Hiking 101: Trail Guide Reveals How & Why to Get Moving
By Kelly Crawford, 30 July 2016
Hiking?! The word alone summons up a range of emotions from “ick” to “Oh, my gosh, YES!” Well, here’s your chance to learn more about this activity, what it entails and its many benefits.
The truth is, we have all been “hiking” since we took our very first steps. There’s no mystery to hiking if we call it what it is, “walking”. You started putting one foot in front of the other as soon as you could stand. Then those feet took you to school, the store, the shopping mall, concerts and festivals, maybe even the Las Vegas Strip or Times Square.
So… if hiking is just walking, are the words walking and hiking interchangeable? Let’s check. Walking is usually leisurely, done on pavement and often near your home, while hiking is off-road, generally rigorous and done on paths or trails in national parks, mountains, desert, etc. A significant difference is that what you choose to carry with you in the way of water, food, pack and other equipment, may save your life.
Save my life? That’s scary! Why would I want to hike?
One reason is that the benefits of hiking are remarkable: a safe and healthy way to exercise, a shared activity with friends, relatives, or even your dog. Alone or shared, you can explore and discover the incredible world around you. Once you start, you’ll discover how habit-forming hiking can be. Fortunately there are endlessly varying and unique places to hike. So, you’ll never run out of options or get bored.
It’s easy to get started. If you already own a pair of running shoes, your cost is zero. At a later date, you may want to invest in some quality hiking boots and appropriate attire. You didn’t think that old ROTC or pep squad t-shirt would last forever did you? For now, start with what you have and decide on purchases later. Essentials that many hikers eventually may want will be covered in a future article. Recognize that you don't need any real investment, other than time and a desire to get moving.
Do it because hiking is good for you. Not only physically and mentally but, emotionally as well. Think back to how you felt at the completion of a rewarding workout or an enjoyable physical activity. Hiking provides this feeling in spades. If you need more inducement, there are a host of articles and studies attesting to the short and long term benefits of hiking in the outdoors. Here are two that sum up those benefits: lifehack.org and Huffington Post .
If you’re confused about by the various terms for hiking activities you’re hearing and reading; there are four main types of hikes: nature hikes, trail hikes, wilderness hikes and cross-country trekking. Each is associated with a level of exertion: easy, moderate, strenuous or extreme. For reference, here are some of the trails found in Joshua Tree National Park
Nature hikes (easy to moderate):
A nature hike is one of the best ways to ease into the world of hiking. Nature trails are generally located in or near every National Park, State Park, city or town. These trails offer new hiking enthusiasts an opportunity to explore the sport without having to acquire additional skills or equipment. Nature trails are generally well-maintained, well-marked and frequently include plaques or signs detailing information on the history, plant life, animals, structures and landmarks along the way. Trails can be paved or unpaved ranging in distance from about 1/2 mile up to 2 miles. A few may exceed this distance but typically they are relatively short. Nature trails fall almost exclusively into the “easy” category, with an occasional moderate designation. Chances are there are several in or near your own hometown to help get you started. Nature trails are a fun, easy, and often educational way to get involved with hiking. In Joshua Tree National Park, try Hidden Valley, Barker Dam and the Oasis of Mara. These are sure to delight.
Trail Hikes (easy to strenuous):
Trail hiking is probably the most common and popular style of hiking. Every year millions of people enjoy hiking on a multitude of interesting trails that crisscross the impressive network of National Parks, State Parks, National Forests, Monuments and Preserves, not only in the United States but around the world. Hiking trails provide enthusiasts with a way to get out and explore nature with a margin of safety and see some spectacular scenery inaccessible from roadways. Trail hikes are usually well-maintained and often marked with signs, arrows or mile markers. They often, but not always, have fabricated elements such as steps, bridges, railing, etc., to facilitate walking and provide safety. Trail hikes frequently terminate at a specific point of interest such as a stunning overlook or a place of historical interest. Some are loops that bring hikers back to the starting point. Others are connectors to a larger network of trails and points of interest in the area. They are almost always unpaved and can incorporate steep climbs, switchbacks and descents. Most trail hikes range between three and 12 miles and can be completed in a few hours. Some may take half to a full day to complete. Others can take days, weeks or even months, think Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trails. You’ll want to have a good understanding of map reading before embarking on trail hikes. It’s essential to check with local guides, maps and park visitor centers to ensure you understand what you are getting into before heading out. Prepare and pack accordingly and leave a hiking plan with someone you trust. Some of the more popular trail hikes in Joshua Tree National Park include: 49 Palms Oasis, Ryan Mountain, Lost Horse Mine, Cottonwood Springs and Lucky Boy Loop.
