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How to Prepare Before Hitting the Trails

Guest Post by Chad Ayres – Land Trust of North Alabama board member and avid trail runner

One question that comes up from time to time is what tips I might suggest to someone new to outdoor recreation, including what equipment I recommend carrying while on the trails. Most likely, everything will go smoothly but there are some precautions you should consider before you hike, run, or ride on the miles of Land Trust trails we’re so lucky to enjoy. Because these trails often crisscross acres of undisturbed land, your preparations should be a little different than what you might consider for a neighborhood stroll. However, some simple steps and a handful of items can make you feel ready to explore the trails with confidence – just in case.


First and foremost, I would suggest the buddy system – taking one, two, or ten of your closest friends with you. But when that’s not possible, I follow a two-step policy.  First, I tell my wife how long I plan to be gone and generally where I plan to run.  I don’t necessarily provide a detailed route (although that would be ideal). I at least let her know where to send help if I haven’t returned by the expected time.  That way, if she has to make a call she can at least say “He is on Wade Mountain.” or “He said he would be around Alum Hollow Trail on Green Mountain.”

Second, I always carry my cell phone.  In this day and age, as remote as we like to believe we are on these beautiful properties, just about every spot receives a cell signal.  So if I need to I can not only make a call, but 911 could also “ping” my location.

As I spend many, many weekends on these trails and have done so for nearly two decades (I feel old just writing that), I am very familiar with each trail and almost know each and every curve.  However, if you lack this experience with our many miles of trails and plan to hike or run somewhere you are not totally familiar, I highly recommend you download and carry a “hard copy” map of the area where you are headed.  Apps and phones are great, but only when they’re working.  There is no more helpless feeling than watching your phone battery die and realize you don’t know which direction to go at the next trail intersection.  A hard copy map placed inside a plastic (i.e. waterproof) zipped bag is an easy solution to prevent that. You can find trail maps for all Land Trust nature preserves at landtrustnal.org/explore.

I can already hear at least one of you saying, but what good is a map in the dark?  That, of course, leads us to what gear you should consider carrying, especially when going it alone. The obvious answer for purposes of our map dilemma is a cheap LED flashlight that can be purchased at any local sporting goods shop for less than $5. These lights are very lightweight and do not take up much room in a pack.  If you have even the slightest hint you might miss your expected return time and could be caught on the trails after dark, the ability to see not just the map but also where you are stepping will be worth the $5 investment.

Speaking of $5 investments (or less), I also carry a cheap, easily-obtained space blanket as well as a disposable emergency plastic rain poncho. Both of these items are not only light on your wallet, they are also light in your pack (both weigh between 1-2 ounces).  Like the flashlight, both of these items can be found at just about any local sporting goods or general merchandise store (such as Target or Walmart).  These items may seem unnecessary when going for a fair weather day hike, but if you take a bad tumble and are stuck on the trails as you watch the sun set and the temperatures drop then you will be glad you have a way to trap your body heat while waiting for help to arrive.

Another item which you can also pick up for cheap is a generic pocket knife.  I usually carry one when running alone just in case I need to make an emergency splint out of a shirt or any of the other multitude of uses you might need if your trip into woods doesn’t go according to plan.

In addition to the gear mentioned above, two other essential items to always carry when you head out on the trails is food and water.  When it comes to food, I tend to take the approach of “pack what you feel like eating.”  There is no magic as to what food to carry, or at least I haven’t found the magic recipe.  You could carry protein bars, energy bars, or heck candy bars if you want.  Just make sure you have something to eat should your two hour trip accidently lasts a little longer.

As for water, any general bottle will work but I personally splurged and for around $50 bought a half-liter Katadyn BeFree Microfilter Bottle.  It is collapsible so it can easily fit in a pack. More importantly, it is a microfilter system so in an emergency situation I can simply dip the bottle in any local water source, reseal the top, and quickly have another half-liter of water available to me.  As with all things we have discussed, I don’t ever expect to use it, but that is sort of the point of preparing for the unexpected so if things go completely sideways I will have a way to access additional fluids without as much fear of what microbes I am ingesting drinking straight from a stream or pond.

The last piece of gear that needs to be discussed is what to use to carry all these items when you are out on the trails. There is no need for anything specialized.  Your school backpack (or your kid’s school backpack for those of you in my age bracket) is perfectly fine. If you want something more lightweight, a “racing” vest is a great option.  You can usually find last year’s model of these types of lightweight vests for around $50 online and as small as it may look (and it is) and for as light as it may be (7-8 ounces), I can still fit every single item mentioned above into this little pack.

Now that we’ve discussed how to plan ahead, what should you do when the “train jumps the tracks?” Don’t panic. Panicking makes the situation worse, not better.  I have been taught by those far more experienced than I am, to “measure twice and cut once.”  In other words, assess the situation before rushing into action. By first determining what the situation is and what supplies you have available you can then decide what action to take. If you do find yourself in need of assistance, call 911 and let them know what nature preserve and trail you are on. If you are near a trail intersection, those are great reference points that can help direct them to your location. The Land Trust office is open Monday – Friday from 8 AM – 4 PM and you’re welcome to call if you just need a little help finding your way in a non-emergency situation.

By following these tips and taking some relatively inexpensive and easily-obtained items, we hope you can enjoy all the beauty of nature the Land Trust of North Alabama provides our community without having to worry about being unprepared in the unlikely event that you’re outing doesn’t go as planned. Did we miss anything? Let us know if there are other tips you would share with someone new to hiking.

Plan your next hike at landtrustnal.org/explore! And find more hiking tips here.


Update: One of our readers pointed out that we failed to mention footwear! It’s very true that wearing the appropriate shoes on your hike can protect you from many things you may encounter along the trails. Shoes that provide ankle protection or support can help avoid injury and a sturdy sole will provide a more confident, comfortable footing on uneven terrain.

Photo Credits (from top to bottom): Jim Teed, Lauren Sanderson, Katey Deasy, Greg Gelmis