One of the great things about our Hike NC! program launched this fall is that it lets you test-drive hiking. The 60 or so hikes are generally short, generally on mellower trails with predictable surface that isn’t constantly running over roots and rocks. In short, for most of the trails on our hikes you don’t need special hiking gear. And that’s a good thing for a hiking program aimed at beginners.
But once you get hooked, then what? You’ll want to go deeper into the woods. You’ll want to go longer distances. You’ll want to hike in colder weather, maybe even wet weather. When you reach that stage, you’ll probably want to get more sophisticated equipment. Here’s a look at some of the key hiking gear pieces you’ll need.
1. Hiking Shoes/Boots
So, hiking shoes or hiking boots? Hiking boots once were the lone option: you hiked, you wore boots. But hiking shoes have advanced in the past several years and are now the choice among hikers. Their soles have become sturdier — great for dealing with the rocks and roots common on our trails — and they’re surprisingly comfortable. One big consideration: what works for your hiking buddy may not work for you.
No two feet are alike, and that includes your left foot and your right foot. The only way to tell what will work is to go into your neighborhood outdoors store, try on a few different pairs, take a few minutes to walk around the store in each, ask questions. Is the shoe snug (as in, it doesn’t move around), but not too snug (as in, it doesn’t pinch your foot)? Is there room for your toes, the big guy in particular, to not jam into the end of the shoe? In a nutshell: are they comfortable?
Cost: Expect to spend at least $75 and up to $140 (or even more) for a good pair of hiking shoes. If that seems like a lot, consider that footwear is key to your happiness as a hiker. Plus, they’ll last
Next to hiking shoes/boots, socks are your most important piece of equipment. Makes sense: socks serve as something of a moderator between your foot and footwear. You want a sock that hugs your foot (if it bunches or moves around, blisters!).
Be aware there are different hiking socks for different hiking occasions. In warm weather, a lighter sock engineered to wick sweat from your foot (as opposed to keep it warm) will make your feet happy. Conversely, when it’s cold you want a thicker sock to keep your feet toasty. The material is important as well. Wool and synthetics designed to pull blister-causing moisture from your feet are preferred; cotton, while comfortable, will drench your feet in a pool of sweat.
Cost: Don’t be surprised to pay up $20 (or more) for a pair of good hiking socks. Pay the price, you’ll get your money’s worth. Plus, a large number hiking socks are made in the United States.
3. Hiking Poles
Aren’t those for old people? No. Rather, they’re for people who want to keep from getting old ahead of their time, especially their knees. Hiking poles take a tremendous amount of pressure off your knees, especially going downhill. On the uphills, they let your slackard upper body chip in and do some of the work. For those long flat stretches where hiking poles may seem a bother, make sure to get the collapsible kind that can be broken down and tied to your daypack. And make sure the mechanism for collapsing the pole is an external latch; the internal twist kind have a way of breaking down before their time. When it comes to cost, much of what you pay for is weight: $25 seems like a bargain for poles until you’re four miles into a hike and feel like you’re swinging a pair of two-by-fours.
Cost: Poles can range from the aforementioned $25 variety, to easily adjusted, lightweight carbon fiber poles can run $160 or more. There’s a range of good poles in between.
4. Day Packs
As your hikes get longer, carrying a bottle of water in one hand and your car keys in the other gets tiresome. That’s when most hikers become seduced by the sexy world of day packs. Day packs with built-in hydration systems. Day packs with built in rain covers. Day packs with iPhone ports. Day packs with specific pockets to hold everything from car keys to epi pens. Day packs for an hour on the trail, for two hours, for a day. It’s easy to see why the typical hiker may have three, five, 10 packs in their arsenal.
Above all, you want a pack that fits. You want the weight of your pack to be borne by your hip bones; thus, look for a pack with a substantial hip belt. You want the shoulder straps to not bind your shoulders; check for width and comfort. You don’t want the pack up against your back encouraging perspiration to gather: look for a suspension system that keeps the pack off your back. As for the pockets and extras, that’s a matter of personal choice. Take a few hikes, make note of how a pack could most benefit you on the trail. Take those notes with you when you go shopping.
Cost: You can get a good daypack that will make you happy in the $75-$150 range.
5. Hydration Bladder
Back when man first started exploring, we drank straight from the stream, and we liked it. (We also didn’t live much longer than 20.) Then we started using treated water, which necessitated bringing water in a bottle from home. And for a long while, that’s what we did, we drank from a bottle that was in our pack, out of sight and often not easy to get to. Then came hydration packs, and the evolution of drinking water in the wild took an evolutionary leap. The big advantage to hydration packs: the hydration tube rests on your chest, a constant reminder to drink. The tube requires little forethought; on long hikes, drinking becomes an almost robotic task. One disadvantage to true hydration packs is they often come in smaller capacity packs. However, most daypacks, regardless of size, now come with accommodations for a hydration bladder, which you can buy separately.
Cost: Chances are you’ve gotten a gimmie water bottle at an event (charity run/walk, summer festival, etc.). If not, you can get a decent water bottle for $5-$10. Hydration reservoirs to add to a daypack start around $30; packs that come with reservoirs start around $90.