Tips for Beginning Hikers
Most guide books, and even a lot of maps, have tips or guidelines for hikers. Most of these are too conservative, lump the important in with the irrelevant, and don't really tell the beginning hikers what are the most important things to worry about. The following tips are what I consider to be the most important things for beginning hikers to know. I omit a lot of things that are helpful, but which don't really make that big of a difference. 

Physical Fitness
Hiking isn't reserved for people who are in top-notch physical shape. I was certainly your average couch potato before I started hiking. Unless you are morbidly obese, or have a known medical condition, you can handle hiking. Anyone under age 70 who is not suffering from a debilitating medical condition can do any of the hikes listed in this website if they do progressively harder hikes over a couple of months to get in shape. The more you hike, the stronger your body becomes. Physical endurance is almost entirely determined by practice and not genetics.

If you have never hiked before, you will probably feel really exhausted and sore after your first hike. Don't let this pain and suffering fool you into thinking "well, hiking just isn't for me." Everyone who hasn't exercised much in the previous 6 months feels the same way their first time out. Once you get in better shape, which just takes going on some more hikes, you will not feel exhausted or sore at the end of a hike. When I first started hiking I would feel ready to collapse after a 10 mile hike. Now, I don't feel bad at all after 18 mile hike with 4,000 feet elevation gain. Hiking gets radically easier with practice.

Age is not a factor in hiking. I used to lead hikes for the Sierra Club, and an 86 year old man came on two of my hikes, one to Elephant Head, which involved a lot of bushwacking, and the other to Hutch's Pool. He not only had no trouble keeping up, on one hike he was probably half a mile ahead of two other people in their 40s. When I did the Tubac 50 hike back in the late nineties, Sid Hirsch, who was then in his sixties, finished the fifty mile hike about 3 hours faster than me and my friends (all near 40 at the time). When I hiked the Grand Canyon recently most of the backpackers I saw were well over 55. A friend of mine once met an 80 year old woman on the top of Rincon Peak, which is definitely a hard A hike. So, do not feel that you are too old to go hiking.

Even if you have not done any hiking before, and have doubts about your physical conditioning, you can probably do at least do a few miles of any of the hikes with a C difficulty rating that do not have much elevation gain. Start out on one of the easier C hikes and see how you do. Over time slowly work up to the longer and steeper C hikes.

Once you have done a couple of hikes at the more difficult end of the C range, you will be in shape to do the easier B class hikes. Once you have done a number of the harder B hikes, you will be conditioned to do any B or A hike, since the fitness required to do a hard B hike comfortably will see you through just about anything.

You will know you are ready to try a harder class of hikes when you can do one class of hikes without feeling like you are dying. Once you can do hard B class hikes without extreme discomfort your body will be in excellent shape and you will be able to hike hard trails for 8 to 10 hours at a stretch without problems.

After your first couple hikes you will probably suffer from DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness. The first couple times you go hiking DOMS will start about 24 to 48 hours after a hike and is characterized by mild to severe muscle stiffness and soreness. It usually passes in 24 to 48 hours after it begins. Don't worry about the fact that you have DOMS, since it is entirely normal for people who haven't been very active.

Don't let your first case of DOMS dissuade you from going hiking again! DOMS usually only happens when you have either never been hiking before, or after a long period of time away from hiking. After only one or two hikes you will not experience it again unless you do a hike which is a lot harder than you are used to.

Don't be afraid to progressively test your limits by trying increasingly harder hikes. Anybody who goes hiking fairly regularly can work their way up to class A hikes in a number of months if they want to. Even if you are in terrible shape when you begin you will be in great shape before you know it.

Gear Generally
If you read hiking magazines and visit outdoor stores you get the impression that having lots of fancy high quality gear is vital to having a good hiking experience. This is not true. Hiking is, after all, just walking, and you don't need any special equipment to be able to put one foot in front of the other. Also, the less gear you bring, the less weight you have to carry, which means you can go farther with less exertion. So, don't feel that you have to spend hundreds on equipment before you start hiking. In my experience, the people who go hiking all the time usually have beat-up cheap gear that looks nothing like what you see in the magazines.

Absolute Bare Minimum to Take with You
The absolute bare minimum to bring on a hike over 2 hours long is:

-Small daypack or fanny pack.
-Water (At least 2 liters, preferably 3 or 4)
-Sunscreen

Arizona is very dry, and if you don't bring a lot of water you will feel miserable and weak after hiking for a while. The sun in Arizona seems more powerful than other places in America, so unless you know for a fact that you can tolerate a lot of sun, put sunscreen on your exposed surfaces to avoid a nasty burn.

The Recommended Bare Minimum
-Small daypack or fanny pack.
-Water (2 to 4 liters)
-Sunscreen
-Food
-Moleskin (If you wear boots, and only until your feet get blisterproof)
-Flashlight
-Lighter, or space blanket, garbage bag, or clothing that will keep you warm at night.

Optional (Depending on preference)
-First aid kit.

The lighter and flashlight are in case you get stuck out all night. It gets cold at night in the Arizona mountains, and with a lighter you can start a fire and keep warm; or you can put on your space blanket/garbage bag/clothing for warmth.

You don't have to buy special water bottles at an outdoor store. I personally recommend the 2 liter bottles that Oceanspray cranberry juice comes in. They are very light, indestructible, the cap never leaks, and they are basically free if you drink the juice. Many people use the bottles that soda comes in, but they are less durable and are more prone to leaking.

