52 Trails in 52 Weeks: How to Start Hiking + Advice for Beginners
So excited for the first in my series of Pre-New Year’s posts about how to start or increase healthy habits like hiking, healthy eating, yoga and meditation.
This week, I have heaps of hiking advice from my friend Kerri Stewart, a Maryland native turned Taylors, SC local. Her passion for hiking stems from being raised right next to multiple sections of the Appalachian Trail, including the halfway point in Harpers Ferry, WV. However, it wasn’t until she moved away that she realized she even liked to hike.
Previously it had always been something her mom “forced” on her. She completely took for granted living within easy access to multiple great trails. Now as a dietitian at Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System focused on community wellness and disease prevention, hiking is part of how she chooses to physically and mentally take care of herself.
In 2017-18 she hiked 52 trails in 52 weeks. Keep reading to learn how she did it and how you can do it too!
Namaste & Have A Great Day!
Another New Year had come and gone, and I was really feeling the pressure to make a wellness-related resolution but had no clue what it should be. January turned to February and mid-month during an unusually warm day my husband, dog, and I went for a hike to Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park. It was the perfect reminder of how much my body enjoys a little vitamin D, fresh air, and burn in my muscles, especially being cooped up so much during the winter. I vowed to hike more. A lot more.
From February 2017-2018 I was going to hike 52 different trails each week of the year. A goal is supposed to be measurable, have a set time-frame, align to your interests, and be realistic to achieve (hopefully!) right? February 9, 2018, I completed my 52nd hike! I hiked over 200 miles of unduplicated trail in 9 different states and 1 foreign country. And learned a few things along the way…
1. Start when you’re motivated.
Even now I sometimes feel guilty about not starting January 1st. Usually it’s not long before the wiser part of me kicks in – what about starting January 1st would have made this more special? Nothing. 52 consecutive weeks are 52 weeks and that equals a year. My motivation and goal came to me in February and I decided to capitalize on that instead of waiting almost an entire year just to label it as a “New Year’s Resolution.” There is so much pressure to start anew in January but sometimes it’s simply not the right time.
2. Take the time to hike on vacation.
This will be something I incorporate into every vacation I take from now on. Hiking gives you a view of and feel for the land that you just can’t get from driving in car, on a tour, or from the air. And the best part is it’s either free or cheap! We often used a hike to stretch our legs after a plane flight, or as something to look forward to at the half-way point of a long car trip. Without this goal, I never would have hiked on the Pacific Crest Trail during my time at Lake Tahoe, discovered “The Source” on the tropical island of Nevis, or covered parts of the Appalachian Trail in 4 states. I had no idea how much I was missing out.
3. Don’t be a fair-weather hiker.
Nature looks and smells different throughout the four seasons. Hike them all! When you don’t hike in the cold, you miss the icicles and the half-frozen waterfalls. Many times there are much better views (or views you didn’t know existed!) in winter when all the leaves have fallen. When you don’t hike in the rain, you miss the fresh forest smell and peaceful sounds. One day in July, my dog & I got caught in the rain at Pisgah National Forest. At first I wasn’t happy about it, but then realized I felt something I hadn’t in days – cool! It was a refreshing relief from the 90-100 degree days here. The days when the weather looked dreary turned out to be some of my favorite days to hike. Come prepared – bring a change of clothes or a towel to sit on. Those expensive Merrell or Keen hiking boots weren’t meant to stay clean!
Q. Can hiking compliment other good habits like healthy eating, yoga and meditation? Do you practice any of these?
Hiking and mindfulness go together like peanut butter & jelly. My brain likes to talk to me – a lot. I’ve learned to use hiking as a means to concentrate on the present, and realized by hiking weekly during #52WeeksofTrails, I was able to be more mindful throughout the week until my next hike. My brain is happy hiking because I’m not necessarily forcing it to be quiet, rather to recognize the beautiful smells, view the awesome sites, listen to my boots crunching the ground or focus on my breathing. It only seemed like a natural fit to go on a yoga + hiking adventure through Namaste in Nature!
