Information & Advice for Novice Hikers
Legal Disclaimer: the following information is provided in the sincere
belief that it is accurate and useful (perhaps life-saving). However,
I do not accept responsibility for anything that happens to you under
any circumstances, ever. This information is provided without
guarantee or warranty, express or implied. Climbing mountains is
predicting the weather
cotton vs wool
what if I get lost?
how to pack a backpack
how to choose a backpack
predicting the weather
Always remember that it will be colder and windier at the top of a
mountain than it is at sea level. As a rough rule of thumb, you
should equip yourself for five degrees F (2.5 deg. C) temperature drop, and 10 mph
(15 km/h) more wind, for every thousand feet (300 m) elevation above
sea level. Then subtract five degrees F (2.5 deg. C) for every fifty
miles (75 km) northward that you go, and then give yourself an extra
margin of ten degrees F. In other words, even if it's
seventy degrees in Boston, there can be a blizzard on the summit of Mt
A more accurate way to predict the weather on the hike is to check
the forecast (no more than two days early) for the town nearest to the
mountain you're climbing. (eg, on Weather.com). Then subtract
temperature (and add wind) based on altitude, as above. Also check the
predicted overnight lows (for both the nights before and after your
hike). Daytime temperature isn't likely to get lower than that, at
least below four thousand feet. But you might experience something close to it if
you're late getting off the mountain for any reason.
The weather's great. Is it OK to pack less (ie, skip all the thermal layers)?
Well, sometimes. If there's not a cloud in the sky (and you've
checked the satellite imagery to be sure), the barometer is rising,
humidity is falling, it's ninety degrees F (30 C) and
there's a weather station on the summit that reports no wind, you can
probably get away without two layers of wool socks. But always ask
yourself: which is worse, looking foolish for having carried a sweater
in your backpack, or looking dead of hypothermia because
the wind picked up on the summit? Also, consider
whether you could survive the weather if you got injured, lost, or stranded overnight.
ALWAYS bring plenty of warm & weatherproof gear, at least to the
trailhead. Then check with the local forecast & people who know the
route you're taking before deciding to leave any of it in the car.
Ask a park ranger, if there's one around: they're the people that'll
have to carry your corpse down if they give you bad advice.
cotton vs wool
People like cotton clothing for a reason: it feels comfortable, even in
warm weather. Much of that comfort comes from the fact that cotton is
very effective at absorbing perspiration and wicking it away from your
skin to evaporate elsewhere. But the same absorbency and wicking action that make
cotton great for briefs and athletic socks make it positively
DANGEROUS on a mountain. When wet, cotton will NOT keep you warm!
It's OK to wear a cotton T shirt, cotton underwear, and maybe cotton
socks (if you're expecting warm weather and no puddles) while hiking,
but for all layers above that you should wear wool or synthetics.
Blue jeans are in a category by themselves. Once wet, they take ages to
dry, and they suck away heat the whole time. Plus, they absorb so much
water that they become unmanageably heavy. NEVER wear denim on a hike.
what to do if lost or fogged in
As fog approaches:
1. Be aware of where your companions are. Try to stay together so
no one gets lost.
2. Is this a true fog (rising from a valley) or a cloud (lowering
from above)? If it's a fog, wind or sun will probably break it up
fairly soon, so stay calm and be patient. If it's a cloudbank (not
just a single cloud that will blow on by) you can try to race
it down the mountain (that way, even if it catches you, at least
you'll be lower, where it's warmer).
There's a third possibility - condensation can form when wind pushes moist air
up to the top of a mountain (where it cools). That kind of cloudbank is pretty stable -
you'll see it from below, and be able to avoid it.
3. Make yourself as warm and waterproof as possible, and seek
shelter (preferably without leaving the trail, but in any case make sure you always know the
way back to the trail).
If fogged in:
1. stay calm and stay put. Don't go wandering away from the trail (or off a
cliff). In many cases the best thing to do is to stay where you are
until the fog lifts.
