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14 Primal Tips for Better Hiking

The most basic advice I can give about hiking is to go find a natural space and walk around. That’s it. It’s not sexy or particularly exciting, but it’s good enough.

I do have some additional thoughts, though. If you want to get deeper, if you want to “upgrade” or “hack” your hiking, you’ll find today’s post useful. I’m going to offer some ideas on how to get the most out of your forays into wilderness.

I’m not going to discuss multi-day hikes/backpacking, which, truth be told, I’m not nearly as experienced with. This is strictly about day hikes—the kind everyone has time to do.

I’m also not going to discuss gear. It’s real easy (and fun) to geek out on all the awesome gadgets and gear you can buy for hiking, so I won’t spend much time there.

Let’s get to it:

1. When choosing a hike, avoid those with the most reviews.

When searching for new restaurants to try, I weigh the number of reviews more heavily than the number of stars they receive. Same for books and other products. A 4.5 star average across 2000 reviews is more convincing than a 5 star average across 20.

Not so with hikes. When I’m browsing Yelp or some other hiking review site for a hike to try, I avoid the ones with the most reviews. I expect and prepare for crowds at a good restaurant. Crowds can even enhance a restaurant’s atmosphere. I hike to escape the crowds.

2. Be smart.

Grok wasn’t some foolhardy hiker, heading off into the backcountry on a lark. Most extant hunter-gatherers are cautious. They travel with friends. They move along pre-determined paths. They know the land before they walk it.

It’s a lot like a lifelong shoe wearer running a marathon in Vibram FiveFingers. It’s gonna hurt, and and injury is probable. Having grown up in the cradle of civilization, you probably aren’t prepared to go it alone. Nature can be dangerous. It doesn’t have to be, but you’d better respect it.

Plan your route. Follow a path; trails are where they are for a good reason. Solo hikes are fine (some of my favorites have been just me), as long as you know what you’re doing and where you’re going.

3. Bring your phone.

Wait, what? Sisson, I thought I was hiking to escape the trappings of civilization. I hike to gaze at the wonders of mother nature [1], not thumb my way through my Twitter feed. You really blew it on this one.

Not so fast. Here’s how I use my phone on my hikes.

And no, I don’t always take it along.

4. Hike unencumbered whenever possible.

On short hikes, don’t take food. Don’t wear a backpack. If it’s a short enough hike, don’t even take water.

I love to hike totally unencumbered. Save for whatever fits in my pockets, I prefer to leave it behind. If it’s a cool day or a short hike (1-4 miles), I’ll even leave the water behind.

This gives me more freedom to roam and explore. I can run if I want to. I can lift a rock or log or climb a tree. Mostly, I just like having my hands free as I walk. There’s nothing like gliding down a trail, light as a bird.

Hydration is important, so before you start hiking, drink 12 ounces of water with sea salt sprinkled in—and maybe a squeeze of lemon or lime juice.

5. Don’t let children stop you.

Parents, even of youngsters totally unable to self-ambulate: take your kids hiking. It’s not that hard. If pre-walking, strap them into a baby carrier [4] or use a stroller (trail permitting). If barely walking, just go short and slow. Your mile hike might take an hour, but it’s worth it and you’re still out there.

Hiking soothes the crying babe. It provokes the sullen pre-teen into engagement with the world (despite their best attempts). It builds stamina walking up those hills, balance traversing that uneven ground, and instills a love and respect for the natural world.

Will babies “remember” it? Not consciously, but trust me. All those hours spent walking through beautiful natural settings imprint on their subconscious selves. They’ll be better, calmer, saner adults for their time in nature.

6. Lift heavy things.

The natural environment abounds with heavy objects. Stones and fallen logs of various sizes, shapes, and weights provide plenty of resistance. I suggest you take advantage.

7. Play as you go with a partner.

Having a partner isn’t just safer. It exponentially increases the amount of fun you can have.

8. Incorporate formal exercise into the hike.

This is a great way to get a solid workout without realizing it.

What else can you think of?

9. Climb.

Observe the verticality of the natural world. Look for trees that you can climb, and climb them.

Be safe, of course. Don’t climb anything you can’t climb down. Avoid branches thinner than your wrist. Avoid dead branches (and dead trees, for that matter).

Also check out rock formations you can scramble up. There’s nothing like a good scramble up some granite. Bouldering—climbing straight up using toe and handholds—is also fun but requires more training and know-how.

10. Slow down.

I’m no meditator. I’ve tried. I’ve read the literature. I know the benefits [6]. It just doesn’t work for me.

But there are alternatives [7] that get you to the same place, and hiking is one of mine.

So, when you hike, stay present and pay attention. Touch everything you see. Caress the bark and the leaves. Smell the flowers. Flip over a decaying log and watch the bugs scatter. One of my favorites to touch and see is the manzanita tree.

Hiking isn’t always about physical fitness. It’s a place to just be in the present moment, too. 

11. Try hiking the highest peak in your area.

If my hike doesn’t have at least a bit of elevation gain, I feel cheated. It doesn’t even feel like a hike. Rather, it’s a walk.

Walks are fine. I love a good easy walk through a wilderness area. But I really, really love a good climb.

One thing I’ll do anytime I’m in a new area (and have enough time) is look around for the hike with the biggest elevation gain. There’s something gratifying about battling the most fundamental force in the known universe—gravity—and coming out on top.

I mean that literally: you’re actually on top. You can look down on the city below and know that you’re higher than every single person there.

Also, climbing is a great workout.

12. Ponder the trees.

Trees are crazy.

Depending on where you are, the trees might have been around to witness the rise and fall of Alexander the Great, the spread of Christendom, the construction of the Great Wall of China and Macchu Picchu, the dozens of generations of hunter-gatherers raising children and warring and loving and dying under its canopy. And these are living things. Not conscious like we know, but responsive to the environment and reactive to their peers, with whom they communicate via a subterranean fungal network [8].

13. Feel the trail’s history.

Imagine the original inhabitants padding along the same trail you’re on, seeing the same sunset you’re watching. What were they thinking? What did they dream about? What did they carry? Did they ever just go out to enjoy themselves on a hike?

Imagine the earliest explorers climbing the same ridge you just climbed. You see haze and skyscrapers off in the distance. They saw teeming wildness.

Imagine the conversations that have echoed through these trees and valleys, canyons and caves.

Imagine all the lovers sneaking off to rendezvous within the confines of that little nook in the rock wall ten feet up, maybe during a thunderstorm or to escape the brutal heat of summer. To how many conceptions did it bear witness?

Imagine the troops marching along your trail to die, or win, or do both.

14. Try brown space, blue space, not just green space.

Most of us think of forests when we think about hiking, but that isn’t the only way to do it. You can hike through deserts and scrublands (brown space), along the ocean (blue space), through grasslands, or even through a particularly impressive city park.

Not everyone has easy access to towering forests, and that’s okay.

Well, there you have it: my 14 tips for making the most of your hikes.

How do you like to hike? What tips would you add?

Let me know down below! Thanks for reading, everybody, and take care.