Mountain hiking is a great activity for people of all ages, but before hitting the mountain trails there are some things you should know. Unlike hiking on pruned paths at low altitudes, mountain hiking requires appropriate footwear, clothes and gear because the terrain in the mountains is rougher and the weather conditions harsher. Furthermore, it is essential that you protect your skin and eyes against the sun because the potency of UV rays increases with the altitude. Mountainous trails might be also technically difficult, meaning that they cross exposed areas and/or require ascending very steep sections. Therefore, it is important that you inform yourself about the conditions on the trail, so you know what is awaiting you rather than proceed unprepared when you come to a difficult stretch.
In the following we will give you the essential tips on mountain hiking to make your hikes at higher altitudes safe and enjoyable. If you are a complete beginner, with no hiking experience, you might want to start on less difficult terrain rather than in the mountains to slowly build up your physical strength. Hiking in easier terrain usually also requires less equipment than hiking in the mountains.
- Don’t do it in bad weather
- Inform yourself about the conditions on the trail
- Bring appropriate footwear, clothes and gear
- The air might be thin up there
- Hydration is of the utmost importance
- Protect your skin and eyes
Don’t do it in bad weather
The first and the most important rule when it comes to mountain hiking is: Don’t do it in bad weather! Check the weather forecast before hitting a mountainous trail and postpone the hike in case of bad weather. This is not just a matter of comfort (e.g. staying warm and dry), but also of safety. The two most common weather hazards in the mountains are thunderstorms in summer and snowstorms in winter. Thunderstorms are especially tricky because they often appear rapidly on very sunny and warm days. If the weather forecast predicts a high possibility of thunderstorms, you should probably stay home – although it can feel bitter if it later turns out that there were no thunderstorms that day. A way to detect thunderstorms on the rise is by wearing a hiking watch with barometer – many such watches also have the storm alarm feature. Keep in mind that it is usually very hard, if not impossible to find a shelter in the mountains.
This also goes for snowstorms which, on the other hand, are risky because they make navigation difficult and large amounts of snow on the trail can exhaust you very fast. If you are hiking in winter, you will of course be wearing warm clothes already, but be aware that depending on geography, climate and altitude, snowstorms can also occur in early spring and late fall.
Besides deciding whether to go or not, checking the weather forecast will of course also help you make the right decisions about what to wear and what gear to bring. When checking the weather forecast, take into consideration that the temperature drops for 5.4° F (3° C) for every 1000 ft. (300 m) gained.
Inform yourself about the conditions
It is very important that you inform yourself about the conditions on the trail, meaning the type of terrain (rocky, hilly, grassy, etc.) and the technical difficulty of the trail (steepness etc.). If you are afraid of heights, you certainly don’t want to climb very steep mountainsides where a misstep might have fatal consequences. If the trail is covered with snow, it is also crucial to get information about the type of snow (soft, icy, deep etc.) and the avalanche danger rating. Needless to say, you should postpone the hike if there is avalanche danger. Note that trails at high altitudes are often covered with snow also in summer, spring and fall. Getting all this information will help you decide if the trail is suitable for your skills and if so, what gear to bring.
If the terrain is rocky and the trail is steep, it is for example smart to bring a climbing helmet because it is very likely that you will encounter falling stones (caused by other hikers, animals or earth movements) on such a trail. Snowy trails might require winter gear such as snowshoes, crampons and an ice axe.
For most trails you can get information about the conditions online. For example, on the municipality website, local mountaineering club website etc. Reddit and various forums are also a great resource for detailed information on trails.
Bring appropriate footwear, clothes and gear
Since mountain trails are usually rocky, they require proper footwear. For mountainous trails we recommend wearing sturdy hiking boots rather than lightweight hiking shoes (which perform great only on easier terrain). Such boots will provide you with stability and ankle support on uneven and rocky terrain. Also, keep in mind that lightweight shoes and boots with synthetic uppers are not the best choice for rocky terrain as they are simply not durable enough to withstand the abrasion from rocks and stones. Read more about the various pros and cons of the different types of hiking footwear in our guide on the topic.
The weather in the mountains can change rapidly and thus it is vital that you layer your clothes. Layering allows you to strip away or add garments when the weather conditions or your activity level changes. Clothes for mountainous trails should be also lightweight, moisture-wicking and quick-drying. As it is often windy in the mountains, don’t forget to bring a windproof jacket. To learn more about what to wear for hiking, check out our Guide to Hiking Clothing.
Some trails in the mountains might require additional equipment such as via ferrata gear, helmet, snowshoes, crampons, ice axes etc. Trekking poles are also very useful for steep mountainous trails because they reduce the strain on your legs.
The air might be thin up there
Most people start feeling the effects of altitude above 7.000 ft. (2100 meters). The higher you are, the less oxygen is in the air and therefore your breathing rate and heart rate increase to provide your cells with enough oxygen, while your performance drops. If you are not used to high altitudes, it is smart to ascend slowly and thus mitigate the effects of altitude. For example, if you want to climb a 10.000-feet peak, do it in two days; on the first day climb to 7000 ft. and proceed to the top on the second day. This will allow your body to adjust to the altitude and thin air.
In some cases (although rarely), acute altitude sickness can appear as low as at 6.600 ft (2000 meters). If you encounter symptoms such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and headache, it is best to go back down because acute altitude sickness symptoms can last up to two days.
For hiking at very high altitudes (+10.000 ft.) proper acclimatization is required – the so-called climb high, sleep low technique. Read more about acclimatization in our article How to Adjust to High Altitudes.
Hydration is of the utmost importance
In the mountains it is usually very hard to find sources of water and therefore you should bring it with you, unless you are completely sure that there is a water source along the trail. Note that even mountain huts usually don’t have drinkable tap water – although you might be able to buy some for a handsome price. Check out our article How much water to bring on a hiking trip where we explain how to calculate your water requirements. Carrying too much water will put strain on your body but drinking too little water will result in dehydration and discomfort. Note that if you lose only 5% of your body weight in fluids, your performance drops by 30%, according to the latest studies. It is also very important that you drink regularly throughout the hike which can be complicated on steep terrain where you need your hands to hold to rocks for balance. A hydration bladder is very useful for such trails because it allows you to drink on the go without hassle.
Protect your skin and eyes
The potency of the UV rays increases for 4% for every 1000 ft. (305 meters) gained and therefore it is essential that you protect you skin and eyes while your hiking in the mountains. Note that even in cloudy weather up to 50% of the UV rays penetrate through the cloud cover. You should apply sun cream at least every 90 minutes because you will most likely sweat during the hike. It is also a good idea to wear sun protective clothing. Read our article Sun Protective Clothing for Hiking to learn how to check if your garments provide UV protection. Hiking sunglasses, will ensure that your eyes don’t get tired from the bright sun light. Sunglasses for mountain hiking should cover your eyes from all directions and have category 3 lenses in terms of VLT (Visible Light Transmission). Note that most “regular” sunglasses only have category 2 lenses which let in from 18% to 45% of the visible light. Read more in our articles about hiking sunglasses for men and women respectively.