Don’t worry. I asked John Werner for permission before writing this one.
Any longtime Tribune-Herald reader knows that John is the king of the hill. He owns the hiking column. He and his wife Karen make hiking excursions part of their vacation plans every summer – as I write this they’re on one at Yosemite National Park in California – and John always does an excellent job regaling readers with the tales of their travails on the trails.
When I mentioned to him that I wanted to write a “JV hiking column,” he laughed. But he also gave me the thumbs up, so away we go.
Seriously, even though I’ve been on dozens of hikes over the years, of varying degrees of difficulty, I still consider myself a novice. I don’t go often enough, and haven’t tackled enough challenging trails to consider myself in the same zip code as an expert. I haven’t attempted the backpacking excursions that the Werners so enjoy, mostly because I’m not a huge fan of sleeping in a tent.
That’s why I’m on the “JV” level. Compared to John and other avid hikers, I’m probably more like a freshman.
But who better to give tips to other freshmen than one himself?
I’ve done just enough hiking, including several such adventures this summer, to pick up a few helpful tips along the way. If you’re a novice like me, or if you’re considering getting started but don’t really know where to begin, I’m here to help. There are countless resources out there, from books to YouTube videos to even guided hikes in certain areas, and I’d encourage you to check out as many of those as possible.
Just consider this one more.
Tip 1: Plan in advance
Before you ever leave the house, it’s a good idea to scout out where you’re headed.
Research the hike. How long is it? What’s the terrain like? Has the trail been closed for any reason? Nowadays, you should be able to find trail maps on the internet that will give you a clue about what you might face, but keep in mind that even while consulting a map it’s possible to get disoriented or turned around.
Even when I’m kicking up dust on the local level, like around Cameron Park, I like to check the trail map before I take my first step. Sometimes you can find an app to download to your phone that will include trail maps, too. Those suckers can come in handy. (Also, let me put in a plug for Cameron Park – there are tons of great hiking trails right here at home worth checking out.)
Beyond mapping out your route, make sure to pack accordingly. On even short hikes, I like to have water on hand. A small backpack is essential. In addition to water, you can fill it with sunscreen, insect repellent, a first aid kit, towel, whatever.
This may seem like common sense, but I’ve witnessed plenty of hikers out bounding around in the heat of the day with nothing but their sneakers. That’s asking for trouble. Especially if you’re doing any hiking in Texas. It’s hot out there, y’all.
Oh, and speaking of shoes – you don’t necessarily need to invest in a brand new pair of hiking boots. A pair of tennis shoes with good traction will work just fine.
Tip 2: Share the trails
More so than other hikers, I’m talking about critters. Look, you’re going outside. Into nature. You’re going to run into other living creatures. It’s a given.
So, expect the unexpected. It’s not just a standard line on “Big Brother.” It works for hiking, too.
A few weeks back, I took my two kids and my 10-year-old nephew hiking in Cameron Park. We had really just gotten started when a copperhead snake slithered across the trail in front of us. Just as quickly as the snake appeared, it was gone again, having vanished in the snarl of branches hugging the path.
That’ll get your attention in a hurry. It certainly startled my 11-year-old daughter Millie, who was ready to call it a day. Fortunately, with some coaxing, we tarried on, and continued the hike without any additional reptilian interruptions.
My advice: Follow Millie’s lead. She was (justifiably) freaked out, but managed to conquer her fears and continue. As a result, we ended up completing an enjoyable hike – and coming away with a fun story, to boot.
Ten more years, and that sucker will be a python.
Tip 3: Don’t be a hero
If your proposed hike looks too steep, or if it’s longer than what you’re comfortable with at this stage, tackle another trail. Nobody is keeping score here.
Last month, I went on a church mission trip to Salt Lake City, Utah. While there, our group ventured out on several hikes through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful parts of the country I’ve ever seen.
On our first day, not long after getting off the plane and grabbing some grub, we hiked to the top of Ensign Peak, a small mountain that overlooks the city and the valley beyond it, allowing for some amazing views.
It wasn’t a particularly long hike, about a mile round-trip, but it’s a steep upward jaunt, with a noticeable elevation gain. As such, I didn’t feel guilty at all about stopping and catching my breath every once in a while. Besides, such breaks are a great time to snap additional photos.
I made it to the top – behind many in our group, ahead of a few others. But it’s not a race. Go at your own pace.
Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself
This may seem contradictory to the previous piece of advice. But it’s not. You can go at your own pace, and yet still keep pushing yourself.
Back to Ensign Peak for a moment. As stated, I needed those breaks. But the hike wasn’t so hard that it necessitated a turnaround. And if I had bailed – I didn’t even consider it, but just for argument’s sake – I would’ve missed out on one of the highlights of our trip.
Probably the most challenging hike I’ve ever done came on New Year’s Day, 2014. I accompanied Werner and fellow Tribber J.B. Smith to the top of Camelback Mountain near Phoenix, Arizona. It’s a rigorous and steep hike up to the top of the 2,704-foot peak, and that day it was made even more challenging by the dozens of people with the same idea as us filling the trails.
There’s also a bit of scrambling at the top, where you’ve got to use your hands to continue your ascent.
It was grueling. It was sweaty. It was not always fun.
And it was incredibly worth it.
Tip 5: Soak up the sights
Sometimes, I look at younger hikers busting it up the trail, and think, “Are they getting a load of their surroundings?” Again – it’s not a race.
Unless you’re on a certain schedule where you have to travel a set number of miles in a day – that’s more of backpacking thing – my suggestion is to take your time. Enjoy the view. You’re not looking at a screensaver anymore. You’re living in one.
On another of our hikes in Utah, we drove up into the mountains to do some exploring in an area called Little Cottonwood Canyon. The weather was nice, the company was happy and lively, and the scenery, oh man, the scenery. It was like being dropped into a postcard. You could gaze up at the mountain peaks and still see snow – in June. Towering fir trees loomed everywhere, including on the sides of the mountains. It resembled the world’s most gorgeous Christmas tree farm. A raging river, just begging for a raft, cut through the valley.
The whole scene inspired awe. It made me grateful to be there, to experience it alongside my son Cooper.
I’ve included some photos of the lush, green surroundings with this column. But as most travelers understand, even the most eye-catching pictures can’t rival the images captured in your memory bank.
Tip 6: Don’t believe Werner
This is my final bit of advice. You’ve probably read the tales of John’s adventures and recalled that he’s always talking about how slow he and Karen go.
Don’t buy it. He’s sandbagging y’all. Cherry? Sure, he’s slow. Werner? Not so much.
Trust me, I know. I’ve made several hikes with John on various trips covering Baylor athletics around the country. Once, while driving on the outskirts of West Virginia after covering a BU football game against the Mountaineers, we happened upon the tallest point in Maryland.
We pulled off the road, encountered some hikers who had just made the trek, and decided on a whim to check it out for ourselves. Backbone Mountain is only 3,360 feet – Maryland isn’t a particularly mountainous state – and it was a relatively short hike to get to the top.
Now, I’m 15 years younger than John. And, despite being an overweight sportswriter, I’m not easily winded. I’m in better shape than I look, and can play 90 minutes of full-court basketball without even breaking for a drink.
Nevertheless, he put me in his rearview in short order. By the time I reached the top, he’d probably been there for 10 minutes. At least.
So, when he returns from Yosemite and starts writing about leisurely poking along through the majesty of the Sierra Nevada, don’t buy it.
There’s a reason that guy is on the varsity.