10 things you need to know before your first overnight hike

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It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years. I’ve done a few day hikes before and I’ve camped in my favourite national park quite a few times over the years but until recently I’d never done an overnight hike. When a good mate of mine suggested we do a long hike in my favourite national park I knew it was finally my chance to make it happen.

We started planning a hike at Wilson’s Promontory National Park in Victoria, Australia that covered about 40km of walking tracks over three days with two nights camping. I was really excited about the hike but the closer it got the more anxious I started to become as the reality of what I’d committed myself to started sinking in.

Thoughts and questions started playing on my mind. Am I going to make it? Have I bitten off more than I can chew? Are we going to have enough food? How am I going to carry all that gear and hike up and down mountains? Will my hiking buddy be sick of me after 3 days? What on earth are we going to talk about for that long? Have I got the right gear? What happens if we get injured? Will the weather be ok? What could go wrong? I had so many questions about what was at that time an unknown experience for me.

We did the hike and I survived. I was sore and stiff for about a week afterwards but it was one of the best things I have ever done. There was absolutely no regrets and we are going to plan another big hike soon. There’s something incredible about getting connected to nature and the digital detox was a bonus.

If you’re thinking about doing an overnight hike here’s a few tips based on my first overnight hiking experience:

1) Don’t go alone. It’s much safer going with someone else and in the hopefully unlikely event that you hurt yourself, get lost or something unplanned happens you will be able to help each other or get help. It’s great to have someone else there for moral support. There were moments where I really felt like I was done. My hiking buddy encouraged me to keep going and sometimes I was encouraged simply because he was there. I’d put one foot in front of the other and a couple steps later I had momentum again and forgot about quitting. I’d also highly recommend hiking with someone you get along with really well. It makes a huge difference to your overall hike experience and for me it became a really powerful bonding experience because we got along so well.

2) Plan your trip in detail. The better you plan and prepare for your hike the more enjoyable your experience will be. Think carefully about your basic needs like food, water and shelter.  Think about what could go wrong, where you are going, how long it will take to get there, what facilities will be at the overnight camp sites and how long it will take you to walk each section of the hike. Use detailed maps, seek out local information and look for advice from people who have already experienced the same hike. It really helps to know the park well and do a hike that is popular and likely to have other hikers on it. Share your plans with someone at home including where you are planning to hike and make sure you check out the local weather and conditions before you leave.

3) Buy or borrow a really good quality hiking backpack. I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow a really good 80 litre hiking backpack from a mate of mine. I was worried about carrying so much gear during the hike but having a well designed hiking backpack made carrying our gear quite practical and much easier than I expected. We were carrying about 10kg of gear each and although you could definitely feel it was there, after a while you got used to it. The biggest issue I had was getting the backpack on and off. There’s a trick to it. You need to lean forward, put the pack on, do up the waist straps while you are still leaning forward and then stand up. If possible, find a backpack that accommodates a hydration bladder for your water.

4) Buy a hikers hydration bladder. I was almost going to use water bottles to store water but I’m so glad I didn’t. The hydration bladders have a pipe with a tap mechanism and a squeezable cap that allows you to drink while your hiking without having to open you back pack each time you need a drink. If your backpack accommodates a hydration bladder it will also mean your water is significantly easier to carry. Make sure you check whether there are local water source options at your campsites for refills. If there is a water source you may need to treat water either by boiling or with a chemical treatment. If there is no was source you will need to carry all your water in. I carried about 3 litres of water for drinking which covered me for about 6-8 hours of hiking in mild temperatures. We also used additional water for cooking and cleaning dishes.

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5) Pack as light as possible. Look for ways to lighten what you take with you. The total weight of your gear starts adding up very quickly once you start packing and you’ll thank yourself later if you do all you can to minimise the weight of your gear. Little things like removing excess packaging from food or cutting your toothbrush in half make a big cumulative difference which will make carrying your backpack just that little bit easier. Where you need to buy equipment for your hike look for the good quality lightweight options. You will also discover that you don’t need everything they sell in hiking/outdoor stores. Only pack the essentials and avoid the temptation to pack spare clothes.

6) Use good quality sleeping gear. Sleep is important for the exhausted camper. Make sure you have a good quality sleeping matt, sleeping bag and hiking pillow to ensure you have a great nights sleep. Your sleeping bag should have an appropriate temperature rating and a good sturdy lightweight hiking tent will also help you sleep well and keep you dry if it rains.

7) Plan your food carefully. Plan out a menu of what you are going to eat for the whole trip. There are some key things to keep in mind when planning your food. Think about light weight food, what will keep without refrigeration, how will you open packaging (i.e. will you need a can opener?), how are you going to cook hot food, does the park you’re hiking in have restrictions on fires, will there be facilities to cook on at the camp sites, if you’re looking at packet meals do they need other ingredients like cream or milk and how much rubbish will you end up having to carry home after you’ve consumed the food. Keep your meal plan simple. There are lots of great ideas for hiking meals on the internet. We found the dehydrated hiking meals in outdoor/hiking stores were really good because they were light weight and only needed minimal boiling water. They cost a little more than some other options but it was worth paying a little extra for them and they actually tasted pretty good after a long day hiking.

8) Wear good hiking shoes. Your feet will bear the brunt of your hiking expedition so it’s important to make sure you wear proper hiking shoes that support your feet well, are tight (but not too tight) around your feet and have good grip. The difference between good shoes and bad shoes will be the difference between blisters and black toe nails. My shoes weren’t quite as tight fitting as they needed to be and so I ended up with blisters on the soles of my feet from sliding around in my shoes. I’ll definitely be getting hiking shoes before my next hike. If you buy a new pair of shoes make sure you wear them in before you go. Also make sure you trim your nails before your hike to reduce the chance they will rub against your shoe and turn black or fall off after your hike.  A good pair of hiking socks will also make a huge difference.

9) Wear shorts during the hike. Assuming you’re not hiking in the snow or somewhere really cold it is much more comfortable hiking in knee length shorts than long pants. We hiked in mild Autumn temperatures that peaked at approximately 23 degrees Celsius. I thought I’d be cold in shorts but I was actually too hot in light weight long pants. You can buy hiking pants which convert to shorts by unzipping the legs. They would be a practical option that helps keep your backpack weight down. Make sure you pack warm clothes for nights though as once you’re settling into camp for the night you will cool down quickly and temperatures will drop significantly overnight. Make sure you pack cameras or other devices away overnight as the battery on my camera didn’t handle the cold well.

10) Think about post hike recovery. We worked out we walked more than 50km over the 3 days. I was sore all over, I had blisters on my feet and I was pretty exhausted. I had a spa when I got home which was very soothing. Almost a week later I ended up going to a physio as I was having issues with a sore back that wasn’t recovering quick enough but it was ok and a quick massage and some stretches helped. I also used a heat balm to rub down my muscles for a few days. As much as I was sore for a few days it was a small price to pay for such an incredible experience and I still say it  was well worth it.

If you’ve never been on an overnight hike before and you’re considering it I would definitely recommend it. These tips will hopefully help you prepare and get the most out of your hike. If you plan and prepare your hike well you will have a fantastic and memorable time. You’ll be so glad you did it and if you’re anything like me you’ll be planning your next hike as soon as you finish your first one. Enjoy!

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