Summer is nigh, and all those clear, warm days mean one thing: It’s time to haul your soft, vampirish carcass off the couch and into the great outdoors. Hiking, biking, kayaking—the county has it all. But if you’re a wilderness newbie, what you don’t know can hurt you—or at least make you really uncomfortable. So we asked local outfitters and experts how to avoid catastrophe while making the most of your first time in the wild. And, if you’re already experienced, well then, Grizzly Adams, consider this a refresher course. You might even learn a thing or two.
Prepare. Preparation is everything. For hiking, this means checking weather conditions, your trail route, and being sure to alert others as to where you’ll be hiking and what time you plan to return.
It’s important to gauge your stamina before and during your hike. Beginner hikers should start on “out-and-back” trails—trails that run in one direction, to the top of the mountain and back—rather than “loop” trails, which run in a circle, says J.J. Jameson, senior instructor for REI’s New York Tri-State Outdoor School. With out-and-backs, once you reach the summit, you know what’s in store for you on the way back. On loop trails, conditions are unknown until you reach the end. It’s also important to take steep inclines and declines into account when planning your time, as both can add hours to your hike.
The look. “There’s no such thing as bad weather,” says Jameson, “only bad clothing.” Go with a layering system, starting with a light technical synthetic or Merino wool shirt that will wick sweat from your body, dry quickly, and keep you cool. Follow with a light fleece layer, and then a rain/wind shell to protect you from the elements and trap heat during the cooler hours.
Manny Polloni, owner of American Terrain Outdoors in White Plains, advocates for synthetics for another reason: sun protection. If you need to go long-sleeve, companies like ExOfficio offer garments with UPF, which is basically SPF for clothing. It adds an added layer of sun protection while still helping to control moisture and regulate temperature.
The essentials. When it comes to gear, some travel light and others might as well have a convoy with them. For any extended hike (long day hikes or multi-day hikes), there are 10 essentials: a map or compass, sun protection, extra clothing, a headlamp or flashlight, first aid, waterproof matches or a lighter and candles, repair kit and tools, extra food, water, and emergency shelter.
Now, to be fair, a stroll along the Old Croton Aqueduct might not necessitate such measures, but, at the very least, says Jameson, anywhere you go with a trail system requires a map or compass and a light.
Super-hydrate. If you have plans to go on a very strenuous or multi-day hike, hydration should start not with a quick sip in the parking lot of the trailhead, but three days before you hit the path. The idea is to start a hike super-hydrated. That way, if you have to go without water for a short time, or start sweating profusely, you’re less likely to dehydrate. For a day hike, Jameson recommends bringing at least two quart bottles of water with you (one of which should be an electrolyte-enhanced beverage), and stopping every 15 minutes for a sip or two.
Fit your foot. When it comes to fitting your boots, different trails call for different measures. For light hiking (the sort you’ll mostly find in Westchester), Jameson recommends lightweight trail shoes—generally fabric-based with mesh inserts and a well-padded ankle collar. For uneven, rocky terrain, or if you’re carrying significant weight in a pack, go heavier with a boot that has a shank and a higher rise for ankle support. “It’s not bulletproof,” says Jameson, “but if you roll your ankle, it gives you support for a second to allow you to recover.”
“A good time to buy hiking shoes is at the end of the day,” says Polloni, “after you’ve been on your feet all day and your feet are swollen.” He also recommends trying boots out on in-store ramps that help determine toe room and heel lift. With regard to size, Jameson recommends a half-inch of room in the toe box, so that if they’re laced up properly and you kick the boot toe into the ground, your toes don’t slide forward. Avoid any heel lift in the back, which is blister central (more on that below).
And, finally, if you do go for heavy leather boots, break them in for at least a month or 25 miles before you take them on any significant hike, says Polloni. Start by wearing them a couple hours a day for a week, then move on to easy, two- to three-mile hikes and build up from there.
Avoid blisters. They’re every hiker’s worst nightmare (that doesn’t involve a bear or irate moose). The trick to preventing blisters starts with the right socks. Our experts recommend technical wool socks from brands like SmartWool because of their different weaves, thickness at the toe and heel, and the fact that they’re smoother and thinner under and over the arch, which provides a snugger, more comfortable fit. They also wick moisture away from the foot, helping prevent blisters.
If you start to feel a “hot spot” on your foot as you’re hiking, stop, unlace, and take a peek at the skin. If the skin is red, but a blister hasn’t formed yet, apply a Moleskin patch (a soft adhesive material which you can find pre-cut in kits). If a blister has already started to form, Jameson recommends the following: First, apply a Spenco 2nd Skin moist pad. Then, take a piece of Moleskin, peel off the plastic cover on one side only, apply the patch with the plastic-covered side up, and then layer your sock over it. Keeping that extra plastic layer on will help reduce friction between your sock and the patch itself.
One size does not fit all. Kayaks come in a couple varieties, and, if you’re planning on taking that puppy out onto the Hudson or Long Island Sound, you need to know the difference. Recreational kayaks are flat-bottomed and generally lack sealed compartments, and are therefore better suited for small lakes, rather than the Hudson or the Long Island Sound, says John Clark, program director at Hudson River Recreation. Their flat bottoms make them much more fatiguing to maneuver and much harder to climb back into if you capsize.
