a speed you can easily maintain. In addition to that, also try to focus on your surroundings rather than marching on as fast as possible.
Whilst you may find starting moderately a bit awkward to begin your hike, you will be happy to have some energy in reserve upon hitting a steep section of rough terrain. One of the beauties of hiking is that you don’t need to race; unlike other sports, nobody cares how long a specific trail takes you to complete.
9. Know how to Start a Fire
Knowing how to start a fire is also one of the basic hiking skills and techniques that every hiker should master. A hot drink and the warmth of a fire can help you prevent hypothermia. Knowing how to start a fire is also an intelligent way to get help if you get lost, especially if you are on a trail for the first time.
I highly recommend bringing some fire starters with you while going for a hike, even if you think you will be back within a short period. However, remember that you can never plan that far ahead, and anything can happen midway. So, it is a brilliant idea to carry these essentials and not need them than not carrying them at all.
In addition to that, knowing how to light a fire also let you prepare meals because all you have in your backpack is snack mix, protein bars, and nuts. Especially for people who are camping, the fire can keep the predators away.
10. Carry a First Aid Kit
Carrying and knowing how to use a hiking first aid kit is yet another essential hiking skill. Nowadays, prepackaged first aid kits are also readily available at outfitters. You can take an introductory first aid class with Wilderness First Aid offered by various hiking organizations, especially if you’re a new hiker and have never used a first aid kit.
A first aid kit will help eliminate the risk of spiraling out of control, mainly if one of your team members gets injured on the hike. Remember that the paramedics could take considerable time before they get to you due to the difficulty of maneuverings through the hiking trail, for instance.
Moreover, if you get minor injuries during the hike, you can continue your hike because you will have supplies and the knowledge of how to use them. I also recommend checking the list of your first aid kit before each hike. Moreover, considering the local terrain nuances can also help you hike smoothly.
Furthermore, it would be best to know how to dress a wound or eradicate the fracture’s pain in case of more severe injuries.
Here is the checklist of a hiking first aid kit:
- Antiseptic wipes
- Medical tape
- Antibacterial ointment
- Gauze pads of various sizes
- Insect repellent
- Moleskin or any other blister treatment
- Butterfly bandages
- Antihistamine for allergies
- Non-stick pads
- Safety pins
- A first aid card with guidelines on how to use the items
Remember that the list above is not complete. You might want to add more items as you gain more experience. For instance, if you have a primary first aid kit that you can use for a group of people on multi-day trips, you would want to have comprehensive equipment that could cover the essentials for all.
11. Consider Wildlife Safety
On a hiking trail, expect to see stunning views and incredible wildlife. It is also one of the reasons why many people want to go on hikes. Seeing bison grazing in a distant meadow or a giant and colorful bird soaring overhead can turn a simple hike into an unforgettable excursion.
However, while up-close encounters can be memorable, they can also be as bothersome as a tiny mouse stealing your food or as dangerous as a grizzly bear in the middle of the hiking trail. Unless you are hiking in the UK, where wildlife safety commonly involves not getting butted by a feisty goat or tempered by a group of cows, you will want to avoid dangerous animal encounters.
Wildlife safety becomes even more essential when hiking in North America, especially in wild states like Florida, where many things, such as bears, alligators, snakes, mountain lions, etc., might want to taste you.
That’s why it is essential to know where you are going, what you might anticipate, and how to react if you encounter wildlife on the trail.
· Wildlife Safety Tips
A few basic hiking skills and techniques for wildlife safety include:
- Avoid feeding animals regardless of whether they are dangerous or not because it’s not good for them and can be hazardous for you as well.
- Do not try to pet animals during the hike. That cute-looking baby moose probably has a mama moose nearby who will attack. Also, don’t get close to or cuddle any cute, cuddly animal.
- Avoid direct encounters because you are in their territory, and most animals don’t like it when you invade their space.
- Make sure not to sneak up on, provoke, or scare animals. They are unpredictable, and that innocent deer will try to protect itself at any cost. Remember that trying to provoke wild animals is a recipe for disaster.
- Avoid wandering off the trail after dark.
- Keep an eye on animals’ tracks and poop. It will help you know what might be around.
- If you are hiking in an area known for bears, make sure you have bear spray in your backpack.
· Essential Hiking Skills to Ensure Safety in the Wild
Keep these essential hiking skills in mind if you encounter a wild animal during the hike:
- Snake: The most common snakes in Florida are cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlesnakes. Suppose you see one, back away immediately. Be calm and quiet, and give them as much space as possible.
- Moose: If you see a moose, give it some space. Unless it has a baby nearby, it will likely leave you alone. The animal usually gives you a warning sign like tossing its head, urinating, or smacking its lips.
- Elk or Deer: Leave them alone. Much like moose, they will also run away. If they attack, run away, or climb a tree.
- Bear: If it hasn’t spotted you, back away slowly. However, if it has, use a quiet tone and talk to it. If it attacks you, ensure your bear spray is ready. Moreover, in case you are knocked down, play dead and cover the back of your neck.
- Mountain Lion: If you see a mountain lion during the hike, make loud noises while backing away slowly. Make sure not to give any reason to the lion that you are its prey. Don’t turn your back and act as a predator.
12. Leave No Trace
Leaving no trace is among the basic hiking skills and techniques every hiker should follow religiously. It goes without saying that the hiking trails you love the most can only be enjoyable for us and others if we leave exactly as we found. However, it doesn’t mean just cleaning up your litter.
It also means abiding by a few frameworks, such as planning, disposing of waste properly, minimizing campfire effects, camping on durable surfaces, respecting wildlife, etc. These steps are essential for reducing the impact of your walk on the incredible wildlife around you.
Essential Hiking Skills
There you have it – 12 of the essential hiking skills and techniques. While these are some necessary and basic hiking skills and techniques, the list is incomplete. So, depending on the weather and your individual needs, you might want to add more items to your list for a smooth, enjoyable, and safe excursion. Moreover, I will keep adding essential hiking skills so that you can use this guide as a reference for any hiking location.