Hiking can evoke a number of positive sensations and images: the crunch or scuffle of boots; the call of birds; the hum of insects; the smell, carried upon the wind, of flowers and trees. Additionally, doctors tell us hiking improves heart health and removes fats and sugars from the blood [sources: Benzer et. al., AP]. Psychological research even suggests that people who spend time in nature are more caring [source: Weinstein et. al.]. Presidents of the United States, most famously Theodore Roosevelt, have sworn by it [sources: DeMauro, Russell].
But when you come right down to it, hiking is simply walking for pleasure and exercise in the great outdoors. It is cheap, convenient, scalable to any fitness level and adaptable to desired activities.
Technically, hiking requires no special gear. However, it tends to be more physically demanding than walking, both because it takes place in the outdoors and because it typically involves rougher terrain -- everything from rocky paths to unstable hills to steep climbs. This quality of hiking is hinted at by the word itself, which is probably derived from the Middle English word hicchen ("hitch"), meaning "to move jerkily."
Although you can in principle hike naked (and some do), there are basic items no hiker should be without. Moreover, the more you ramp up your activity level, forge into less hospitable terrain, alter your hiking goals or join in some of the more demanding hiking variants -- such as rock climbing, scrambling or mountaineering -- the more specialized equipment you will need.
In this article, we will look at the gear you'll need to get the most out of your hike. First up: what you should wear.
Hiking Boots and Apparel
Proper footwear is one key to happy hiking, preventing the sore, bruised, tired or blistered feet that threaten to ruin any excursion. No single hiking shoe or boot is suited to every hiking type or environment, however. Trail shoes, trail hikers or hiking boots differ respectively in terms of weight, sturdiness and ankle support. Trail shoes are suitable for short trips with light gear, whereas hiking boots provide additional cushion and support to counter the load of a backpack.
As a rule, choose the lightest footwear that supports your particular foot needs (padding, arch support, etc. -- check with your doctor or an outdoor shoe specialist if you're uncertain about what you need) and suits the type of hike you are planning. Consider likely weather and environmental conditions as well: A warm, waterproof boot, for example, is unsuited to desert hiking.
The fit should be snug yet comfortable: Most hiking boots stretch a bit as you break them in, but not enough to correct a poor fit. They should allow your foot to roll from heel to toe but provide more lateral (side-to-side) support than a walking shoe. You'll want to break in your boots before hitting the trail, so try wearing them for short periods, working up to longer ones. Any pinching, rubbing or pain might be a sign you need to exchange them for a different style.
The right socks are also essential for avoiding blisters and regulating temperature. Most hikers recommend the two-sock system -- wearing a synthetic sock liner under an outer sock. The inner sock wicks away moisture, keeping feet and inner socks dry to prevent friction that can lead to hot spots or blisters. Wool or wool blend outer socks absorb moisture and regulate heat well, even while wet.
The remainder of your apparel should be both comfortable and suited to your environment. Body heat and outdoor temperature will fluctuate as you hike, so dress in layers or in clothes with zip-away sections to avoid becoming chilled or overheated. A hydration pack will help you keep on top of your water consumption, letting you hydrate while on the move, and can double as a daypack for storing other essentials.
Now that you're decked out for a hike, let's discuss an item that can help you stick with it.
Sometimes the simplest tools are best, and when it comes to versatility, it's tough to beat a stick. Hiking sticks and trekking poles can help you keep your balance while you maneuver over rough terrain, extending your reach while providing a "spare leg" for traction and stability. By redistributing your load, hiking sticks also reduce stress on backs, legs, knees and feet. On the trail, you can use them to push aside nettles, brush and other nuisances, to probe water or mud, or to fend off aggressive animals. Ultralight campers use them in conjunction with a tarp to form a shelter or to prop up a pack. In an emergency, they can even serve as makeshift splints or crutches.
The key characteristics of a hiking stick or trekking pole are weight, price, shock absorption, shaft construction and grip type, and you should choose yours according to your budget, needs and conditions. Recreational walkers might want a light, straight stick for doing stretches and simple exercises while walking, while off-trail trekkers will need a height-measured stick with extra length to help with downhill climbs. Choose a height and weight that works for you, and pay attention to the types of thongs, tips and grips available as well.
Hiking sticks are typically made of wood, aluminum or carbon fiber, with wood being the heaviest and carbon fiber the lightest of the three. Aluminum is stronger and less expensive than carbon fiber, while carbon fiber reduces vibration, but is more vulnerable to breakage or splintering [source: REI]. Most poles are also height-adjustable -- typically between 24 to 55 inches (0.6 to 1.4 meters) -- and many offer built-in shock absorption [source: REI]. As always, try before you buy, making sure that the pole height is easily adjustable and does not slip once adjusted. If you choose a wooden staff, consider a balance of strength versus weight.
