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How to Become a Better Hiker

Students in Andrew Skurka's Ultimate Hiker Course, White Mountains
Students in Andrew Skurka’s Ultimate Hiker Course, White Mountains

I love day hiking, backpacking, peak bagging, long distance trekking: you name it. Being outdoors and propelling myself on my own two legs gives me tremendous joy…even when it rains.

I also derive tremendous satisfaction from learning and using new hiking, backpacking and mountaineering skills. Learning what to do and how to apply it to different environments and situations takes determined practice, but regardless of the type of hiking you like, you can become a better hiker if you apply yourself to it.

Here are a few skills, certifications and experiences that I feel have made me a better hiker.

  1. Go on weekly hikes. You’ll build strength and endurance, learn basic footwork and how to stay hydrated.
  2. Learn how to read a topographic map without a compass. You can often figure out where you are by matching the features on a map to what you see in front of you.
  3. Next, learn how to use a compass. If you have problems getting motivated to teach yourself how to do this, I suggest you take one of the excellent classes offered by the REI Outdoor School to learn this important skill.
  4. Go on a lot of day hikes with a hiking club. You’ll pick up a lot of skills by simply watching other hikers. You’ll see what kind of gear they use, how they pace themselves, how they navigate, how leaders manage different types of groups, and so on. There’s a lot to learn.
  5. Buy a water filter and start using it on day hikes. Learning how to do this one thing made it possible for me to hike longer and farther than ever before. It was a watershed moment for me. Yuck, yuck.
  6. Step it up a notch and go on a lot of 1 or 2 overnight trips with a backpacking club. You’ll pick up even more skills by watching others like how to hang a bear bag, what kind of backpacking food people like to bring, what kind of stoves the prefer, the makes and models of the gear they carry, and so on.
  7. Hike in the rain. Seriously. This is a great way to learn about how to stay warm when you get wet, about how to accept what the trail throws at you, how to take care of chronically wet feet and about how to maintain a sense of humor when you are physically miserable.
  8. Start hiking a peak bagging list like the White Mountain 4000 footers. You’ll learn about the dangers of hiking above treeline, the importance of trip planning and how to avoid lighting and thunderstorm danger.
  9. Take a wilderness first aid class. You’ll learn many basic survival skills and how to help others in need.
  10. Go on a long backpacking trip lasting at least a week. You’ll learn about the importance of going light, being able to change your plans on the fly, and having good skills for dealing with unexpected situations or mishaps.
  11. Join a rock gym or take a class of outdoor rock climbing. Doing this totally transformed my outdoor scrambling skills.
  12. Snowshoe in winter. You’ll learn how movement can keep you warm, how to adjust your pace to avoid sweating and how to layer.
  13. Take a winter backpacking class. You’ll learn a lot about weather forecasting, how to avoid frostbite and hypothermia, all about the properties of snow and how to survive using an emergency snow shelter.

That’s still just scratching the surface….

What Skills or Classes made you a Better Hiker?

Please leave a comment about formative experiences or skills that made you a better hiker and that others would benefit from learning about.

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16 comments

  1. Hiking the ADK's is a real challenge in navigation. Off trial hiking is often not possible in many areas. Trees, valleys, and the inevitable mountains means GPS does not work well. Hiking along a stream means beaver dams, and ponds. Proper preperation may lead to 4-5 miles per day, though you may well have hiked more than 20. Knowing when you can bushwack is a real chalange. Even the occasional iron deposits can raise havoc with a compas. Map reading, and taking bearings when you can are important skills to master. Stay found (even if you are not quite sure where "found" is.)

  2. I'm not big into GPS navigation myself – I don't really trust anything with a battery outdoors and I think it takes away the fun of using my hard-earned navigation skills. Staying found is of course the trick to successful navigation outdoors and I check my map at least every 15 minutes when I'm on unfamiliar ground to make sure that that the topo matches what I'm seeing in front of me and behind.

    Now bushwhacking. That is an art that I have not mastered, but I want to sometime. It opens up all kinds of opportunities "to go where no man has gone before" and get away from the summer crowds. Do you always go with other hikers when you do it or do you do it solo too?