2. Don your warmest clothing and look for shelter.
3. Consider trying to find your way in thick fog only if you are
If you think you're on the wrong trail:
1. Don't worry. The trail you're on is probably a fun hike too.
2. Trails are marked with colored blazes. Look for these every few
minutes and at every intersection, and you will never have to backtrack more than a few minutes.
3. Consult your trail map to try to figure out where you are.
Don't jump to conclusions; small turns in the trail, or intersections
with small unmarked side trails, may not be on your map. Measure the
distances on the map, and keep going until you're sure you've missed
whatever it was you were looking for. Make a guess as to which trail
you are on, and don't change your mind until proven wrong.
4. In the worst case, you can always retrace your steps back to the
trailhead. But don't start going back-and-forth; you won't make any
progress that way.
If you get lost off-trail:
1. Stay calm. You probably aren't far from the trail (yet).
2. See if any of your friends are within earshot. If so, follow
their voices back to the trail.
3. Consult your map to take a guess at where the nearest trail is
(You do have a compass and a topo map, right?). If you reach
a trail, follow it: even if it's not the right trail, it will go
somewhere. (Whether you follow it uphill or down is up to you, but
keep in mind that you want to be off the mountain by nightfall.)
4. If all else fails, remember that the summit is up! If you have
the time and strength, you should have little trouble finding the summit,
and then finding your trail leading down from the summit. Remember also
that trails lead from the base up to the summit, so if you circle the mountain at a
roughly steady height, you'll intersect a trail eventually. As a last
resort, walking downhill (eg, following a stream) is bound to lead you
off the mountain and eventually to a road or town -- but it could be a
how to pack a pack
There are several goals in packing a pack, and some conflict with
each other. The goals are:
-water within easy reach, balanced with each other and close to your torso.
Any of the following will do that:
-camelback type packs
-pair of waterbottles, one each side, in side pockets of pack
-pair of waterbottles, " " " , hanging from belt
-pair of waterbottles, " " " , hanging from front of shoulder straps
-Heavy items close to your spine
-lighter items toward the outside
-something waterproof on top
-first or most frequently needed (eg, windbreaker) = easiest to reach
-last or least frequently needed (eg, extra socks) = buried on bottom
-everything organized and separate
-you will want to have bags within your sack to separate food from
clothing, wet clothes from dry, etc.
Should my heaviest items be packed up high or down low?
Ever notice how the really serious long-distance trail hikers have those
ten-foot-tall frame backpacks? Besides providing more room than a
typical backpack, those frames let you stack weight vertically, so you
don't have to bend over (much) for balance. Bending over tires you
out - it's a bit like doing a day-long sit-up. Stacking weight
vertically is like balancing a water jug on your head - the weight
gets borne by your spine, with comparatively little effort. However,
you wouldn't want to climb a mountain or leap across a stream with a
water jug on your head - you'd trip and fall.
To sum up, what's important is that heavy items should be as close
to your torso as possible, not dangling behind you. The higher you
pack them, the less you have to lean forward in order to carry them, but the
more you compromise your ability to stay on your feet. On a day hike
up a mountain, you can expect to do a fair amount of scrambling over
boulders, so pack relatively low. But you shouldn't be carrying anything
heavy (except water) in the first place.
How to choose a backpack
For day hikes, pick a bag that's just barely big enough to hold
everything you need, and no bigger. That way you won't be tempted to
fill it with useless extra weight.
Look for a pack made of water-resistant fabric.
Choose a pack with a big, padded hip belt. Make sure the belt sits
correctly on your hips. If the pack is adjustable, ask a salesman to
adjust it for you.
Make sure the pack has places to keep your water bottle and snack
food within easy reach (preferably on the belt, so your back doesn't
bear the weight of the water).
Make sure there is some padding for your back (you don't need a lot,
since you'll mostly be carrying clothing, but you do want some).
Look for packs that provide some ventilation for your back as well.
Make sure the shoulder straps won't slip (even over a raincoat), and that they won't chafe
your neck, chest, or arms.
The pack should be comfortable. Ask a salesman to put ten to twenty
pounds of weight in it, and walk around for a while. (You, not the salesman.)
Don't overspend. At the end of the day, it's a bag for putting your
When in doubt, pick the lighter pack.
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