So you think you can hike, and so do we. It's just a matter of finding the right hike for you and knowing your limits. Don't ask yourself if you can hike, ask what hike is right for you; nobody knows your limits as much as you do, so do your homework and you will be on a trail in no time.
At an REI workshop, Peter Potterfield, of Classic Hikes of North America fame, explained that hiking is one of the few sports that can be done at any age, any weight, and any body shape. Having said that, the Annapurna may not be for you yet (they are putting an age limit), but a few tips should help you decide if you can do it.
Know where you are hiking
Most important is a map of where you plan to hike; from elevation to view points, from alternate routes to distance, you will learn a lot (check this REI basics if you don't know how to read a map). Then, check online reports from other people, especially pictures; those will give you a lot of info about the terrain - a picture is worth a thousand words.
What to pay attention to:
- Start and end point: if you are not sure of your abilities, pick a hike that ends where it starts. A trail you have to hike back, rather than a loop, may be the best option to start, as you know what to expect when you decide you had enough.
- Elevation: the lines on the map will show you how steep the elevation is. It may be challenging going up, but the way down will be the real challenge on your knees. Consider your fear of heights as well when picking your hike; it may not be obvious on a map, but reports and pictures will tell you.
- Terrain: a good hiker may go 2 miles an hour on easy terrain, but this average will go down when rocks come into play, and even slower when scrambles come in consideration. Map won't tell you, other hikers will.
- Trust the signs: you may not find the information online, but read carefully the signs at the beginning of the trail. They will indicate the use of iron rods and ladder in Acadia park (Beehive trail), or even how many fatalities there had been at Mount Washington. Take those signs seriously, they are worth a selfie as much as the one you will take at the summit.
Know your limits
Once you know where you are going, it's about you; nobody can tell but yourself.
- Ask your doctor: before you start any physical activity, you really should get a doctor's blessing. If you've been inactive for awhile, your doctor may recommend other programs or preventive measures. Know your body, know your limits, and adjust your hike accordingly (not everyone needs to hike Mount Marcy).
- Gym tells nothing: you go to the gym regularly, and you think it makes you fit for a hike. May not be so much so. You will challenge your muscles in a very different way, on a more strenuous terrain, and there is no stopping because you had enough, you still need to go home.
- Know who you are going with: if you are in high traffic area, you may be fine to do it alone, but otherwise, pick a hiking buddy. It's not only safer, it's also a perfect bonding opportunity. Don't go with too many friends though (in general parks limit a group to no more than 12 hikers). Your hiking companion should know you well, not so much to ensure that he has the same stamina, hike at the same speed, but to be comfortable to tell him/her when you need to get back, to rest, to eat (and he/she should be as well). And this "time to go back" should not be when you are exhausted, but when you still have some energy!
- Have the right equipment: you have decided to go on this hike, so you better get ready. From water, to food, from appropriate layers, to perfect shoes, do your homework. Start by reading the Hiking Guy advice on boots.
Do you feel ready now? Buy a paper map (or print one online if it's more accurate), review your "must bring list" and the excitement will get you to the end.