Everything you need to know for day hiking


Hiker-dog is always ready for a day hike.

It’s a treat to post for the Menasha Ridge Press Blog. As publisher of trail guides, including The Ozarks, they feature their own authors.

I enjoyed listing the basics of day hiking all in one post. Please share with those who want to get started. Hiker-dog thinks I need to write a post entitled, “Everything You Need to Know for Hiking With Dogs.” Maybe after I’ve had more experience.

Follow this link to the post: Everything You Need to Know for Day Hiking

Random Walking with John Muir in the Ozarks


Detail of ice formations at the base of a bluff

I drove up AR 23 (AKA Pigtrail) to collect GPS waypoints for an article I’m working on with photographer and hiking friend, Eric Scowden. My only traveling partner today was Hiker-dog. It was a cold morning, but the sun warmed the air quickly. I enjoyed the “popcorn” ice formations that formed on roots and rock along wet bluff lines.

This morning was like many others over the last eighteen months. I have places to go and data to collect. Working on a trail guide to the Ozarks has been a wonderful experience, but every outing’s purpose has been to hike and collect information about specific trails. I had my to-do list for today though it was shorter than usual.

After hitting the required locations, I picked a random pullout spot on Morgan Mountain Road that I’d driven past many times. On impulse, I walked down an old jeep road just to see what was there. I didn’t jump over a fence but thought of John Muir’s statement that he would often “throw bread and tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence” to begin an exploration of nature.


Large boulders at the edge of an open field

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the randomness of this walk. I formed my route by following what looked interesting to me. I arrived at an open, level field lined with large boulders along the eastern ridge. They bowed to the forces of gravity, drifting down toward the next bench fifty feet below.


Hiker exploring the field on the eastern side of Morgan Mountain

I walked past a hollow filled with jagged boulders that begged me to enter, but they’ll have to wait for another day when I return with a dry loaf of bread, tea, and hours to spend. I’d like to apply Muir’s “method of study” and his ultra-light packing techniques to my next hike on Morgan Mountain.

“My method of study was to drift from rock to rock and grove to grove. I’d sit for hours watching the birds or squirrels, or looking into the faces of flowers. When I discovered a new plant, I sat beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance and try to hear what it had to tell me. I asked the boulders where they came from and where they were going. And when I discovered a mountain, I climbed about it and compared it with its neighbors. It’s astonishing how high and far we can climb in the mountains we love, and how little we require for food and clothing.” – John Muir

I look forward to spending an entire day meandering my way down that rugged hollow on Morgan Mountain. I look forward to simply sitting still to listen, watch, and learn. Maybe I’ll even ask a boulder or two where they came from and where they’re going. I think even Hiker-dog might enjoy a little less goal-oriented travel in the Ozarks.


No nonsense day hiking guide for the novice hiker


What do I wear?

What do I take with me?

Where should I go?

When should I go?

What are the dangers? Will a bear get me?

Many questions come to mind when you consider taking a hike for the first time. We’re going to consider these questions and be sure we have some simple answers before heading out. A few good questions can keep us out of trouble and ensure that we want to continue hiking after our early experiences.

Disclaimer: This is not an all-encompassing day hiking guide. These are just my thoughts based on personal experience and a few mistakes along the way.

Oboz hiking shoes

Oboz hiking shoes

What do I wear?

You can wear almost anything and get away with it on the trail. Don’t worry about fashion, but function. We’ll look at this from the ground up since feet are very important to hikers.