Q. What are some healthy snacks for hiking?
A. Speaking of PB&J… That combo makes for some perfect trail food, with some quick carbs to keep fueling the muscles with glucose, a little fat to fill you up, and protein to restore the muscles post-workout. This time of year, I’m also a big fan of the pumpkin spiced date rolls with pecans. I like to pre-cut veggies (carrot, peppers, cucumber, zucchini, broccoli, etc.) so they’re always ready to go when I need something to grab, and technically they don’t need refrigeration as long as they’re eaten that day. I also love the baked snap pea or lentil snacks because they’re tasty, but so light to carry.
Fueling our bodies with healthful food creates a big cycle. The body is getting what it needs to function, so we feel better. Better functioning improves our mood meaning we’re more likely to have the energy to be physically active which makes us sleep better. Restful sleep means we’re not as likely to fall prey to the food cravings.
Q. What basic, essential gear does someone need to start hiking? Roughly how much does that cost?
A. As long as you've got a sturdy pair of sneakers, there are almost always good options for hiking no matter where you live. Many of my friends that come hiking with me only own sneakers. It’s just important to make sure to keep a good lookout for roots & rocks without the ankle support of a pair of hiking boots. Many of my first sets of trail sneakers, not even boots, came from the Columbia Outlet, at around $40. A water bottle is really the only other thing I would say is a necessity! Many trails are free, which is another reason I love hiking so much, though I choose to support the state parks by purchasing a SC State Park pass.
Q. What's the best way for someone to find trails where they live?
A. Start out by looking at the state or national parks around. They will usually be your most accurate, credible source for the trails and other outdoor activities at the park. However, many do charge an entry fee.
I did a lot of trail-finding with the AllTrails App. Be warned, it’s not 100% accurate all the time but is a great start. Most of the time, I would find a trail on AllTrails, then cross-check with other websites for things like trail length, directions to the trailhead, etc. I like AllTrails because you can “favorite” trails to mark them for later or remember some of those you enjoyed most. That feature was especially helpful when we traveled so I could do my research beforehand and quickly pull up the options on my phone when we arrived. Romantic Asheville is an incredible resource for Western NC.
Lastly, word of mouth! Do you know someone else who likes to hike? Ask what their favorites are. A good quarter of the trails I did for #52WeeksofTrails came from recommendations from others. Look into joining your state pages of Girls Who Hike on Facebook – there is a plethora of great recommendations from trails to gear and they plan group hikes monthly.
Q. How do you keep from getting lost? What should I do if I get lost?
A. Honestly, I don’t feel super qualified to answer this because I know I definitely don’t take all the things I’m supposed to, nor take proper precautions (I’m really bad about telling someone else when I start or am expected to finish when with my husband but I do tell him if I go alone) but I can speak to this in another perspective.
Trails and trail maps can be really intimidating. It’s only human to have a baseline fear of getting lost. Part of my goal for #52WeeksofTrails was to finally do my research and get onto some trails or visit state parks I had been afraid of. A specific example is the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area between Caesars Head and Jones Gap State Parks. The state park wants you to purchase the area trail map, so the only images you can find online are rather blurry scanned copies. But, I used information from the park website, AllTrails, and a blurry photo to piece together a plan with enough confidence to set out.
When we hiked to the first trail intersection, I laughed out loud. The trail system throughout there is SO well marked that you have to really not be paying attention to miss your turn. It was one of the best marked trail systems I’ve visited to date. After visiting a lot of different trails, I’ve realized that for any state or national park trails, it’s pretty standard to have excellent trail markings so no need to stress when visiting either of those. Two that do stick out in my mind as being difficult to navigate were both Clemson and Duke Experimental Forests. Duke also requests visitors purchase the trail map, BUT there literally are no trail name signs or blazes throughout the trail system, only at some trailheads.
When headed to a new area for the first time, I make sure to have written directions if hiking multiple trails. A screenshot photo on your phone would work as well – just make sure it’s legible! I also like to read blog posts or trail websites and scribble down any helpful landmarks the authors may have noted, such as “large rock outcropping with good view after 0.4 miles” or “stream crossing at 2.3 miles.” It helps to ease that anxiety of the unknown.
