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Hiking farther? Make sure you plan ahead for full-day hikes

By Joe Miller | November 5, 2021 | Healthy Lifestyle, Explore NC

View from inside tent of man and woman sitting inside tent and enjoying pleasant taste of coffee brewed in fresh air.

You’ve been enjoying short hikes — up to three miles or so. But the cooler weather and the fall colors make you want to spend more time on the trail. You feel like you could hike five miles, maybe even 10 before long. Plus, you’ve also become intrigued by the longer trails you’ve been hearing about: the statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the Watershed Lakes trails in Greensboro, the Falls Lake Trail in the Triangle, the Ridgeline Trail running from near Gastonia into South Carolina. So many options!

But are you ready?

With short hikes you can get away with less planning and preparation. If you forget water and snacks, well, you can survive a 2-mile hike. A little chilly or wet? It’s only 20 minutes back to the trailhead and the warmth of your car. The sun is setting sooner than you thought? The flashlight on your phone will be good enough for the half mile you have left in the dusk.

Not big problems on short hikes. But they could spell trouble on a longer hike.

With a little more planning and preparation, though, you can start spending more time on the trail with the confidence of an experienced hiker. Here’s how to make sure you’re prepared.

The 10 Essentials

Every time you head out, regardless of how long you plan to hike, you should have in your daypack the 10 essentials — the items most critical to your safety and well-being on the trail:

  1. Water. For hikes of up to 5 miles, take at least one bottle; for hikes of 5 to 10 miles take at least two.
  2. Snacks. You want snacks with protein and calories, but you also want snacks you’ll want to eat (hence, the reason you see so many hikers eating Snickers).
  3. Map. A topographic map ideally, but even a simple park map from the trailhead; if there’s no trail map, use your phone to snap a photo of the map at the trailhead kiosk.
  4. Compass. Your smart phone likely has one; use it with your map to help maintain your bearings.
  5. First-aid kit. A simple, prepackaged first-aid kit (available for around $10) includes what you need to deal with scrapes, blisters, aches and pains and other minor hiking owies.
  6. Headlamp/flashlight. For $15 or less you can pick up a headlamp with more than enough luminosity to get you off the trail after dark.
  7. Rain jacket/extra clothes. Based on the forecast (see below), you may need to bring extra clothes to deal with rain or cold temperatures.
  8. Matches/lighter and fire starter. There’s always a chance you may have to spend the night; it’ll be more tolerable if you can build a fire and stay warm.
  9. Duct tape. It’ll fix just about any equipment issue; wrap a couple yards of it around your water bottle and it’s readily available.
  10. Knife/multitool. Even a simple blade can get you out of a variety of jams.

For more information, download the GetHiking! guide to 10 Daypack Essentials here.

Check the forecast

You go out for an hour and you can usually tell by looking at the sky what the weather will be like. But if you’re spending a day, or even a half day on the trail, you need to know if rain is moving in, what the temperature range will be, whether a cold front is moving through — even if it’s going to cloud up, thus making it feel cooler. This information helps you figure out the clothes to wear — or if you should head out at all.

Sunrise, sunset

Sunlight is at a premium going into late fall and winter: you need to be aware of how much daylight you have to deal with. For instance, if you’re planning to hit the trail at 1 p.m. and sunset is at 5:30 p.m., you’ll want to make sure the hike you’re taking won’t last more than 4 hours. Check sunrise and sunset times where you are at

Learn about the trail you’re hiking

Especially when tackling longer trails unknown to you, learn what you can beforehand. If you’re at a North Carolina State Park, for instance, stop by the visitor center and ask for a recommendation (“I’d like to hike 5 miles on trail that’s not too challenging”). Another good option is a crowd-sourced trail guide, such as REI’s, or, where you can get a sense of a trail’s difficulty and whether there are recent closures or other developments you should be aware of.

Drink and eat

Hiking is great exercise and you do burn a lot of calories. But, at least while you’re on the trail, you shouldn’t view hiking as a weight-loss scheme. You run out of fuel 3 miles into a 6-mile hike and those last 3 miles won’t be much fun.

Taking a few extra minutes to plan and prepare will result in a safer — and much more enjoyable — extended stay on the trail.

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Long trails

We’ve got plenty of long trails in North Carolina. Find some of GetGoingNC’s favorites at “Long Hikes for Cool Fall Days.”