(The Windows - Arches National Park)
It's no secret that I LOVE hiking and have found a new love in backpacking. Everyone should have intimate experiences out in nature. There is so much out there to learn about yourself and this beautiful world, but I know how apprehensive some people are to step into the unknown, especially alone. I truly believe there is great value in challenging yourself in uncomfortable situations and hiking alone can be really beneficial, but being safe is the first priority, so I thought I would share some of the things I've learned on my own journeys. Many of these lessons and pieces of information were learned through trial and error, from others more experienced than me, and from research to answer questions. (I'm no expert, so if I've missed something really important or stated something inaccurately, please let me know.)
If you're new to hiking or have some miles under your belt, these are all things you should be doing to stay safe on the trail. Make sure someone knows where you're going and when - whether you're alone or with a group. Take water with you. PLEASE take water...even if you're just going on a short hike (oh, and drink it). Wear proper footwear...break in your new hiking boots before hitting the trail, make sure your shoes have proper grip so you don't slip, know when sandals are appropriate and if you will want waterproof shoes. Prepare for the weather and any sudden changes - rain gear, layers to put on or take off, sunscreen, etc.
When packing up your gear, there are ten essential 'systems' to make sure you include. #1 navigation (map + compass), #2 sun protection (sunscreen, sunglasses, hat), #3 insulation (extra clothing), #4 illumination (flashlight/headlamp), #5 first-aid supplies, #6 fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles), #7 repair kit and tools, #8 nutrition (extra food), #9 hydration (water), #10 emergency shelter.
Keep your map handy and be sure to follow the trails. Many trails have 'social trails' that spur off of the main path, so it's important to follow markers and trail guides. Following footprints can lead you in the wrong direction.
In many parks, especially large national or regional parks, you will see signs like this one (to the left). Thousands of people visit these parks every year, so it's important that hikers stay on trails to protect fragile ecosystems, soils, and habitats. There are areas of these parks that it is OK to venture off the trail to do some extra exploring, but it is then your responsibility to make sure you're preserving the integrity of the park. Know where your stepping and the impact that step could have.
Have you ever seen rock formations like this one along trails or stacked in different areas of parks while hiking? Cairns, as they are called, are used to mark trails. I never understood the importance of these little stacks of rocks until I hiked a few different trails in Utah and they were truly our best friends.
On backcountry trails, it isn't always easy to see where the trail is headed or there could be several 'paths' to choose from and only one is the correct trail. The cairn pictured on the right is pretty obviously intentional, but there were times that the rock piles were really small or on a tree branch or looked like it could have been a coincidence that they were there. As your only trail 'life-line', sometimes spotting two cairns and connecting the dots is the only way to really know where you're going.
Cairns look pretty cool and are used as symbols or logos for various things, but they have a very specific meaning out on the trail. Please don't knock them down or build your own because you could lead a hiker astray, causing injury or getting them lost.
(This trail in Arches National Park was marked by cairns as it passed on and over rock fins like the one pictured.)
Lastly, part of hiking and enjoying nature is respecting and preserving the parks. The Leave No Trace (LNT) program has seven principles that provide guidance for enjoying nature in a sustainable way that avoids human impact.
Leave No Trace Principles
1. Plan ahead and prepare
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
3. Dispose of waste properly
4. Leave what you find
5. Minimize campfire impacts
6. Respect wildlife
7. Be considerate of other visitors
You can learn more about these principles and the LNT program here.