The United States is home to thousands and thousands miles of trails, all with their own features, terrain, and difficulty level. With so many options for trails and hundreds of trailheads, how do you know where to go or when to go? What to pack? How much water should you carry and what about food?
There’s a lot of things that go into hiking and planning a hike, and we’ve put together all the essential information you’ll need in order to plan a successful, fun, and adventurous hike. Whether it’s your first hiking trip or your 100th, we hope you find value in our tips and tricks.
What are the steps for planning a successful hike?
- Pick a hike based on what you would like to see, your fitness levels, the time of year, and the general area in which you will be. Read up on said hike, looking for recent updates on conditions, possible closures, fees, reservation requirements, and more.
- Calculate Time. Figure out how long it will take to hike that trail so you can plan everything else accordingly.
- Dress appropriately for the weather forecast, which includes footwear.
- Pack all the essentials, plus whatever you’ll need for your adventure. Be prepared for anything you could encounter. This includes food and water.
- Plan out everything, including where you are staying in relation to the trail. This will help you plan an early start time, which is especially ideal for hiking in the mountains or hot environments.
- Be safe. Tell somewhere where you are going and when to expect you back. Know your own limits and listen to your body,
How To Choose Which Trail to Hike
Choosing a trail boils down to where you want to travel, what you want to see, your fitness level, and the time of year.
For example, hiking in the Colorado mountains normally involves features such as wildflowers, waterfalls, and alpine lakes in the summer and spring, fall colors and aspens in the fall, and snowy winter wonderlands in winter. The terrain throughout the state is extremely varied, so other areas may also offer grasslands and even deserts.
Doing research on what you want to see is imperative, since terrain varies greatly, therefore changing the sights each hike offers. Our favorite type of hiking goes to alpine lakes, such as Wheeler Lakes near Copper Mountain, Island Lake & Ice Lake, or Mohawk Lakes and Blue Lakes in Breckenridge.
You can find hikes of all skill levels. If you’re just starting, try an easy hike that is only a couple miles long with minimal elevation change. If you are more in shape, you might want to try a more difficult hike that is longer than 5+ miles with greater elevation change.
You’ll also want to consider the time of year. If it is the dead of winter, obviously you won’t find a hike with beautiful wildflowers. Some trails are only open during certain months due to weather conditions. And, of course, different parts of your state may offer different views depending on the season. For example, in the summertime, you might want to hike in the mountains for cooler temperatures and stunning views, while for wintertime hiking you might want to stick to lower elevations for warmer temperatures and less snow.
One of our favorite places to find new trails is AllTrails. There are up-to-date reviews with trail conditions, pictures of views to get a better idea of what you will see hiking. and you can even download the trail map to your phone for offline use so you have a map of the trail!
How Long Does it Take To Hike a Trail?
Depending on the hiking trail, hiking times can range from one hour to all day, or even several days for backpacking trips. As a baseline, most people hike around 2 miles per hour with an additional 30 minutes per 1,000 feet of elevation gained. For example, a 6 mile hike with 2,000 feet in elevation gain (like McCullough Gulch Trail) would be considered moderate to difficult and would take around 5 hours.
That being said, there’s a lot of factors that go into hiking time like pack weight, terrain, age, experience level, and more. Read more about how to calculate hiking time to get a better idea of your average hiking pace.
Note: If you’re going on a backpacking trip, knowing your hiking time and what to pack becomes completely different. This guide is for day hikes only.
Wear the Right Things
One of the biggest factors in your comfort is what you wear hiking, including the right clothing and footwear. If you are comfortable and dressed appropriately, you can focus on your hiking adventure and having fun.
For clothes, pick items that are appropriate for the weather you’re going to encounter and any other possible conditions. Your shirt can be either long sleeve or short sleeve, and you can wear either shorts or pants. This comes down to personal preference and if you’ll be hiking in hot weather or cold weather.
Either way, you clothing should be UPF-rated for sun protection and should be lightweight materials that will wick away sweat. Never wear cotton.
