Hiking equipment and more specifically what to take and what not to take on a hike, are subjects that are of utmost importance to the hiker. They are also changeable to suit both the conditions and the type of hiking trail being done. I have based this page on South African conditions as these are the ones that I have most experience of. As this site is used by hikers from all over the world, I would welcome input from hikers from other countries with a view to making this page as comprehensive as possible.
I have put this at the top of the list of equipment, as comfortable footwear is of paramount importance for the enjoyment of the walk. While training shoes may do for your first short ventures into nature, they are not designed to stand up to the rugged terrain that makes up the normal trail. The soles of trainers are softer than those of hiking boots and this can lead to bruising. Hiking boots are also designed to support the ankle and provide protection against unavoidable knocks. Also, with the price of a good pair of training shoes being expensive compared to hiking boots, the investment is well worth while.
As with training shoes, hiking boots vary in quality, durability and price. The first consideration is how much hiking you intend doing. There is no point in going and spending a lot of money on a pair of "top of the range" boots if you intend doing three or four day walks a year. The cheaper boots tend to be lighter than the more expensive boots and can also be used for general use such as in winter around the house, garden or while out shopping. The more expensive full-leather boots tend to take longer to wear in, are heavier and less versatile than their cheaper counterparts but are a lot more durable and will last a lot longer.
As with most hiking equipment, it is worthwhile purchasing your boots from a specialist outdoor store (such as Cape Union Mart for those in South Africa). Seek the advice of the store assistant when making your choice and ask him to lend you a pair of thick woollen hiking socks when trying them on. Walk around the store with them on for a few minutes and see how they feel. Generally, I advise people to try on a boot at least a size larger than their normal shoe size to allow for the thick socks and to give space for the toes especially on steep down hills on trails. It is also important to ask the assistant about the care of your newly acquired boots as especially full leather boots can need a lot of looking after.
One final thought! When you have purchased your new boots, don't just put them on and then embark on a six day backpacking trail. Boots need to be worn in!!!!!
Another item of personal preference. Sleeping bags come in a number of different types and it is important to choose one that suites your needs. There are mummy shaped sleeping bags, those with a cowl, those that can zip up together to form a cosy double bag, those that are designed for the top of Everest, those that are filled with Down and those that are filled with a synthetic fibre called Hollofil.
The mummy shaped sleeping bag fits the body like a cocoon. They are contoured to the shape of the body and provide less space for those early morning cold draughts to come in and awaken you with a cold shiver. I personally find them rather claustrophobic but a lot of people like them.
The normal oblong shaped sleeping bag is generally more popular and has the advantage that normally they can be zipped together (if this is important to you, ask about this at the time of purchase) to form a double sleeping bag. They can also be used as an additional duvet at home.
Some bags come complete with a Cowl. This is a hood with a draw string that fits snugly around the head. These are useful, especially when sleeping under the stars in cold conditions.
The filling of the sleeping bag is also important to consider. Down filled sleeping bags are normally lighter than their synthetic counterparts, are a lot more expensive and take more looking after. When wet, they also tend to lose their heat retention properties more than the synthetic filled bags. It is also important, if choosing a down bag, to look at what type of down is used as a number of feather variations are passed off as "Down".
Sleeping bags are normally graded according to levels of heat retention. A person who is going to hike only in summer months and intends sleeping in a tent or hikers hut doesn't need a sleeping bag that is designed for those climbing Kilimanjaro or Everest.
A final tip. If you are ever in the unfortunate position of having a member of your hiking party suffer from Hypothermia, the best way to bring the situation under control is to climb into a sleeping bag with them and use your body temperature to bring theirs under control.
Backpacks and Daypacks
Backpacks and daypacks are the burden of the hiker and as such need to fit comfortably to the body and not be cumbersome.
Most of the weekend hikes that our club do are day walks from a central hut. These entail one carrying items needed for the duration of the day walk. This normally includes lunch, snacks, water, first-aid kit and additional clothing that may be needed should the weather change such as a jersey and poncho. The daypack should have broad enough shoulder straps to support the weight without the straps "digging" into the shoulder and causing discomfort. Some daypacks are like miniature backpacks with an internal frame and a proper waist belt but these are quite expensive.
When purchasing a backpack the needs are much more exacting and price is of less a consideration than quality and comfort afforded. A good backpack is a fairly expensive item and normally something you only purchaser once in your life. It is therefore worth spending a little more to get a good one. Most backpacks that are sold in the outdoor shops today are of the "internal frame" variety. This means that there are metal strips embedded in the backpack on the side which will be next to the wearer's back to help make the pack more rigid and therefore more comfortable to wear. These strips can be bent so that the pack fits more snugly against the body. The backpack has a harness that is fully adjustable to suit most people's bodies. Ask your retailer to demonstrate this at the time of purchase. It is a good idea to try on several backpacks before choosing one to purchase. Normally you will have done several day hikes and possibly a few backpack hikes (with a borrowed bag) before you decide to purchase a backpack, so you should begin to know what to look for. If in doubt, take along an experienced backpacker to help you with your choice. Don't buy a backpack that is too large for you with the idea that you might at some time need the extra capacity. I do quite a lot of backpacking and do several long distance trails a year including those of eight or nine days duration and I manage with a 65 litre backpack and I still manage to pack my sleeping bag inside my pack. There are special backpacks available for taller men and these should be asked for at your outdoor shop.
