“I’ll never make it,” you think.
“I want to hike,” you say to yourself. “But, I’m not fit enough.”
Self-doubt creeps into your head and stops you in your tracks. You think you’re not fit enough so you don’t try.
Your thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, you never step into the hills and hike. All because you doubted your fitness.
If you want to get into hiking, don’t worry about your fitness now. You can improve it quickly and be fit enough to tackle increasingly challenging routes.
Your hiking fitness is not just about your body, though. It’s about your mind too. Getting your mind and body fit is essential to become a hiker. They work hand-in-hand so you can enjoy the freedom of being on the trail.
To get you ready, follow this three-stage process to get fit and learn hiking techniques for the beginner.
Hiking hacks: Stage 1 — Get your head ready with the 6Ps
‘Prior planning and preparation prevent poor performance’. You’ve probably heard that adage before now. It’s a saying the military use, and for a good reason. You don’t win a battle or war without careful preparation.
Step 1 — Before you step out — the first P
Although hiking is far from being a war or battle, preparation is just as essential to make your hikes fun, safe and comfortable.
The first ‘P’ (Prior) is giving yourself enough time to get ready for your first hike. Turning up at the start of a route with no preparation is a big mistake.
Whether you are hiking in the low ground or the mountains, you will face changing weather and terrain. If you’ve not got the right clothing and equipment you’ll be uncomfortable at best, and in danger at worst.
A route which looks short on a map can be more physically demanding than you realise. If your fitness is low and you become exhausted halfway round, you could put yourself and others in harm’s way.
That’s why thinking ahead of your hike is the first step to enjoying it and being ready. Give yourself time to prepare. The longer the walk and the higher the hills or mountains you intend to hike, the more preparation time you need.
Now you’ve established the importance of the first ‘P’ it’s time to move onto the next one.
Step 2 — Plan like an adventurer (and other hiking safety tips)
Terrain — The first aspect of planning is deciding where you want to hike. The ground you plan to walk will affect:
The higher you climb into the hills, the colder it becomes. Hiking up hills is hot work, so you might not think that being cold is a problem. When you stop for a rest, you will notice how quickly you cool off.
If you cool off too quickly and too much, you can become confused and begin to shiver. These effects are symptoms of hypothermia. It’s easy to slip into it. You can avoid if you have the right clothing in your rucksack to stay warm when you stop.
Equally dangerous is hyperthermia. That’s when you get too hot. Your body needs to get rid of heat when you’re putting in a lot of effort. If you’re planning to hike in low terrain in the heat of summer, for example, you need the right clothing, equipment, drinks and food for the situation.
Like hypothermia, you need to wear the right clothing to strike a balance between protecting you from sunburn and keeping fresh.
Climate and weather — Other important factors to look at in your planning are the climate, weather and season of where you will hike.
In some parts of the world, you can predict what the weather and climate will be like when you arrive. To use extreme examples, the Sahara Desert is going to be dry and hot for much of the year. Antarctica will be cold and, potentially, wet.
But, if you live in a temperate climate, the weather can be less predictable. You could be walking over beautiful moorland in glorious sunshine one moment, only to be surrounded by thick fog the next. The temperature can drop rapidly at times, so you need to prepare with the right clothing to cope with changeable weather.
Navigation — A skill you need to develop is navigating across hilly or mountainous terrain.
When the weather is good, and you can see the route ahead of you, navigation is more straightforward. But, what happens if fog sets in reducing how far ahead you can see? Do you know where you are on a map?
You can use a GPS navigation device, such as the Ordnance Survey maps app (affiliate link) on your smartphone. It’s a great app and service. But, devices run out of battery power. A portable power bank solves this problem. But, it’s more kit to carry.
When that happens, you need to have a traditional map and compass available to navigate safely to your destination.
But, do you know how to use them both? If not, you either need to learn map reading, or you should go with an experienced navigator.
Where can you learn to read maps? Take a course like those offered by The Ultimate Navigation School in Scotland, or The Silva Navigation School.
Step 3 — Prepare like an expert
What’s best for your body is right for your mind — When you hike you burn a lot of energy. An essential part of your preparation is ensuring you have enough of the right food and drink to carry with you.
