Five Essentials of Hiking
For the uninitiated, the language of outdoor recreation can sometimes seem confusing and even intimidating. Experienced outdoor enthusiasts, ranging from hikers, campers, climbers and backcountry skiers, casually use terms like “ten essentials” and “leave no trace” often assuming others know what they mean. We want to simplify and demystify one of the most important aspects of safe outdoor activity—ensuring you have appropriate gear for the planned trip.
When it comes to hiking, outdoor judgment is acquired over time and through personal or shared outdoor experiences. The trick is to build your own judgment by learning from the experiences of others rather than having to learn everything yourself. If you are new to outdoor activities, consider the discussion here and then tailor our recommendations to your own environment and circumstances. You will learn that you do not need everything on the lists for a typical day hike and there are items not listed that are necessities on more advanced or challenging hikes (like a winter ascent of a 14er, for instance). For your first few outings, ask a friend for feedback on what you are bringing—and not bringing. Over time you will develop your own preferences and guidelines for any outing, short or long, summer or winter. Now, let’s get started demystifying the ten essentials. The original ten essentials list (map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp or flashlight, first-aid supplies, fire starter, matches, knife, and extra food) was created by The Mountaineers, an outdoor mountaineering organization, in the 1930s to help people be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors. In 2003, the group introduced a systems approach that used functional systems and added hydration and emergency shelter. To further simplify the ten essentials systems approach we use just five categories that are easier to remember and allow users to tailor their equipment list for the given activity.
For a day hike, bring food for twice the planned trip duration. If you are taking a half-day hike you should at least carry a nutrition bar and maybe some dried fruit and nuts in case you wander off the trail and are out longer than planned. A mix of nuts and sweets is popular with hikers because it provides energy for the hike, is lightweight, and does not require cooking. A nutrition bar is compact and can easily fit in a small pocket. Outdoor activity expends energy and you will be glad to have the small snacks when you begin to feel fatigued.
An adult should drink eight glasses of water per day. That works out to about 2 liters of water each day. For a day hike, bring water for twice the planned trip duration. If you plan a half-day hike, you would want to have a full day of water available, plus some additional amount to account for your extra water loss due to exertion, temperature, relative humidity, and elevation. Hydration is even more important in Colorado due to the combination of higher elevations and temperatures and low humidity. Even on the shortest hikes you should carry some water.
For navigating, day hikers need to bring a primary, practiced means of navigation and a backup system. You should not expect or depend on trail markings or signs on even the most frequently traveled day hike trails. Some trails do not have signs and others have signs that are confusing because there are multiple trails. For most day hikes, it is reasonable to use a smartphone application that shows your trail and provides navigation tips and even trail photos. You should also have a backup means of navigation available in case your app fails or your cell phone battery dies. Your back up can be someone else’s phone or a paper map. Whether you use an app or a map and compass—you should practice using your navigation tools before the hike so you are proficient. If you are not comfortable using apps or maps consider hiring a guide to show you how to use them.
Bring clothing and protection appropriate for the expected environment. Many experienced guides and trip leaders include this general statement in their trip planning notes, so what does it mean? You should always bring sun protection (sunglasses, sunscreen, headgear, and clothing) to shield you from the sun, layers of clothing appropriate for the worst-case temperatures, footwear appropriate for the activity and some form of insect repellant. We distinguish between clothing for sun and layers for cold to reinforce the point that even in the heat of summer it is a good idea to have long sleeves and perhaps even pants to protect your skin from the sun. In summer, two layers of clothing are usually adequate. In winter, three layers are the norm: a base (inner) layer for warmth, a mid-layer to retain heat and an outer layer to block the wind. Footwear should be appropriate for the length of the hike and the expected conditions. Tennis shoes are fine for short hikes in some city parks in Colorado, but most hikes warrant some form of trail or hiking shoes. Many summer day hikers prefer lightweight trail shoes.
Insurance means the things you should carry to provide provisions when the unexpected happens. This list should always include a basic first aid kit, emergency signaling methods (ranging from whistles and mirrors or cell phones for day trips to satellite phones for backcountry trips), illumination (headlamp or flashlight), and shelter. For more extensive outings, you should also carry materials to start a fire (matches/lighter/candle), a multitool with a knife, and perhaps even an emergency shelter. This list can sound excessive but there are many variations and reasons to include some of these items on even the shortest trip. If you or someone in your group has a headache or muscle pain, pain reliever from a first aid kit is very helpful. If someone in your group wanders off the trail, a whistle (sometimes built into a pack strap) is ideal for getting reconnected. Most outdoor stores sell versions of small emergency kits that can stay in the bottom of a lightweight daypack. If you are part of a group, then each member can have their own kit, or you can coordinate to ensure the group has all of these items between them.
Hike for Life exists to nurture our community spirit and to inspire others to appreciate and care for our great outdoors. We do this by providing carefully curated guided hikes for residents and visitors to the Pikes Peak region. Our hikes are designed to be educationally enhanced, environmentally aware and safety conscious. We believe that teaching and helping others explore safely and with an emphasis on stewardship strengthens our community and helps protect our limited natural resources. To learn more visit our website at HikeForLife.co, or follow us on Facebook and Instagram.