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General Considerations for Finding a Place to Hike

The first thing to ask yourself is, what exactly are you looking for? Then, consider what places are within your reach, practically speaking. Be sure to find out if the activity you have in mind is permitted in the place you're going to. Last and perhaps most importantly, consider what you can handle.

With all these things in mind, you can start looking. There's a list of suggestions and resources at the bottom of this page.

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What are you looking for?

Do you want to add just a little contact with nature to your everyday life? Consider your local city parks or reservation lands. Even private lands, if the owner is amenable, such as the fringes of farms, woodlots, or other such undeveloped areas can offer a peaceful and interesting place to visit with wild things. Check your town's Web site and your local library for information about parks and outdoor recreation areas, or just ask around among your neighbors. And don't forget your own back yard. There may be more fascinating birds, insects, and plants there than you imagine. You never know until you get out there and just open your eyes and ears for a while.

Do you want to find a real wilderness area that you can visit once in a while and get to know well? Check your state's Web site for state and national parks, national forests, and other large outdoor recreation areas within your travel range. Read books and articles about the area before your first visit so you know what to expect. Study the roads and the location of parking areas so you have a good idea of how long it will take to get there.

Are you planning a business trip or vacation in an unfamiliar place and hoping to explore its natural history first-hand? Now you've got some research to do! Check the Web for tourism sites in the area you're planning to visit. Remember to look for printable field guides to the plants and wildlife in the area. Consider several alternatives, in case you discover after you arrive that your first choice isn't going to work out. (I never got outside of Palermo when I visited Sicily, when my planned trip to Mount Aetna was canceled due to eruption!)

Are you planning a trip where hiking is the main objective? Good for you! You'll want to consider carefully, and find out as much as you can about the place before you depart. Get some information from books and Web sites. Then get some more. Be sure to filter the information properly: If someone has something to sell you, they might make it sound more attractive and more accessible than it really is. Find out if you need reservations for campsites, canoe rentals and such.

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Places you can get to

Read those maps carefully! Sixty miles by road might look like an hour's drive, but not if it's an unpaved logging road through rough country. You don't want to get caught out in wilderness unprepared, and unable to get out before people start worrying about you.

If you are planning to visit the area repeatedly, allow yourself plenty of time to get to know the place. Try a few alternate routes to find the best one. Try a few different access points - parking lots, trail heads, etc. - before you pick which one will be "your place." You'll be back many times, so don't get discouraged if you find that your first choice is not as good as you hoped.

If you are going on a once-in-a-lifetime visit, you might want to hire a guide. Yes, it's an expense and a bit of an intrusion, but it's better than getting in trouble. When you contact the guide to plan your hike, make sure they understand your objectives - whether you want to race to that mountain peak, or just take it slow and watch the birds - and give them an honest assessment of your capabilities. If they are taking you as part of a group, make sure the rigid tour schedule will not make your vacation a chore for you.

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Is it Allowed?

Take stock of what you intend to do, and whether it might be prohibited or restricted. Many parks do not allow camping. Fishing is forbidden or restricted in many lakes and rivers. (I know a beautiful pond in a state park where only children are allowed to fish.)

Are you planning to bring your dog along for the hike? Not all parks permit dogs, and most require that the dog be on a leash.

There are also restrictions on power boats, snowmobiles, and even off-road bicycles. Make sure the place you plan to go permits what you plan to do.

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Can you take it?

Make an honest assessment of your abilities, both physical and mental, and plan for caution. Think you can walk twelve miles in a day? Don't plan on more than seven miles in unfamiliar country.

Carefully read the trail descriptions and degree of difficulty before you decide what you can handle. If it says "rugged," that means you should not plan on setting any land speed records there.

Bear in mind that most trail guide literature is written by people with extensive hiking experience and above-average physical condition. If you're a couch potato hoping to become a great outdoorsman, don't plan on taking the same hike that the great outdoorsman calls "challenging."

Pay attention to the contour lines you see on most trail maps. They tell you how steep the trail is, generally. A one-mile trail that climbs 500 feet is a walk in the park. A one-mile trail that climbs 2,000 feet might be impassable to the average sedentary person.

Again, make sure your self-assessment is honest. You might tell a great adventure story at home, but you can't fool the elements. When you're out on the trail, no amount of bravado can make up for a lack of physical fitness.

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Suggestions

Don't overlook a place because it's popular. True, crowds take away from the sense of peace and solitude, and wildlife avoids contact with people. But if you go at the right time of day, you might find something close to wilderness, even in a place that is usually crowded. Most people are most active late in the day, and most animals are most active at dusk and dawn. That spells it out for you: Wherever you go, try to go there at dawn.

If you are fortunate enough to have a state or national park nearby, that's probably your best choice. Otherwise, for frequent quick visits, don't overlook your city parks and private property.

Before hiking on private property, introduce yourself to the owner. As long as they know who you are and what you're up to, most people are happy to allow hikers to use their woods and fields. Of course, some landowners have had bad experiences, and you certainly must respect their rights to protect their property from damage and their livestock from injury and harassment. Remember that many landowners have agreements with hunting clubs, so they might not be able to let you hike on their land during hunting season.

When planning a trip to an unknown area, make sure you do your research ahead of time. Again, state and national parks are probably your best choices. Not only are they the most likely to offer a good hiking experience, they are also the best documented. You certainly won't be able to find a source on the Web that tells you what to expect on Farmer Jones' back forty, but there's a wealth of information about public parklands. On another note, you'll find plenty of information about commercial recreation areas, but they all have a financial interest in getting you to visit the place. Public parks are more likely to have plain and truthful information available.

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Resources

  • Your local library. Look for books about your chosen destination. If you are planning a trip to an area you are not familiar with, look for local outdoor-oriented magazines.
  • Google. Enter the name of the city or state and the word "hiking," and you'll find an inexhaustible chain of links to information you can use.
  • American Hiking Society (http://www.americanhiking.org/). Search their "Alliance of Hiking Organizations" for affiliated organizations in your area.
  • Appalachian Mountain Club (http://www.outdoors.org/). Look for your state or local chapter.
  • National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/). The mother lode, for the United States.
  • Pacific Northwest Trail Association (http://www.pnt.org/). Dedicated to one particular trail, but one that covers a distance similar to that of the Appalachian Trail.
  • USDA Forest Service (http://www.fs.fed.us/). Another extremely rich source, broken down by regions of the United States.
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