I was alone on the Manistee River Loop, rain driving hard on my tent, which was propped up with the wrong tent poles. My last-minute, makeshift campsite was perched perilously on the edge of a rushing river while thunder and lightning crashed all around me. My husband had only the vaguest idea of where I was. I had no cell phone signal, but even if I did, it wouldn't have helped me because I ran out of battery hours before. All I had was my dog, my book and no other choice but to sit and wait it out.
All because I made several mistakes that were completely avoidable.
Thank god our mistakes often end up being our biggest teachers — that night may have been the biggest learning experience of my life. What could have been a disaster actually showed me how strong I really was.
BUT that doesn't mean you can't avoid the same stupid, rookie mistakes I made. I don't want you to suffer the same kind experience needlessly! (Trust me, you'll have plenty of your own suffering to navigate on the trail, one way or another — but in some ways, that's why we do it, right?). So here are nine mistakes to avoid that will help you feel more comfortable, more safe and more capable while hiking (especially if you hike alone).
1. Break in your shoes.
I’ve struggled my whole life with finding the right hiking boots or shoes. Come to find out, experts recommend that you buy your shoes a half or whole size bigger than your normal shoe size. Although normally I wear a size 10, I just bought a new pair of Oboz Bridgers in a size 11 (that’s right, I’ve got giant feet) and it seems to have made an enormous difference. Apparently your feet can swell, especially in the afternoon and/or second half of your hike, so getting them a bit bigger significantly reduces wear & tear on your toes & heels.
That being said, when I was backpacking Isle Royale with six other women in 2014, I noticed that the women with the fewest blisters (and I had A LOT of blisters!) were those who wore running shoes. Hiking boots can often be heavy and clunky, so it just may be that your feet do better in running shoes than hiking boots. This may be especially true for shorter hikes. Experiment and see what works for you.
Whatever you do, do NOT wear new shoes or boots when going on a long hike! Recovering from blisters and lost toenails takes too long, so wear your new kicks first around the house or on a few dog walks before taking them out on the trail.
2. Dress like a rockstar.
And I don't mean leather pants. Instead, layering plenty of Lycra and poly-blend materials will definitely keep you more comfortable on the trail. For those of us who suffer from chafing or sweaty boobs and thighs, this rule is huge. Leave behind your heavy denim jeans and cotton bras. You need synthetic fabrics to be comfortable.
Synthetic materials allow your sweat to be “wicked” away from your body (apparently clothing is the only time anyone uses the word “wick”). Otherwise you’ll be peeling your clammy, sweat-soaked clothes off your body, and no one wants that. Plus it’s just unhygienic. Sweaty clothes stuck to your skin is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
When I was first starting out, I found it helpful to hear what other women recommended, so here is what I wear: I really like these leggings (with pockets!) for hiking, along with a “technical” short or long-sleeve t-shirt and a merino wool pullover. My clothes are dry and breathable so now I can focus on enjoying the woods and looking for wildlife, not how uncomfortable my butt feels in sweaty underwear (make sure those are synthetic as well!).
Finally, dressing in layers goes without saying; if you get hot, you can always tie a jacket around your waist or get some nifty convertible hiking pants where you unzip the legs to instantly create shorts. You’re not going to win any beauty pageants in those babies, but that’s kinda the whole point of being out on the trail, right?
3. Drink like a fish (i.e. water!)
Water is heavy but you cannot hike without it. It’s tempting to just leave it in the car or think that you’ll take a big swig after your hike when you get home, but staying hydrated on the trail means hiking longer and enjoying it more. If you need to, add fresh fruit or a powdered supplement like Nuun, but whatever you do, don’t leave home without just a bit more water than you think you'll need. The general rule is 2 cups (about 1/2 liter) of water for every 1 hour of hiking.
4. Avoid swamp butt.
I’m not one to beat around the bush (literally or figuratively!) — so I’ll just jump right in: Pack tissues in case you have to blow your nose or end up having to pee in the woods, which is a whole other topic. Bring a plastic baggie with you (I find doggy cleanup bags to be perfect for this) so you can pack out your trash. Even if there are restrooms at the trailhead, often they aren’t well stocked. Better to bring your own TP then have to do without (gross).
Pro tip: Wear a panty liner when you go hiking. My friend Laurel calls these her “piddle pads.” Basically you just pee, pull up your pants and let the panty liner catch any drips. Then when you get back to civilization, you can toss the liner in the trash. No need for toilet paper or packing out any gross garbage!
