No Nonsense Guide to Day Hiking – Do I Go or Do I Stay?

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Darian, Delaney, and Trey enjoying a fall day on an Ozarks trail.

What do I wear? What do I take with me? Where and when should I go? Will a bear get me?

Many questions come to mind when you consider going on a hike, especially if it’s your first. Thinking about a few good questions can ensure that you want to continue hiking after your early experiences in the woods.

This is not a comprehensive day hiking guide, but my thoughts come from personal experience and a few mistakes along the way. If you want more information about hiking and trails, pick up a hiking guide for your area.

What do I wear?

You can wear almost anything and get away with it on the trail. Let function, not fashion, be your guide.  We’ll look at this from the ground up since happy feet are essential for success.

  1. Wool blend socks are among a hiker’s most important pieces of clothing. Use wool blend socks and avoid cotton unless you like blisters and soggy, smelly feet. Any tennis shoes of reasonable strength are fine for day hiking.
  2. Clothing – If the weather is nice, any clothes will do. If there’s a chance it might be cold and/or wet, avoid cotton. Cotton gets wet (making you colder) and then will not dry out in the humid Ozarks. For added insurance against the elements, put warm gloves and a hat in a rain jacket pocket and stuff it in the bottom of your daypack.

What do I take with me?

As little as possible is my short answer, but there are ten essentials you’ll want to have with you on every outing.

  1. Water and access to water – Put your water in a bottle or a bladder in your pack. Rather than purchase a bottle, you can recycle any plastic water bottle. I carry a small Sawyer water filter in my daypack in case I run low. It doesn’t add much weight and has made me a few friends on the trail when others needed water.
  2. Food – Snacks that you’re used to eating are what you should take on the trail. This is no time to try something new in the food department.
  3. Extra clothing – Think protection from the elements. If it looks like cold, rainy weather, carry an extra layer and be sure that rain jacket is stuffed in the bottom of your pack.
  4. Navigation – Don’t assume that you can’t get lost on a well-used trail. Like Jeremiah Johnson, “I’ve never been lost, just confused for a month or so.” Fortunately, I’ve only been confused an hour or so, but it can be a little scary if you’re not prepared. A photocopy of the appropriate pages from a trail guide in a zip-lock bag is always a good idea, and a compass can help you avoid confusion. Don’t count on the compass app or GPS on your phone. Batteries don’t last.
  5. Illumination – A small headlamp or flashlight in your pack can be a big help if a hike takes longer than anticipated. I carry a small LED light in my daypack at all times.
  6. Sun and bug protection – A little sunscreen can make you a happy and healthy hiker. Bug spray around the cuffs of your pants will discourage ticks and other crawling insects. Check for ticks often, even in cooler weather. I can usually feel the little guys climbing up my legs and pick them off before they attach.
  7. First Aid supplies – I like a zip-lock with some bandaids and any medicines I might need if stranded for a while. Keep it simple and light then forget about it until you need it.
  8. Fire – I always carry a lighter just in case.
  9. Emergency shelter – Cut an 8-10-inch hole close to the bottom of a large trash bag then stuff it in the bottom of your pack and forget about it. If you need shelter, sit on top of your daypack with the bag over you like a small tent. The opening allows you to see and breath but protects from the elements. It’s like having cheap insurance policy on your trip.
  10. Most ten essentials lists include repair kit, but for day hiking a small pocketknife is sufficient. One of my hiking poles has some duct tape wrapped around it for emergencies. I’ve used this twice to reattach shoe soles for other hikers.

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Where should I go?

Fortunately for those in the River Valley and Ozarks, the answer is, “Hike anywhere your feet will take you.” We live in one of the best locations in the country for hiking, especially through the fall and winter.

Begin with 1-2 trail miles. I say trail miles because hiking on most trails is more demanding than walking a paved path.  I learned this lesson many years ago on the Seven Hollows Trail at Petit Jean State Park. I was sure we could do four miles in just over an hour since that was our pace on pavement. Two hours later as it was getting dark, my wife and I finished our exhausting hike. Even as an experienced hiker, I always allow about one hour for every two miles of hiking distance.

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Copperhead in the Marinoni Scenic Area

What about the bears and snakes?

Bear sightings are rare because our sounds and smells alert bears to our presence. I’ve only seen two bears in Arkansas, and both were at a distance. They avoid humans when possible.

Many fear snakes, but they also avoid people. Just don’t step on or antagonize a snake and you shouldn’t have a problem.

Deer season coincides with some of the best times of year to hike. I tie a hunter-orange bandanna to my daypack year round and avoid impersonating a deer while in the woods. I’ve never had a problem.

Creek crossings are a real danger in the woods. If you have any doubts about crossing safely, turn around and go back the way you came or go upstream looking for wide areas in the creek bed.

Always tell a friend or family member your itinerary, even if it’s a short day hike. Do this whether hiking alone or with a group.

Do I go or do I stay?

Hiking has enriched my life, enhanced my health, and connected me with some great folks. It’s a great big beautiful world out there. Get out and enjoy!

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Jim Warnock authored Five Star Trails: The Ozarks, a trail guidebook that covers the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri. He has thru-hiked the 180-mile Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas as well as the 210-mile John Muir Trail in California. The Ouachita Trail is next on his list. Follow his adventures at OzarkMountainHiker.com.

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Five Star Trails: The Ozarks is in bookstores and available online.

Novice hiker prescription for healthy and happy hiking: Hike the Lake Alma Trail from the picnic area to the waterfall and back (2-mile round trip). Next outing, hike to the Hexagon House and back (3-mile round trip). Gradually work up to hiking the entire 4.2-mile loop. Many trails lend themselves to this approach for increasing distance and endurance.

A map for the Lake Alma Trail is on page 2 of this link:  CAS900 Alma Park

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