What You Need to Know About a Hiking Trail

So you you’re thinking about going for a hike and you get excited. But then you start thinking about everything you need to find out. Where’s the best place to hike? How do I get there? Are there any important things I should know about the trail before I go?

I’ve created a bit of a checklist for you so you don’t have to worry about forgetting some important piece of the hike-planning puzzle and not having a good hike because of it. It’s not perfect and might be missing some good things you like to look for before you go hiking. I want to know what you look for before hiking. You can add them to the comments at the end of the post.

So here’s a list of good things to think about when you’re planning a hike.

Where do you find information about a trail?

Popular trails and parks often have websites with the latest information about conditions on the trail and anything you’ll need to watch out for. There is usually a good description of the trail and any known dangers that you might face while hiking in that area. Always look for a second or third source for information about trails as one website may be out of date or missing information.

More and more websites are popping up with lists of trails that you can search through for particular areas. Some good ones are Everytrail, Trailpeak, and ViewRanger. Do a quick google search for “hiking trails areaname” and you’ll get other websites that are specific to certain areas. On PureOutside, I mainly cover Vancouver Island but there are probably many others that have information on the trail you are looking for.

Where the trailhead is

The trailhead is the start of the trail itself. Usually you’ll be able to park near the trailhead somewhere and start hiking from there. To start your hike you’ll need to know how to get from your house to the trailhead.

Where the trail goes

Some great hikes I’ve been on started with just wanting to find out where a trail went. Pure exploration. Most of the time I’ll have an end target in mind. Sometimes, a summit of a mountain might be the goal, or a beautiful waterfall or a huge stand of old growth trees. Some trails don’t really have a destination but still can be a beautiful place to go and explore away from the bustle and noise of the city.

Sometimes it’s easier to go for a hike when you have a particular destination. You’ll know how far you need to go to the goal you’re trying to accomplish. Once you’re finished your goal you can turn around and head home, satisfied with the feeling of accomplishment. Be careful not to get too caught up in completing your goals though, the journey along the way is just as beautiful.

The difficulty of the trail

Trails can vary a huge amount in their difficulty. It’s a good idea to have some sort of picture in your head of what the trail is like. You don’t want to be going out to a crazy, steep, overgrown trail if you are just beginning. Most trail websites and books have some sort of ratings for the trails. Talk to people who have done the trail before to see what the difficulty is. I love exploring places I’ve never been before but struggling through something I’m not comfortable with isn’t fun.

Some good indicators of the difficulty of a trail are the length of it and the elevation profile. Long trails can be tough just because they are long. The easiest obstacles can look daunting if you’re tired from hiking 15 kilometres. An elevation profile of a trail is basically a picture of a trail in terms of its height above sea level. If the trail goes from very low to very high in a short period of time, you’ll know it can be quite steep. Even a trail that starts and ends at the same elevation could have gone up and down thousands of metres!

Maps

Some sort of map is one of the most important things to take on a hike whereever you go. You never know when you could take a wrong turn or decide to head in a different direction even in an area that you know well. If the trail is in an area that you don’t normally go, then the map will be even more useful. Some areas will have specific trail maps that you can use with major landmarks on it to make it easier to use. If you aren’t able to find one of those, most areas will have a topographic map available for purchase nearby.

If you use a GPS when you hike, then having a GPS track file for the trail can make navigating much easier. Make sure you’re not relying 100% on your GPS to find your way around when you hike because they can stop working.  They are nice when getting to a trailhead or finding a certain trail in an area. On Vancouver Island where I do a lot of my hiking, logging roads lead to many good hiking trails. The problem is that most logging roads look identical and having a GPS track can save a lot of time looking for the trailhead.

Current conditions

The same trail can go from easy to very tough and complicated depending on the conditions and weather. Snow can add a degree of complexity that you may not want to tackle. Some areas can be completely closed during the winter because of avalanche or rockslide danger.

Bridges

Many trails have bridges on them to cross valleys or streams and rivers. Often during storms or just over time the bridges are damaged and need to be repaired. Unfortunately parks or volunteers may not be able to get to the trail within a reasonable amount of time and hikers need to find a way around while the bridge is out.