Moleskin is only necessary if you are prone to blisters. I used to carry it, but over the years my feet have apparently become blisterproof, and I haven't used it in years.

Notice the absence of a first aid kit. My thinking is that if you can fix it with a first aid kit, it probably doesn't need to be fixed right away anyway, and if it can't be fixed with a first aid kit the time you spend messing with your injury on the trail could be put to better use trying to get medical aid. For example, if you get a scrape that could be covered by a band aid you could probably just wash it and leave it uncovered until you get home; if you get a compound fracture, the typical hiker's first aid kit will not provide much assistance. If you want to carry something that might help a bit in an emergency you might want to pack a roll of 1.5 inch wide medical tape and a big hunk of gauze so that you can cover big gaping wounds. You might also bring an ace bandage for twisted ankles.

A friend of mine once said that I should tell people to bring first aid kits. I asked him if he usually carried one, and he said no. A nurse who was hiking with us said that she didn't really believe in carrying them, since there is not much you can do with one in the field.

Also notice the absence of a snake bite kit. I have spent hundreds of hours hiking in Arizona, and have only seen a few rattlesnakes. I once researched what to do if a snake bites you, and the advice was so divergent on the issue of field treatment that I decided the best thing to do if you are bit is get to the hospital as soon as possible, and not waste time fooling around with suction cups and other snake bite gear. And when you get to the hospital, make sure you ask a lot of questions about the percentage of people who get serious side-effects of the antivenin before you consent to being injected with it. Antivenin is made by injecting horses with increasing doses of snake venom, and then condensing their blood into a serum. Lots of people have severe allergic reactions to the condensed horse blood.

Footgear
You do not need "good" hiking boots for hiking. In fact, you don't even need hiking boots at all. The winner of a 100 mile trail race a few years ago was an indian from Mexico who did the whole thing in sandals made out of old tires. He wanted to do it barefoot, but the race organizers insisted on footgear. Except for one hike in the snow, I haven't worn hiking boots since 1997, and in that time I have gone on at least one to two long hikes a month, plus done 260 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in 16 days. These days I just wear Tevas with socks, but for years I wore whatever running shoes I could get for $15-$25 on sale. My feet are a lot happier now that I don't use boots. I don't get blisters anymore and my feet feel a lot better at the end of a long hike. People will tell you that you need boots for ankle protection, but I get a lot fewer twisted ankles (none that hurt more than an hour in 7 years) than I did when I hiked in boots (lots!). So, buy boots if that is what makes sense to you, but don't feel that its an absolute requirement before you can hit the trail.

If you buy boots, buy the cheapest, lightest boots that feel really comfortable the first time you put them on. Do not feel you "should" buy expensive, heavy, or all-leather, hiking boots that have to be "broken-in." If it feels like the boot has to be "broken-in" then don't buy it! I say this because I have seen at least 3 or 4 friends who were wearing expensive leather boots come away from hikes with badly blistered (and sometimes bloody) feet. I have never seen someone suffering badly from cheap lightweight boots or running shoes.

Planning the Hike
Its important to not get caught out after dark if you can at all avoid it. Before you set out on a hike review the directions and any maps you have and make sure you understand the length and difficulty of the hike. Then figure out approximately how long you think the hike might take you based on your typical hiking speed and the trail's difficulty then add at least 2 to 3 hours for unforseen obstacles or events. Take that total time and figure backwards from sunset to figure out what is the latest you can start on the hike and leave yourself a comfortable cushion before night falls.

Hiking Alone
Most hiking books will sternly tell you to "Never Hike Alone!" as if that is the most foolish thing you could possibly do. The phrase also pops out of the mouths of non-hikers whenever the hear about someone getting hurt while hiking alone: "He shouldn't have been hiking alone!" as if the solitude itself somehow caused the person to fall. Being alone doesn't increase your chances of being injured. All it does is increase the risk that it may take a while for you to get help. The real rule is: Never hike alone without making sure people can find you relatively promptly if you get seriously injured.

If the trail is heavily used, and you are going on a weekend, you can count on passersby to find you and go get help if you are in trouble, so no precautions are needed when hiking these trails alone. Some trails like this are the Phoneline Trail, Blackett's Ridge Trail, the Bear Canyon Trail (up to 7 Falls), and the Butterfly Trail (in the summer on the weekend).

If you are going on the type of trail where you only see one or two people when you hike it, then tell someone where you are going, and when you will be back. Show them the route on a map, and leave them with a copy of the map with your route marked if they are not too good with maps. Agree on an exact time that they will call the authorities if you don't return, so that they don't have to torture themselves trying to figure out how long is long enough to wait, and so that you know when rescue efforts can be expected to begin. Figure out which authorities you want contacted if you don't show up.

If you leave home without knowing your final destination, leave a note in the window of your car saying where you are going, and asking passersby to call the authorities if the car is still there after a certain date and time.

It can't hurt to bring a cell phone, but know that there are many places in the wilderness where a cell phone wont' get a signal. You may want to consider getting a 2 meter ham radio if you hike alone. I don't know much about these, except that I have seen them used in some places on the trail.

Never go very far from the trail if you are alone. Lots of Arizona is very rugged, and if they have to search beyond the trail system it will take forever to find you.

If you have any suggestions or comments please email them to AndyFlach@yahoo.com


Last modified 19 April 2010