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Hiking is a different activity performed when sailing.
Beautiful natural scenes are common hiking destinations
Beautiful natural scenes are common hiking destinations

Hiking is a form of walking, undertaken with the specific purpose of exploring and enjoying the scenery. It usually takes place on trails in areas of relatively unspoiled wilderness.

Off-trail hiking is often called 'bushwalking', 'bushwhacking', 'bush-bashing' or 'cross country hiking'. Overnight hiking is more specifically called 'backpacking'. The word 'hiking' is understood in all English-speaking countries, but regional terms also exist. In the United Kingdom, the activity is often simply called 'walking'. Australians use the term bushwalking for both on- and off-trail hiking. New Zealanders commonly employ the word tramping, particularly for overnight trips. Hiking in the mountainous regions of Nepal and India is sometimes called 'trekking'.


Comparison with other forms of touring

Hiking is one of the fundamental outdoor activities on which many others are based. Hiking is the only way to reach many beautiful places overland. Enthusiasts regard hiking as the best way to see nature. It is seen as better than a tour in a vehicle of any kind (or on an animal; see horseback riding) because the hiker's senses are not intruded upon by distractions such as windows, engine noise, airborne dust in large quantities, and fellow passengers. It has an advantage over standing in one place because the hiker may cover a wide area.

On the other hand, hiking over long distances or over difficult terrain does require some degree of physical ability and knowledge, as well as a backpack to carry food, water and essential equipment. Hikers may be caught in inclement weather or suffer mishaps. Some jurisdictions (for example New Hampshire) now require inadequately prepared hikers to pay for their own rescues.

The most common symbols used in trail blazing
The most common symbols used in trail blazing

Personal safety issues

Hiking can be a very enjoyable and safe activity. However, there are inherent risks in hiking. These risks can be mitigated by safety procedures. These risks include:

  • Physical injuries, such as ankle sprain. Hikers can injure themselves due to a misstep or fall. Poor judgement on steep or slippery slopes can lead to injury. Carrying a backpack may make a hiker more cumbersome. The risk of injury can be decreased with the use of proper shoes (e.g., hiking boots). Injuries can also be minimized by thinking carefully before putting oneself in harm's way.
    • Foot blisters are a common form of minor physical injury to hikers. These blisters are caused by too much friction and irritation against the skin. Wet socks and poorly-fitting shoes precipitate the occurrence of blisters. Two layers of socks (using liner socks) help prevent blisters, and moleskin can be applied to blister-prone areas as a treatment or preventive measure.
    • Back injury may result from packing too much or not having a proper backpack. A Hiking Backpack should be bought from a recreational store, and as a rule of thumb, a person should carry no more than one third of their body weight.
  • Dehydration can rapidly incapacitate a hiker, especially in warm weather. In conditions of low humidity, sweat evaporates so quickly that a hiker may not notice the water loss. Dehydration can be avoided by carrying and drinking an adequate amount of water. Depending on conditions, two liters of water may be enough for a day hike, but in high heat conditions (such as hiking the Grand Canyon in summer, one liter per hour may be required. [1]. Extensive sweating may also deplete a hiker's body of sodium. Naturally occurring water is often unfit to drink (see Potability of backcountry water).
  • Replenishing water, but not sodium, can result in hyponatremia. Thus, salty snacks along with water are also recommended.
  • Heat exhaustion, possibly developing into heatstroke, can occur during high-temperature hikes, particularly if one is dehydrated or dressed too warmly. The risk of heatstroke can be minimized by avoiding hiking in the direct sun if the temperature is too high, and staying wet when possible. This is a life-threatening condition: a victim must be cooled off and transported to a hospital immediately.
  • Conversely, hypothermia is a risk particularly to hikers at higher altitudes or latitudes. Wet clothing (due to rain, sweat, stream crossings, etc.) is a major risk factor, and can cause hypothermia even in warm weather. Hypothermia can result in death if the victim's body temperature drops very low. Even if it does not kill the victim directly, it causes confusion, irrationality and impaired judgment, raising the risk of other injuries. Hypothermia risk can be minimized with proper clothing. Cotton clothing is often discouraged for its ability to absorb and hold water. Packing extra layers of clothing decreases the risk of hypothermia.
  • Frostbite can occur when bare skin is exposed to very low temperatures. For very low-temperature hiking, clothing can be arranged to minimize the amount of exposed skin.
  • If deprived of food for several days, hikers may become malnourished. A human can survive for weeks without food, but malnutrition causes impaired judgment. Low blood sugar may have a similar effect. Carrying extra food will minimize risk to the hiker.
In many parks, hiking trails are clearly labelled.
In many parks, hiking trails are clearly labelled.
  • Hikers may become lost, either if a hiking party cannot find its way, or if a hiker becomes separated from the party and cannot find it again. Lost hikers who cannot find their way to their destination on time may run out of food and water, or experience a change in weather, exacerbating the risk of hiking hazards. Staying on marked trails certainly helps, but trails do not exist in some areas. Carrying a map and compass and knowing how to use them will decrease the risk of getting lost. Likewise, a Global Positioning System may prove invaluable, as it can pinpoint a hiker's location, revealing exactly where on the globe they are and the direction to roads, services and cities. A communication device, such as a cell phone or a satellite phone, may help in the case of an emergency. However, cell phone coverage in wilderness areas is often quite poor. Family Radio Service and General Mobile Radio Service radios may be helpful, especially if hikers become separated from others in their group. Informing people outside of the hiking group of the itinerary and expected finishing time increases the safety of the group.
    • While hiking on trails with branches, a group may split up by some hikers taking a wrong turn. The hikers who take the wrong turn may not have a map or know the area, and thus become lost. A common custom is for hikers at the front of a hiking group to stop at a fork in the trail and ensure that the rest of the hikers know which trail to follow.
  • In many areas, hikers may encounter large animals such as bears or cougars. Wild-animal attacks may occur when hikers come upon an unsuspecting animal and surprise it. Also, animals such as bears can become accustomed to gathering food from human property. These encounters can also result in attacks against humans. The risk of surprising an animal can be mitigated by making noise, whether by clapping and yelling regularly, tapping a stick against rocks, or wearing a "bear bell".

