Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Take a hike!

Hiking is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the outdoors. Transported by your own two feet and carrying only what you need on your back, you can discover the beauty of nature at whatever pace you’re comfortable with. And, with a bit of planning and preparation, it’s an activity that almost anyone can do.

Hiking for beginners can be intimidating, but there’s really not much to it. You don’t need any special skills to hike – you just have to be able to walk and have some sense of direction. And, of course, South Africa is a hiker’s paradise, with some of the finest hiking trails in the world, where opportunities for adventure are endless. Whether hiking along rivers or treading up mountains, our country has trails for hikers of all fitness and skill levels.

But before we get into where to go, let’s start with the basics. The definition of hiking is “the activity of going for long walks, especially in the country or woods”. Basically, any kind of walk that isn’t on a road or sidewalk is a hike.

Types of hikes

• Day hiking is what most people do when they say hiking. A day hike is done in a single day and can range from a quick 1 to 2km hike taking up to an hour to an all-day outing.

• Backpacking is a multi-day journey. Trips entail carrying your gear (including your tent) with you to spend the night in nature. Backpacking trips can be as short as one night, a weekend or longer. It can also include so-called thru-hiking, which starts and ends in different parks, towns, provinces or countries.

• Slackpacking is a relatively new trend, which sees trail organisers transporting your gear from hut to hut, leaving you with only a daypack.

Where to go

It’s quite clear that day hiking is a great starting point if you want to get a feel for the hobby before deciding whether this is something you want to seriously explore. It also allows you to train for longer backpacking hikes. That said, what should you look for in beginner hiking trails?

It is important not to overdo things and pick a suitable trail for your fitness level. However, hike difficulty is about more than just distance. You also need to consider aspects such as elevation gain and weather conditions – for example, an easy trail in the summer can be much more difficult in the winter in icy conditions.

Elevation gain is not simply the difference between the highest and lowest points on the trail, as a trail could start and finish at the same elevation but cross rolling hills along the way. To get an accurate idea of the total elevation gain on the hike, you need to add together all the uphill portions of the trail. Apps such as Trailblaze can help you with this (while also enabling you to access high-quality maps of most of South Africa’s spectacular trails from a smartphone, all accurately geo-referenced to find them easily). As a beginner, starting with a trail around 5 to 8km in length and with minimal elevation gain is recommended.

It’s essential to familiarise yourself with the trail you intend tackling and double-check logistics such as opening and closing times (note that some trails close during the winter months due to adverse weather), access to the trail (often you need a 4×4 to get to the start) and find out whether you need special permits to enjoy the trail.

Getting into hiking shape

While hiking is admittedly easier to get into than more strenuous physical activities such as running or cycling, it is still important that you get some training in before embarking on your first hike.

Cardio is one of the best ways to improve your endurance for your hike. Increase your distance over time to prepare, and be sure to include elevation gain in your training. Find a hilly neighbourhood or increase your grade on the treadmill if you opt to train at home or in the gym.

No amount of training on a flat sidewalk will prepare you for hiking over rolling hills or mountains – in fact, the best way to train for a difficult hike is on shorter or flatter trails. Prepare yourself for your ultimate goal hike by working your way up, increasing the elevation and distance of your hikes as you progress.

Many beginner hikers make the mistake of only focusing on cardio when training for a hike. Building up your core and lower body strength improves your ability to climb hills and carry a heavy backpack. In the same breath, flexibility is crucial when it comes to muscle recovery. Be sure to include stretching as a part of your cardio and strength training to improve recovery. Incorporating yoga at least once a week can also go a long way in improving your flexibility.

Hiking etiquette

There are a few basic rules when it comes to hiking. Like on the road, hiking trails have right of way. Hikers going uphill have the right of way unless they indicate to the downhill hiker to pass as they might be taking a breather.

When sharing the trail with mountain bikers, the hikers have the right of way – however, it is sometimes easier for the hiker to just move out of the way. So, if you see a downhill biker, step off the trail to let them pass. In the case of combined hiking and horse-riding trails, the animal has the right of way. If you encounter a rider on horseback, step off the path and be sure to give the horse plenty of room. Avoid sudden movements that might spook the animal.

As with most outdoor activities, it is important to remember that hikers venture out into nature to escape technology and everyday life. As such, silence is golden. Do not take your boom box along, and refrain from screaming and shouting (unless it’s an emergency and you need to call out for help).

