Many beautiful natural scenes are only accessible if one is willing to hike to get to them.
Hiking is a form of walking, undertaken with the specific purpose of exploring and enjoying the scenery. It usually takes place on trails in areas of relatively unspoiled wilderness.
Off-trail hiking is often called 'bushwalking', 'bushwhacking' or 'bush-bashing'. Overnight hiking is more specifically called 'backpacking'. The word 'hiking' is understood in all English-speaking countries, but regional terms also exist. In the United Kingdom, the activity is often simply called 'walking'. New Zealanders commonly employ the word tramping, particularly for overnight trips. Hiking in the mountainous regions of Nepal and India is sometimes called 'trekking'.
Comparison with other forms of touring
Hiking is one of the fundamental outdoor activities on which many others are based. Hiking is the only way to reach many beautiful places overland. Enthusiasts regard hiking as the best way to see nature. It is seen as better than a tour in a vehicle of any kind (or on an animal; see horseback riding) because the hiker's senses are not intruded upon by distractions such as windows, engine noise, airborne dust in large quantities, and fellow passengers. It has an advantage over standing in one place because the hiker may cover a wide area.
On the other hand, hiking over long distances or over difficult terrain does require some degree of physical ability and knowledge, as well as a backpack to carry food, water and essential equipment. Hikers may be caught in inclement weather or suffer mishaps. Some jurisdictions (for example New Hampshire) now require inadequately prepared hikers to pay for their own rescues.
Rules of hiking
- Most hikers consider safety to be the prime rule. Hazards and safety measures are discussed below.
- The principles of Leave No Trace ("Take only pictures, leave only footprints"), at least some of which are legally mandated by many jurisdictions, require that hikers leave the wilderness in as pristine a state as they find it.
- Be aware of any endangered species (flora or fauna) in the area that you plan to hike, what they look like and the habitat that they like, so that you won't unwittingly cause the extinction of a plant or animal.
- In some situations, particularly in the absence of formal trails, hiking presents a risk of trespassing on private land not open to hikers. When trails are present, always follow them.
- When the need for a restroom occurs, exit the trail at a safe distance to be discrete. Dig a small hole to cover over when finished and pack out paper waste.
- Respect other hikers by avoiding cell phones (when not in an emergency) and using a normal conversation level.
Hiking safety issues and unforeseen circumstances
In many parks, hiking trails are clearly labelled.
Any hike, regardless of duration or the familiarity of the route, may possibly go awry. Possible mishaps include injury, unexpected inclement weather, and losing the trail. A simple set of equipment may allow the hiker to escape from any of these predicaments. One list of such equipment is the Scout Outdoor Essentials. The ultimate decision whether or not to bring any of this equipment is entirely at the hiker's discretion, and many hikers opt to leave most or all of it at home.
Another simple safety precaution is to give the itinerary and expected time of return to someone not on the hike. If the hiking party fails to return reasonably close to the projected time, this person will notify authorities and search parties will be summoned.
Cellular or satellite phones can be a valuable aid. While a call to authorities may not bring rescue helicopters, a phone can be used to get up-to-date weather forecasts and first-aid instructions. Additionally, it allows closer communication between the hikers and friends at home with regard to search parties, pickup, and other issues that may arise. This practice is not a guarantee of safety, because electronic devices may break or fail, and their presence can create a false sense of security. Users may take risks they would not otherwise take, because they feel they could just call for help. Some purist hikers frown upon satellite phones because they believe that technology should not be brought into the outdoors without serious need.
Extra clothing can be critically important, in cases such as unexpectedly low temperatures, or falling into bodies of water (wet clothes cause hypothermia).
The importance of the mind
Even the best and most useful supplies are of no avail to hikers who cannot or choose not to use them properly. Confusion and disorientation can pose a greater danger to the hiker than any physical trauma. Impairment of mental faculties can result from causes as diverse as hypothermia, severe dehydration, malnutrition and a low blood sugar level, or a fall involving head injury. Falls are particularly hazardous for backpackers, because the pack impedes balance and increases the force of the fall.
An equal danger is misplaced priorities. Hikers who consider reaching the destination to be of the greatest importance risk placing themselves needlessly in hazardous situations. Successful mountaineers take safety to be the first priority, enjoyment to be the second, and the summit to be third.
