The classic on-foot bug-out is a central part of many a prepper’s plans, be it across the plains or through the woods it seems the plotting and planning of an extended bug-out in the form of a hike is central to prepping in general.
There is just one problem: an awful lot of preppers aren’t doing it! I mean to say they aren’t doing the central part of that plan- hiking- right now in the present. Well, if you aren’t practicing it you aren’t really preparing, now are you?
I would have you know that hiking is more than an essential part of a bug-out practice run: it is also vital for shaking down your gear and testing your own limits.
You need to know exactly what you are capable of if you plan on taking off on foot cross-country while carrying a heavy pack in the form of your BOB.
If you aren’t in shape, a good hike will let you know, but more importantly, you’ll start getting in shape if you hike regularly. Additionally, getting out into nature for fresh air, and a little bit of solitude is great for your mind and your spirit.
If you have been procrastinating or otherwise putting off hiking you are in luck today. In this article I will tell you everything you need to know for successfully planning and executing your first hike as a beginner.
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Hiking for Beginners
Hiking is just an extended walk through nature. A hike may take you from point A to point B, or it might be a circular path that brings you back to where you started. That’s it; it really is that simple.
I didn’t say it was necessarily that easy, because hiking can be a brutal test of endurance and your will to persevere, but it is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, nothing more.
Most hikers will by necessity be carrying some supplies with them on their back or on their chest, either in the form of a backpack or a small hiking-specific chest rig.
Some water, a few snacks, simple emergency supplies, and additional cover garments for worsening conditions is all most hikers will carry unless they’re going out for a lengthy trek.
Compared to your average pleasure hiker, a prepper is likely to carry significantly more equipment with them when hiking, or at least hiking “for real” when bugging out on foot.
An average prepper’s BOB can weigh 25lbs., 40lbs. or even upwards of 50lbs. depending on what they have packed within. That adds an entirely new layer of challenge and difficulty to a hike, even a comparatively sedate one over level, easy terrain.
But all of that will come later. First, you need to understand the basic procedures and skills of hiking before you actually start incorporating proper bug-out practice into it.
In the following sections, I’ll give you a list of steps that will get you ready to take to the trail in no time. Before we get to those steps though, I have a few cautionary items that you should be aware of before you lace up and hit the trail.
Don’t Push Yourself Too Hard in the Beginning
You might be in pretty good shape right now, but if you are not used to hiking and everything that it entails, specifically walking at a decent clip over terrain that is not perfectly flat and even you might find yourself using muscles in your legs, hips and trunk that typically don’t get too much use.
If you try to go too hard, too far in the beginning you might be seriously smoked before you’re even halfway back or to your destination.
Of course, this assumes you aren’t carrying anything at all beyond perhaps a water bottle. You can double or even quadruple the strain if you were carrying a proper pack laden with gear.
As part of your preparations, you must assess your level of athleticism. And don’t lie to yourself because you sure as heck won’t be able to cheat the mountain as the saying goes.
You need not worry, though, if you are not in the best of shape; no matter who you are there is in all likelihood a trail or even multiple trails in your area that are suited to you as you are, not as you should be or as you wish you were.
Also don’t underestimate what you’ll be up against. Even well-traveled, popular trails can become dangerous if you get stranded out there from an injury or simple exhaustion.
Don’t forget that getting lost is always a possibility on any but the most well-trod and defined trails.
Hikers that underestimate the amount of time a hike will take or the difficulty of a trail or even their own level of fitness have found themselves in legit emergency situations because of their hubris. Don’t be one of those people.
Start Short and Quick, Not Long and Slow
New hikers seem to be afflicted with a sort of buck fever when it comes to setting out on their first few hikes.
Generally, I’ll see them do a first hike that is no longer than 3 miles or so and easy as far as hiking is concerned and the very next weekend they’re heading out on a 10-mile + death march carrying a full and heavy BOB and toting a plate carrier.
Not a recipe for success if you ask me. No smart prepper should ever set themselves up for failure by biting off more than they can chew, especially in a training type of exercise.
Trust me when I say it is a very easy thing to go way too long and way too hard as a beginner.
Baby’s First Hike of a couple of miles might have gone down with you barely breaking a sweat, but an increase of just a couple of miles the very next weekend might prove to be too much, especially if you add in increased difficulty like significant elevation changes, rough terrain, an existing fatigue, or soreness from the week before.
