It’s in Czech Republic that I fell in love with hiking and wild camping. Nowadays, I spend at least one weekend a month sleeping in the forest, all year round. But it has not always been all rainbows and butterflies. The second day of my hike in the High Tatras in Slovakia could have cost me my life. Let me share with you some of the mistakes I’ve made, and how I fixed them.
1. I don’t need a headlamp, I’ll be back before dark.
A path I was following in New Zealand led me to the Karangahake Rail Tunnel. The tunnel was built in 1905 to transport gold, but was long abandoned when I crossed it. It was 1070m long and the only light was provided by glowworms. I began to feel uneasy half way through and wished I had a headlamp with me. I was relieved to finally arrive at the end…until I realised it was a dead end. On the way back, fear took over me. I could see nothing else that the light at the end of the tunnel. The echo of my footsteps accompanied the sound of humidity running along the sides. I could not help myself thinking about all the stupid horror movies I’d watched. I was so scared I had to run to avoid fainting. Since then, I haven’t gone anywhere without a headlamp, nor watched horror movies, for that matter.
Always take a headlamp or a torch wherever you go. You never know. There might be a tunnel or a cave you want to explore or you might have to walk along a road after dark. And don’t wait until it’s too late to change the batteries…
2. What’s wrong with my shoes ? They fit when I bought them.
Have you ever had the sensation your shoes had shrunk, leaving no space for the blisters multiplying on your toes and heels ? You’re not the only one. I even felt a toenail popping off and lost another one three times. Three times ! But that was before a friend told me he always takes an extra pair of socks when he tries new shoes. With that extra pair on, it’s like trying new shoes after a long day of hiking. I can assure you my feet are grateful for the advice.
3. The comfort temperature of my sleeping bag is 8ºC so I won’t be cold if the air temperature is 10ºC.
I spent a whole afternoon sunbathing on a rock at la Pointe du Raz in Bretagne and even though I suffered the next two days because I came back home bright pink, I had loved it so much I wanted to spend a night there. I went to the closest Decathlon and bought a sleeping bag. Its comfort temperature indicated 8ºC and the forecasted night temperature was 10ºC. I installed my sleeping bag on the rock, slid in it, a big smile on my face, happy to spend my first night in the open. Two hours later I started shivering. My teeth chattered so much I thought they would break. I didn’t sleep at all that night.
Never fully trust the temperatures indicated on a sleeping bag. I always add 10ºC to it, so if it’s 8ºC, I know I’ll sleep well if the air temperature is not lower than 18ºC. The last thing you want is to spend the night shivering.
4. My backpack is heavy but if I can lift it I’ll be able to carry it all day long.
Yeah, right. My first long hike was in the High Tatras and my backpack weighted 18kg. Not very heavy, but too much for me to carry withe ease while hiking up mountains. With all the camping gear, warm clothes, plenty of food and water, you can hardly get below 18kg. Don’t leave essential stuff behind because you might regret it. Train to carry a heavy backpack instead. I went on short hikes with my pack filled with dictionaries or I took more gear than I needed for a weekend trip. Last year I did the Tour of Mont Blanc with 23kg and I barely felt them. It’s all about training.
5. No need to check the weather forecast. It’s not reliable anyway.
Weather forecast is not reliable, true, but like the temperature of a sleeping bag it should be checked to give you an idea of what you can expect. Always check it when you hike in the mountains, even if you’re just going for a day hike. On my second day in the Tatras I got wind, rain, hail and snow. I was frozen, soaked, hungry and weak. I never thought I’d be able to pass the peak. Short climb with the help of a metal chain on the right, dangerous drop on the left. Luck was on my side that day because I only fell after I passed the peak.
Don’t let the weather forecast stop you. Don’t stay home because it might rain but don’t hike if chances of bad weather are high. You might not be able to hide from it. Bad weather is a killer.
6. A poncho is great. It’ll cover me and my backpack.
What a joke ! I only used mine once before buying a raincoat. Once again I found that out during my second day hiking in Slovakia. I had completely buttoned both sides together but the wind kept on blowing the front side, preventing me from seeing my feet. Not being able to see where you step while hiking in the mountains is not ideal. When I came back home I ran to the outdoor shop to buy a raincoat and waterproof paints. There is nothing better.
Reading articles such as this one will help you (I hope) prepare for the outdoors, but nothing will help you as much as the hikes themselves. Start easy, buy good gear, learn from your mistakes and mistakes of others but most of all enjoy.
Now let me thank you for reading this article with a bonus story. And don’t forget to share your own stories in the comment section.
7. What food will I pack for this trip ? I know. A watermelon.
There is no better choice than a watermelon, right ? It will provide you with food and water, it’s not heavy at all and it’s easy to eat, especially with a pocket knife.
You’d be surprised but I’m not the only one with strange culinary ideas. During the Tour of Mont Blanc I saw some guys with a wok and 1kg of mayonnaise and another group with a 5kg jar of Nutella.