This fall, a different type of wanderlust may be stirring in your travel bucket. Instead of jetting off to tropical beaches or backpacking through Europe, you might be inspired to take a camping trip. And you’ll be doing yourself some favors: Hiking up a breathtaking mountain can help take your mind off of stressful problems, boost your mood and give you a fresh perspective on life. In fact, studies have shown that getting in touch with nature can help reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.
Not to mention, you’ll actually be able to unplug (sorry, no cliff-side Wi-Fi!) and stick to your digital detox. Like bootcamp for the brain, getting in touch with nature allows you to appreciate its many wild wonders, challenge your mind and body in fresh ways and inspire you to reach new heights.
But before you hit the trails, we talked to JJ Jameson, a REI Outdoor School senior instructor, to help you prepare for your first outing.
7 Life-Saving Hiking and Camping Tips
“It’s better to ease into a low-risk environment rather than going for the epic adventure on your first trip.”
1. Start local.
“If you’re not experienced, it’s important to start small and work your way up to bigger challenges,” Jameson recommends. “When starting out, a lot of small details can be overlooked, so it’s better to ease into a low-risk environment rather than going for the epic adventure on your first trip.” Many state parks, trails and beaches have websites, where you can find maps of different campgrounds and hiking trails. For example, the Adirondack Mountains, the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail have some of the most popular trails in the country. You can also check out Trails.com for a more comprehensive list that you can filter based on the outdoor activity (Think: trail running and mountain biking) you want to do. Once you know where and when you want to travel, also check for weather conditions and dates for hunting season (something newbies may want to avoid).
2. Announce your arrival.
Before starting a trail, make yourself known by signing the trailhead register. It will often ask for your name, length of stay, destination and emergency contact information. The register is not only used for safety and planning purposes, but it lets hikers know who is on the same trail and helps create a camaraderie in the woods. Some hikers use it to share poems, ramblings or their thoughts while out in the wilderness.
Prior to your adventure, it’s also smart to share your itinerary with a trusted friend or family member, no matter how “easy” the trail. Trying something more remote? It pays to get a little more specific. “Give detailed information to a loved one about your route and let other members of your group know about the equipment being carried, your waypoints and your expected finishing time,” Jameson advises.
3. Pack smart.
Whether you’re hiking for just a day or for months at a time, Jameson strongly recommends packing what many hikers call “The 10 Essentials” (see list below). Within that list, there are “The Big 3:” a tent, sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. Even day-trippers are urged to pack these items because if you’re lost or injured, nothing is worse than having to deal with wind and rain. Invest in a good pair of hiking boots that is built to undergo tough weather conditions and challenging terrain. A waterproof coat, one pair of pants, extra hiking socks and gloves (if cold) are also things to consider.
Before leaving for your trip, get comfortable with all of your equipment, Jameson advises. “Practice hiking with some real weight in your pack, setting up your tent, establishing your campsite, carrying or filtering your water, lighting your stove, and even using the woods as your latrine (outhouse)!”
Beginner’s Guide to Lightweight Packing
4. Plan your meals ahead.
Hiking for hours in a day can be extremely exhausting, so it’s important for hikers to stay well fed and hydrated. “Planning your meals can be very challenging since you need to anticipate what food will supply you with enough calories and electrolytes well before you will be consuming it,” Jameson says. He recommends bringing a variety of freeze dried meals and a few spices to help keep your meals interesting.
“Practice hiking with some real weight in your pack, setting up your tent and establishing your campsite.”
Small snacks will also help keep your energy up. Think: granola bars, beef jerky, trail mix, fruit leather and energy balls. One of Jameson’s favorite lunches is crunchy peanut butter and honey rolled into a wrap. “The honey crystalizes, and it provides good energy.”
And to drink? You can take along iodine tablets, which filters water and makes it suitable for drinking so you don’t have to carry canteens. Drink mixes and protein powders are also good to have because they easily mix with water. “I never forget to bring coffee. There are many different coffee presses you can bring along,” Jameson says.
5. Cook with care.
If you’re prepping meals on-site, experts recommend doing it in the daytime (dinner included!) to help save time and reduce risk of injury. Practice cooking your freeze-dried meals in a controlled environment before taking them into the woods. Some of the biggest injuries from camping in the backcountry are from spilling hot liquids and cuts and burns from handling food in the camp kitchen. Do all of your food prep on a flat surface with adequate lighting.
6. Go your own pace.
Before you head off, assess your own fitness level and find a pace that feels most comfortable. For beginner hikers, it’s best to avoid listening to music, which can distract you from the trail ahead. But don’t let your feet — or worse, a foot injury — slow you down! Break in your hiking boots before you start your trip. Try them on with different sock combinations to increase the comfort and reduce chances of blisters, bruising and toe nail damage. Some common hiking injuries are twists and ankle and knee sprains, but using trekking poles for additional support can prevent them.
7. Protect yourself from wild life
As you plan your trip, research what animals are in the area where you’ll be hiking that can potentially harm you. Bears, venomous snakes and some insects, like spiders, scorpions, ticks and stinging insects, are on the list of animals you’ll want to look out for. But keeping your tent door closed, except when entering or leaving it, can help reduce your risk of an unwanted encounter.
“In bear country, the key is to make noise when hiking so you never startle one, as well as storing all food and scented items (like deodorant and toothpaste) away from your tent site. ” Jameson says.
It’s also recommended that you cook your food away from your tent and remove the clothing you cooked in before going to bed. All food, including packaged snacks, cooking equipment and personal hygiene products should be packed in a bear canister or a bear bag, which you should practice hanging from a tree. The general rule of thumb: Bear canisters should be stored at least 200 feet away from where you’ll actually be sleeping. Park rangers will often ask you to show them your bear canisters, and most state agencies provide best practices for storing them.
For more advice on hiking, camping or planning outdoor excursions, check out backpacker.com.
Originally published July 2016. Updated September 2016.