It doesn’t matter if you are of chiseled physique or more of a potato shape, please believe me when I tell you that you should increase the difficulty and length of your hikes in very small and manageable increments.
If you don’t, you’ll certainly be heading for misery and also likely for injuries.
Don’t Showboat or Take Unnecessary Risks
It rarely fails that when I see certain preppers take to hiking a part of their better sense flees their head. I’m not sure why this happens, but if I were to guess is because their new-found hobby/practice of hiking is not an “actual” bug-out.
To these folks, it is a simulation, practice. Ergo, I see an awful lot of horseplay, overexertion, and the taking of unnecessary and frankly stupid risks.
I will not bore you with a thorough list of all the stupid stuff I’ve seen on the trails in the remote places of this nation and the world, but the highlight reel would include: fooling around in or over bodies of water, hassling or playing with wildlife and deciding to take shortcuts or bushwhacking of “faster” trails.
Most terrifying of all I have even witnessed shocking acts of negligence and idiocy around cliff edges and sheer drops. Fools, and perhaps, corpses all.
There is no other way to say it, and to hopefully get through to these idiots except to remind them and everyone reading this that the situation you are in when out on the trail is certainly real enough.
You’re far from civilization, or at least farther than you’ll be in the average course of the average day, with very little help around. Exposure is an ever-present threat. There is a host of potential injuries, mishaps, and mayhem that can befall someone out on the trail.
Now, hiking is statistically safe if you act with a shred of common sense, and avoid the most dangerous trails intended only for advanced and technical hikers.
I do not intend to frighten anyone, only to make sure that you have your brain in high gear when you’re out hiking, even on the easy trails, and even in the nicest weather.
Getting Ready for Your First Hike
Now that I have all the warning and finger-wagging out of the way, it is time to get ready to go on your very first hike.
There is an awful lot of preparation that needs to be done, and even starting out as a rank novice you can have all your “preflight” done in a day or less and be ready to set out the very next.
Read through the following steps and you’ll be ready to hit the trail in no time!
Step #1 – Find and Research Trails
Keeping in mind what I warned you about above, a warning to not get ahead of yourself by choosing a trail that is named something like “Devil’s Hairpin” or some such nonsense, your first step in getting ready to hit the trail for a hike is to hop online and do a search for beginner level hikes in your town or region.
Don’t let your ego sway you into writing a check that your feet and calves cannot cash. I promise you’ll still have a good time and get plenty of challenge out of even a beginner hike if you are actually a beginner.
Any popular search engine should produce plenty of results that you can sift through. If that does not turn fruitful, you can hop on to hiking forums or even localized forums like MeetUp to solicit recommendations from hiking and other outdoor groups.
No matter what kind of recommendation you get from whom, your first hike should be no more than about 5 miles long at most, and feature only the mildest and gentlest of elevation changes. Avoid ones that feature rough or challenging terrain, or are known for being difficult to navigate in wet weather.
Now it’s time to do a little homework. Read the reviews. Ask questions of members who hiked that trail and have done so recently. Look at their pictures that are posted and don’t forget to check the dates.
Pictures that are very old or significantly out of season may not reflect the current, today difficulty rating of the trail. If the trail is located in a park, contact the rangers or information center, and see if the trail has a map or guide book for it.
If you’re able to get either, make sure you study it. Know where your turns are, where the major landmarks are, and where potential trouble spots are.
If all of the above sounds excessive consider it practice you will actually need for doing advance work on and assessing difficult and potentially dangerous trails. Now all you need to do is grab your hiking shoes or boots, grab a little bit of gear, and you are ready to set out!
Step #2 – Wear the Right Clothing
One of the most common mistakes that beginning hikers make is not dressing for the occasion, either at the time they set out or failing to dress for dealing with changing weather conditions and temperature.
Now, the subject of hiking apparel, especially technical apparel for hardcore hikers, can and has filled up dozens even hundreds of articles all on its own.
I’m not even going to scratch the surface on that topic and I won’t pretend to. That being said, I can give you some good advice that will keep you from burning up, or freezing your legs off.
As a rule, you should choose lightweight clothing that dries quickly, no matter if it gets wet from water or sweat. This will avoid weighing you down, and hiking while soaking wet is always a bit of a bummer.
