I was never a nature girl. Family camping trips got me stressed out about spiders and other creepy crawlies—not to mention where I’d pee or shower. But when I arrived in the Pacific Northwest three years ago, the mountains, forests, and bodies of water around me were just too beautiful to resist. I decided to give the Great Outdoors another shot by getting into hiking, and I am so glad I did.
On hikes, I’ve gotten to see some truly spectacular things, like secret waterfalls, eagles, marmots, enormous 100s-of-years-old trees, and mushrooms growing on logs that look like people. Hiking also has helped me get some great exercise without even really thinking about it. (OK, sort of: I am definitely thinking about it when I’m huffing and puffing my way up a mountain; but when I reach the top and can see for miles, I forget all about my previous complaints.) Perhaps most important, hiking has helped me get into a much better mental state.
My partner and I instituted a tradition of Sunday hikes, a ritual that has become like going to church. We get into the natural world to breathe the clean air, let go of the week behind us, and get relaxed and ready for the week ahead. Hiking makes my worries feel smaller and less significant, in a good way. And I’m not the only person who experiences these benefits: A 2015 research study at Stanford found “quantifiable evidence that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression.”
So whether you are fighting some tough feels or are looking for a summer adventure (and maybe some big trees to shade you, or a watering hole to cool off in), a hike is a beautiful, restorative day trip. I’ve got you covered on how to prepare, but first I want to mention four important caveats:
- Bring a buddy. Though that Stanford study talks about people walking alone in nature—and I am sure that is super peaceful and lovely—we need to be real about safety. The park by my house is the only place I would ever be comfortable hiking alone because (A) I know it super well, and (B) there are always lots of people around. Hiking alone is risky for a few reasons. You could get lost or hurt yourself on the trail. You might also have an unpleasant encounter. Now, in three years of hiking, I haven’t come across an animal like a bear or mountain lion, though this may be because I am always with my dude, talking and tromping down the path pretty loudly. I make my presence known because I don’t really want to meet such creatures. However, I have to say the animal I’m most concerned about is the human. People can be terrible, and I do not want you to run into a terrible person alone in the woods, OK? So hike with a buddy, a partner, your crush, or a sibling or other family member. It can be a great opportunity for bonding—whether that means having deep convos, singing your favorite songs, or making a pact to remain as quiet as possible and just enjoy your surroundings together.
- Remember that phones often do not work in the woods. Google Maps sometimes outlines trails in popular hiking spots, BUT you may or may not be able to get a signal. Even if you do, it could be weak or spotty. Using maps also drains your phone’s battery. So, please promise me that you will not rely on your phone alone to keep you from getting lost. It is a great tool, but it should not be your only tool. Bring a map, or hike trails that are well-marked and have posted maps along the way. The more established hiking areas (as in, not in the total wilderness) will have kiosks with paper maps and/or posted maps. Do use your phone to take pictures of them so you can refer to them later! This has prevented me from getting lost more than once. If you have a fully charged phone and closely monitor your battery, you can track your hike (I track my hikes with the Runkeeper app). There are also some super rad apps—like Cornell Labs’ Merlin Bird ID and Virginia Tech’s Tree ID—that can help you identify the cool flora and fauna you are seeing.
- Respect nature. “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” is a sign you’ll see at some hiking spots. Please take heed. Don’t litter. Remember that everything out in the woods or along that beach is a part of an ecosystem. Another little critter might need to climb into that shell, so take a picture of it instead of taking it home. In some places, berry-picking is OK, but DO NOT eat anything you cannot clearly identify. Mother Nature is tricky that way—things that look delicious can make you really sick. Also, know what the plants that will make you terribly itchy look like. I’m specifically talking about poison oak and poison ivy and any other poisonous plants in your area.
- Stay on the trail. Finally, resist the urge to go off the trail—for your own safety and because going off-trail means you are trampling plants and contributing to soil erosion. Sometimes you will see little shortcuts that other people have created—ignore them and don’t be part of that problem. If you bring a canine friend with you, keep them on a leash so they stay on the trail, too.
Now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, let’s hike!
How to find trails:
Ask friends. I started by getting recommendations from friends and neighbors because I was new to my area. If you have some more outdoorsy buds, asking them about their favorite hiking spots is a good way to go.
Get a book. Because I am a book person, I like to go to the bookstore or library and browse hiking guides, which are usually in the local travel section. These books have trail maps in them, which is why I like buying/checking them out—it puts a map in my hand.
Search online. While I love my books, their info can be a few years out of date, so the internet rules in terms of searching for the most up-to-date info on hikes. Just Google the name of your state or area and “trails,” and you will probably find some sort of database like this. Washington has a Trail Association, and their website has become my Number One resource. It is searchable in multiple ways—by region and by type of hike, for example—and people post trail reports. Sites with trail reports will let you know if a tree blew down last week or when the trail is super muddy after heavy rains.
Lakes, waterfalls, wildflowers, bird-viewing, historical landmarks—these are all the kinds of features you can generally search for in most book and internet trail guides, so you can plan the hike of your dreams. And per our convo about phones, I urge you to copy, print, or save PDFs of directions or maps you find so you can reliably access them on the trail.
How to choose a trail:
Now that you have all the resources for finding hikes, how do you pick one? A lot of trail guides will rate the trails as easy, moderate, challenging, et cetera. If you are just starting out, pick an easy one! There’s no shame in that. Easy hikes are often more enjoyable, and you can build to harder hikes when you’re ready. (And Rooks, despite my long-term love affair with hiking, I still don’t do strenuous hikes. I know my own physical limitations.) These ratings usually don’t have to do with the length of the trail—we’ll get to that in a sec—but with elevation changes. If you live in a hilly/mountainous area, you definitely want to look at that and probably start (as I did) with hikes that don’t gain more than 300 feet or so (though it depends on the length of the hike—you can use sites like this one to calculate a trail’s difficulty). You also have to read the map’s descriptions of how a trail’s elevation gain takes place: A steady, gradual climb is great for beginners. Doing hundreds of feet all at once might cause you to call it quits before you get to that great view.
Now, in terms of a hike’s length, that depends on you. Are you an avid walker or generally active person? Then you might be up to start with a four or five mile hike. If not, try one or two miles. I am fairly active, but I started with two-mile hikes, and I still do them because guess what? If you find the right one, it is just as pretty as a long, epic journey! You can always lengthen your actual trip by picnicking halfway through or finding a trail that ends at a lake you can swim in.