The sun is shining, you are lounging outside with your friends and enjoying a perfectly relaxing day. The chit chat turns to plans for next weekend and you imagine another blissful day where the most exercise you will be doing with is lifting a fork, cocktail glass or a book. Perfection. And then one of your friends utters the dreaded three little words… “Let’s go hiking!”.
Everyone agrees excitedly and starts throwing route suggestions about. Everyone but you. All you can think about is that one disastrous hiking trip with your parents as a teenager. Mud up to your ankles, twigs in your hair, sweat dripping off your chin… needless to say it wasn’t great and you never went hiking again. Now the panic starts setting in. Your friends are more experienced hikers and you have no idea what you are doing, what to wear or what to take with you. And there’s my cue to enter. If you are a newbie to hiking and want to make sure you have the basics covered, you have come to the right place!
Today we will be getting you hiking ready and make sure you don’t look like a newbie on the outside. Yep, you guessed right, “all the gear, no idea”…. well, almost no idea.
1. Don't wear jeans. ever.
Jeans and sports do not mix well. Have you ever been skiing and seen that one guy whizzing down the slope in jeans? Not a good look. The same goes for hiking, (unless the plan is to get the gondola up and do absolutely no walking at all, which is also ok). Not only does it not look good, but it is extremely uncomfortable once you start sweating. So, first rule, wear breathable sports wear. The best is either shorts or light long trousers. Personally, I wear either Salomon trail-running shorts or Nike running shorts when it is hot, but you can buy shorts specifically designed for hiking. When it’s not great weather my suggestion is to go for long, water proof or water resistant hiking trousers. Here is a great online shop where you can buy top hiking gear at a discount.
2. Layers are life.
Layer, layer, layer. Instead of wearing one thick jacket, it is better have multiple layers of clothing such as a base-layer (t-shirt, short or long-sleeve), a microfibre jacket and a waterproof jacket. This way you can take an item of clothing off when it gets warm and then put an additional layer on when it gets cold. Although having as many layers as mentioned above is mostly only relevant in winter, make sure you have at least a light jacket with you in summer. The weather in the mountains can change in an instant, especially the higher you go. There was this one year I went hiking in July and there was still snow on the ground. Don’t believe me? Here is a picture:
I can honestly say, I was very glad to have a jacket with me that day. It was cold. In July. The next week is was back to high temperatures and all of the snow had gone as quickly as it came. This leads me nicely on to the next point: the weather.
3. always check the weather
As I mentioned in the previous point, weather in Switzerland and in the mountains can change dramatically. Summer does not always mean it’s always nice and warm. Sometimes there is a week or so that’s cold, rainy and even snows up high. So, always check the weather, especially if you are going for a longer hike at high altitudes. If you are going for a long hike (a full day or more) I would keep an eye on it every couple of hours. Even if you are travelling with people more experienced and “knowledgable” always make sure you are just as informed. Just because someone has more experience doesn’t necessarily mean they always have their eye on the ball.
Below are two pictures taken six days apart. Yes, these hikes are in completely different Cantons, but it still illustrates my point. The weather in the mountains does whatever it wants.
4. get proper hiking shoes
I know, I know, hiking shoes are not the most fashionable choice. You are probably asking yourself why you can’t just wear nice-looking trainers? I have been there too, and I can honestly tell you that wearing normal shoes is a terrible idea. Especially if you are going on a full day’s hike. The reason hiking shoes are better is because:
- They support your ankles. This is very important if you will be walking up or down paths with rock, exposed tree roots or other unstable terrain;
- They have thick soles and rubber on the sides. This protects you from sharp rocks that would otherwise cut through normal trainers..
- They are designed for grip. The last thing you want it to slip and spend the rest of the way down on your bottom. Boots made for hiking have a special sole that ensures you have enough grip even on wet surfaces.
- They are comfy. You may think your normal trainers are too, but trust me when I say, after a full day walking up and down and up again, they will feel less like a cushion and more like daggers. Normal trainers usually have thin soles which means you will feel every sharp rock underneath. They are also less padded than hiking shoes and can lead to blisters.
