After I wrote about a few recent hikes in Shenandoah National Park, Kate left a comment asking if I’d consider writing about my hiking gear, if I had any specific recommendations for someone interested in embarking on a forest scamper.
At first I giggled. I’m a native forest creature, yes, a girl raised by wolves who ran barefoot through the wildness nearly every day of my youth, but hiking still feels like a new hobby. I’m still acquiring stuff to make my hikes more comfortable, more enjoyable and that will allow me to go further and deeper into the wild. When I read her comment, I felt wholly unprepared to offer any sort of advice.
Driving back from a weekend in the Great Smoky Mountains, recapping my adventures in my head as I drove, I realized I’d successfully hiked up a fucking mountain and navigated my way to no less than five waterfalls. I’ve hiked into the Grand Canyon and scampered to the far corners of Death Valley National Park.
Okay, I thought. Maybe I’m not a complete idiot when it comes to this hiking stuff.
I have gained some knowledge, have made some mistakes and learned from them, have bought some pieces of gear that I love and would like to be buried with and that’s what I’m sharing here, the little bits of knowledge I’ve gained so far.
The American Hiking Society, the National Park Service, REI and pretty much every other hiking authority out there suggests a list of ten or so essentials for safe and happy hiking. The list can be tailored based on what kind of hike you’re attempting, whether you’re embarking deep into the backwoods of one of our National Parks or if you’re exploring your local wilderness on well-marked trails.
When I first started hiking, I didn’t take much with me, just a camera and some water. Now, having read all the lists of what to take into the woods and generally just knowing better, this is the list of things I take with me, each and every time, whether it’s on a 12-mile loop up and over a mountain or on a one mile jaunt to a waterfall.
HIKING BOOTS, SHOES OR OTHERWISE TRAIL-APPROPRIATE FOOTWEAR.
People have a lot of feelings about hiking shoes, you guys. It’s kind of a lot, but what’s important is that you have a shoe that’s appropriate for the trail you’re hiking. If you’re wandering through the woods on a paved path, the shoes you wear to the gym are probably fine. If you’re going to be on a trail with uneven terrain, rocks or tree roots or one that will require you to do any sort of scrambling, it’s better to have a pair of hiking shoes or boots that provide you with a more stable and solid base. If you’ve got ankles that are prone to twisting, make sure you get a shoe with ankle support. If you plan to do most of your hiking in water-logged places, make sure to get a shoe with at least some waterproofing.
My ankles are flexible, I hike in the desert and in damp forests and I’ve worn this pair of Merrells (affiliate link) for all the hikes I’ve completed in the last two years. They were comfortable right out of the box and have kept my feet happy and dry on a bunch of different trails all over the country and even in the deserts of Kuwait and Jordan.
(The Merrell Moab will probably be my next shoe, once the ones I have fall to bits.)
A DAYPACK OR BACKPACK.
I took an old backpack on a bunch of my early hikes until I decided to go to the Grand Canyon. Then, I bought this pack, because hiking into the Grand Canyon seemed like a really good reason to buy a legitimate daypack. I did a decent amount of research, read a handful of reviews and then finally went to REI to try on the top few bags my research suggested, which I’d absolutely recommend. It’s important to find a pack that suits your body and feels comfortable.
Now, me and this bag are in a very serious and committed relationship and are very much in love.
This is a nonnegotiable item. Take more water than you think you’ll need every single time, always and forever.
A BASIC FIRST AID KIT.
Stupid shit can happen in the woods. Maybe that little knot in your back turns into an ache, or you get a headache. Maybe you get bit by something, or get a splinter. Maybe you fall and hurt yourself. A basic first aid kit is never going to be something you regret carrying. Here’s a checklist of what yours should include, or you can buy one prepackaged from places like REI.
This is another nonnegotiable. Even if you’re only going on a short hike, take some food with you. Throw some granola bars in your bag and let them live there. Take an apple, some peanut butter, trail mix, jerky or some gummy bears. Just take some fucking snacks because maybe you want to scamper down a side trail, maybe the trail is harder than you thought and it takes you longer that anticipated, or maybe physical effort just makes you hungry. So take a fucking a snack.
Sunburn is not cute, especially the further into my 30s I get. I put on sunscreen at the start of every hike, even on cloudy days, and I’m pretty much always wearing a hat, which has protected me from sun and rain. A tube of this lives in my daypack.
MAP, COMPASS + NAVIGATIONAL AIDS.
Don’t get lost in the woods. At the very, very least take a map. And if you don’t know how to read a map, learn.
I’m a big fan of these maps by National Geographic and they’ve proved invaluable when I’ve been out in the wilderness exploring and looping trails together. It’s also just nice to have for piece of mind, to be able to pull out a map and say, yes, ok, cool, I know where I am, I’m not lost in the woods.
A TRAIL BEER.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t technically an essential, but it’s a thing that goes in my pack. For me, sitting down in the woods, on top of a mountain or alongside a waterfall is part of my hiking ritual. It’s a time-out, a purposeful break from the effort of hiking and a moment to just exist in the wild and appreciate my surroundings.
There’s a few things that just live in my pack now – a knife, a lighter, my headlamp, a notebook and pen. I usually throw in an extra layer of clothing because weather answers to no woman. I have a teeny, tiny blanket that’s proved useful. My camera always goes with me and so does my phone. Hand sanitizer and lip balm both come in handy, especially in the desert, and I always take a trash bag with me too, so I can do my part to keep our parks clean.