Even in hot weather you should choose long sleeves and pants over short sleeves and shorts; there are all kinds of minor hazards on the trail, from spiny plants, sharp sticks that will jab and scratch you, and of course biting bugs in great profusion.
Your sleeves can always be rolled up. If you seriously desire shorts, consider getting pants with the zip off legs. Don’t wear military BDUs, jeans or other heavy-duty (and just heavy) articles of clothing.
You don’t need to invest in the most expensive hiking or mountaineering gear to have a successful and enjoyable hike. Budget priced items you can get at any department store or big box store will work fine as a beginner.
Proper footwear is, of course, essential as you’re probably thinking. If you are a novice hiker you might be thinking of wearing heavy, sturdy boots.
These can certainly work, but heavy footwear will wear you out more quickly and most especially when they are wet or caked with mud. Some people prefer lightweight technical hiking boots, while others like minimalist trail shoes.
The most important element of any hiking footwear for your first outing is knowing that it will not give you blisters! You should never take a brand new pair of boots or shoes out on the trail until you’ve had time to break them in a little bit first, no matter what promises the manufacturer makes.
Lastly, bring some lightweight additional layers you can don along with a hat and perhaps gloves depending on the weather in your area, and how cold it gets after nightfall.
Falling temperatures and wet clothing mean plummeting core body temperature, and that is one of the biggest risks that anyone can face in an outdoor setting. Don’t skimp on this part!
Step #3 – Bring Your Supplies
No matter how experienced you are, no matter what part of the country you were hiking in, no matter the weather and no matter the trail you never, ever go for a hike, even if it’s just a couple of miles on a trail you’ve hiked a dozen times, without any supplies. End of sermon.
You may only bring a couple of pounds of gear, little more than some water, a snack and a lightweight outer garment, but if you get into a pinch or run into unexpected delays or some other emergency, those supplies might save your life or someone else’s. You should bring at the minimum:
- Lightweight/Flyweight daypack or half-daypack
- Water Bottle, ½ liter or liter
- Water filter, lightweight
- Snacks, consider jerky, trail mix, honey, etc.
- Zip-loc bag, 1 gallon
- First-aid kit
- Fire-starter and tinder
- Flashlight or headlamp with spare batteries
- Pocketknife or small belt knife
- GPS or emergency beacon
A basic hiking pack (day pack, not full blown BOB) can be lightweight, comparatively light duty and doesn’t need an internal frame, a waist belt or anything like that. You’ll definitely want to bring a little bit of water.
It’s easy to go overboard, so judge well how much you’ll need since water is heavy, and you can refill while you’re out if you need to and know where water is.
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After that, a few snacks to keep up your energy level is not a bad idea, something like trail mix or beef jerky. Then you should always, and I do mean always, bring a map and a compass and know how to use them together.
You don’t have to get very far off a trail before the woods start to look the same, and unfamiliar, in every direction.
A one gallon-size double zipper freezer bag is a good thing to bring in order to keep things safe from sweat or rain. If your map isn’t laminated it should definitely go inside. If you have a GPS or locator beacon bring that also, and keep it in your freezer bag.
You should never leave home without at least a basic first aid kit. Hiking is no different.
A compact kit containing bandages and rolled gauze, an inflatable splint, first aid tape, blister relief and insect bite relief kits, basic medications for pain, nausea and other ailments, and some sun block should be all you’ll need.
And you might think this is silly, but you should also bring at least two ways to start a fire. I like to bring a common lighter, and a ferro rod, though survival “storm” matches or a flint and steel combo are also popular.
Remember what I said about exposure being an all-too-common and certainly deadly threat…
As far as tools go, all you really need is a flashlight or a headlamp, and a set of spare batteries for it, a lightweight, folding survival blanket (the foil kind that makes you look like a takeout container).
Lastly, no prepper worth the label will ever leave home, and certainly never head into a deep nature setting, without at least one good knife.
You don’t need to bring a big Rambo-style bushcraft or survival knife; a quality, durable folding pocket knife is more than adequate for your average hike.
Before you think to yourself that you won’t need to carry all of this crap on your little pleasure outing, remind yourself of all the poor and waylaid hikers setting off on easy mode for three hour day hikes who, somehow, some way, found themselves in an emergency situation that turned their painless fun day on the trail into a legitimate survival situation.
