When you scroll through Instagram you often see impressive photos of tents perched at the edge of meadows or hikers standing on stunning vistas with massive backpacks. It’s beautiful, no doubt. However, it is also requires an incredible amount of work to get there. The backpacking hike itself isn’t even the hardest part. Getting all of the backpacking gear purchased [let alone packed!] is a challenge in and of itself. You most definitely earn those views when you’re backpacking.
Unfortunately, backpacking, and all the time required for it, is not always feasible. This is where day hiking comes into play. Day hiking is exactly as it sounds…hiking, during the day. Sometimes a headlamp is necessary [and should always be in your pack, just in case!] but generally speaking you’re not planning to sleep outside when you’re headed out on a day hike. This is the simple beauty of day hiking and why we love it.
Whether you’re well versed in day hiking or just getting into it we have a few tips for how to create a perfect day hike!
Reach Out to Rangers
When we think of rangers we often think of the people manning the entrance booths and information desks at National Parks or the people patrolling the trails. Rangers do those things, but they do so much more. If you’re new to an area [or looking for an excuse to explore new areas close to home] you will find that rangers have invaluable information. A quick call to the local National Forest Service ranger station will get you so much information…with details that will take you hours to find online.
Seriously, whether you’re looking to hike, camp, climb or bike you will get a ton of information from the rangers. They will be able to share current closures, what areas have low to moderate activity and what trsil will give you the experience you’re looking for [alpine lakes vs. meadows vs. fall colors]. The rangers can also tell you where dogs are allowed, where you can bike and what trailheads are ideal for your adventure.
Bonus Tip: If you’re not sure what ranger station to reach out to in the area you want to explore you can contact any ranger district nearby and they can help point you in the right direction. I have found that they are happy to pass along the name and number for the rangers that can help you. They want to protect the wilderness, but they also want to see people out there exploring what they work so hard to maintain!
Plot a Loop Route
This may be a personal preference, but I love hiking loops. A loop gives me an opportunity to see new trail with every step. This isn’t always feasible in the most literal sense — sometimes I need to map out a lollipop route [out/back with a loop at one end] or a barbell route [out/back in the middle of two loops] or something similar.
Ultimately, the goal of creating a variation of a loop route is to see as much new trail as possible. Rather than settle for a straight forward out-and-back route stare at the maps a bit until you find other options. It might add on a handful of miles but it’ll be worth it!
Bonus Tip: If you can’t find a loop route, or are indulging in the simplicity of an out-and-back route, you can still get a new view on the trails…they do look different in different directions and at different times of day!
I live in Colorado where summer storms tend to roll through the mountains around 2pm, like clock-work. This requires a pre-dawn start for any long day hikes or adventures above treeline [where lightning strike is a real concern]. However, I’d strongly recommend an eary start even if storms or terrain aren’t something you need to worry about.
The real beauty of an early start comes with the quiet, near-empty trails. It’ll be easier to find parking at trailheads before 8am and you’ll get dibs on the best snack and lunch spots as the day progresses. Plus, there is a fresh sense of accomplishment to be calmly heading back toward the trailhead while others are still packing up to head out.
Bonus Tip: Many of the same perks can be said for late afternoon/evening starts. This is an option for shorter or lower adventures here in Colorado. Once the afternoon storms have rolled through you can head out for a few hours of quiet trail time with the surreal feel of a post-storm wilderness.
Pack a Lunch
My trail experience started with trail running. I was a very casual hiker when I discovered trail running [more trail, less time!] so most of my trail experiences revolved around moving quickly. I always packed a lot of food…but it was usually snack food I could eat quickly or on the move. Trail running is still high on my list of things to do with my free time, but I have also jumped on the day hiking bandwagon.
As I started spending more time day hiking I started packing more luxurious snacks, sometimes even enough food to warrant sitting on a scenic rock for a true lunch break. It changed my world. I still snack as I covered ground, but about halfway through my adventure I start looking for the “perfect lunch rock”. Once I find it I settle in, pull out my lunch and just soak it all up. Having a lunch [even if it is just a pile of elaborate snacks] has given me an excuse to slow down and enjoy the area I’m in.
Bonus Tip: If you’re not sure what to pack think about what you see on cheese boards or as hor d’oeuvres at a bar-b-que. I often pack string cheese or cubed cheese, salami, tortillas or crackers, grapes, apples, hummus, veggies and the likes. Once I get everything out of my pack it ends up looking like a trail smorgasbord of snacks!
Invite Awesome People
This may go without saying…but bring along some awesome humans to explore with you! I do love my solo time on the trails, yet there is something special about sharing the experience with some cool people. Having someone to share the adventure with makes it that much more special. Many of us have a group of go-to friends we love to hit the trails with, but if you’re new the an area or new to hiking those friends may seem hard to come by. It is hard to put yourself out there, but after attending a few group hikes or inviting along new friends you’ll find it is quite easy to connect on the trail.
For me, this is a beautiful part of trail-ventures. You don’t need to have much in common with someone ot enjoy the trails with them. Many of my trail loving friends live very different professional and even personal lives than I do. When we are on the trails this doesn’t matter. Our differences actually make our adventures more interesting — we have very diverse things to talk about and people have genuine curiosity about various lifestyles.
Bonus Tip: Inviting new friends along for trail time or joining other groups for hiking gives you an awesome opportunity to get to know more people in your community. This is great if you just moved…or if you’re currently traveling. Almost every group of trail lovers out there is inviting and encouraging!
With these five tips for creating the perfect day hike you are ready to go…right? Pretty much! The only thing you’re missing is your gear, which is probably stashed in your gear closet [or the gear closet of a friend that is willing to lend it out]. If you are headed out for a day hike that doesn’t exceed 6 miles or 4 hours you don’t need to worry about any special gear.
Simply wear some comfortable, athletic [ie: non-cotton] clothes and fill a backpack with water, snacks, rain gear and the rest of the 10 Essentials. This will give you an opportunity to experience the trails with the bare necessities. From here you’ll be able to build up your gear stash with items you really love having along for the ride. Maybe you want to add a chair for your lunch perch or trekking poles for the rough terrain…or a million other things. There are a lot of options, but you’re better off taking on trails with the basic essentials before your start adding items you don’t personally need on the trail.
On that note…let’s go explore!