It doesn’t matter if you are a day hiker or a backpacker, it’s really important to go on a lot of practice hikes to test new gear and to understand how your body reacts to different trail conditions, before you get into the backcountry. I still go on one or two practice hikes a week between major trips to keep up my conditioning and to practice with new or existing gear.
For day hikers, I think the most important things to learn on practice hikes are:
- How to regulate body temperature by layering or adjusting walking speed.
- Understanding what it feels like to be too hot or too cold.
- Having the confidence to stop a hiking partner so that you can remove or add a layer.
- How to adjust the straps of your backpack as the weight or bulk of your load changes.
- Getting into the habit of drinking and snacking frequently to keep your energy level up.
- Understanding how to thermoregulate when it starts to rain.
- Learning how to deal with and prevent wet glasses in a rain shower.
- Learning to feel hot spots in your boots and take care of them before they turn into blisters.
- Understanding how your feet react to wet boots and how to prevent blisters anyway.
- Finding the right undergarments that prevent thigh chafing and how to cure it if it occurs.
- How to pack a backpack so that it’s comfortable for you to carry.
For backpackers, you need to know everything listed above, plus the following which you can practice on a day hike.
- How to set up your shelter, be it a tent, tarp, or hammock, in good weather or in the rain.
- How to pick a good camping spot.
- Understanding how to walk in very rugged terrain with a heavier load.
- How to get warm when you are cold in your sleeping bag.
- How to light your stove reliably.
- Getting good at hanging a bear bag.
- Learning how to find where you are with a map and how to navigate using it and a compass.
For winter backpackers and climbers, the list is even longer.
Becoming efficient at all of these skills takes a lot of practice, and it’s a good way to get your outdoor “fix” in between your longer expeditions. So don’t be embarrassed to use your gear near home before you go on a trip. You’ll be glad you did when the time comes to use it.