In the next section, we'll take a look at gear to help hikers take back the night.
Night Hiking Gear
The cover of night can add an extra sense of adventure or even danger to the hiking experience. It provides opportunities to stargaze, or to hear and see nocturnal wildlife. It is also a great way to get away from crowds in high-traffic areas or to escape the day's heat.
There are two schools of thought with respect to using lights on night hikes. Some feel that properly and fully experiencing the outdoors at night requires using one's natural senses alone, while others view this approach as too unsafe or inconvenient. The downside to relying on vision is that people's eyes are not well adapted to the dark, particularly around the fovea, or focal point [sources: Al-Azzawi, Cortel]. The disadvantage of using headlamps or even night vision equipment is that your field of vision will be impaired. If you intend to switch between the two, using red filters on your lights can lessen the time it takes for your eyes to adjust. Alternatively, you can keep one eye covered, pirate-style, and switch between the two.
Bear in mind that nighttime is colder than daytime, and night hikes require more frequent stops for listening and generally getting your bearings. You are likely to get cold during these stops, so it is a good idea to pack extra clothes, such as a sweater or fleece. In addition, rainstorms frequently roll in at dusk, so be prepared. A pocket poncho is a good, lightweight option for weather protection. Gloves and gaiters will help you minimize potential injuries from unseen thorns and other nuisances as you move around, and lanyards and ties will help keep you from losing your equipment.
Night hikes have an inherently higher danger level than their daytime equivalents. While night hiking, your visual acuity is greatly diminished [sources: Al-Azzawi, Cortel]. You must feel for your footing, which might not be as solid as it seems. Your nerves are more on edge, and you may tend to overreact to strange sounds or jump at objects, as they seem suddenly to lunge from the darkness. Nocturnal (night-active) and crepuscular (dawn/dusk active) animals may be more aggressive at night, too, especially if you stumble into them.
It is usually best to work up to night hiking once you have a fair amount of daylight hiking experience under your belt. Even then, be extra cautious. It is also a good policy to make sure someone knows where you will be when you're on a night hike.
For more information on hiking and other outdoor activities, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Al-Azzawi, Abdul. 2006. Light and Optics: Principles and Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
- American Hiking Society. "Finding the Right Footwear." (Accessed online Dec. 3, 2009).http://www.americanhiking.org/uploadedFiles/Hiking_Resources/FindingtheRightFootwear.pdf
- Associated Press. 2005. Walking Downhill May Lower Sugar Levels and Uphill Hiking May Clear Fats from Blood, Study Finds. Jan. 6. (Accessed online Dec. 3, 2009).http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6795822/ns/health-fitness/
- Benzer, W. et. al. 1998. Regular Physical Activity and Risk Factors for Coronary Heart Disease. Circulation: The Journal of the American Heart Association 98 (21): 2356.
- Bohne, M., and Abendroth-Smith, J. 2007. Effects of Hiking Downhill Using Trekking Poles While Carrying External Loads. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 39(1): 177-183.
- Cortel, Adolf. 2005. Simple Experiments on the Physics of Vision: The Retina. Physics Education 40(4): 325.
- DeMauro, Lisa. 2005. Theodore Roosevelt: The Adventurous President. New York: Harper Collins.
- Levy, S. 2007. Trekking Poles. American Hiker. Summer: 18-19.
- Lightweight Backpacker. "Hiking Poles & Walking Sticks & Staffs." (Accessed online Dec. 7, 2009). http://www.backpacking.net/walkstik.html
- Mountaineers (Society). 2003. Mountaineering: the Freedom of the Hills. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NIH). "Light and Dark Adaptation." (Accessed online Dec. 8, 2009).
- REI. "Breaking in Your Hiking Boots." (Accessed online Dec. 4, 2009).http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/breaking+in+hiking+boots.html
- REI. "How to Choose Trekking Poles (and Hiking Staffs)." (Accessed online Dec. 7, 2009). http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/trekking+poles+hiking+staffs.html
- REI. "The Ten Essentials." (Accessed online Dec. 6, 2009).http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/ten+essentials.html
- Russell, T. H. 1919. Life and Work of Theodore Roosevelt: Typical American, Patriot, Orator, Historian, Sportsman, Soldier, Statesman and President. Indiana University: Homewood Press.
- Thomson, K. G. "Night Hiking." Inquiry. May 01, 2005. (Accessed online Dec. 7, 2009).http://www.inquiry.net/OUTDOOR/night/hiking.htm
- Walking and Hiking. "How to Choose Walking Shoes and Hiking Boots." (Accessed online Dec. 3, 2009). http://www.walkingandhiking.co.uk/how-choose-right-walking-shoes-hiking-boots.html
- Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. "hiking."
- Weinstein, N., Przybylski, A. K., and R. M. Ryan. 2009. Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35(10): 1315-1329.