Always bring layers, especially a rain jacket just in case. If it’s cold, you should consider wearing extra layers like a winter jacket, fleece-lined pants, under layers, mittens, and a beanie. In hot weather, bring a Buff for sun protection on your face.
It’s absolutely essential that you take care of your feet while hiking, and one of the best things you can do is wear the right shoes and socks.
For shoes, pick something that fits the terrain you will be hiking on. Boots are great for added support on rough and rocky terrain and going off trail, while hiking shoes like trail runners are better for warmer days and on trail hiking. You can read more about how to choose hiking boots. Make sure you always break in your boots before going out hiking in them. If you don’t have any boots or trail shoes, you can wear running shoes on easier trails.
What To Pack
Some essentials include clothing layers, food, water, proper shoes, a map of where you’re going and much more. There’s 10 essential items for safety (like rain gear, navigation, and an emergency shelter) plus lots of extras that are based on personal preference and may depend on your specific hike. There’s a lot that going into packing for a day hike, so we’ve explained everything in our complete guide to the day hiking essentials.
There’s no one definitive answer to this question, as how much water you need to carry will vary depending on a variety of factors, such as the length and difficulty of the hike, your age and fitness level, weather conditions, and what you’re wearing. That being said, on average, most experienced hikers recommend carrying around 1 liter of water for every 2 hours of hiking.
Hikes with more difficult elevation gain, longer distances, higher altitude, or hotter temperatures would call for more water. Ultimately this is a judgement you should make for yourself and it’s best to get a feel for what you need by overpacking and seeing what’s left after you hike. Never leave yourself short handed on a hike, as dehydration can lead to serious problems and altitude sickness.
Read more about how much water to bring on a hike.
Snacks and Food
While you’re hiking, it’s important to refuel your body by eating and drinking. The best snacks for hiking are those that pack a lot of energy and nutrition without weighing you down. Some calorie dense recommendations include nuts, protein bars, granola cereal bars, trail mix, jerky, hard-boiled eggs, or low-sugar energy gel packets. You can also bring water or electrolyte-enhanced drinks along the way–there are plenty of options available in sporting stores these days.
We also really enjoy packing a lunch on hikes, most often a peanut butter and honey sandwich (peanut butter for high calorie fat and honey for sugar, which gives you quick energy). Read more about what you should be eating before, during, and after a hike.
Safety is number #1. Always. Hike in numbers, have a contact person who isn’t hiking, and know local regulations before going.
Choose a Safety Buddy
Hiking in groups has great benefits, especially if you are a woman in an all-female hiking group. It can also be great to find a hiking partner that has similar desires and goals. Not only does this increase your safety while on the trail, but there are numerous benefits to sharing the experience with others.
Have a Contact Person
No matter who you’re hiking with, you should have a person who isn’t going as a person of contact. They should have your full itinerary, including your location, planned route, and what time you should be expected back. You should also provide them with information about who to contact in case of emergency, including phone numbers for location search and rescue organizations.
Research Local Regulations
Before going, thoroughly research the area for closures, weather hazards, or anything else that could hurt your plans. This includes knowing if you should carry bear spray or not, if there’s issues with pets, or if there are particular rules about leave no trace.
Before setting off on a hike, ask yourself if you’re truly ready. Are you in shape? Do you have the items you need? Have you researched the area? It’s important to be realistic with your expectations and know your own limits beforehand, that way you can address any issues before you go.
It’s important to plan for a hike thoroughly and extensively – if you’re not careful, then it can be dangerous or even deadly. The best way to avoid problems is by being prepared with the right supplies and knowledge about your surroundings before heading out on the trail. Make sure that you have food, water, clothing layers, and other essentials listed above so that you don’t get lost or become injured along the way!
What is the golden rule of hiking?
The golden rule is always “Treat others the way you want to be treated”. Another golden rule is to leave it how you found it, and leave no trace no matter where you go.