I don’t know about any of you, but whenever I’m posed with choosing a show or movie to watch on Netflix, Hulu, or whatever of the like, I get so stinking overwhelmed. I just scroll and scroll and scroll. Everything seems interesting enough and yet, nothing looks interesting at the same time. Usually, when this happens, I wind up watching something like “Charmed” or “Freaks and Geeks.” There’s nothing wrong with either of those shows, but I just can’t help but feel like it would be nice to change things up. Watch something different. You know.
Okay…So, what do my Netflix habits have to do with hiking?
Just like my Netflix endeavors, choosing a hike can feel overwhelming and mildly stressful. It’s hard to know how to get started, where to look, or how to know what you’re even looking for.
So, to help you navigate the untold, bottomless world of trail apps, topographic maps, merino wool socks, bucket hats, and more, I’ve concocted what I think will be a helpful guide on how to choose a hike.
Let’s get started.
Where to Find a Hike
Ah, the Internet. It is magical, wild, and ceaselessly… neverending.
The internet has democratized our access and ability to share information — for better and for worse. The internet is particularly great when you’re trying to find a detailed review of a new restaurant or reading reviews about the best trail running shoes. But, it can also kind of curtail your efforts when trying to find a hike that best suits your wants and needs.
So, I try to adhere to the KISS rule — Keep It Simple, Sister. I stick to four trustworthy sources whenever I’m on the hunt for an adventure.
- AllTrails — I use AllTrails for just about everything. You can use it on your browser or your phone. Just know that it does require cellular data in order to use or access maps. Personally, I have the free, basic account. The platform itself is super easy to use. All you have to do is type in the city you’re physically in (or one you’re near) and from there it populates hikes in the area. Oh, and AllTrails has a directions integration, simply tap the “Directions” button and you’ll be at the trailhead in no time.
- Falcon Guides — I love books. There’s something invigorating and exciting about having a physical guidebook with me. I typically buy Falcon Guides for areas I frequently visit or live in. Don’t want to commit to a full-priced item? Buy a used copy on Amazon or check out your local library!
- Trail Sisters — One person’s trail run is another person’s hike, right? Of course! Most trails are multi-use, but, always be sure to check beforehand as some trails are strictly intended for mountain bikes or equine use.
- Regional online maps — Certain thru-hikes, such as the Appalachian Trail or PCT, have digital maps specifically for day hikes or section hiking. Alternatively, if you live out west, the Bureau of Land Management has day hike, regional information organized based on the state (see links under Regional Information for more information about your area).
Okay, now that you know where to find a hike of your choice, how do you choose one? Well, a few things go into my decision-making process, which leads me to our next section.
Things to Keep in Mind When Choosing a Hike
I’m going to tell you a silly secret: I’m really good at learning things the hard way. If there was a field in Learning Things the Hard Way, I’d be a Mega Expert in it. Just ask my Dad. Or… actually, don’t. He probably has too many incriminating stories.
Seriously though! I’m easily excitable when it comes to being outside and sometimes as a result, I forget the important details. It’s not something I’m proud of, but c’est la vie.
There are four things I keep in mind when choosing a hike: elevation, miles, weather, and difficulty. Doing so helps me plan my time and energy, and in turn set me up for success instead of totally sandbagging myself.
For example, a few weeks after I moved to Utah, a handful of friends and I were planning our weekend activities. We knew we had about seven hours of free time before one friend’s flight home, so we figured we should look for hikes within the three to six-mile range. Being new to the area, I hit up AllTrails, searched in the general Wasatch area, and found a hike that met the mileage criteria — Mount Olympus. But… uh oh! I totally forgot to take the elevation gain, difficulty rating, and weather into account. And (as I found out) Mount Olympus is notoriously steep. So, mileage that ordinarily would’ve taken us a few hours out-and-back took us close to five because of the elevation gain. Oh and I forgot to mention we started in July midday heat. Whoops, my bad y’all.
So, like I said, learn from my mistakes.
- Elevation — Think of elevation as your Hiker’s Get Out of Jail Free Card. According to Wikipedia (thank you Internet) — “The elevation of a geographic location is its height above or below a fixed reference point, most commonly a reference geoid, a mathematical model of the Earth’s sea level as an equipotential gravitational surface.” Woof, okay in other words, elevation tells you how high (up) you are relative to the sea. Elevation gain iterates how far (measured in feet or kilometers) you go up. Both are important pieces of information to know when hiking because it typically impacts the hike’s difficulty. The higher you go, the thinner the air will be. And, if you gain a lot of elevation in a short amount of miles, you can count on the hike being pretty dang steep.
- Miles — Miles iterate how far you go, and as a result influences how long your hike will take. Just remember: the longer in mileage your hike is, the longer it’ll take to hike, so plan your time accordingly. And if you throw in some elevation gain in there, be prepared to hike slower on top of all that.
- Weather — Unless the temperature is perfect, the weather (be it high or low temperatures + humidity) is going to impact your hike. Be sure to check the weather for the mountain top or hiking trails you plan on visiting. I use NOAA to do this. And whatever you do, do not underestimate Mother Nature. If it says it’s going to rain, it’s going to rain — and potentially thunderstorm, too. Err on the side of caution and keep yourself safe.
- Grades of Difficulty — Like the colors on a traffic light, there are usually three grades of difficulty: easy, moderate, and hard. Some parks or trail guides will use different rating systems, so be sure to doublecheck the appendix of your book for more information.
- Easy: Trails are typically under 3 miles and have little to no elevation gain.
- Moderate: Trails are typically 2 – 5 miles and have some elevation gain (up to 1,500 feet).
- Hard: Trails are typically 5+ miles and have substantial elevation gain (more than 2,000 feet).
Woo, we made it! That was a lot of information to digest. Thanks for bearing with me.
At the end of the day, I approach hikes the same way I approach everything else — methodically and thoughtfully. I want to do this for as long as I can, and I never want to put myself (or others) in a situation that negatively impacts that. So, here’s to keeping ourselves safe and hiking as long as our bodies will allow us.