Tides

If you’re hiking near the ocean chances are part of the trail goes near the water. The trail may even run completely on the beach at some points. If so, you’ll need to be aware of the water levels during the times you’ll be on that trail. Park websites tend to link to tide information if it’s required for the hike. Even if it doesn’t try and verify how close you’ll get to the water during the hike and tide information information for the area.

Altitude

Here on Vancouver Island, none of the trails go high enough to run into altitude issues. Elsewhere in the world there it’s a different story. Know how high your trail is and if you could run into issues at that elevation. If you’ve hiked at that elevation before you will probably be ok. Altitude sickness can be a tricky, unannounced problem.

Transportation

Transportation is usually a very simple part of organizing a hike. You drive or get a ride to the trailhead. Many trails end up back at the same parking lot and you can drive home from there.

Some trails start in one place and end up in another. In this case you will have to arrange to use multiple vehicles to transport everyone to the start of the trail and leave one near the end. Sometimes there are buses or shuttles that can get you to your destination.

For more remote trails, planes and boats can be used to get to the start of the hike. Some trails require the use of boats in the middle of it to get across rivers or lakes. Make note of when and where you’ll need to use these other types of transportation as they often cost extra. You wouldn’t want to be out in the woods without money to continue your hike!

Fees

Some trails, like the West Coast Trail in BC, Canada, have fees, a hiker limit and must be booked months in advance to ensure a time on the trail to hike. Some trails have no limit but still require a fee to be paid before-hand to help pay for the upkeep of the park. Fees might have to be paid online before-hand or in cash in the parking lot before starting the hike so make sure you know where and how you can pay.

Interesting points along the trail

I always like to know about place along the trail that would be fun to see along the way. Maybe there are some really good viewpoints along the trail before you get to your final destination or waterfalls or old growth trees or plane crash remains. If you’re pressed for time then you may not want to check out the extras but if you end up with a spare minute then you’ll have something more to enjoy.

Does it require special gear?

Most day-hikes don’t need any special gear but depending on the trail and the conditions you might need something extra. This might mean that you won’t be able to hike that trail and that’s totally ok. You may need an inflatable boat or crampons, an ice axe and rope for exposed sections. The weather is also a factor in determining what kind of gear you’ll need on you hike. Lots of trails don’t require any special gear and it’s great to start hiking on those and then acquire the gear necessary as you put bigger trails on your list.

Emergency Exits

How you can get off a trail if something goes wrong is always a good idea to keep in the back of your mind. If you’re careful and have the right gear then chances are very slim that something will go wrong. The chance is always there though. Sometimes the way you arrived at the trail is the fastest way out. Other times there may be other entrances or trails that offer a quicker exit and a faster way to get help if you need it. Problems on the trail aren’t something you should dwell on but it’s always good to have a plan of attack in case something does go wrong.

Weather

This is not necessarily a trait of the trails you’ll be hiking but it’s something that you’ll need to keep in mind when you’re planning a hike. Weather can affect how long you’ll want to hike for and what kind of trails you can take on with you and your group. Some areas can be covered in snow some of the year. Others can be extremely wet or dry. You’ll need to know the temperature of the area to plan what clothing to bring. Hiking in 3 degrees celsius will require different gear than in 25 degree weather. Getting wet during a warm trip could mean a minor discomfort while you dry off whereas getting wet on a cold trip could mean a danger of hypothermia. On the other side of that scale, when the weather is hot there are different dangers. If you are in the sun for a lot of the trip, sun stroke or sun burn can be dangerous. You’ll also need to think about water and how much you have as you go along. If you’re working hard you’ll be sweating and you’ll need to replenish this liquids as you go. Some places have a lot of water that you can use to replenish your water supply and others don’t.

Water

A very important item to take with you is water. You should take ample amounts with you on every hike you go on. Having to hike a couple hours back to the water when you’ve run out of water isn’t much fun. If you get lost then the water you have will become even more important. Humans can last weeks without food but we can only last a couple days without water.

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