  1. Socks are among a hiker’s most important pieces of clothing. I use SmartWool socks, but there are other options. Don’t wear cotton socks unless you like blisters and soggy, smelly feet. Any tennis shoes of reasonable strength are fine for day hiking. Don’t go purchase a heavy pair of hiking boots unless you just want to. I don’t even wear heavy boots when backpacking. I use low-top hiking shoes. I like Oboz right now, but whatever feels good on your feet should guide your decision.
  2. Pants – If the weather is nice, any pants will do. If it’s cold, I prefer anything but cotton pants. Cotton gets wet (making you colder) and then will not dry out in the humid Ozarks until a few days later. When hiking in the Ozarks I almost always wear long pants because of undergrowth, briars, and ticks.
  3. Underwear – For a short day hike, you can use cotton, but as you work up to longer hikes, you’ll want a pair of undies made from a fabric other than cotton.
  4. Shirt – A cotton shirt in summer is alright but if there is a chance of colder temperatures, something like an UnderArmor t-shirt will keep you warmer than cotton.
  5. Hat – A hat is good for sun protection and heat retention, depending on the weather. I accidentally left my hat in my car at the Grand Canyon once and was thankful I had a bandana to tie into a makeshift hat. In some conditions, a hat is a necessity!
  6. Rain protection (especially in cooler temperatures) – A light rain jacket can be wadded up in the bottom of your daypack and forgotten about until needed.
  7. Gloves – Anything but cotton and only if needed. I wear some cheap army surplus wool glove liners when I hike, and they’re fine. I also have some nicer gloves for colder weather but am nervous about losing them. They hook together which is nice for storage in my pack. Finding one glove is more irritating than finding one sock in the drawer.
Hiker-dog says,

Hiker-dog says, “The less you carry, the better you move.”

What do I take with me?

As little as possible is my short answer, but there are some essentials you’ll want to have depending on the conditions.  This list is drawn from the ten essentials that are published in many forms. Below is my list roughly by personal priority.

Filtering water from Spirits Creek.

Filtering water from Spirits Creek with a Sawyer Filer

  1. Water and access to water – Put your water in a bottle or a bladder in your pack. One expert hiker friend, Grey Owl, swears by carrot juice bottles. He gave me a couple, and I use them all the time. 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 rain, carry rain protection. If it looks like cold, carry an extra layer. My all-time favorite is an insulated vest. Stuff it in the bottom of your pack and it’s like a little insurance policy against a cold snap.
  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 two.” Fortunately, I’ve only been confused an hour or so, but it can be a little scary if you’re not prepared. A trail map of the area you’re hiking can make or break your trip. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Sometimes I just copy the appropriate pages from a trail guide and put them in a zip-lock bag. A compass is important. Even a general idea about directions can save you some grief. Don’t count on the compass app on your phone or GPS. Batteries don’t last. I have a small compass/thermometer that ties to a belt loop or my day pack. It’s always there.
  5. Illumination – A small headlamp or flashlight in your pack can be a big help if a hike takes longer than anticipated and you’re walking the last part of your trail in the dark. I carry a small LED light in my day pack 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 can discourage ticks. A little spray around your hat area can discourage deer flies and mosquitoes if you’re hiking in summer. Check for ticks often. If they get attached and stay awhile, your chances of getting one of several tick-borne diseases increase. 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 and then forget about it until you need it. Avoid purchasing a first aid kit because it will not be customized for your needs and you’ll be carrying unnecessary stuff.
  8. Fire – I carry a lighter. Don’t smoke, but I always have a lighter with me just in case I need a fire.
  9. Emergency shelter – This is simple to do. Cut a 8-10-inch hole close to the bottom of a large trash bag. I stuff it in the bottom of my pack and forget about it. I can put the bag over me and sit inside for shelter. The small opening allows me to see and breath but protects me from the elements. I’ve never used this but it’s like that cheap insurance policy I mentioned earlier.
  10. Most ten essentials lists include repair kit, but for day hiking I don’t carry any tools other than a small pocket knife. One of my hiking poles has some duct tape wrapped around it for emergencies. I’ve used this twice to reattach a shoe sole for other hikers.


Where should I go?

The short answer is, “Hike anywhere your feet will take you.” The longer answer is to put in a little thought and planning before you head out. When in doubt, hike fewer miles. Begin with 1-2 trail miles. I say trail miles because hiking on most trails is more demanding than walking a track. I learned this lesson once on the Seven Hollows Trail at Petit Jean State Park. I figured we could do four miles in just over an hour since that was what it took on a track. Over 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.

