Going on a Day Hike? Here’s How to Prepare in 5 Easy Steps
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
As the weather improves and the mountains are calling, many of us are considering returning to the trails for a long-awaited hike in the sunshine. Whether you’re headed to high altitude or the rolling hills, you’re probably out of the habit of packing your backpack after weeks of lockdown. Or maybe you’re just looking for a general refresher on packing for hikes. Before we head into the must-have checklist for hikers, here we’ll have a look at how to prepare for a day hike in 5 easy steps.
1. Research your hiking destination and route
You might be heading for a new destination on holiday, or going back to your favourite hills. In any case, research is key before any other preparation. Here are the crucial things to check ahead of your hike:
I recommend using the best-quality maps created by your country’s national body in charge of surveying access land. These could be Ordnance Survey or Harvey maps in the UK, IGN in France or Spain, etc. You can usually find these in your nearest walking shop, bookstore, or online. Check that they cover the right area you’ll be walking in, and that you’re happy with the level of detail they provide (1:25,000 scales are more suited for shorter distances and provide more detail, whereas 1:50,000 scales are better suited for a long day hike; Harvey Maps use 1:40,000 scale and have a very easy to follow shading for altitude).
Check your map before you go and have a good idea of the meaning of the icons, key items you’ll find en route etc. Also, be aware of contour heights – sometimes the maps will show a contour line every 10m, sometimes 15m, and in some locations every 5m. You can check this on your map.
Online tools have become incredibly helpful for mapping and preparing a day out. Websites such as https://ridewithgps.com/ or www.mapmyrun.com are really easy to use and will show you the distance, elevation, and profile of your planned hike. This can be really useful in assessing how much time you’re likely to be out and will influence your decision about kit, food, etc.
Alternatively, in the UK, you can also use Bing Maps to get a free online version of the OS map for your area of choice. Similar options are available for other countries (e.g. Geoportail in France) but they are not as simple to use as mapping tools.
One last word on mapping tools: you may get a false sense of the terrain and underfoot conditions if you only rely on them. Moreover, sometimes, elevation is questionable on these. So be sure to double check and cross reference with a map.
Parking / Getting There
Often overlooked – but a critical aspect of preparing a day hike! Check where you’ll be starting from and what the parking restrictions are in case you’re travelling by car. A quick look on Google Maps with satellite view will allow you to find car parks, or use street view where possible to spot a good place to park.
If you plan on using public transport, be aware that you might need to count additional walking time to your starting point. And it goes without saying – check timetables so you’re aware of the time you need to return!
Other hikers’ accounts
There are a multitude of websites where you can find other hikers’ accounts of the day hike you’re planning to undertake, especially if you’re going to climb a well-known mountain or are heading to a popular trail. Do a quick search on Google and have a read! It might give you ideas for photo opportunities or tips on bits to avoid.
Tip: If you read about lots of bogs on your trail, make sure to pack your gaiters!
2. Check the weather
You’ve got a good idea of where you’re going and how long your day hike will take. But, before even beginning to pack your bag, remember to check the weather. You should do this several times, both for safety and comfort: the day before, the evening before, and the morning of your planned day hike. This is because mountain weather can change very rapidly and factors such as wind chill or UV index can make or break your hike. Weather can also become life threatening if not handled correctly.
Some great sources for checking the weather in the UK mountains are:
The Mountain Weather Information Service – with helpful descriptions of wind chill, effect of weather on walking etc.
Smartphone apps such as AccuWeather with hourly predictions for rain, wind, and sunshine
Bear in mind, however, that apps are usually linked to towns and won’t give you an accurate view of the weather on the trail. Some excellent apps such as Meteoblue allow you to put in the summit of a mountain and include hourly forecasts for rain and wind speed, so they’re worth comparing to an official weather information source.
3. Decide on your kit
I’ll go into a detailed explanation of kit required depending on weather forecasts in a separate post, however some key considerations are:
Pack for the weather
Include items such as sun cream, sunglasses, and a sunhat, or alternatively, waterproof layers and warm hats and gloves
Always bring a waterproof bag in your backpack where you can put all your items that can be damaged by rain / Use a waterproof rain cover over your backpack
Check that everything fits in your backpack before the morning of your trip
Divide kit between group members so you’re not duplicating and travelling as light as possible (e.g. a first-aid kit can be carried by one member of the group only as long as it contains the items anyone will need)
It’s always better to have options of clothing during the day to allow you to adapt to the changing temperature. Layers are the easiest way to do this.
Bring an emergency repair kit
Remember the saying, “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong”? Be prepared for small mishaps such as boot laces breaking or accidental damage when your bag gets caught in stray bit of wire. You can simply carry some glue, spare laces, duct tape ,and safety pins – these items go a long way to repairing just about everything!
4. Plan your fuelling
You can’t walk for a whole day without the right food and drink to fuel your hike. Depending on your preference, you can opt for real food and prepare some sandwiches or a packed lunch. Whatever you take with you, add one extra item before heading out the door. This is because we often underestimate how much energy we spend in the hills compared to day-to-day activities. Your body will need more fuel than on a day at the office, so remember to add snacks for at least 3 additional stops other than lunch.
It’s also a great idea to bring one emergency food item which you’re not planning to use, but which you can resort to in case you’re out for longer than you imagined. Something high in calories like a bag of mixed nuts and dried fruit, or an energy bar, or even a chocolate bar, will be great for this.
Finally, hydration. It’s important to bring water or a mix of liquids, such as some squash, or an electrolyte mix, especially if it’s a hot day. For a cold day, you can take a thermos with some coffee or tea. You’ll be glad you did when you have your lunch stop!
5. Emergency contacts
The least fun but by far the most important element of your planning should be your emergency plans. This means letting people know where you are going and how long you expect to be gone – tell at least one friend or family member.
Consider carrying with you a note with emergency contact details in case you are found on the hills. A lot of modern phones allow you to programme this in.
Finally, know what numbers you need to call should you need emergency assistance. 112 works pretty much everywhere in Europe. In the UK, you can dial 999 and you also have the option to register your phone with the Emergency Services so you can reach them by text if you have low battery or intermittent signal. To register, text “register” to 999 and follow the instructions in the reply.
That’s it! Go out and enjoy your day hike!
Do you have other tips for planning a day hike? Let me know below, and comment to tell me how you got on when you’ve made it out.