What to wear

Hiking doesn’t require a ‘special’ wardrobe – in fact, you probably have all of the necessary pieces in your closet already. These, however, do not include jeans (unless you’re cool with chafing). Instead, opt for loose-fitting, breathable trousers or tights (similar to those you would use for exercising) and lightweight long-sleeve shirts that will help prevent scratching from broken twigs and protect you from the elements.

Since hiking is all about walking, it makes sense that healthy feet are happy feet. Moisture-wicking socks and well-fitting trail sneakers or hiking shoes are a good option for most beginner hikes. However, be sure to break in those new boots before heading out!

Apart from durability, important elements to consider when selecting your hiking boot include:

• Weight: Heavy-duty hiking boots don’t have to mean that the shoe is heavy. In fact, experienced hikers have a saying: “A pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back.” The lighter your hiking boots, the easier your walk.

• Waterproofing: Moisture on your feet is the enemy when it comes to hiking, as it causes blisters. Always look for breathable and watertight materials that allow moisture to exit but will not let water enter. Not all hiking boots are waterproof, so ensure that you look for fully gusseted tongues that cover the openings of the upper soles.

• Lateral rigidity: Hiking boots should support your feet and ankles and prevent slipping and twisting on uneven surfaces. Choose a higher boot with stiff ankle support to provide optimal lateral rigidity.

• Longitudinal rigidity: A good hiking boot will stop your feet from overbending when placing too much weight on the toe or heel. It should also provide enough flexibility to support the natural spring in the arch of your foot.

• Arch support: Your feet may experience heavy pressure from your backpack on declines, or over certain uneven surfaces. Your hiking boots should support the arch in your feet so that your feet are not flattened under heavy pressure. If you need additional arch support, a curved shank between the midsole and insole will provide support.

• Tread grip and traction: Hiking boots have deep-lugged outer soles made of tough rubber to provide traction and grip. Traction is an essential function of the hiking boot that gives grip whilst moving over various terrains. Lugs are placed in multiple directions on the sole to provide the optimal grip.

Final thoughts

Hiking is about endurance, not speed. There is no magical number of kilometres required to be considered a successful hiker – so find your rhythm and pick a pace that you can easily maintain for the duration of your hike. No one ever plans for anything to go wrong, but it is always good to tell someone where you’re hiking. Something as simple as sending a friend a link to the trail website can go a long way in ensuring your safe return – even better, go hiking in a group! Additionally, ensure that you have an emergency contact available on your phone or a luggage tag attached to your backpack. Finally, always respect the environment and minimise your impact on nature. As the saying goes: “Leave only footprints behind.”

A hiker’s packing list

• Navigation: Download a custom offline Google map or download the trail details from your selected app. A basic compass or paper map can also go a long way if you do get lost.

• Headlamp: Essential for hiking after dark, every equipped hiker should carry a headlamp with fresh batteries.

• Sun protection: This comes in many forms, but the basics include a UV-protected sun hat and factor 50 sunscreen (which you should re-apply on the hour, every hour).

• First aid: For short hikes, a small off-the-shelf first aid kit with the basics is all you need. Remember to take inventory and restock your kit before you hit the trail.

• Knife: Always carry a small pocketknife.

• Fire: Other emergency items include fire-starting equipment; in case you need to spend a night in the woods. Keep windproof matches in your bag.

• Extra food: Bring more than just one granola bar in your backpack. Pack enough snacks to keep you full on the trail and a bit extra in case you get stranded overnight. Popular options include trail mix, jelly sweets and dried fruit. There is also a variety of ready-made meals targeted specifically at hikers.

• Extra water: Bring more water than you think you’ll need. Pack at least 500ml of water per hour of hiking. If you’re hiking on a particularly difficult or hot trail, double the amount of water you bring. For longer hikes, a hydration reservoir like a camel pack is a good idea as it allows you to carry more water with less weight.

• Extra clothes: Weather can be unpredictable. You never know when rain or cold temperatures will strike. Stay comfortable by keeping a rain jacket or poncho and a fleece top for warmth.

As a beginner, you can use any old backpack (but avoid drawstring bags). Adjust the backpack to fit correctly and distribute the weight evenly. As you become more experienced, consider getting a hiking-specific backpack. While not a necessity when starting out, hiking sticks can increase balance and stability over uneven terrain, steep ascents or descents and water crossings.

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