Pick up a Five-Star Trails guidebook that covers trails in your area. I collect guidebooks like my mother collected cookbooks. It’s fun to browse through to determine possible next hikers. If you’re traveling, Google the area to see what hiking trails are available. I came across a couple of hikers on the Lake Alma Trail who were from Nebraska. They’d checked the web and found our trail. They were delighted with the hike and looking forward to a meal in town before hitting the road refreshed and relaxed.

Fall leaves along the trail.

Fall leaves along the trail.

When should I go?

The short answer is to go as often as possible. In the Ozarks, we have a large hiking window. My favorite months are October through May. September is iffy due to possible warm days. Fall and winter are prime hiking months. June, July, and August are good months for early morning day hikes or some trips out west at higher elevations. Sometimes you’ll catch a cool snap in the Ozarks during the summer months, but that’s rare.

What are the dangers?

The dangers are few and not what you might expect. Bears and snakes are not a concern. Just don’t step on or antagonize a snake and you shouldn’t have a problem. Bear sightings are rare because of the noise hikers make, and our smell usually cues the bear to our presence. I’ve only seen one bear in Arkansas, and that was at a distance. I don’t carry a gun when hiking because it adds weight and addresses none of the real hazards of hiking.

Hazards to avoid through preparation (in no particular order): dehydration / heat exhaustion / hypothermia / ticks / mosquitoes

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

One of my readers reminded me of the importance of telling a friend or family member your itinerary, even if it’s a short day hike. Do this whether hiking alone or in a group. I write my trail location and route on a note and leave it with my wife in hopes that she’ll want me to be found if I become lost. If my wife is with me on a hike, I’ll email my itinerary to a trusted hiking buddy.

A couple looking at Hawksbill Crag in the distance.

A couple looking at Hawksbill Crag in the distance.

Get linked up and get out!

You might want to join a hiking club in your area, but check the descriptions of their hikes carefully, so you don’t end up exhausted or with a stress injury. Most hiking groups schedule hikes suitable for novice hikers. The truth is experienced hardcore hikers still enjoy a nice scenic stroll with their camera. In my area, the Fort Smith Trailblazers do a lot of great day hikes. The Ozark Highlands Trail Association and Ozark Society also do group day hikes and backpacking trips of varying difficulty. Hiking with others is a great way to accelerate your knowledge about hiking and hiking locations to explore.

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!

Small spring next to the trail in the Ozarks of Missouri

Small spring next to a trail in the Ozarks of Missouri

A Familiar Trail in Unfamiliar Conditions

Shepherd Spring Waterfall

Shepherd Spring Waterfall from the trail

I wanted to avoid flooded roads so Hiker-dog and I headed to Lake Fort Smith this morning. We hiked the Shepherd Spring Loop Trail and enjoyed hanging out at the waterfall and Shepherd Spring for a while.

Shepherd Spring Waterfall

Shepherd Spring Waterfall

This waterfall is about seven feet tall and rarely runs this strong. The water has a beautiful flow because of the stair step shapes in the rock.


I’d like to know the story behind this chimney located next to the trail and a short distance from Lake Fort Smith. Another chimney and Shepherd Spring are located along this section of trail.


This is a normally dry drainage that crosses the trail as it flows to the lake.

Shepherd Spring

Shepherd Spring

Shepherd Spring always has water, but today it was flowing more heavily. The water storage tank no longer holds water so the water runs out at the base of the concrete wall.


Portions of Lake Fort Smith were covered in debris from a fast moving and flood level Frog Bayou. Fort Smith broke precipitation records in May dating back to the 1940s.

Frog Bayou

Frog Bayou

I got a view of Frog Bayou from the trail high above. There’s no crossing in this area. It’s difficult to appreciate the water levels and volume of flow off in the distance, but you couldn’t pay me to cross that creek at these levels. As high as the water is now, you can see areas down below the trail that were covered by rushing water recently.

Small drainage

Small drainage

I had a closer look at this small drain that runs along the trail where it intersects back onto the OHT close to the waterfall.

