Words By: Natalie Panek
I love waking up with the sun on a backpacking trip, crawling out of my tent, and taking in the calm of wilderness. I also love meticulously packing up camp and stowing everything away for the day’s hike ahead. But it is the hiking itself that I love most of all; where I can simultaneously be hyper aware of time and my surroundings, but also lose myself in it all. I grew up in Alberta’s Rockies and spent the majority of my childhood hiking and camping in areas southwest of Calgary. Hiking is an excellent launch pad activity for outdoor pursuits; to dip your toes in without requiring a ton of experience. You can hike almost anywhere, the cost for access is pretty low, and a minimal amount of gear is required.Inspiration:
Most of my hikes start with an image; visual context for somewhere to explore or a place that catches my eye. I read a lot of outdoor magazines (e.g. Outside, Backpacker, or Explore) that usually trigger a place that I am curious about. A single image of an outdoor space is a great starting point to conduct research about an area, what it would take to get there, and the level of self-sufficiency required. And the vision, that idea for a trip, definitely does not have to be a hardcore hike in a far and remote place! It could be a day hike in a local area, or even a weekend adventure. In lieu of printed materials if not available, the internet is a great starting point to research activities. Typing the word hiking, in addition to an area, in the search bar will reveal a wealth of knowledge that others are keen to share, usually with descriptions of trip recommendations and itineraries (the internet is often my go-to for quick information). Park websites (both provincial and national in many countries) also offer reliable information regarding various hikes including their distances, difficulty level, and descriptions of the terrain. I like to jot down notes as I jump from site to site to help distill the information I am reading into more manageable chunks.
After conducting initial research online, my next step is to investigate maps of the area. Maps are an excellent way to get familiar with a place that you know little about. Maps are like really good books: better in print. Every drop of ink, every contour, revealing an important detail. Unfolding crease by crease, page by page, revealing context and nuance. Where some of the best kept secrets require reading between the lines. Good maps of different areas might be readily available online. If not, maps can be purchased in person at many retailers, or even ordered online. Understandably, they can be a bit intimidating if not used to reading them. So, if on the ‘new to hiking’ side of the spectrum, choosing a location that has well-established trails with excellent signage is a good starting point and an excellent way to practice map-reading skills with a bit of a safety net. Commonly in well-established areas there is good signage at junctions. Try to follow the map as you go, and every time you hit a junction, track where you are.
Where to Start:
Provincial or national parks are great locations to venture for beginner hikers looking for day hikes. As part of their infrastructure, you will be able to consult with a park ranger before heading out. They can help issue permits if necessary, provide more information about the area, point out key features along the journey, and provide time estimates to complete hikes. But most importantly rangers or park staff can answer questions. Take the time to ask questions – there is no rush and it is always best to be prepared rather than caught off guard when heading into the outdoors. One of the best aspects about parks is that they usually have trails maintained by crew (thanks trail crews for all you do!). This means paths are generally easy to follow with most obstacles (e.g. down trees) cleared. Composure of trails vary widely: both in distance and difficulty. Start with some really easy and short trails, and then build from there. You do not have to prove yourself to anyone in wilderness and ego has no business in the outdoors.
A great aspect of hiking is that you do not need a ton of gear. Any type of backpack will do to start and usually a 20 – 30 L bag is sufficient for a day to carry key supplies (e.g. food, water, first aid kit, headlamp, sunglasses, sunscreen, extra layers, map, camera etc. Note that this is not a complete list). A good set of shoes with a solid sole, firm grip, and possibly ankle support will get you going. Some hikers like to use hiking poles but I often find that is a personal preference. Advancing or upgrading gear can happen as skills and abilities progress. Gear can often be rented for short durations in order to try an activity out without making a large investment. For example, the Arc’teryx gear library at their retail stores. Some retailers even loan out park passes and/or arrange shuttles to parks from major cities to help accommodate transportation. There are a lot of options at your disposal.
Leave No Trace:
One last important tip: the goal is to leave the outdoors in better condition than when you started, regardless of where you are exploring. Pack everything out that you take in, stay on established trails when possible, and minimize your impact! Leave no trace also means respect for others that you encounter along the way; both humans and wildlife. These small efforts will make sure everyone can enjoy a high-quality experience outside.