Touring kayaks, sometimes called sea kayaks, generally have two sealed air compartments at the front and back, as well as a curved bottom, which makes them easier to right if you capsize. While rec kayaks might reach 10 or 12 feet in length, our experts recommend going for a 14-foot touring kayak if you plan on doing any paddling on the Hudson or in the Sound.
PFDs. Enough said. Brian Grahn, owner of kayak touring, rental, and instruction company Hudson River Expeditions in Cold Spring, urges paddlers to wear a personal flotation device (PFD). “A tremendous number of people go out without a PFD, usually rookies,” he says. “You never see an experienced paddler without a PFD.” Remember, the point of a PFD is to go on your body, not in your boat.
Run your routes. Never start paddling without knowing your float plan—where you’re headed and how long you think it will take you to complete the trip. Be sure to account for tides, even on the Hudson, where they affect the direction of the currents. As the tide comes in, the river’s current runs north, and if you’re paddling in that direction, you might assume you’re in for an easy paddle, says Bill Garrison of Mountain Valley Guides in Hastings-on-Hudson. But turn around before the tide and current change, and what took you one hour’s worth of paddling before could take several hours to backtrack, and be much more fatiguing.
Gear up. Like hiking, kayaking comes with its own list of gear, and what you bring depends on where you’ll be. On his paddles, Grahn typically packs a paddle float, a bilge pump (to pump excess water out of your kayak), a spare paddle, first-aid kit, dry clothes, hydration, snacks, sunscreen, and a hat. For novices, a short kayak on a protected, quiet body of water near homes may require just a signaling device, like a whistle, foghorn, or flare, plus a cellphone (in a dry bag), sunscreen, and water. For activity beyond this level, Grahn suggests first consulting an instructor.
Get nautical. Always do a weather check. While wind is a major factor, says Grahn, there’s no set threshold for wind speed, because “it will affect a paddler differently depending upon the water current, wind direction, and fetch—length of water over which a given wind has blown. So paddling on a small sheltered pond or stream in 15+mph wind may not be a problem, while on the Hudson River or large lake it may be outside a novice’s capacity.” Oh, and don’t try to get cute with thunderstorms. While they tend to pass quickly, active storms or impending storms are a non-starter, no matter where you’re kayaking. Check weather sites like www.noaa.gov or www.hudsonvalleyweather.com for the latest.
Save yourself. Take a lesson. You’re safest taking a lesson or two before getting on the water. Not only can good guides show you how to paddle without tiring yourself out, they can teach you how to rescue yourself or others should you (or they) capsize. Getting back into a waterlogged kayak in choppy waters is not like hopping onto a pool float. And if you can’t get back in, good luck swimming to shore with a 14-foot upended boat dragging behind you. “Novices assume they can get back into their kayaks,” says Grahn. “But the boats are unstable when you’re trying to get back in that situation. Self-rescue is a simple instruction and something we offer and encourage quite a bit.”
Get fit. “The biggest surprise most experience when buying a mountain bike is the way they are sized, or fitted,” says REI’s Jameson.
When sizing yourself for a mountain bike, says Jameson, stand astride the bike with your feet flat on the ground, and with the saddle (seat) just behind your, um, behind. You want about two inches of space between your groin and the top tube (which connects the saddle to the handlebar). That clearance will allow you to dismount the bike without hurting yourself. Saddle height is determined by the angle of your legs as you pedal. Ideally, you want roughly a ten-degree bend in your knee at the bottom of your pedal stroke. The easiest way to measure for this is to have someone hold on to the bike while you sit on the saddle and pedal backwards. When you reach the bottom of your stroke, you’ll be on your heel (because your stroke is backwards), and your legs should be completely straight. For upper-body fitting, while you’re on the bike, lean a shoulder against the wall, and look down. Your handlebar should obscure the hub (the center) of your front wheel. If you can see the hub behind the handlebars, either the top tube or the stem of the bike is too long; if you see it in front of the bars, the top tube/stem is too short.
Fix a flat. Mountain bikes are expensive pieces of equipment, and, by nature, subject to a whole host of indignities out on the trail. Even if you’re a basic rider, there’s no reason not to carry a repair kit. At the very least, says Jameson, pack a spare inner tube, patch kit, and a mini pump. “These are typically carried in a hydration-style pack,” he says, “along with a hydration bladder containing water or an electrolyte-replacement drink.” Plus, think of all the people you’ll impress with your handiness.
Pad it. The thought of protective riding gear may give you flashbacks to days of training wheels and handlebar baskets, but when it comes to mountain biking, a helmet is just not enough. “Beginners fall all the time,” says Jameson. All riders should be outfitted with gloves and shin and elbow pads in addition to helmets. And, don’t worry—you’ll only look as uncool as the next guy. Says Jameson, “A long time ago, only ‘newbies’ would wear [protective gear]. Now, body armor is worn by even experienced riders. Having protective gear on is the difference between dusting yourself off after a crash and being taken to the hospital.” Worth it.