1. Never hike alone.
2. Inform a responsible individual about your plans. E-mail a few friends/family members and put your itinerary in writing.
3. Get the required wilderness, trail, or camping permit. That process often puts you in touch with rangers for the latest regulations, weather, or other warnings.
4. Know your route in advance, so check out a guidebook. Always carry a map, even if it’s a guidebook photocopy that’s been enlarged. Check out the new CD-based topo map collections (that can print to waterproof paper)—they make it easy. With a GPS unit, you can overlay your routes.
5. Stay on trails—unless you are expert with map and compass (or GPS: remember: the latter need batteries!). Speaking of tech items to take—be sure you don't lock your keys in your car, and consider carrying your cell phone.
6. Carry a first aid kit (with a whistle). Hit your local outdoor shop or rummage around at www.adventuremedicalkits.com. Prepared kits come in super-light versions but all you need is basic Band-Aids, antiseptic wipes, and moleskin.
7. Carry rain-resistant clothing and food capable of being rationed to the next day. See "What's in Your Daypack" below.
8. If you suddenly find yourself off trail—stop immediately. Carefully and coolly retrace your steps to the trail.
9. If you are lost, find a shelter—a rock ledge, perhaps—and wait. You will be more easily found if you’re not wandering around. Carefully ration your food, use all of your clothing—and blow your whistle periodically.
10. Remember, going downhill along a stream (just beyond the rhododendron or rocks that complicate the banks) or atop a ridge are the easiest routes to travel. Depending on where you are, either alternative route of travel usually reaches a road.
What’s in Your Daypack? Here’s what I carry.
First off—what’s not in my pack is excess weight. Today’s news in outdoor gear isn’t evolution—it’s revolution. Even overnight pack loads have slipped below 20 pounds. Here’s what I carry most of the time when I’m on a “big hike.” If the consequences of a misstep could be serious—it’s a “big hike.” I cover all these considerations more extensively in the introductions to my trail guides.
Take a tiny daypack if you like, but the Gregory “Anti-gravity Series” packs are super light, more than big enough, and can work for a weekend overnighter. The North Face Skareb 40 is also a multi-faceted featherweight. Anything super light works for me.
You’ll be wearing and carrying clothes—so go-light, high-tech gear is key (read my 2006 Charlotte Observer gear
article"Clothes Cut Out for Hiking"). Base layers that wick sweat and dry easily are great. So are pants that convert from long pants to shorts. Take a fleece vest or sweatshirt and you’re ready for anything—as long as you have great shell wear. Today, it’s “look ma, no stitches.” One Star Trek looking rain shell, the North Face Diad jacket ($200), has welded (no thread) seams and is 100% waterproof—at just 7 ounces! Add a similar rain pant and comfort, much less survival, is assured. For spring and fall—light gloves and a hat are smart, too.
First aid kit
Make your own or consider kits by Adventure Medical Kits (www.adventuremedicalkits.com). They come in super-light versions. And the company also has a “survival kit,” with good things to have like a mini-roll of duct tape, a whistle, etc. Be sure you have the needed stuff to disinfect cuts, bandage mostly small wounds (unless you carry a large pocket knife and have frequent muscle spasms), and—moleskin. Carry a number of sheets—it’s worth its weight in gold when your new shoes, or the feet of a novice hiker, lead to blisters. I’d take a cell phone, too.
Always have enough, in a water bottle or even a Camelbak (www.camelbak.com) brand or other water pack (the ones with a built-in bladder and an on-the-go drinking hose). And take the new steripen, super-light ultraviolet water purifiers.
In winter, you could slip one of those Inferno self-heating meals from AlpineAire Foods into your pack—and call it lunch. They’re also great in an emergency (not just your own, but someone else’s). A thermos full of hot soup works, too. Whatever you like for lunch, have a reasonable little bag of extras—gorp (nice mix of nuts, fruit, and sweets), energy bars (my favorite—the great flavors and nutrition of Larabars). If you like to carry a nice big roll and some sandwich stuff, make it a habit to pick up the Coleman’s mustard packs (and other great trail condiments) when you travel. At the grocery store—try those lightweight sealed pouches of tuna, or even mesquite grilled tuna fillets. These and other options no longer require cans. And it doesn’t hurt to have an extra sandwich. Just imagine how wonderful that would be at 11 p.m. before you try to sleep in the cold woods.
If you’re a serious hiker, and find yourself in challenging terrain and weather, or take hikes in the snow and ski cross-country, just buy a Thermo-Lite 2.0 Bivvy from Adventure Medical Kits. This 7-ounce, $35 emergency bivy bag is a perfect fall back item for any day hike. It’ll do the job for an unexpected night out—and just store it in the car if you drive through snow country (or tend to run off the road a lot). Same goes for one of those Inferno self-heating meals from AlpineAire Foods.
El cheapo alternative? Take a few big, plastic trash bags. They make a great rain shelter—and can help clean up after … others. Or they can wrap your pack’s contents if you don’t carry a rain cover.
Baby boomers note: these things take ten years off knees and ankles. In fact, even the youngest Swiss mountain guides now use these things. Why not? And if you do take a super-light tarp or piece of plastic for an emergency—your trekking poles become tent poles. Length adjusts with an easy twist and many absorb shock. Add a cane-style handle and they’re awesome on the downhill and for travel (they fit in a rollaboard). I like Leki poles. The Superlight Makalu’s are weightless.
You might need none of this for a few hundred yard stroll on a Blue Ridge Parkway “leg-stretcher trail.” But when you’re more ambitious, it’s better to be safe than sorry.