5 Ways to Look Like a Pro Hiker (Even if You’ve Never Set Foot on a Trail)

I love hiking. Fresh air, great workout, amazing sights. It wasn’t something I grew up doing, but my husband is an avid hiker and he’s gotten me more into it. Two years ago, I conquered my first 14er (for the uninitiated that’s a 14,000 foot mountain) and last year did my first major backpacking trip at Colorado’s Maroon Bells.

I’ve learned a few things along the way and wanted to share. Americans are privileged to have stunning national and state parks, and hiking is a great way to see them. On our Pacific Northwest road trip, we were lucky enough to visit Olympic National Park, taking in stunning waterfalls and feeling small amongst massive trees.

So if you’ve been shying away because you don’t consider yourself outdoorsy or a hiker, I’ve pulled together my favorite tips that will get you started and looking like a pro in no time. 

1. Packing your backpack and carrying it are two different things.

You need water, no question. But you don’t need a heavy water bottle to put it in, nor do you need a first aid kit that allows you to perform major surgery or enough toiletries to open a trail-side spa. The more you stuff in your bag, the more weight you add and you won’t enjoy yourself if your back is killing you. If you’re doing an overnight and you’re anything like me, I love to bring wine along, but leave the heavy glass bottle behind—you can put any wine you like in a lightweight bladder

2. Dress the Part.

For starters, don’t hike in flip-flops. That might sound ridiculous, but I’ve seen people asking for an ankle injury from the loose rock gods. When it comes to clothing, think about the layers you may need. If you’re hiking up a mountain, the temperature is going to be much different at the top than at the base. Also don’t forget that the sun can be very strong and a hat might help you avoid a wicked sunburn. 

3. Don't leave your research to Siri.

Finding where to park by a trailhead can be a lot like finding treasure. There are great message boards with reviews that will help you understand where to go. Remember, your phone may not work in more remote areas, so you’ll want to be sure of where you’re going. For our visit to Olympic, we printed backup directions in case we lost coverage. 

4. Know what you're in for.

A five-mile hike might sound doable, but make sure you look at what makes up those five miles. Elevation, technical challenges, exposure, and more can make for a difficult hike. When we started planning our road trip, I thought the Mt. Storm King trail in Olympic would be a good one. In looking into it more, the steep hike was not for the faint of heart—steep elevation gains, knife edges, and ropes at the top (thanks to the hiker who shared the photo at left) made it the wrong choice for me, at six months pregnant and afraid of heights, and my fellow road warrior Cait, who is new to hiking. 

5. Check the weather and get an early start.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but particularly if you’re going up a mountain, the weather can be much more severe as you gain elevation. For high peaks like a 14er, bad weather tends to roll in in the afternoon, so you want to be returning and not starting after lunch. Plus, if there is a parking lot, you’re more likely to get a spot and you’ll beat the crowds on popular trails. 

The Project: Time Off team is on the road, exploring the Pacific Northwest, showing how easy—and affordable—it can be to turn a vacation or day or two into a memorable experience. Follow our adventures on Twitter and Instagram via @ProjectTimeOff and using the hashtag #TakeADay.

August 22, 2015