Article courtesy of Backpacker Magazine
Written by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Backpacking and Hiking
The Top 10 Beginner Hiker Blunders
1. Wearing denim like Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street
News flash: Denim is cotton, so wearing jeans (and jean jackets for that matter, Mr. Depp) is a poor choice for any hike, especially in rainy or cold weather. That’s because cotton retains moisture instead of wicking it away like wool and polyester fabrics. Once cotton gets wet, it takes a long time to dry out; that moisture on your skin siphons away body heat through convection, leaving you shivering in your boots, and more susceptible to hypothermia (hence the aphorism “cotton kills”). Jeans are the worst of all cottons because they can ice up in below-freezing weather. I learned this lesson on my first hike with the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire, and I’ve remained cotton-free ever since, except on short summer hikes where getting chilled isn’t a danger. So the next time you see hikers wearing blue jeans, remind them that the 1980s are over and that Johnny Depp now prefers tri-corner hats and eye-liner.
2. Buying your tent or sleeping bag at Wal-Mart
Sam Walton was an Eagle Scout, but he didn’t become America’s richest man selling top-quality camping and hiking gear at discount prices. Yes, Wal-Mart does sell an Ozark Trails sleeping bag for $10, but I wouldn’t use it on a real Ozark Trail. It’s fine to buy your beef jerky, trail mix ingredients, and propane canisters at big-box retail stores, but trust specialty outdoor stores and reliable brands for the gear that matters most, like footwear, raingear, sleeping bags, and tents.
3. Hiking a trail with a road map
Not all dotted lines are made equal. Thus, the map that helps you find the trailhead parking lot won’t help you navigate a trail. Hyper-detailed USGS topographical maps (called “quads”) are the gold standard for backcountry navigation, but they are often overkill for popular and well-marked trails. Much easier to acquire and use are designated trail maps that include topographical features like rivers, ridges, and peaks, as well as key info like hiking mileage and trailheads. Book stores and visitor centers often stock maps and guidebooks for local trails, while National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated series is great for U.S. recreation hot spots from Acadia to Zion. And don’t forget Backpacker.com’s new Print & Go weekend planners, which include gear checklists, driving directions, and waypoints for dozens of popular hike
4. Packing a first aid kit as if you’re landing on Omaha Beach
Morphine? Check. Gauze bandages? Check. M1 rifle? What? Most novice hikers either forget to bring a first-aid kit, or pack an entire pharmacy. Neither represents the right approach. You should bring a first-aid kit appropriate for the length of your trip, the size of your group (along with any individual medical needs), and your medical knowledge. The last one is important: If you don’t know how to use a first-aid item—like a suture kit—you probably shouldn’t be carrying it. Packing obscure supplies you’ll probably never use in place of additional bandages and painkillers doesn’t make sense. Basic first-aid essentials for most outings should be: adhesive bandages (various sizes), medical or duct tape, moleskin, sterile gauze, ibuprofen, Benadryl, antibiotic ointment, and alcohol wipes.
5. Being overhead saying, “Lightning can’t strike me—I’m not carrying anything metallic.”
If you think lightning only strikes metal objects, ruminate on this ancient Chinese proverb: “The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut by the scythe.” Then substitute “knuckleheaded hiker” for the tall grass and “zapped by 100 million volts of electric juice” for the scythe, and you’ve got Professor Hike’s updated proverb on why you absolutely need to descend from exposed peaks and ridgelines when an afternoon thunderstorm is brewing. Lightning is attracted to tall, isolated objects, which could be anything from a clueless hiker standing on a summit to a lone tree. And even if you’re not touching that lone tree, the lightning might strike the ground right next to it, or the ground current may surge up you. Secondary strikes can be just as deadly. What’s more, lightning can strike targets up to 10 miles from the center of a storm. Trust me on that; I’ve got a few hair-raising tales from New Mexico to prove it. Instead, get into a forest or the low point of rolling hills, a ravine, or a gully.