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How to hike: 8 steps to become a great day hiker

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How to hike: 8 steps to become a great day hiker (edited for clarity and brevity)

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Step 1: Understand hiking mechanics  Shorten your stride on downhills to avoid a slip out.  We've all started out too fast or slipped on a downhill section leaving us gassed and battered.   Hiking efficiently on a long day hike can substantially increase your enjoyment and allow you to hike more miles.  If you understand basic hiking mechanics you can get the most out of your day hikes and minimize the impact on your feet, joints, and muscles.  The more efficiently you move on the trail, the longer you can hike.  


  • Shorten your stride on uphills to save your hip flexors
  • Shorten your stride on downhills to keep your center of mass over your lead foot and avoid slips outs

  • Lace your shoes properly to minimize blisters that are produced by foot movement in the shoe

  • Use trekking poles to lighten the impact on your knees

Step 2: Train for Day Hiking  If you want to push your limits as a day hiker you'll need to train for it.  Proper training can protect your joints, legs, and feet from the damage that can result from a long day or big miles on the trail. Strengthen your quads and hips, increase your cardiovascular endurance, and improve your flexibility to minimize the impact on your body.  Training for day hiking will have just as much of an impact on hikes as it will on your recovery the day after.  Training for day hiking doesn't require a gym membership or a ton of time.  Focus your efforts on the three core elements and cross-train to develop complementary skills.  The more you push your limits the more comfortable long days and double digit miles will feel to you.


  • Increase lower body strength to lessen fatigue, decrease the chance for injury, and prepare your body to more easily tackle big inclines

  • Build up cardio to spend more time in motion and decrease the number of breaks you need on the trail

  • Practice yoga, or a stretching regimen, to prepare your body for motion, improve flexibility and strength, and aid in your post-hike recovery

  • Cross-train by climbing, bouldering, or trail running to build your overall skill set and endurance.

Step 3: Develop Special Skills for Hiking  With effort it is possible to develop special hiking skills that will allow you to go farther, hike longer, be more comfortable, and see more of the trail safely.  Learning how to hike is more than just walking on a trail for a long time.  It requires striking a balance between being safe and being daring.  Armed with these special skills, you will be more prepared to test your limits on big day hikes and well on your way to becoming a superhero - even if it's only in your mind.  Repetition turns the challenging into the routine.  The more you practice your special skills, the easier they will be to use on the trail when you need them.


  • Master 5 ways to start a fire

  • Understand the basics of Backcountry First Aid

  • Practice basic climbing techniques

  • Learn how to use a compass and topo maps

  • Know how to identify and respect your limits

Step 4: Plan Your Hike  Revisit trails more than once and hike a different route each time.  It changes the experience and I discover new details and features.  Being familiar with a trail makes planning a bit easier.  But if you want to hike a new trail for the first, planning is even more imperative.  Become familiar with the terrain by searching for trail reports and GPS tracks, referencing topo maps, and doing a thorough image search.   You can learn a lot from hikers that have gone before you.  A day hike may be shorter than many multi-day backcountry adventures but that doesn't mean that you should overlook the planning stage. Planning is essential to getting the most out of your big days on the trail and doing it safely.  Long hours and big miles are only possible with planning and it pays to give it an honest effort.  Epic day hikes are the result of solid planning and mindful execution.  If you plan for your day hikes to be exceptional, they will be.


  • Select your route - that might sound obvious but there are always alternative routes to consider

  • Identify challenge points & speed sections - look for sections that may require your special skills or sections where you can cover ground quickly

  • Locate your water sources - you can carry less water to start if you add a filter to your gear list and know where you can fill up along the way

  • Schedule your breaks - planning for breaks will give you benchmarks to aim for and will help to keep you on pace

  • Stage your photos in advance - there's nothing worse than getting to an overlook or natural feature only to discover that the light is horrible

  • Estimate your time on trail - it can be helpful to estimate your time in sections using your scheduled breaks and photo stops

  • Expect the best but plan for the worst - plan your hike for both scenarios so that you can gear up accordingly and avoid surprises

Step 5: Gear Up to Hike All Day  There are times when we all fight the urge to take every tool and gadget we own.  It's important to be prepared but try to avoid carrying unnecessary items.  To make a long day on the trail comfortable you have to be wise in your gear selections.  I've encountered hikers 2-3 miles from the trailhead at dusk with no pack or headlamp.   As you begin pulling gear for your day hike, consider just how much of each item you will realistically need and look for gear that can serve more than one need.  Great day hikers know how to hike with just the gear that they need.  Lay your initial gear selections on the floor.  Consider each item individually. Can it serve more than one need?  If it's essential, can you scale down the amount you take?  determine how to hike the trail before you get there and allow it to dictate the gear you carry. For example, if a trusted water source is readily available you can carry less water to start and add a filter to your pack.