There are a surprising number of trails in western SC, and plenty in western NC where there is no cell service. I’ve learned the hard way that the GPS will often get me to the trailhead destination even when losing service halfway there, but upon returning to the car after hiking I’ve got no service and not much idea of how to get home other than to turn right or left out of the parking lot. Nothing ruins a zen hike more than realizing you don’t know how to get home! Now I never leave home without a screenshot of the driving directions as well.
Q. Any other advice/tools/equipment/apps/books you recommend to help people start hiking?
A. There’s a really special camaraderie I feel when I’m surround by 9 other friends hiking together, but
I do want to discuss hiking alone. It’s one of my favorite things to do, though I rarely fly completely solo – most of the time my trusty, fluffy Husky Aspen is beside me. Like I shared above, hiking brings me a mental peace that not many other activities do, and it’s hard to achieve that with others hiking beside you. Some hikes, over 50% of the people I pass on the trail are women hiking solo. If you’re not comfortable with it, I completely understand. I just want to encourage anyone who is on the fence to try it.
Start with a well-traveled trail where there are plenty of other people around should something go awry. State Parks have a ton of visitors as well as Park Rangers patrolling, but there are many local trails and parks that are well-trodden also.
Hike a trail you’ve already done before. That way you’re familiar with the trail length and difficulty, how crowded the area is, and where to park.
Make sure to allow for plenty of sunlight and time so you don’t get caught in the dark.
Tell someone where you’re going and when you think you’ll be back.
Hike with minimal distractions, and that means without headphones. It’s easy to get involved in music or the latest podcast and potentially miss out on wildlife sightings or not hear hikers asking to pass, but also to listen out for anything dangerous. At Congaree National Park in Columbia, SC I never would have heard the herd of wild boar about to run across the trail in front of me if I had my earbuds in.
If there is a trail log that you are supposed to sign in or the park requests check in at the Ranger Station – do it!! I see people pass by the logs all the time, but it helps park rangers keep tabs on hikers and trail utilization [sidebar: more demonstrated trail utilization means more funding parks can receive!]. Most cards ask for your name, number of hikers in party, emergency contact, vehicle tag/color, which trail you’re planning to do, and how long you think it will take. All of this info will help with search efforts should they be needed.
The first time we hiked Falls Creek Falls, the time had already changed and I knew we would be pushing it coming off the trail before sunset. But the fall colors were just perfect and it was an unusually nice day so we decided to go for it anyway, flashlights in tow. As John Muir said, “nature is calling...” ☺ We got back to our car just as darkness was beginning to take over and found a park ranger waiting for us. Surprisingly instead of being angry, the first thing he did was thank us for filling out the trail log card and for bringing flashlights for safety. He could see from our card the time we began hiking, so he could estimate we would be back a little late, and then our vehicle information so not to worry about whose car it may be. All that to say, park rangers do look out for us and it’s equally as important to be respectful of their time! I’ve learned the hard way if signs say be back by sunset or “gate closes at 6:00PM” – they mean it. We caused him to be late to his dinner reservations which I still feel guilty about, especially knowing from the start we’d likely not make it back in time.
Some of my favorite trails in NC and SC for beginners, though they’re great for bringing visitors to or if you’re pressed for time! I could do each of these regularly and never get bored:
Black Balsam Knob: Off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pisgah National Forest, near Canton, NC
Whiteside Mountain: Cashiers, NC
Falls Creek Falls: Outside of Jones Gap State Park, SC
Carrick Creek: Table Rock State Park, SC
Rainbow Falls & Turtleback Falls: Gorges State Park just west of Brevard, NC
Pink Beds Loop: Pisgah National Forest, Brevard, NC
Carvers Gap: at the NC/TN border along the Appalachian Trail
Wildcat Rock: Hickory Nut Gorge near Chimney Rock, NC
Feel free to reach out to Kerri with questions & hiking recommendations for all levels! KLLINDBE@gmail.com
If you want even more motivation about how good hiking is for your health, check out our epic post from last week: 108 Health Benefits Of Yoga, Meditation, Hiking & Nature