Had to laugh on my return trip when I noticed the waterfall sign. Seems unnecessary now but it serves a purpose during the dry season when you have to imagine what it might look like with water.

It was a great day to hike a familiar trail clothed in springtime wet season conditions.


Hiker was glad to get on the trail after several rainy days.

Hiker was glad to get on the trail after several rainy days.

Three Day Hikes – One Fine Day

I typically like hiking a long section of trail and camping along the way.  I think of day hiking as what I do around the Lake Alma Trail, training for “real” hiking trips. My wife and I spent the weekend in Jasper at the Arkansas House, an old, but clean establishment with two great restaurants on either side of us.

Walking to the Arkansas House

Walking to the Arkansas House

My goal was to do some day hiking.  I was feeling particularly guilty about two of the hikes.  As a backpacker, I should probably have my Arkansas citizenship revoked for the following two infractions: First, I have only hiked Whitaker Point (Hawksbill Crag) once, and that was over sixteen years ago.   Second, I have never hiked to Hole-in-a-Rock Falls (Glory Hole Falls). Yesterday I corrected these deficiencies and hiked both trails as well as Lost Valley.

It was a wonderful day. I began with the familiar trail, Lost Valley. Sometimes the drive to the trailhead provides some visual treats.  I had to stop a the little community of Low Gap and take a picture of this historic church and their restroom facilities right next to the church.


Ladies' facilities poised on the edge of a bluff next to the church.

Ladies’ facilities poised on the edge of a bluff next to the church.

I wanted Lost Valley all to my self.  By beginning early, I got my wish.  As I left the trail following my hike, cars began pouring into the parking lot.  Below are a few photos from this hike.

Eden Falls from a distance.

Fifty-foot Eden Falls from a distance.

This was my first visit to the Eden Falls Cave.  I didn’t crawl into the room I’m told has a 30-foot waterfall since I wasn’t equipped for caving.  I did enjoy doing some light-painting with my flashlight and a 15-second exposure.

Inside Eden Falls Cave

Inside Eden Falls Cave

Next on the agenda was Whitaker Point.  I drove up Cave Mountain Road and drove a hundred yards past the trailhead before finding a spot to park.  People were everywhere, but it was fine.  I was glad there would be someone on the crag to add perspective.

I didn’t anticipate that gymnasts would be doing handstands on the crag.  I was glad they didn’t try anything close to the edge.  How I do hate getting involved in rescue work…

Handstand on Hawksbill Crag

Handstand on Hawksbill Crag

Met a nice couple from Fayetteville.  Their dogs were cooperative and let me snap a shot of them looking at the crag.

A couple looking at Hawksbill Crag in the distance.

A couple looking at Hawksbill Crag in the distance.

One of my favorite outcroppings is just past Hawksbill Crag.  After taking a photo for a family on this bluff, they agreed to let their daughter pose for a photo.  I like the way those two leaning stones are supporting each other near the edge.

Young hiker taking in the views and staying away from the edge.

Young hiker taking in the views and staying safely away from the edge.

Parking on Cave Mountain Road was challenging.  The drive back down off of the mountain was also tricky with so many cars approaching in the opposite direction.  It was a slow 6-miles out.

Parking on Cave Mountain Road.

Parking on Cave Mountain Road.

It was now early afternoon, and I realized I hadn’t had breakfast or lunch.  I snacked through the day and never felt hungry. Anyway, no time for a meal with so many beautiful trails to see.

From Whitaker Point, I drove out to Hole-in-a-Rock Falls, also known as Glory Hole Falls.  No worries about finding the trailhead, just watch for the cars parked along the highway. This hike was almost all road walking until the last little bit.

As I approached the falls, I realized that the afternoon sun was aimed right at the falls.  With the strong sunlight and crowds of spectators, my best option was to focus on the “hole in the rock” itself.  Between setting up a shot of that and taking pictures for families and friends crowding around the waterfall, I stayed pretty busy.

The hike out was a pleasant climb, and I felt great relief that I had now made my first (but not last) visit to this famous Arkansas waterfall. IMG_4233rr