Learning to hike is simple on the surface. All you really need to do is go out for a walk. Becoming a "hiker" is a term almost anyone can earn, in addition to getting the benefits of some clean, fresh air, and de-stressing after a week in the office. But there's a handful of skills that are worthwhile learning to keep you safe while spending your time in the outdoors. Today, we're going to cover the fundamental hiking skills I recommend everyone learns, before setting off on a hike.
Choose the right gear Invest in quality hiking gear, and ensure you've tested and "broken it in" before heading off on an extended trip. This is especially important for shoes, as a new pair may rub and turn your feet into a blistery mess. Get clothes that wick away moisture from your skin to keep you warm and dry, picking synthetic materials over cotton so you don't get chills if you're hiking to different elevations. Your shoes should be comfortable, durable, and adequate for the conditions you'll be trekking through, and I never leave home without a hat to keep the sun off, and a rain-coat, just in case.
Choose the right campsite My advice when it comes to campsite selection is to know what to avoid. Don't setup your tent under a widow maker (a large tree full of dead branches), or a cliff-face littered with tumbling rocks. The base of valleys and sandy riverbeds are two more no-no's, as rain-fall upstream can send water levels rising in minutes, flooding your camp and putting you in serious danger. Find somewhere that's got a good supply of water and firewood, as well as any natural formations that can help shield from the worst of the elements.
Construct a basic shelter The number one killer of campers isn't marauding bears, it's hypothermia. Get too cold, and you'll be at risk, so the first step (especially in cold weather) is ensuring you've got an insulated shelter that protects you from the wind and rain. A tent is a fantastic option here, but knowing how to build your own lean-to is a fantastic skill top master. It's relatively simple, simply secure one end of a large branch against a standing tree, and then lay a row of smaller branches along it to form the "rafters" as the foundation of your roof. I like to use a combination of smaller branches interwoven at a 90 degree angle to help keep my rafters in place, plugging any holes with large leaves and moss to keep water from getting through. Last, collect enough small green branches or fresh leaves to properly insulate yourself from the cold ground, you need at least 6 inches thick to lie on.
How to start a fire Knowing how to start a fire is essential, and in addition to the lighter you've got in your kit I highly advise learning a couple of different fire-starting techniques. Using steel wool to short out a battery in your torch, how to use a fire-steel and striker, or even using your glasses to magnify the sun's rays and get a fire going. The trick is to use the driest material you can find for your tinder bundle, and then slowly add larger and larger pieces of tinder as the flames begin to catch. Stack the tinder so it forms a rough pyramid, and oxygen is able to reach the base. Once the flames have caught, continue the process until you're burning larger pieces of wood and the fire is safe from going out.
Finding clean drinking water In the wild you're going to come across two types of water. There's some that's clean and safe to drink, others that will kill you should you drink it. The trick is being able to tell the difference, but my advice is to treat any questionable source of water as if it's unsafe. Unless you can see the spring, I'd recommend boiling it, as standing water and even running creeks and rivers can have sources of contamination upstream. If you've not got the means to boil the water you collect, snow and rain are safe, and if you get up early enough you can use a clean shirt to soak up any morning dew from the grass and leaves, and wring it out to drink.
Learn to navigate After the batteries in your smartphone have long died, and you're kicking yourself for leaving your map and compass at home, there's still ways to find your way. The sun is your simplest option, as it rises in the east and sets in the west, no matter where in the world you are. If you're looking for a little more precision, you can use an analog watch to find your way. In the northern hemisphere, simply point the hour hand at the sun. Now imagine there's a line running exactly down the middle (i.e. between the hour hand and 12 o'clock). This is the north-south line, which you can use to stay on track when you're hiking out of whatever trouble you're in.
Signaling for help If you find yourself lost, or suffering an injury which means you're not able to rescue yourself, you need to know how to call for help. First, find an area that's relatively open and visible over a large distance. Hilltops work great, as well as large clearings where there's no trees to disperse the smoke. Start by constructing a rough platform to keep the fire off the ground, and limiting the amount of moisture that will seep into your signal fire. You want it dry, and ready to start roaring with only a moment's notice. Save your most combustible fire-starters for this fire, as it could be your one chance of rescue, and you don't want to blow it. Once the first is lit and burning well, pile on green boughs and branches to produce a pillar of thick smoke that can be seen for miles. Knowing these seven fundamentals is essential if you're planning to spend any amount of time in the outdoors. Of course, we hope you never need to use any of these in a survival situation, but they'll also help to make your next hike an enjoyable experience, and keep you safe should the worst happen. Having the skills, knowledge and gear are your best defense against whatever comes.