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Does wandering around the side of a mountain by yourself with no cell service sound like a good time? For many people, it does! Mountains, meadows, and lakes are so special because they’re naturally beautiful. Exploring the outdoors is an opportunity to see some of nature’s most splendid creations, but it’s also intimidating, potentially dangerous, and even inaccessible.
Nobody wants to run out of water, hang out in a patch of poison ivy, or make the acquaintance of a grizzly bear! But too many people never venture outside city limits because they don’t know where to start or how to adventure safely. But their are benefits to being outdoors for our mental and physical health, especially in these times. Here are helpful tips and tricks to overcome common barriers for new outdoor adventurers to help even novices feel empowered to head onto the trails in a safe, enjoyable way.
(Lone Eagle Peak in Indian Peaks Wilderness)
Find Your People
One of the easiest ways to learn about the outdoors is to find someone who already knows! That friend of a friend who’s always posting from the top of a mountain? Send them a message and ask about their favorite hikes. Your uncle who’s big into cross-country skiing? Take him for coffee and pick his brain. People who are passionate about the outdoors are generally thrilled to talk about their experiences, and you can learn more about different activities or even tag along.
If you can’t think of anyone to reach out to directly, try searching online for local outdoor meet-up groups in your area. Plenty of cities have individually-organized groups that are open to those looking to get outdoors with some new people. While meeting up with 10 strangers to go hiking could be outside of your comfort zone, being in a group increases your safety in the backcountry and almost guarantees you’ll be able to learn from more experienced adventurers.
(Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park)
A little planning goes a long way when it comes to going into the backcountry, especially if you are a day or more from civilization. So before you venture too far from home, one of the easiest ways to ensure it goes smoothly is to plan ahead! Consider this pre-adventure checklist:
- Where do I want to go?
- How long will it take to get to my staging point?
- How long do I plan to be out? (Be realistic about how far you can travel in the available time and plan extra time in case something goes wrong.)
- What will the conditions be like? (Find forecasts and expect to be exposed to the elements.)
- What do I need to bring? (You want to be prepared, but you also don't want to lug around a 100 pound pack.)
- How will I find my way? (Don't rely on your cell phone's GPS, you may be out of cell service quickly. Buy a topographical map of the area and a compass and learn how to use them.)
Get into the habit of thoroughly researching your intended trip on a few different outdoor adventure websites (like 10Adventures.com) or guide books. Check trail conditions, read reviews from other people, learn which fork leads to the top and where the stream crossing is. Plan your travel, pack your gear, and know ahead of time what to expect when you’re out. Leave the guesswork out of the outdoors.
(Maple Pass Loop in North Cascades)
Pack Your Bags!
So you’re heading out for a 4 hour hike that gains 800 feet in elevation. It could rain, you won’t have cell service, and you’ll get hungry along the way. What to pack? What’s in your bag and on your body could make the difference between pleasant and unpleasant at best, or life and death at worst. While what to bring and wear differs based on activity, here’s a very basic list that should cover most day hikes. Remember: short hikes are often more dangerous than long ones because people underestimate the risk and show up unprepared!
- Check the weather, but know that alpine forecasts are unpredictable at best and your clear day could turn rainy or snowy without notice.
- Bring layers, one of which should be warm and one of which should be waterproof.
- Try to wear wool when possible, because it absorbs moisture and stays warm longer than cotton.
- Bring a hat and sunglasses.
- Wear well-fitting hiking boots or at least sturdy athletic shoes (nobody wants a blister at mile 2).
- Gear too expensive? Try secondhand sales, online marketplaces, or smaller one-off outdoor apparel stores.
Water and Food
- Bring more water than you think you’ll need, as high temperatures and athletic output can make you extra thirsty and drinking water is not readily available.
- Pack high-calorie, protein-dense snacks like trail mix, protein bars, or sandwiches.
- Prepare for the unexpected: bring extra water and pack food even if you’re planing a quick trip. Nature has her own ideas, and you don’t want to be stuck without essentials should you get lost or hurt, or just want an extra day to enjoy that alpine lake.
- Know what wild animals are in the area and how to avoid confrontations. Don't approach bison for a better selfie. Don't get between a mama bear and her cubs, or a mama moose and her calf. Learn how to store your food to avoid attracting unwanted guests.
- Are there bears in the area? Bring bear spray and know how to use it! If you’re unsure, ask the sales associate how to operate a can of bear spray. Some states regulate the sale of bear spray (a form of peper spray) so know the rules where you are and where you are going. Bear spray works in stopping an attack, but be aware, you may experience blowback.
- Consider packing the following as a very basic essentials list: a heat-reflecting blanket, basic first aid items, a whistle, water purification tablets or straws, knife or multi-tool, personal identification, and sunscreen.
(Glacier National Park)
Any time you venture into the backcountry, you’re putting yourself at risk. Don’t worry just yet! The risk is manageable and mitigable, but it’s important to respect the inherent danger in activities like hiking and know how to reduce the chances of anything unplanned happening. While safety tips can be more comprehensive based on activity, here are some basics.
Try not to go alone
- While many people enjoy solo adventures, new hikers or trekkers should not venture out by themselves if they can avoid it.
Share your plans
- Let a trusted person know where you’re going and when you expect to be finished.
- Pass along a route map if possible and check in with them along the way if you have phone service.
- They should understand when and how to alert emergency services if they haven’t heard from you within an acceptable window of time.
- Consider leaving a note visible in your car with your name, basic description, planned route, and anticipated return time.
Be smart out there
- Don’t challenge technical hikes or activities you’re not yet comfortable attempting.
- Don’t stray off the trail for any reason.
- Should you get lost, remain where you are and whistle or signal for help rather than wandering further.
- Don’t wear earphones that prevent you from hearing what’s going on around you.
- Do talk, sing, or yell to make your presence known to wildlife.
- Don’t approach wildlife or attempt to feed any animals (this can also get you a hefty fine in some places!).
- Keep an eye on the conditions and be prepared to head home early if they become unfavourable.
- Got a feeling in your gut that you’re in over your head? Turn around, the mountain will always be there for you to return to another time.
(Observation Point in Zion National Park)
The great outdoors is waiting! Take these tips with you and make the most of your newfound love for outdoor adventures. See you on the trail.
Lukas Saville writes for the outdoor guide site 10Adventures.com.