A tip. A man should carry no more than a third of his body weight and a woman a maximum of a quarter of hers. Please note that these are maximums and to really enjoy your hike carry less if possible. As a general guide, I would advise women to carry no more that 12 kilograms (including the weight of the full water containers).
Most of the day route trails and some of the weekend backpack trails in South Africa provide some form of cooking facilities and some provide basic pots and pans. The hiker needs to check what facilities are available when booking on a trail. Most trails at least provide wood for a fire although the trail owner may ask additional payment for this. When purchasing a hiking stove one needs to consider the altitude that one intends cooking at. For most applications a Camping Gaz Bluet stove is sufficient. However altitude renders these stoves inefficient. These stoves are also expensive to run. The advantage of these stoves is that they are relatively safe and simple to operate. Warning. Do not try and change a cylinder in a confined space or close to to a exposed flame. Always change a cylinder outside in the open. You can also get the 470 series from Camping Gaz which incorporate a valve in the disposable cylinder and this solves the problem. However, the 470 cylinders tend to be more expensive. The alternative to the Camping Gaz stoves are a number of stoves that run on Benzene or Paraffin. Coleman have some fine examples of stoves in this category and extreme care must be taken if these stoves are used around young children.
The rest of the canteen should consist of lightweight knife, fork and spoon, plate and cup. Lightweight pots and pans will also be needed by those who intend taking up hiking seriously. Some form of lighting is also worth looking at. This can take the form of as little as a candle or as much as a Camping Gaz lamp.
Tip. Rather than carry all your own stuff, get together with other members of the party going on the trail and share with them.
Clothing to take on a trail
The clothing to take on a hike is dependant on the climate that one is hiking in. In South Africa most hikers hike in cotton shorts and short sleeved shirt. Some people wear cycling shorts although I find that loose fitting clothes the best. Some women prefer to wear light cotton longs as this shields the legs against scratches. Thick woollen socks are necessary and some wear a thin pair of cotton socks as a second pair under these. A tracksuit is useful for wearing in the evening and when cold for sleeping in. On the longer trails, with the exception of underwear, I would suggest that it is not necessary to change clothing more often than every 2/3 days. A waterproof poncho is needed in areas that are prone to rainfall. A wide brimmed hat is also a good thing to take to keep the head and neck from being burned by the Sun's rays. Some hikers wear gaiters to prevent seeds and other things from getting entwined in their socks. A pair of casual shoes or sandals is a good idea for around the camp after the day's hike. Sandals are also a good idea to take along to wear while crossing rivers. If one is planning to cross a major river, a large, heavy-duty plastic bag is a useful item to have along to float your backpack across in.
Tip. I find it a good idea to enclose clothes, sleeping bag and food in plastic bags before putting them into my backpack as this acts as an additional protection against accidental wetting.
First Aid Kit
An essential part of any hiker's equipment is the First Aid kit. This should include all the basics and should be regularly checked to make sure that it is up-to-date. Bandages, Band Aids (I am using the American terminology for plasters), Knee-guard, Ankle-guard, anti septic ointment, headache tablets, antihistamine ointment and tablets, Imodium and any personal medication are all essential parts of a first aid kit, but this is just a start. Ask your hike leader, pharmacist and general practitioner for guidance. The consensus of opinion these days is not to carry snake bite anti-venom but to immobilise the casualty, bind the wound tightly starting at the centre of the wound working outwards and send for help or get the patient as quickly as possible to the nearest doctor. Learn CPR and First Aid!
Gone are the days of tasteless Soya. Trail food can be excellent these days. On day walk trails one can obviously take along practically anything that one would have at home without regard to weight but on backpacking trails the scope is considerably restricted by the fact that you have to carry everything while hiking. Because the scope is so large and varied, I will not attempt to go into the food question here, but leave it for a future page on this site. As a general guide though, carry as little food containing liquid as possible and try and steer clear of cans. Measure out and prepare your food as much as possible before the trail.
A good torch is an essential item to have along as is a sharp knife. If you have to cross rivers or are climbing in the mountains, a rope is also useful but not everyone in the hiking group needs to carry a rope. On coastal trails a tide timetable is also sometimes needed. Although most trails are well marked and the probability of getting lost is small, a compass is also worth investing in but is obviously useless if you don't know how to use it. A pair of binoculars and a camera, while not essential, add to the enjoyment of being out in nature.
It is a good idea to formulate your own hiking equipment check list and keep all your hiking equipment together in a box, case or on a particular shelf in your house.
Footprint Hiking Club
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