  3. As I mentioned, as a kid we would walk blowdowns to see how far from camp we could get. After a couple years of this, we lost interest in the game, but I never lost the skill of knowing which way to head to get out. It never occured to me to think of bushwacking as a group sport…I'd probably get unfound trying to think about it…

    Ha, ha….“to go where no man has gone before”. Most of the ADK's has been lumbered off at one time or another. One of the reasons you see so many hardwoods there: Elms, Maples, Birches, Cherrys, etc. It is all artificial…well, the majority, anyway.

  4. Is the picture an illustration of people who need to learn to be better hikers?

  5. Being comfortable in situations in order to keep the mind clear and relaxed to make good decisions. This is a developed skill of course. The more hiking you do, the more route finding you do, and the more you expose yourself to various situations brings about a comfort level needed to stay calm when things don't goes as planned. Also hiking with other people to see what they do different helps a lot too!

    Work training got canceled so heading down to Mexico for 6 days tomorrow to backpack at San Pedro Martir National Park!

  6. A quick check-in again… Phil, I am also looking to get better at bushwhacking. I've done a bunch in winter, when off trail walking is much easier (snow covered undergrowth is much nicer than those ankle-grabbing ferns and pricker bushes), but I'm all about trying the summer and fall stuff.

    Another thing for the list: try different things each time you hike, and pay attention to what works, how it works, what you prefer, and why. Experimenting is the best way to find out what works best for you.

  7. Leanna – maybe not the best photo to illustrate the topic. Those people, including me in the background, have become quite good hikers. That was a particularly memorable trip for me. We'd just backpacked a pretty long hot day in the Catskills, when the trip leader said she'd heard about a previous trip hiking out to score some beer at a local grocery trail bordering the park. Under the circumstances, that sounded like a great idea, so Jenn (foreground) and I hoofed another 5 miles round trip in 2 hours to bring back two six-packs of Corona and Becks. Those of us who carried the beer to camp didn't have to pack the bottles out the next day. Consider it a lesson on leave no trace.

  8. Ryan – I have a bunch of bushwhack peaks I need to bag for the trailwrights 72, and a bunch very remote places I'd love to bushwhack too. Maybe we can hook up and do some together? Steve Smith actually writes up a lot of his bushwhacks on his blog Mountain Wandering that you might want to check out too. I just bought his 4000 footer book in North Conway this evening.

  9. Here are two more skills I've been cultivating the past year. Stopping more frequently for rest breaks instead of hiking non-stop all day, and looking backwards more often. The latter is not only great for photos, but gives you a different perspective for where you've been.

  10. I’m in. I’ve got a bunch of the NE 100 Highest to get to as well. When this summer camp thing and all of my moving and such are done, I’ll get around to scheduling a few hikes for the fall. Heck yeah!

  11. Re GPS:
    http://www.npr.org/2011/07/26/137646147/the-gps-a

    I use it to log where I've been, sometimes (rarely, very rarely) to tell me where I am, but never to tell me where to go. The maps are equally inaccurate in much of the rural south.

  12. Excellent list. I walked the San Diego 3-day last year and day 2 was almost 100% in the rain, hard, pouring rain. I was supposed to walk 20 miles that day. It was rough and I had many feet issues. Had plastic bags around my socks in my shows and had to change them periodically. Worked for a while, but I slipped everywhere. Most of that day included hills. So you are totally correct to say hike in the rain.

  13. I love that you put hiking in the rain on your list. One of the things that has never bothered me is weather. The non hiking people around me just look so shocked to see me look out the window at a non bluebird day and say "this is a perfect hiking day!" I actually love hiking in weather. There are so many interesting things and colors you can only see when it's raining, foggy, ect.

  14. Do you have any suggestions for those of us that live on flat ground? Texas doesn’t have much “mountain hiking”. I love Texas but is sucks for hiking.

  15. I live in Texas also. A couple hundred million years ago, the Appalacians ran through the Dallas area but I missed that (just barely, if you ask my grandkids). Big Bend NP, Guadaloupe Mountains NP, and Big Bend Ranch State Park some nice mountain hiking but they are a full day drive for me. The Texas Hill Country has fairly rugged hiking in the state park system there. Also, W Arkansas and E Oklahoma have plenty of hiking in the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains.

    I still wish I could hit a rugged trail right out the back door. Maybe if I hang around another couple hundred million years that will happen.

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