Overall hiking boots are safer and more comfortable than any other shoes. Personally I like the Salomon brand, but other brands like Scarpa and La Sportiva are also very good. In addition, there are lots of different types of hiking boots for different kind of hikes. For example, boots for short distances, long distances, difficult terrain etc… For those on a bit of a budget, here are some discount websites with great brands:
HOW TO CHOOSE the perfect HIKING SHOE for you:
- Focus on functionality and quality, not price. Hiking shoes as a rule can be expensive, so a good way to find the right one for you is to research reviews and focus on a shoe that will meet your needs the best (e.g. light day hike, long hike, technical terrain or flat terrain). My best piece of advice is don’t go for the cheapest you can find. Hiking shoes can last for years, so make sure you buy ones that will! If in doubt, ask the shop manager.
- Bring the socks you plan to wear on your hike. When trying on hiking boots you should try and replicate as much of the day hiking as you can. Unfortunately you can’t bring the terrain with you, but you can bring your socks. This is very important, because depending on the sock thickness, your shoes will fit differently. So just like with skiing boots, always bring your hiking socks and try them on with your hiking shoes.
- Don’t just try on one, try lots! Finding the right pair of shoes requires some time. I suggest to try a few different shoes and take at least 15-20 minutes to walk about in them. You will be spending a lot of time walking about in them, so you should be absolutely certain they won’t be causing you any pain on the day.
- Try different sizes. In specialised outdoor shops the staff will measure your foot and suggest a shoes size. Although they know their stuff and are usually spot-on, make sure you also try on some different sizes. Each foot is different and some shoe brands have unique cuts which means that, although you are usually a size 39, for that specific shoe you are actually a 40 or a 38.
- Make sure the shoe is snug, not tight or loose. A common mistake people make is to get either an ultra-tight shoe or an ultra-loose shoe. Wrong, wrong, wrong (unless you are actively trying to sabotage your own hike). The key is to find a shoe that keeps your heel in place, but allows you to wiggle your toes. You shouldn’t slip back and forth in your shoes, but there shouldn’t be any pressure points either. If you have an arched foot it would be a good idea to look for a specially designed shoe or adding extra support with a footbed.
5. Know your route
Now this is a VERY important point and as tedious it may seem, make sure you THOROUGLY research your route. Here are some basic guidelines of what you should know before you start:
- Know where you are going. Now this may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many people just go on an “adventure”. Please don’t do this. You aren’t Bilbo Baggins and going on an adventure in the mountains is almost always a bad idea. Take some time to get to know where you will start, where you will finish, what reference points there are (e.g. a lake, a mountain, river or a hut) and in what general direction you will be heading (N,S,E,W). Do this even if you are going with friends who have already studied the route. The more people who know where they are going, the better! Plus, this way you don’t blindly depend on someone else to tell you where to go.
- Decide on a start time and stick to it. If you know the route is going to take approximately 3 hours non-stop I suggest to add another 2 hours buffer time to accommodate pit stops. So, in total you can roughly aim for a 5 hour day. This means you should start hiking, at the very latest, at 10:00/10:30 am. Based on the 5 hour estimate, you will finish between 2 and 3pm. This still gives you plenty of buffer time in case you get lost (which you shouldn’t if you know your route) or to hike a bit slower without the fear of getting caught outside at night.
- Decide a cut-off time and stick to it. In the skiing world, if you are going out for a ski tour (walking up the mountain with skis) you always decided on a time of day where you turn around and head back, no matter how close you are to the destination. This is what we call a cut-off time and it’s here to ensure that you don’t stuck up a mountain in the dead of night. Even though the days are longer in summer and the chance of hiking into the night is lower, I still like to have a cut-off time for hiking. I choose my cut-off time based on how long it will take me to hike back to the car and what time the sun starts to set. So, using the example above, if it takes me 3 hours non-stop to walk to my destination and the sun starts setting at 8pm, my cut-off time will be around 4pm. By starting to head back at 4pm I will arrive at the car at 7 and still have a full hour before the sun starts to set.
And that’s it for Part 1! Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Hiking for Beginners series and if you really don’t want to miss a single thing, sign up to the newsletter below.