Everything listed above weighs precious few pounds and will fit into a very small space. There is no reason you shouldn’t be carrying it with you.
Step #4 – Check the Weather!
Running through the rain may be fun and interesting when you don’t really have anywhere to be, and you’re only a few minutes from home or your car, but it can take on an entirely new level of suck when you’re out in the wilderness, far from proper shelter, and with plummeting temperatures.
To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, or at least doesn’t happen to you unawares, you always want to get the forecast before you head out on a hike.
Rain, thunderstorms, high winds and falling temperatures can turn an easy hike you’re a difficult one, and a pleasurable excursion into a real-life survival situation.
Also, new hikers should pay close attention to their route planning. Significant elevation changes mean you may be dealing with falling temperatures or rising ones regardless of atmospheric conditions.
Descending from higher elevations in particular often results in rising humidity levels and warm weather that may sap your strength quicker than you are anticipating.
Take your time, check the weather, and ask people who have hiked your trail before you what they encountered in certain weather conditions.
You should also not be afraid to call ahead if your trail is located in a state or national park, and ask the information service what the condition of the trails are, and what weather conditions will typically close them or have cautions issued.
Step #5 – Tell Someone You Trust Where You Are Going
It seems to me that, over the years, one mistake that is made more than any other results in a disproportionate amount of the tragedies, and that is the failure to file a “flight plan” with someone who cares about you, and will miss you if you don’t come back.
Filing a flight plan typically looks like this…
First, leave a detailed written message at your home where someone will see it if they enter your home looking for you. In it, describe when you left, where you are going, what trail you’re planning on taking, when you plan on being back, and of course, your name and signature.
Next, check in with someone that you plan on checking in with when you come back from your hike. Tell them when they should expect a call from you, or rather a time and or date they should expect a call from you no later than.
Be sure to leave yourself a little leeway in case you want to take in the sights, need an extra rest, or just have to deal with a minor mishap. Your hike is not a time trial.
Lastly, if your trail is located on any kind of park that has rangers or information service, check in with them, and let them know what trail you were heading out on.
If the park has a closing time or if the rangers start doing a headcount at the beginning and end of their shifts, someone at the park will know that a visitor is unaccounted for if you don’t return.
It bears repeating: stick to your flight plan!
If you tell everyone you’re going to hike the loop at Beaver Creek but make a last-minute call to go to Coyote Canyon straight-through instead, people won’t know which way is up and where to start searching except where you told them you were going in your note or message. Do not deviate from your flight plan!
Step #6 – Watch Where You Place Your Hands and Feet
Even on the most well-traveled and most populated trails you will run into plenty of things that can hurt you if you don’t pay attention. Nature, even nature that has been tried many times, will punish the unwary and will never reward trust.
Hazards could take the form of soft soil or mud holes perfect for twisting or breaking an ankle in, loose stones and gravel that will do the same, muddy hillsides that will send you tumbling and, of course, all manner of hostile and hazardous wildlife.
Chief among the more disagreeable critters that roam the planet are countless varieties of insects that can inflict nasty stings and bites, among them wasps, hornets, bees, ants and even some species of caterpillars, and then of course, you have the quintessential serpents, snakes, to contend with.
There are several dangerous venomous snake species in the United States, the most commonly encountered ones being rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths, more or less evenly distributed across most of the contiguous 48 states.
And then of course we have all sorts of innocent-looking but no less irritating plant life that can send you away with a nasty rash and stinging skin.
Poisonous varieties of ivy, sumac, oak and nettle are complemented by non poisonous but no less hateful thorns, spines and briars that adorn the bark and branches of all kinds of shrubs and trees.
Of course it is far from impossible for you to run into something truly hazardous in the form of large, powerful and predatory mammals. Everything from black and brown bears to cougars to elk, moose and deer in the rut have hurt and even killed humans in the remote places of the continent.
Such animals usually stay far away from commonly travel trails, but not always.
It is imperative that you pay attention and really connect with the environment when you are out hiking. Watch where you put your feet, and then look ahead to the next step before assessing it in turn.
Never place your hands somewhere you cannot see, or place them somewhere that has a hidden outcropping or alcove next to it from which something may strike you.
You should not be unduly worried about these dangerous plants and other creatures as the vast majority of them will only send you limping away cursing and nursing a reddening irritated patch of skin and perhaps a welt.
