I’m biased, but I think hiking is the ultimate outdoor activity — you can do it just about anywhere with zero special equipment. People travel to amazing destinations just to take epic hikes, and plenty of us roam the trails and mountains all around our home territory. But don’t forget that you can get trail time on just about any trip you take, from that business conference to a family wedding. Put your favorite wool socks and a suitable pair of shoes in your luggage, and your options for exploring outdoors just multiplied.
Planning ahead is important for taking a hike, but even more so when you’re hitting a new trail in a new place — especially if you’re going solo or taking kids along. When you’re outside your usual area, it’s easier to lose direction. Those familiar landmarks, like ridges, roads or rivers, are missing. If you’re really far from home, the weather, bugs, terrain and plants might be very different. Factor that into your plans.
Any new trail is exciting because of the unknowns. Prep for the important ones:
How do I get to the trail? On a first visit to a new trail, use the popular trailhead. That way you’ll know you started in the right place, other people will be around to offer help getting on the right path and someone will notice your car there if you don’t return for an extended period.
How long or difficult is the trail? Study a trail map and descriptions to get a realistic idea about the length and challenge of each option. On a first visit to any trail, you’ll be slower than you think…taking your time to soak in the new surroundings, checking out the blooms and trees, putting your toes in a stream. Allow more time for your maiden hike in this new place. You may find a spot you want to rest in for awhile. After all, this may be a trail you won’t return to. It’s also not unusual to find that a trail is tougher than advertised. That “moderate” one-mile climb to the summit could feel more like a rock-climbing expedition under certain conditions. Over-estimate the timeframe and water you’ll need.
What’s my route? Many parks, trails and Wildlife Management Areas offer “loop” hikes — multiple paths to start and return to the trailhead. These let you shorten or lengthen your walk based on time or energy level. Make sure you have a trail map (paper map or downloaded onto your phone –preferably both) when you set out. That way, if you get off course or decide to extend your explore, you can get back to the start point without back-tracking or looping endlessly. The visibility and quality of trail markers and signs vary greatly at different parks, so keep going back to your map to help navigate. If you’re competent with a compass or have a compass app on your phone, even better.
Who will come save my butt if something goes wrong? When you’re away from home — in a new state or part of the country — it’s a little harder to get rescued from a hike if things go sideways. Most of us save a 911 call for desperate times…injuries or hours of being truly lost. Have the phone number for the park in your phone or written on a map so you can get help if needed. If you’re on a trip with others but haven’t joined you on your trail hike, let them know where you’ll be and when you expect to be back to the hotel or wherever you’re staying.
It’s super-fun if a local is taking you on this new trail exploration…that’s safer and you’ll get the benefit of their knowledge. My college roommate and BFF of more than 30 years just recently unleashed her trail knowledge when I visited her in Nashville. She took me to places she likes to walk, bike ride and hike and they were great, relaxing outings. I didn’t have to do any planning and got to enjoy these new, beautiful places — the Stones River Greenway and Radnor Lake State Park — with one of my favorite people. Stones River Greenway is a paved trail along the river and includes a wooden boardwalk, views up the waterway and leafy sections.
We took four trails at Radnor Lake State Park which led us up a hardwood ridge, along the ridgetop and down into a mature forest, then on a loop around the long Radnor Lake. That was four miles of spectacular fall foliage and water views, great conversation and the tallest sassafras trees I’ve ever seen!
Check your timetable. If you’ve got to catch a plane, be a bridesmaid in a wedding or get to that company meeting on time, it’s probably best to choose an easily-accessible trail that’s not too ambitious on your bonus hike. Stuff can happen on a hike you didn’t plan for, from sudden storms to a fall or injury. There’s nothing relaxing about being in a rush or racing to get back to your car on a deadline. Being in a hurry seems to have the magical effect of multiplying trouble and delays.
Build some time into your next roadtrip, business meeting or family gathering to check out a new trail. A little prep reading online trail guides or local tourism maps can set you right. Download some maps, talk to the locals when you get there and get to know a new corner of the world. Take lots of pictures, mark your walk on a map when you’re back and add that to the scrapbook of places you really took time to discover and appreciate.