The longer the hike, the more you need to take.
If you plan to do a long hike, eat well the night before, have a good breakfast made up of slow release energy foods like porridge or muesli.
During the hike, eat regularly to keep putting energy back into your body. Some hikers eat every 45 minutes to keep their power up. Others stop to eat less often but eat more when they do.
It’s good to drink regularly when hiking to make up for the sweat you’ll generate. Taking water with you is an essential requirement. Also, a flask of tea or coffee is a common choice for a day hike.
Whichever approach you take, think about the length of your hike and how much food and drink you will need.
The food you take on your hike needs some careful thought. You need food which is tasty, nutritious, provides you with energy and which isn’t too heavy.
You need enough to last you all day. You’ll need food to eat at your main stops, and snacks in between.
With this in mind, plan out how much food and drink you’ll need to carry.
Then, you need to plan how you’re going to keep your food contained in your rucksack.
Keeping everything dry and organised in your rucksack — A sign of an experienced hiker is their ‘personal administration’. Your ‘admin’ comes down to how well organised you are when out in the hills.
Aside from what you wear, keeping what you carry organised is essential too.
For example, a simple item like a waterproof map case can mean the difference between knowing where you are and being lost. If your paper map gets wet, it will fall apart.
Also, keeping everything you carry in your rucksack dry is important (Have you ever eaten a wet sandwich?). It’s not only your food you need to keep dry. It’s your spare clothing, including hats, gloves, warm layers and any gadgets you need to stay dry.
A good plan is to buy a set of waterproof bags into which you put your kit with one bigger bag to use for lining your rucksack.
Separating your equipment into individual waterproof bags in your rucksack and putting them in order in the liner helps in the following ways:
What’s the essential kit to carry? — These are the basics to take with you on your person or in your rucksack:
Preparing yourself for hiking might sound like a big task. But, when you’ve been on a few hikes and experienced different weather and terrain, this preparation will make sense.
Being in the great outdoors is a beautiful experience. Life outside is great for your mind, body and soul.
Here are some steps to take to avoid being overwhelmed by it.
Step 4 — Prevention is better than a cure
It’s easy to forget how being outside hiking all day can affect you. Walking, climbing and moving over the hills awakens your body to forces which you may not have felt so intensely before.
Preventing these common problems below is the best way to prepare for them.
In the sunshine but out of it — Being outside will give you a healthy glow. The sun is stronger than you think, even in overcast conditions. It’s easy to forget to protect yourself from the sun, especially when you are working hard.
It’s a good idea to protect your skin by applying sun cream which has a suitable protection factor for the conditions.
Some hikers wear wide-brimmed hats to keep the sun off their heads and faces. In warmer conditions, wear clothing which protects your skin and that’s cool and comfortable too.
Avoiding the rub — It’s a painful truth. Hiking makes you hot and sweaty. With the repetitive movements of walking it’s common to experience ‘sweat rashes’, the effect of skin rubbing skin which then becomes infected.
You can avoid it by wearing clothing designed for hiking, or applying a treatment, like Vaseline, on parts of your body prone to sweat rash. These areas include between your legs, your armpits, and between your buttocks.
You can treat it too. Canesten makes a lotion to treat sweat rash. But, you can avoid it in the first place.
Footloose and painful — Your feet should be your main focus for comfortable hiking. Sore feet means slow or no walking.
Preventing blisters is better than treating them out on the trails. Your feet will get hot, no matter the weather. Hot, sweaty feet means you need to ‘wick’ sweat away to keep them as relaxed and comfortable as possible.
Hikers have different approaches to preparing their feet. Here’s mine, which I learnt through painful lessons in the army and over many years of hiking:
Step 5 — Perform like an athlete
Hiking is a physical pastime. That’s one reason why hikers love it.
To enjoy it and perform well in the hills and mountains, you need to prepare the following:
Knowing what and when to eat and drinkHiking nine miles on relatively flat ground means you can burn between 1,000 and 1,700 calories (depending on your physique).
Women need about 2,000 calories a day and men 2,500 calories a day to maintain their weight. One relatively easy hike could burn up half or more of your calorie intake per day.
