Anatomy of a Hike

I thought I would share my resources and techniques for planning a hike. I live in Seattle and most often hike in the Western Cascades.

First of all, I check the weather report. That helps to decide when and where to go and what to pack, not to mention if you should head that way at all. First and foremost hiking is recreation. The idea is to enjoy the journey and come home safely to do it over and over again. In my humble opinion, no destination is worth a critical injury or death. Never feel bad about canceling your plans or turning around when things aren’t right.

Where to go is the next question. I like using a mix of print and web-based resources:

  • Guide books. Printed books may becoming passe, but for now it my favorite way to start the process of choosing a destination. Books do become outdated, so backing them up with trail reports and a visit to the relevant government agency web sites will identify issues with trail conditions, outright closures and trailhead road conditions. The US Forest Service and National Parks web sites can be trip savers. I commonly search on the trail name and Forest Service road number. There is nothing more disappointing than planning a trip and arriving at the trailhead to find that a slide has made the trail impassible or closed the road. The Mountaineers hiking guide books are all excellent, as well as the Day Hike! and Day Hiking series.  Hiking books
    • Guide books can be supplemented with field manuals on flowers, animals and birds and I love the Roadside Geology series.  I deeply believe that the outdoor experience is enriched with knowledge of the world you are traveling through.
    • I can’t say enough good about the Washington Trails Association. Their web site is a treasure trove of information for hikes in the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges. They make significant contributions to trail maintenance and trail funding as well. The trail reports for specific hikes are entered by members, giving current conditions for the trail and trailhead access roads.
    • is another great web resource with trip reports from local hikers. If you need to ask a question, there are many enthusiastic members who will help. There are incredible photos posted and gear sale forums too. Look for similar online forums in the region you want to visit.
    • Maps. Sometimes spreading out the maps and looking at marked trails can find new destinations to try. That can (and should) loop back to the web and print resources for more information.

Gear selection is important to the safety and enjoyment of the hike. Once I have decided where to go the conditions to expect, it’s time to get my gear ready. There are many small items that I have bagged and ready to drop into the backpack I’m using. I like to use a checklist so I don’t miss something, especially those items I will depend on for safety no to mention the comfort and enjoyment of the trip.

My gear selection starts with the classic Ten Essentials. Every time I step off the pavement, I have those items in my pack and pockets. Virtually every outdoor organization has a similar list of items you should have for back country travel. Time after time I see people on the trail barehanded without any gear whatsoever. And time after time I have read of people who needed rescue because they lacked those essentials, who got lost and faced hypothermia and other life threatening conditions due to the lack of a couple pounds of gear and a bit of knowledge. Indeed an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure! The Essentials cover a few categories: hydration and nourishment, navigation, lighting, tools, clothing, fire starting, and first aid.

Ten essentials
The classic ten essentials plus my latrine kit forms the bulk of my day hiking gear. Add my lunch, backpack and trekking poles and I’m ready to head out for just about any 3-season destination.

My day hiking checklist:
Pack liner
Trekking poles
Emergency shelter
Sit pad
First aid kit
Fire starters
Insect repellent
Small repair kit (duct tape, sewing kit, spare line)
Water container(s)
Water treatment (filter or chemicals)
Insulation layer
Insect head net
Rain jacket/poncho
Rain pants
Potty trowel
Toilet paper
Hand cleaner
Utensils as needed
Camera and accessories

Before you leave, ALWAYS tell a responsible person where you are going and when you can be expected to return. Agree on a contact deadline: we commonly use sunset of the expected day of return. So many hiking disaster stories are near tragedies because no one knew that a lost or injured hiker was overdue, nor where to start looking for them. This is a simple and cost free insurance policy to aid your rescue. 

From there, it’s into the car and off to the trailhead. Using the directions from my guidebook and/or a website I find the trailhead access road and park. At most trailheads you will need a pass of some sort: for US Forest Service trailheads you can buy a day pass at the local ranger station or get an annual Northwest Forest Pass for $30. The Washington State Parks have their own day and annual passes and the National Parks have their own as well.

On a tangent, I am fascinated with the idea of “hybrid travel,” using bikes, mass transit, trains and even boats to get to trailheads rather than committing the environmental sin of using an automobile. Car pooling would be a good alternative too. In his blog, Barefoot Jake recently posted a scheme for taking mass transit from the city of SeaTac, Washington to the Olympic National Park trailheads at Lake Quinault. I especially like the idea of using regional transit buses with bike racks to blend bike travel into the mix. It would be easy to hide my bike in the woods near a trailhead and take off on foot from there. My ultralight backpacking kit blends perfectly with bicycle touring and bikepacking travel.

So, out of the car and onto the trail, up the switchbacks to a mountain lake, a waterfall or a scenic overlook— or all. Along the way are all the flora, fauna, geology and views to examine and enjoy. Top it all off with a nice nap at the destination and enjoy the return trip as well.

Mountain stream

Returning to the car, I keep a small kit that has items to wash up, snacks, fresh water or sport drinks, fresh clothing and comfortable shoes. I also keep a roll of toilet paper in a ziplock bag in case the trailhead toilet is without. If I’m in cellular phone range I call my contact, or as soon as a have a signal.

Nearly every trail has a favorite burger or pizza place to go with it. There’s nothing like a good dinner after a big walk in the woods.

Arriving at home, I separate the gear that needs cleaning or drying, put away the rest of the toys away and celebrate another outdoor adventure. Like the old Jansport advertisement motto: GET OUT, WHILE YOU CAN!


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