Fitness & Exercise

Know before you go: Trail hiking

Experiencing nature is easy when you follow these simple strategies.
Published August 13, 2017

You don’t need to live near a national park or mountain range to take a hike. “You can have a great outdoor experience no matter where you live,” notes Lindsay McIntosh-Tolle, an REI Outdoor School instructor based in Portland, OR. “There’s almost always some trail that you can find to explore with just a little effort.”  To make the most of your time outside and enjoy some health benefits  and be safe while you’re there, follow her tips and advice.


Before you go:


Find the best trail. Doing a little work in advance can help you plan your perfect day outside. Websites like or can help you find new places to explore right in your backyard or a short trip away. Or head to your local bookstore to find a guide. Just remember to print out what you find rather than relying on your phone, advises McIntosh-Tolle. “Your battery can die or you can lose service, so it’s always a good idea to have a paper map with you.”

Alert friends or family. “It’s a good idea to tell someone where you are going and when you plan on being back, even if you’re just heading out for a few hours,” says McIntosh-Tolle. Then don’t forget to check in with them when you get home—it’ll be a good excuse to share your adventures!

Put on the right shoes. You probably don’t need fancy hiking boots unless you are going to an area with a lot of elevation or slippery terrain. But leave the flip-flops at home, cautions McIntosh-Tolle. “Any shoe or even a sandal with good traction on the bottom is usually fine—it’s just important to be comfortable when you’re out on your feet.” 




Food and drink. Water is essential whenever you are leaving the comforts of home behind. Bring about one to two liters per person just to make sure you are covered, and if you’re hiking with Fido, make sure you’ve got extra water for him. And a few portable snacks (energy bar, nuts, dried fruit) can help tide you over if you’re out for longer than expected. 

Small pack and flashlight. You don’t need a huge bag but having some place to hold your stuff can make things a lot more comfortable as you walk. Throw in a small light just in case things take longer than you expect, so you’re not left in the dark.

Layers. Look at the weather before you go, but make sure you’re prepared for changing conditions by putting a hat or long-sleeve top in your bag. 


Expect to…


Be conscious of your surroundings. “Stick to the trail and clean up after yourself,” says McIntosh-Tolle. If nature calls and you need some privacy, try to get at least 50 to 100 feet off the trail and dig a little hole of about 6 to 8 inches before you do your business (pack any TP used and hike it out).

Respect the locals. It’s unlikely you’ll encounter any significant threats, especially if you make a lot of noise by talking or singing when you hike, but the general rule of thumb is to yield the trail to whatever large animal you come across by slowly walking in the opposite direction. Additionally, know what animals are in the area and the appropriate reaction if you do encounter them (e.g., bears versus cougars). Making noise to so you don’t surprise them can help, but it doesn't guarantee you won't encounter an animal. And don’t be tempted to feed cute critters like chipmunks or squirrels—the less interaction they have with humans, the better, says McIntosh-Tolle.

Budget more time. Whether it’s due to elevation changes, uneven terrain or just wanting to enjoy your surroundings, hiking is generally done at a slower pace than walking in an urban area. “Use your time outside to relax and don’t worry about how fast you’re going,” says McIntosh-Tolle. And remember that going down can also be a challenge since it may strain your knees and ankles—a walking stick or trekking poles can help offset some of that stress.