It’s so surprising to me how many people hike a trail they know nothing about. They just hear, “Oh, Fiery Gizzard is a great trail!” and they set out on a long and technically difficult trail with only a 12 oz water bottle and sandals. Without discouraging people from getting outdoors, I want to provide a better solution to unpreparedness or, perhaps, even a bit of ignorance.
Being unprepared feels terrifying, especially when you are out in nature, potentially without cell phone service. Even if I’ve done a hike multiple times thoughts like “Am I going the wrong way?” or “Did I lose the trail?” will go through my head and a bit of panic sets in. (Perhaps some of that is attributed to my ongoing anxiety issues…) But, then I’ll remember I saved an offline map, I have my GPS app going or I have an actual physical map and I immediately feel more at ease.
It’s pretty simple to calm these anxious thoughts by researching the hike before you go. It greatly decreases the chances of you getting lost or being unprepared (not enough food, water, etc.) when you are hiking. Also, it takes like 5-10 minutes total, so there’s really no excuse not to.
By researching a hike, you can discover things like:
- Distances between different points on the trail (waypoints)
- How well maintained the trails are
- How well marked the trail is so you can pay attention more closely to trail blazes (or lack thereof)
- Difficulty of the trail, which may change your mind if you feel unprepared to take on several miles of precariously places boulders
- Directions to a trailhead
- Trail maps
PRO TIP! When looking up info about a hike, you want to be sure to look at recent postings/comments, if available. You don’t necessarily want to be reading about the trail conditions last fall, because things could have changed.
Yes, you need a map.
One thing you want to make sure you have access to is some kind of map that you don’t need cell phone service to access.
The most reliable and trustworthy tool is, of course, a GPS app or device.
The only downside to these are that, most of the time, they cost money. But, it’s worth it to know exactly where you are, especially if you are on a trail that’s not well marked or in a completely unfamiliar place. There’s tons of GPS apps for your phone that are going to be much cheaper than buying a GPS device.
Other good options:
- Google/Apple Maps – Download a map to use offline.
- PRO TIP! Mark your starting location on your map before you begin hiking, so if you get lost, you at least know where your car is.
- Screen shot a map from a state/national park website.
- Stop by the visitor’s center, if available, and grab a physical copy of the map. (Yes, paper maps still exist!)
IMPORTANT! If you are planning to use your phone as your main navigation source, whether via a downloaded map or GPS app, make sure you have a fully charged phone and a back up power device. It’s always better to be completely prepared!
PRO TIP! You can bring a lightweight portable power bank and cord so you can recharge, if needed. I like Goal Zero’s Flip 24. It is small and lightweight and worth the extra 4 ounces in your pack.
- AllTrails: One of the most popular hiking resources
- Hiking Project
- State and National Park Websites
- I can’t tell you how often I have used the Tennessee State Parks website!
- State and National Park Visitor’s Centers
- Get that paper map I mentioned above and talk to the park rangers about trail conditions.
- Hiking Instagram/Twitter Feeds
- I may be biased but @shehikestn has some pretty good info and photos…
To leave you with one final word, just be as prepared as you can be. It can be quite scary to realize you lost the trail or you are racing the daylight because you didn’t know how long or difficult a trail was. By researching your hike beforehand, you can take away some of this uncertainty and pick a hike that’s right for you in that moment.
Questions? Anything to add? Let me know!