Wilderness hikes (moderate to extreme):
Wilderness hiking is where trail hiking goes from activity to adventure. Embarking on a wilderness hike can take you to some incredible places, rarely seen by others. It is an exploration of the self as much as it is an exploration of nature. Wilderness hikes can incorporate a combination of marked trails, unmarked trails and even some cross-country trekking in order to complete the trip. These are journeys in and of themselves and should not be undertaken lightly. Many of these hikes can be found in guidebooks and blogs and will lead you to obscure but rewarding locations.
Some of the most incredible sights I have ever encountered were on wilderness hikes. These hikes are almost exclusively on unmarked and unmaintained trails. They are rarely, if ever, notated on park maps and details of these hikes are often limited. A thorough knowledge of topographical map reading, compass work and GPS use are critical when undertaking a wilderness hike. Many of these hikes cover unpredictable terrain that can include false trails, dead ends and precipitous routes. Should you become lost or injured on a wilderness hike, the chance of another hiker or a Park Ranger showing up to help you is slim. Because of this, wilderness hikes and cross-country treks should never be conducted alone or without communication with the outside world. Detailed preparation and planning is paramount. Always depart with the assumption that you may have to spend the night and pack accordingly.
If you are new to the world of wilderness hiking, get a local guide to accompany you. Guides have a knowledge and understanding of the area that will help you avoid mishaps and mistakes. Regardless of your confidence or experience level, always leave a copy of your hiking plan with someone you trust. Many hikers find wilderness hikes to be the most rewarding and enjoyable. They challenge not only your physical abilities but also your mental toughness as well. There is no set distance as the routes and destinations are as variable and unique as the individuals undertaking the adventure. They can be as simple as a mile detour to a hidden waterfall or as complicated as a multi-day journey across breathtaking terrain. Excellent wilderness hiking opportunities abound in Joshua Tree National Park: Explore the Wonderland of Rocks, the Hexie Mountains or Queen Mountain.
Cross-country trekking (easy to extreme):
Not recommend for anyone without extensive navigational, survival, first aid, and back country wilderness skills. Trekking is the pinnacle of the hiking world and serves as a journey through your soul and spirit more than anything else. There are no trails; no signs and the routes are as easy or extreme as the topography dictates. Cross-country trekking is undertaken to places far off the beaten path where the chances of being the first person in a long time to set foot on this land is likely. The rewards and discoveries of such an undertaking are endlessly appealing. However, the risks and associated uncertainty are high. These are hikes where you navigate the wilderness from start to finish. The beginning, end points and distances of such journeys are up to those who elect to undertake them. Often they are the most difficult way to get to a known point of interest without following the crowd’s well-beaten path. Before you start out, be sure to review the regulations and policies of the park you are visiting to be certain there are no restrictions on off-trail travel.
These excursions into the unknown should never be undertaken lightly, alone or without reliable communication with the outside world. Note that a cell phone does not qualify - in many locations cellular coverage is nil. It would be wise to invest in a SPOT locator or satellite phone before undertaking any wilderness hike or cross-country trek. The risk of becoming lost or disoriented are high, encounters with wildlife are likely and the remoteness of the location increases the possibility that any disabling injury, without assistance or communication, may result in death. Therefore, a course in Wilderness Medicine through WMA, WLI, or NOLS, is highly recommended as well. While not without risks, if you plan ahead for any eventuality, cross-country trekking is extremely rewarding and beneficial to the mind, body and soul. It will challenge you in new ways and fill you with a well-earned feeling of self-confidence and satisfaction. As with wilderness hiking, for those new to the activity, a local guide is recommended. Guides will help you improve your backcountry skills and provide a margin of safety in what can often be an unpredictable environment.
Remember to prepare and pack accordingly as the chance of having to spend a night in the wilderness is a real possibility when trekking cross-country. As with all hikes, leaving a detailed plan of your trip with someone at home may save your life. From north to south and east to west, Joshua Tree National Park offers a multitude of incredible hikes for beginners all the way to cross-country trekkers. You’ll have the experience and pleasure, of visiting places and sights rarely seen by most visitors. Strike out alone or with friends and family and discover the physical, mental and social benefits that await you.
For more information on hiking, camping and backpacking opportunities in the Joshua Tree area, visit Joshua Tree Excursions
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Kelly Crawford is the CEO and Founder of Joshua Tree Excursions. He is a Wilderness First Responder and a former Military Professional with 23 years of outdoor, operational, high risk experience. He currently lives and operates customized tours in the Joshua Tree area.
Serving: Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, and the Coachella Valley with hiking, camping, backpacking and night sky journeys.
Hiking the backcountry
The wonderland of rocks
Barker Dam Trail
A view from the Ryan Mountain trail
Backpacking the Joshua Tree wilderness
Trekking the Joshua Tree Back Country