Have you ever had a moment of thinking, if you would go for a hiking holiday? Did you consider and then bury the whole idea? Too much hassle and no idea where to go? Maybe you went and hated it, since your feet were completely destroyed, or maybe you had way too heavy backpack and you tried to cross the Pyrenees in two and a half days?
Not that I would be a master in this art myself, but I think I have enough experience to give a small piece of advice for you guys out there. Hiking is such a great way to enjoy your free time and nature, that I would love to see as many people as possible taking a liking to it. So here we go, my guide for all hikers to come:
First and foremost, you’ll have to select a suitable hike. Books and the internet are good sources of inspiration also when it comes to hiking. But, before you rush into a book store, I recommend you to think a little, where on earth you want to go. Are islands close to your heart? Or inland savanna? Maybe mountains or huge forests? The smartest choice might be to stay on your home continent to begin with, and in somewhat familiar climate too, so that you’ll have a better understanding on the nature, weather and other conditions. Also, it is usually easier to get there.
Walks that end into the same point where they start from, are usually easier to do, no need to find any transportation for getting back to start. For a beginner, a loop of 40 – 60 kilometers for 3 – 5 days is optimal, don’t go aiming for 20 km day distances, since your average speed on a trail will probably be about 2 – 3 km an hour, if even that. All this depends of course on the terrain and your own fitness level. A hike of few days already gets you the feeling of hiking. All the pain, tiredness, mind fullness and wonder of it.
The season is also something you want to consider. The hottest days of summer are not the best time to go do this. You’ll get exhausted in a minute. Best weather for hiking, in my opinion, is about 7 – 20 °C with not too much rain.
There are all sorts of books and guides available, to help you in finding your loop. Rother and Cicerone have a wide range of very nice books, handling trails all over the world. We like to shop our maps and books from the very well stocked Alta Via in Antwerp. If you are headed for Finland, by any chance, do visit Luontoon.fi. The site offers you descriptions of routes and guides you to the National Parks. It is handy, trust me.
For hiking, good maps are around the scale of 1:15 000 – 1:30 000. Much bigger and you might loose yourself. Take some time in learning the markings on the map. Things might go sour if you mistake a height line to a trail. And remember, if the trail crosses height lines, it will be either climbing or going down. If there is a lot of that kind of action, you might be headed for rough hiking.
Shoes and clothing
All set. You have a trail, a map and a book. Well, maybe some additional gear would be good? Let’s start from the bottom. Shoes. That piece of equipment might get expensive. That’s just the way it is. For the first hike, especially if it is short and on easy-ish terrain, you might survive on trainers, or with lighter walking shoes. But if there is the possibility, you get hooked to the sport, you will need boots. I myself, (and Waffle) like Hanwags. Consult a professional on this! And invest on socks. You’ll thank me later! Always remember to keep your feet dry and clean!
Otherwise clothing should be comfortable, with plenty of pockets. Breathable and layered if weather so requires. Most of the time there is rain to be expected, so make sure you have something waterproof with you. Proof, not resistant. This I learned the hard way.
When it comes to sleeping, remember, that you will have to take your whole bed with you. Sometimes also the house, if the chosen trail does not have huts or refuges alongside it.
First, we take a look at mattresses. The range to choose from is huge, it is completely OK and understandable to be lost when facing it. They can be roughly divided into two categories. Inflatables and foam mattresses. With foam, you usually get away with it more cheaply, but it will be a lot more bulky. If you manage to attache it on the outside of your backpack, and cover it from rain, you will be fine with it. They are often very light, and quick to spread. Inflatable ones, they will take your budget down a bit further, but they will be smaller when packed, and a bit more comfy to sleep on. And the mystical r-value often goes higher, which means you’ll survive colder temperatures with it. I happen to like Therm-a-Rest.
To stay warm during the night, a good sleeping bag is something I can never emphasize enough. Again, two categories. Synthetic and with down filling. Synthetic is cheaper, and easier to maintain, but bulkier and heavier when packed. Down sleeping bags are warm, and pack small. You should avoid getting it into moist conditions though, or at least make sure you get it dry afterwards. If you don’t want to immediately invest into 3 season bag, you can buy some extra warmth with inner sleeping bags, they easily get you surviving a degree or two colder temps. And woolly socks, never forget them.
When it comes to housing, we are talking about tents or hammocks. I am mainly going to focus on tents, since they are the thing I know something of. Hammock is a good option too, I am not saying anything against them!
Weight is one of the key things when picking your tent. Remember, that you are going to carry it, on your back, alongside all the other gear. A tent of around 3 kilos, when you are hiking with someone, is about the maximum. The easiness of erecting it will be also something to consider. That is one of the reasons why I chose Fjällräven. Things with more than 3 arches, start to be a bit painful to get up, when there is wind, rain and uneven terrain. The tent should be well ventilated and water resistant too. The fly of the tent, you’ll want to see resisting at least 2000 mm of water, the floor should be somewhere around 10 000 mm. Make sure there is enough room in the tent for your hiking party; no one person tent for the three of you!