But if you are unlucky you could get tagged by something really nasty. Keep your eyes open while you are hiking.
Step #7 – Take Your Time
The last step to ensuring you have a safe, enjoyable, productive and fun hike is to simply take your time. Bad things happen in hiking when people get in a hurry.
Mishap and mayhem await hikers who are in a rush, and could come in the form of a stumble, trip or fall, a missed turn or landmark or running into some kind of creature with defensive adaptations well suited to dealing with careless or hasty hikers.
It’s easy to think of a few scenarios where you might get in a hurry. Maybe you’re already running behind, or maybe you’re just anxious to get off the trail and go home.
Maybe the sun starts to get low in the sky and you get worried, or even scared, that you’ll be caught on the trail with only your flashlight. Now is not the time to panic.
Take a deep breath, adjust the straps on your pack, have a sip of water, clear your mind, take on the trail and the situation as it comes and problem-solve it. You’ll be back in civilization or back in the comfy confines of your vehicle in no time.
Avoid Hiking Mistakes
Your average hike is not some hair-trigger exercise in survival, and you don’t need to set out feeling like it is. If you can simply avoid making the worst hiking mistakes you’re almost assured of having an enjoyable and productive hike.
You can make a list of hiking mistakes almost as long as you wanted, but there are only three “Big Ones” you should really be careful to avoid…
First, no matter where you are going and no matter what trail you are traveling make sure you file that flight plan!
Leave a note at your home, tell somebody you trust who will look for you if you don’t report back in and even leave a note in your vehicle before setting out on the trail.
Let someone know what trail you were heading out on, and what route you expect to take. This can make all the difference if you need to be rescued out of a bad situation.
Second, don’t pick a trail that is too far beyond your ability level. Remember that for every step you take going in you have to take that many steps coming out.
You may think you can muscle through or power past a tough bit of hiking, but if you run out of gas in a tricky spot you may be too exhausted to get out. If you can’t get moving again for any reason, now you’re facing the prospect of an overnight stay in the wilderness.
Lastly, always and I do mean always carry the list of supplies provided to you above. It never fails that hikers that don’t carry this simple bit of survival equipment get into seriously life-threatening situations when things go bad.
Those who do will typically survive even if it is a very uncomfortable night or day out of doors. Modern survival supplies are so lightweight and so efficient there is no reason not to carry them. Save the ego for other pastimes; carry your survival equipment!
What to Do If You Are Nervous About Hiking
If you are not an outdoorsy personality or just don’t have any hiking experience at all, it is normal and completely understandable that you might be a bit worried about setting off into the woods, the desert or the mountains on a solo hike.
But there is no reason to be that anxious about it so long as you follow the guidelines presented above. If you do, your chances of having a bad experience on your first outing are very, very slim. But let’s say you need a boost in confidence. What should you do?
Perhaps the easiest thing you can do to ensure you are not totally out there and completely alone is to pick a trail that is regularly or even heavily trafficked.
This will ensure that there are plenty of people coming and going along the trail on any given day, and the presence of other hikers will probably go far to assuage your fears.
Additionally, during your homework phase on finding a good trail to start with, make sure you pick one that is especially well marked and defined.
Trails that are essentially established footpaths minus the paving going through the woods or wherever are very easy to follow and will greatly reduce your risk of getting lost or turned around.
Lastly, you can always bring a wingman or two with you! Talk to your friends, and see who has hiking experience. Bring a buddy, or small group.
If none of your friends are interested in hiking you can always find local groups online, especially on social media websites. They will be more than happy to include you in their scheduled or impromptu outings.
It is hard to be nervous when you have a small group of happy hikers traveling the trail with you! Don’t give in to fear: visualize a positive and rewarding hike and a good outcome and that is what you will get!
You don’t need to put off hiking anymore than you already have…
Aside from being an enjoyable and rewarding outdoor pastime, hiking is an essential part of practicing for an on foot bug-out as preppers.
Going in with a little bit of know-how and the right attitude will ensure that your hike is a productive and fun outing, one that will help you get fit, and improve your confidence and your readiness should disaster strike.
Learn well the seven simple steps, lace up your hiking boots, grab your pack and hit the trails. Happy hiking!
Tom Marlowe grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, He has the experience in helping civilian shooters figure out what firearms work best for them.