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5 Mistakes Novice Hikers Make (and How to Avoid Them)

by Jen Mathews Feb 10, 2010
Two years ago, I was hiking the Angel’s Landing trail in Zion National Park, when I realized that I had made a series of poor decisions.

I WAS HIKING a strenuous trail not suitable for beginners or people with a fear of heights, both of which applied to me. I was exhausted, hungry, cranky, and feeling generally out of shape. But when I had to decide between turning back and going for the top, I elected to keep going.

Looking back, I realize what silly and dangerous errors I made that day. I don’t mind sharing them if it will help other novice hikers have more pleasant and safer experiences than I did, and hopefully avoid the dirty looks I received on the trail.

1. Poor Choice of Trail

It almost goes without saying that hikers should consider the length, time, and difficulty level of a trail in deciding whether to try it. Hiking a trail that is too long or strenuous for you will sap you of your energy, frustrate you and your hiking companions, and leave you with sore muscles the next day.

I was too enamored with the thought of the photographs I could take from the top of Angel’s Landing to objectively evaluate the trail. I decided that a strenuous, five-mile trail, the last part of which climbs up a steep ridge with sheer cliffs on both sides, was a perfectly reasonable starting point for someone who had never hiked more than three miles round trip on easy-to-moderate trails.

You can avoid the same mistake by starting small and working your way up. Cut your teeth on short, easy trails, then gradually increase the length and difficulty level of your hikes. Before long, you’ll be able to enjoy full-day hikes or overnight trips. In the meantime, those longer and more strenuous trails aren’t going to go anywhere.

2. Failure to Prepare

For some reason, I thought a casual stroll on the treadmill at the gym once a week would be enough to prepare me for a vacation full of hiking. Wrong.

The “incline” feature on the gym treadmill didn’t come close to simulating the experience of climbing up steps cut into a rock face while holding onto chains for safety. I should have done proper conditioning before I planned a vacation around hiking in national parks.

If you have your heart set on a particular trail, make sure you are mentally and physically prepared for it. Try to simulate the experience of hiking it by tackling similar trails in your area first.

3. Improper Clothing and Supplies

I knew the basics about what to wear and carry while hiking. Not only did I have the good sense to break in my boots ahead of time, but I dressed in layers, wore sunscreen, and drank plenty of water.

Unfortunately, I took it too far. Terrified of leaving something behind, I carried a day pack stuffed with extra clothing, a first aid kit, food, extra water, and camera equipment. I had never hiked with a pack before, and it threw off my balance.

When you prepare for a hike, take reasonable precautions. For day hikes, dress in light layers and carry the water and food you need. Minimize what else you carry. If you recently purchased or plan to purchase a pack, wear it on a few short trails to familiarize yourself with how it feels to hike with it.

4. Setting the Wrong Pace

I had every intention of starting with short, easy trails and working my way up to Angel’s Landing. But as soon as the shuttle to the Angel’s Landing trailhead stopped by, ambition took over.

I set a fast pace at the beginning and tired myself on the first set of switchbacks. By the time I reached the famous “Walter’s Wiggles” section, I had to rest at every turn.

If you’ve planned more for the day than hiking, do those other things first. Visit the other sights and take the other photographs you want to take.

When you do begin your hike, pace yourself: you’re not running a race. Remember, once you reach the farthest point, you usually still have to return to the trailhead. Save your energy, or you risk exhausting yourself on your hike and being too tired to enjoy anything else.

5. Refusing to Turn Back

Faced with a choice between continuing up a trail not suitable for me and turning back, I made the wrong decision. Like a miniature version of the “summit fever” that some mountaineers experience, I insisted on pushing myself beyond my reasonable limit. I made it to the top of Angel’s Landing and back down safely, but I didn’t enjoy a moment of it.

You should hike because you find it rewarding, not because you want to check a trail off your list. There is no shame in turning back if you find yourself on a hike that is too long or too tiring. Ultimately, you want to look back fondly on your hike, not cringe at the memory of how miserable you were or how much pain you were in the next day.

Much more experienced and responsible hikers than me may read this article and shake their heads in dismay. To those of you who fall into this category, I assure you that I have seen the error of my ways.

If you plan to hike Angel’s Landing or anything like it anytime soon, don’t worry: you won’t see me on the trail.

Community Connection

Have you ever found yourself on a trail you weren’t prepared for? Tell us about it in the comments.

Feeling ready for some risk? JoAnna Haugen profiles the most dangerous hikes in the US.

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