I also keep a small travel sized bottle of baby powder in my pack, and sprinkle some in my sweaty places about halfway through the hike. It’s also good to put in shoes when you start feeling a hotspot on your feet (hotspots = precursors to blisters).
5. Give a shoutout to your bestie.
It may seem silly if you’re doing a hike you’ve done a million times, but especially if you’re going alone, you need to give someone a heads up where you’re going and when you expect to be back. I have hiking friends who are perfect for this — when I send them a quick text about what trail I’m doing and how long I plan to be doing it, they don’t think I’m being weird or overly cautious; in fact, they always give me a friendly thumbs up or digital hug. It keeps us both inspired to do more activities outdoors.
6. Bring an ACTUAL map.
This was the biggest mistake I made on the Manistee River Loop, and I was very lucky that I didn’t get into more serious trouble. Thank god I did have my dog Howie with me, because I was stuck in that misshapen tent for over 12 hours (bringing the wrong poles for the rain fly was another TOTALLY BUSH LEAGUE mistake — not checking your equipment before you head out into the wilderness).
Your phone will NOT cut it as a navigational device — you should only use it as a backup.
You can guess what happened: First I lost my signal, and then my phone ran out of battery. I ended up being stuck in the woods, during a raging thunderstorm, for a whole other day, completely lost (I missed the path back to the campground where my car was parked). Anyone who's ever hiked that trail (and in Michigan, pretty much everyone who backpacks has at least heard of the loop) would probably scratch their heads at how someone would get lost on that trail, but yep, I managed to do it.
In contrast, on Isle Royale my friend Donna had the foresight to bring the excellent National Geographic Isle Royale map It allowed us to make much better decisions about how far we wanted to go, and which route we would take. Highly recommended if you plan to visit the island.
Print out your maps, even if they're crappy maps you print off the internet. It makes a HUGE difference in how much you enjoy hiking.
7. Set a turn back time.
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, enjoying nature and contemplating the mysteries of life. But it’s a good idea to know ahead of time at what point you plan to turn around and come home. Otherwise, you might be tempted to keep going just another 15 minutes, and then another, and before you know it, you’re hiking back in the dark (which is scary as hell).
Plan your hike & hike your plan. Know when to quit and start heading back to safety before it’s too late.
8. Bring your sun hat & rain skirt.
On that fateful Manistee River Loop trip, I should have known better that the weather was going to turn back; I just got so excited about taking my first solo backpacking trip I didn’t really think to check the day AFTER I was supposed to be coming back. My boots were soaked in the rain, which caused some pretty nasty blisters. And it was just emotionally exhausting to be stuck in a tent in a thunderstorm for 12+ hours with nothing but your dog and your Kindle (yes I bring my device on the trail — I would have a hard time backpacking without it!).
Same goes for sunny weather — bring your sunscreen and hat in your hiking pack so you don’t come back with a peeling face. One of my favorite pieces of gear is the sunhat that my ex-husband brought back from the Army 20+ years ago, and I have no idea where he got it. Helps keep the ticks away too!
PRO TIP: One of the best tips I got this year was purchasing my rain skirt (or kilt, of you're into adhering to standard gender norms)— it's SO AWESOME. Not bulky of stifling like rain pants, plus it doubles as a table cloth or a small tarp that you can sit on if the ground is wet. You can pee much easier in a skirt, and you could even use it as a makeshift pack cover. I take it travelling with me now wherever I go, even when I'm not camping, because it packs down so small and is so handy when the weather takes a rainy turn.
Takeaway: you may have checked the weather yesterday, but be sure to check right before you leave as well. Things can change a lot in 24 hours (or even less).
9. Enjoy your view.
It’s easy to get caught up in the gear, the map, the turn back times, the snacks (bonus mistake: packing too much food) — but don’t forget the whole reason you’re outside hiking in the first place: to get some much-needed nature time. Look up! Notice how the sunlight falls through the trees, how the leaves sound underfoot, the way the water sparkles and the sound of the waves lapping gently at the shore. Enjoy hiking. Enjoy the hell out of it.
What hiking mistakes have you made in the past? Share the knowledge in the comments and help keep some other woman from suffering the same fate as you!
Jill Hinton Wolfe,
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