Food and water
I think housing is about there. We should move on to eating. Food is a necessity to take with you. Of course. First of all, take enough of it. Calculate the amount of days you are going to be on the trail. Divide the food in to breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks and add some extra.
Oatmeal and porridge in general is a good breakfast. It is fast to cook, light to carry and has nice nutritional values. Make sure you take big portions. 40 g per meal does not cover it. For main meals you can of course go for the optimal, super light hiking meals, but just the ordinary pasta meals from the store are generally good enough. Just make sure, that there is enough of protein and carbohydrates in your diet. As snacks, nuts and chocolate are on my top list. If you happen to be a wonder in the kitchen, go ahead and try making your own dried foods. Hiking in cooler weather gives you the opportunity to have fresh stuff, like vegetables and cheese with you too. If you just are happy to carry a little extra weight. For Finnish people out there, rye bread! It preserves fine and is tasty.
To be able to eat all that food, you will be needing a kitchen. Most of us use gas stoves, but there are also many alcohol burners, like Trangia, and even woodgas stoves out there. If you decide to go light, tiny and gas free, Woodgas is something you might want to consider. As long as there is a bit of things to burn on your trail. If you are going for the gas, and your destination requires flying, make sure you can buy gas somewhere there, since you cannot take it with you in the plane! I am using a MSR Pocketrocket, well serving little beast, and usually I have two pots, a plate, a mug and a spork with me. Plenty of kitchen for two. In the beginning it is normal to panic about gas running out, but if you take two 230 g bottle with you you should be fine for at least 5 days with two people. If you do not try and boil your bath with it.
Water. There is no life without it. There usually are no water taps alongside the trail every X kilometers. Bring enough bottles to carry the water with you. I like to have 4 small, flexible 5 deciliter bottles, it is easy to divide the weight all over your pack with them, couple of bigger ones travel with us too, for cooking water. Often the water found is not drinkable straight away. It needs to be either boiled or filtered, to kill bacteria. Water filters are sold in most hiking stores, Katadyn is something you might want to check out. If you go for boiling, calculate it in with the gas usage.
Then the small, yet so very important bits. Keeping in mind, that anything can happen, you should always keep a first aid kit with you, plus a hefty pile of blister batches and sports tape. A good knife should be following you everywhere, you never know, when you need to cut something, or make chips to start a fire. Speaking of fire, you’ll need also matches or a lighter. Make sure, that they are staying dry at all times. Even if your backpack decides to fuckitall and go for a swim. And toilet paper. Essential. You know why. Bit of soap and your normal toothbrush stuff should follow you too. And a towel. Getting yourself clean might seem like a good idea after 3 days of hiking.
As we have all the gear, the food and housing gathered, we need something to stuff it into. Meaning a backpack. You can’t really shop these via the internet. You will be carrying your whole life with you, over the trail, in the backpack. So you will want it to really fit, be the right size and shape. Often people think, that bigger is better. But bigger is easier to overload. Overload is something you do not want. The maximum amount you should carry, is about 25 % of your own weight, they say, so, for a small girl, 55 – 65 liters of backpack will be quite enough. If space runs out, you will need to reconsider the packing you have made.
You should fit the pack so, that as little weight as possible is laying on top of your shoulders. You should feel it on the waist belt, and the package should be supported neatly against your back. Often this method will leave your hips rather sore the first days, but it is better that having no blood going to your brain, thanks to squeezed shoulders.
I use an Osprey Ariel backpack. It seems to be doing a good job. It is easily adjustable, has even a heat modifiable waistband and plenty of pockets. It also comes with a water cover. Again, there are professionals out there, knowing a lot of these things. Go have a chat!
On the trail, do not leave marks of your existence, no trash should be left behind. It is allowed to pick others litter too, if someone has been stupid enough to leave their junk behind. Be nice to everyone. You might need their friendship, and they might need yours.
All done? Supposedly. Off we go. During hiking, there will be little comfort. Tiredness is guaranteed and blisters will occur. You will learn many new things about yourself, and your fellow hikers. Maybe feel a little humble when the nature shows you its real face. But that is the beauty of it. The humbling, the learning, physical pain but freedom of the mind.
For finishing words, you might be terrified, looking at the list of all the gear up there. I admit, starting the sport might get expensive, if you want to buy everything as new. But there is always the option of borrowing things and buying second hand. Or maybe finding a hiker, who has the gear and is willing to take you out there.
Me and Waffle are always welcoming newbies to tag along!