Hiking in groups
Hiking alone is the ultimate level of solitude. However it is more dangerous than hiking in groups. In any survival situation, a companion may be more helpful than any piece of gear. If one hiker becomes injured, the other can administer first aid and call for help. If an inexperienced lone hiker becomes lost, he may be more likely to panic and make bad decisions than a group of two or three hikers. If the weather turns foul, a group of hikers can pool its manpower, brainpower, and body heat.
Within a large group of hikers, there will usually be disparities in pace. In addition to making the hike less enjoyable, these disparities may create hazardous situations. A large party will often split into a "fast group" and a "slow group". If one of the two groups takes a wrong turn, it might be difficult for them to be reunited.
If the party does not split, some members may hike at a faster pace than they should, which will increase their risk of injury. For these reasons, it may be safest to hike in a group of people with similar paces. However, considerations of pace should not deprive the group of a skilled hiker who would be of use in any survival situations that might arise. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so too should the pace of the group be no faster than the slowest person.
Hiking with children
Children learn from example. Hiking can be an opportune time to communicate the importance of rules for safely and courtesy of others and the environment both verbally and by example. Always research the trail to ensure the path is appropriate for your child's age, and never allow children to run ahead or lag behind on the trail. Some trails allow strollers and child carrier backpacks are available to carry smaller children on hikes.
How to hike
What to pack, and how
Choosing what you should take with you will depend a lot on where you're walking and how long it will take. However, there are a few items that are always sensible to bring:
- Waterproof clothing, and extra layers for warmth. Weather can change unexpectedly in many places.
- Good walking shoes, preferably ones that have been worn already. Hiking boots should offer some protection against ankle sprains. Blisters may often be avoided by wearing sock liners.
- Water. Dehydration can be a serious problem, particularly at high altitudes. In conditions of low humidity, sweat evaporates so quickly that you may never notice it. A lot of water is also lost through breathing.
- A map and compass, even if you think you know the route. You never know if you're going to become separated from your party or lose the route, particularly if there is no trail.
- Adequate food. Undernourishment can impair a hiker's judgment and decision-making capabilities.
When packing a backpack, try to place the center of gravity around the level of your upper back. An excessively low center of gravity will impede your agility, but an excessively high one will make you vulnerable to toppling if you begin to lose your balance.
On the trail
- When hiking in a group, always keep your distance from the person in front of you: at least 20 feet (7 meters), but never so much distance that you can't see the other person. If you follow too closely, you will be able to see little other than the other hiker's back. If you keep a good distance, you will be able to see the scenery and spot any hazardous objects in the trail (i.e. holes, tree roots, large rocks, poisonous plants). This rule may be difficult to follow under some circumstances, but it is very important to an enjoyable hike.
- Keep an appropriate pace. An excessively slow pace will limit the distance you can walk, but an excessively fast pace also has disadvantages. You will become fatigued quickly, increase your risk of injury, and be forced to think primarily about maintaining your speed, rather than about the scenery. Over flat ground or on a moderate downhill, a reasonably fast hiker may travel at almost 4 mi/h (6 km/h) unladen, or 3 mi/h (5 km/h) with a full backpack, though many prefer somewhat lower speeds to enjoy the scenery. A steep uphill will slow that pace by about half. A moderate downhill will also slow the pace, particularly for people of middle age and older, and others with reduced agility.
- Avoid dehydration. On short hikes in good weather, this is not an issue. On moderate-length hikes, it may be possible to fulfill your water needs by drinking plenty of water before setting out. On long hikes, especially those in hot weather or low humidity, it will be necessary to carry an extra supply of water.
- When hiking in a group, place the slowest hiker in the lead. This will prevent the faster hikers from leaving the slow hiker behind, thus making sure that the group stays together. It is easier and safer for the faster hikers to adjust to the slow hiker's pace than vice versa.
- It's important to make sure that people know where you're going and approximately how long you'll be gone for.
- Hiking category of OutdoorMountain (http://www.outdoormountain.com/dir/odp.php?browse=/Recreation/Outdoors/Hiking/)
- New Zealand Tramper (http://www.tramper.co.nz/) - A website of tramping related information.
- Department of Conservation (http://www.doc.govt.nz) - Government department responsible for managing public land.
- Compassmonkey.com | Hiking Trails and Activities (http://www.compassmonkey.com/activities/hiking.php)