Also, no matter the time of year, you need a lot of liquid to maintain your performance.
Depending on the terrain and length of your hike, here’s a quick guide on what and when to eat and drink on a hike:
Hiking food — Aside from taking tasty, nutritious food, you need two types of food in your rucksack.
Liquids are heavy. A litre of water weighs 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs). But, you must take enough water or liquids to drink when you hike. Here are some ideas on what to take to drink:
Hiking hacks: Stage 2 — Get your body ready with this simple plan
You could hike without any training. But, you’ll enjoy it more if you prepare your body. You can hike for longer and further by doing some simple training before you go.
Hiking for beginners workout
Walking before you hike — The best way to get fit for hiking is to start off with short walks near where you live. Gradually increase the length and pace of each walk. Do them often and wear the boots and clothing you plan to use when you are in the hills. Use a tracker app, like Strava, to record your walks. You can how you improve from walk to walk.
Hiking hacks: Stage 3 — Get the right hiking gear without going broke
No matter which sport or hobby you have, the retailers will tempt you into buying as much clothing and equipment as they can.
The truth is you don’t need lots of expensive equipment to hike comfortably and safely. You need some basic but good quality gear for hiking.
But, before you spend a penny, read this section to take you through the hiking basics, so you only spend on what you need and can afford.
You may enjoy this video I shot of a hiking adventure in the Lake District, UK!
What to wear hiking
From the bottom up - We’ll start with your feet. If you don’t look after your feet, you will find hiking a struggle. You’ll see plenty of people hiking in trainers. Don’t be fooled. Trainers are not good for hiking.
Buy good quality hiking shoes or boots. It’s worth buying the best you can afford. Don’t buy on price alone.
Looking after your head, core, and feet
It’s a fact — when you’re a hiker you spend a lot of your time in state of high heat. The physical demands of hiking through the hills will have you sweating.
Sometimes you’ll be dripping with sweat. At other times, you’ll be working hard to retain your heat.
Therefore, controlling your temperature is a key skill for hikers. What you wear and how you use the kit makes a big difference to how much you enjoy your time in the hills. Being aware of your body temperature is important to keep you fit and healthy when hiking.
Let’s start at the top.
Everything on your back
The final step is a skill to develop. It’s about learning what to carry with you, what not to carry with you and how to be comfortable with a pack on your back.
Picking the right sized rucksack— You might think that a rucksack is something you wear over your shoulders to carry the kit and food you need for a hike.
But, that’s not the case. In fact, you carry most of the weight in your rucksack on your waist. The shoulder straps take a little weight. But, if you try carrying a rucksack which contains a few kilos on your shoulders all day you will soon have aches and pains.
That’s why you need to pick a rucksack which has a good waist strap that has good padding. The waist strap should be adjustable, as should the shoulder straps.
But, the rucksack’s capacity is important too. Normally, the capacity is measured in litres.
For example, my regular rucksack for day hikes has a 35-litre capacity. It’s about the right size for carrying food, water, a flask of tea, my waterproof jacket and fleece jacket. Some prefer to use a smaller rucksack which has a capacity of 25 litres.
It’s tempting to buy a big rucksack. But, it’s easy to take too much stuff which you have to carry all day. Avoid doing this by laying out the kit you intend to carry on your hikes and then choose a rucksack which will hold it all.
Take your rucksack out with you on training walks and see how it feels. When you put your fully loaded rucksack on for the first time, tighten the shoulder straps. Then, tighten the waist strap so it’s comfortable. Finally, loosen off the shoulder straps so you can feel most of the weight transfer to your waist and hips.
You’ve got this far which means you have done all the preparation and planning!
Get ready to be a hiker!
As you’ve seen, when you learn about how to get into hiking it is not just about your physical fitness. It’s also about your mental fitness, your planning, preparation and readiness.
Follow these hiking tips and tricks and you’ll begin hiking with confidence. Once you’ve completed your first hike and understood these basic hiking skills, you’ll be able to say you’re a hiker when people ask about your interests.
Now, armed with this guide, take the first step and get yourself ready to become a hiker.
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