  • Determine your gear needs - use mileage and time on trail to define your gear selections

  • Choose your essentials - shoes or boots, socks, layers, hat, pack, hydration system, stainless steel water bottle, trekking poles, sunscreen, space blanket

  • Consider extras - gloves, bug spray, water shoes, sunglasses

  • Add in your tools - knife or multitool, camera gear, fire starters, headlamp, stove, cooking pot, spork, duct tape

  • Pack your first aid items - blister treatments, pain relief, antiseptic, bandages, petroleum jelly, lip balm

  • Include navigational items - maps, compass, GPS, guidebooks

  • Select your food and hydration items - bars, GORP, water enhancers, cold pizza, instant coffee

  • Pack with purpose - organize for easy access and consider items that serve a dual purpose

Step 6: Navigate Like It Matters  No one ever thinks they'll get lost on a simple day hike. Then they do. But it's too late to plan at that point.  One of the more exhilarating aspects of big day hikes is pushing beyond the well-worn trail.  But if you want to go deeper into the canyon, connect several trails together, or venture off into uncharted territory it pays to be prepared.  Realizing that you are lost 10 miles into a 20 mile day hike could be disastrous.  But there are ways to minimize the risk to ensure that you can safely find your way back.  Be proactive about spotting or creating navigational aids on the trail.  Navigation on day hikes may be more important is some ways than it is on backpacking trips.  You can't make up time or distance the next day.  You planned to be on the trail just for the day and you are most likely ill-prepared to spend the night.  So be sure to navigate like you mean it on your day hikes.  Stop at trail intersections or prominent landmarks and look back to take a mental snapshot of where you've come from.  That is the view you see on the return.


  • Prepare beforehand - study your maps and plot your route before you hit the trail

  • Journal on the trail - a sketch with trail intersections can be useful and it's great reference material for your next hike on the same trail

  • Leave breadcrumbs - cairns have been used for centuries and their easy to build as you go

  • Reference your maps frequently - make notes on the map and check your progress frequently

  • Use GPS as a backup - there is no substitute for a map and compass in the hands of a hiker that knows how to use them but a GPS is a good backup 

Step 7: Establish Your Safety Protocol  In 2005 Search and Rescue units in the national parks performed 2,430 rescues of which 48% were hikers.   Things can go wrong on the trail quickly. Get lost for an hour or two and you just might be spending the night in the woods, desert, or canyon. Suffer a lower body injury or take a fall on the trail and you might be there until someone else comes along. The possibilities of something going wrong makes it imperative that you plan your day hike well and account for unforeseen issues on the trail.  You need to make sure that someone back home knows where you are going, the route you will follow, and when to expect you back.  They should also have a plan or protocol for mobilizing the forces should you fail to meet your established timeline for return.  Your chances of being found safely are increased greatly if you leave a detail plan with someone and stick to it on the trail.  It's easy to do and could make all the difference if something does goes wrong.  Technology has made it harder for us to truly escape into nature. The upside is that you can carry your cell phone and check in during a long day hike when a signal is available.


  • Leave a detailed hiking trip plan - trailhead, connectors, turn around, start/end times, check in times

  • Use a SPOT locator - not fool-proof but great as a safety net if you really get into touble

  • Register at the trailhead - not all trails have registration boxes but when they are available use them to leave a record of your hike

  • Stick to your plan - deviating makes your plan worthless

Step 8: Recover Properly  Research shows that the addition of a salt and carbohydrate combination plus small amounts of protein to water increases both absorption and retention.  Check the label on your favorite sports drink.  Learning to hike like a great day hiker leads to sore muscles and aching joints.  Once you're back home, recounting the hike in your mind and looking through the amazing photos you'll start to feel the effects.  If you know how to recover properly you can string more days and miles together for an even more epic adventure.  Recovering from a big day hike may seem like an endless cycle if you are continually pushing your limits.  But the more time you spend on the trail, the more quickly you will recover after each hike.  Experiment with your post-hike treatments and journal the results.  You may find that certain foods or stretches work better for you than others.  Don't be afraid to experiment to find what works best for your body.


  • Rehydrate - cramps suck, especially in the middle of the night, so rehydrate your body with fluids and recovery aiding foods

  • Use a foam roller & stretch - work the lactic acid out of your muscles to speed up the recovery process and relieve the aches and pains

  • Heat & ice - pamper your muscles with alternating heat and ice as needed

  • Avoid the couch - build your endurance and aid recovery with a follow up hike the next day

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