How to Become a Better Hiker

Students in Andrew Skurka's Ultimate Hiker Course, White Mountains
Students in Andrew Skurka’s Ultimate Hiker Course, White Mountains

I love day hiking, backpacking, peak bagging, long distance trekking: you name it. Being outdoors and propelling myself on my own two legs gives me tremendous joy…even when it rains.

I also derive tremendous satisfaction from learning and using new hiking, backpacking and mountaineering skills. Learning what to do and how to apply it to different environments and situations takes determined practice, but regardless of the type of hiking you like, you can become a better hiker if you apply yourself to it.

Here are a few skills, certifications and experiences that I feel have made me a better hiker.

  1. Go on weekly hikes. You’ll build strength and endurance, learn basic footwork and how to stay hydrated.
  2. Learn how to read a topographic map without a compass. You can often figure out where you are by matching the features on a map to what you see in front of you.
  3. Next, learn how to use a compass. If you have problems getting motivated to teach yourself how to do this, I suggest you take one of the excellent classes offered by the REI Outdoor School to learn this important skill.
  4. Go on a lot of day hikes with a hiking club. You’ll pick up a lot of skills by simply watching other hikers. You’ll see what kind of gear they use, how they pace themselves, how they navigate, how leaders manage different types of groups, and so on. There’s a lot to learn.
  5. Buy a water filter and start using it on day hikes. Learning how to do this one thing made it possible for me to hike longer and farther than ever before. It was a watershed moment for me. Yuck, yuck.
  6. Step it up a notch and go on a lot of 1 or 2 overnight trips with a backpacking club. You’ll pick up even more skills by watching others like how to hang a bear bag, what kind of backpacking food people like to bring, what kind of stoves the prefer, the makes and models of the gear they carry, and so on.
  7. Hike in the rain. Seriously. This is a great way to learn about how to stay warm when you get wet, about how to accept what the trail throws at you, how to take care of chronically wet feet and about how to maintain a sense of humor when you are physically miserable.
  8. Start hiking a peak bagging list like the White Mountain 4000 footers. You’ll learn about the dangers of hiking above treeline, the importance of trip planning and how to avoid lighting and thunderstorm danger.
  9. Take a wilderness first aid class. You’ll learn many basic survival skills and how to help others in need.
  10. Go on a long backpacking trip lasting at least a week. You’ll learn about the importance of going light, being able to change your plans on the fly, and having good skills for dealing with unexpected situations or mishaps.
  11. Join a rock gym or take a class of outdoor rock climbing. Doing this totally transformed my outdoor scrambling skills.
  12. Snowshoe in winter. You’ll learn how movement can keep you warm, how to adjust your pace to avoid sweating and how to layer.
  13. Take a winter backpacking class. You’ll learn a lot about weather forecasting, how to avoid frostbite and hypothermia, all about the properties of snow and how to survive using an emergency snow shelter.
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That’s still just scratching the surface….

What Skills or Classes made you a Better Hiker?

Please leave a comment about formative experiences or skills that made you a better hiker and that others would benefit from learning about.

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