All of the risks listed above may be mitigated by hiking in a group. Other hikers in a group can administer first aid or seek help. In emergencies, groups of hikers can pool their muscle power, brain power, and body heat.

Ecological impact of hiking

Hikers often seek beautiful environments in which to hike. Ironically, these environments are often fragile: hikers may accidentally destroy the environment that they enjoy. The action of an individual may not strongly affect the environment. However, the mass effect of a large number of hikers can degrade the environment. For example, gathering wood in an alpine area to start a fire may be harmless once (except for wildfire risk). Years of gathering wood can strip an alpine area of valuable nutrients.

Generally, protected areas such as parks have regulations in place to protect the environment. If hikers follow such regulations, their impact can be minimized. Such regulations include forbidding wood fires, restricting camping to established camp sites, disposing or packing out fecal matter, imposing a quota on the number of hikers per day.

Many hikers espouse the philosophy of Leave No Trace: hiking in a way such that future hikers cannot detect the presence of previous hikers. Practitioners of this philosophy obey its strictures, even in the absence of area regulations.

A cathole may be dug with a trowel.
A cathole may be dug with a trowel.

Human waste is often a major source of environmental impact from hiking. These wastes can contaminate the watershed and make other hikers ill. Bacterial contamination can be avoided by digging catholes 10 to 25 cm deep (4 to 10 inches, depending on local soil composition) and covering after use. If these catholes are dug at least 60 m (200 feet) away from water sources and trails, the risk of contamination is minimized [2].

Sometimes, hikers enjoy viewing rare or endangered species. However, some species (such as martens or bighorn sheep) are very sensitive to the presence of humans, especially around mating season. Hikers should learn the habits and habitats of the endangered species, in order to avoid adverse impact.

There is one situation where an individual hiker can make a large impact on an ecosystem: inadvertently starting a wildfire. For example, in 2005, a Czech backpacker burned 7% of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile by knocking over an illegal gas portable stove. Obeying area regulations and setting up cooking devices on bare ground will reduce the risk of wildfire.

Etiquette of hiking

Hiking is a recreational experience. As such, hikers expect it to be pleasant. Sometimes hikers can interfere with each others' enjoyment, or the enjoyment of other users of the land. Such interference can be minimized by hikers who follow good etiquette. Examples of such interference and etiquette include:

  • When two groups of hikers meet on a steep trail, there may be contention for use of the trail. To avoid conflict, a custom has developed: the group moving uphill has the right of way.
Hiking in a group increases safety, but hikers may hike at different rates.
Hiking in a group increases safety, but hikers may hike at different rates.
  • Being forced to hike much faster or slower than one's natural pace can be annoying, and difficult to maintain consistently. More seriously, walking unnaturally fast causes dramatically increased fatigue and exhaustion. If a group splits between fast and slow hikers, the slow hikers may be left behind or become lost. A common custom is to encourage the slowest hiker to hike in the lead and have everyone match that speed. Another custom is to have an experienced hiker sweep up the rear, to ensure that everyone in the group is safe and nobody straggles.
  • Hikers often enjoy the silence and solitude of their surroundings. This enjoyment is disrupted by loud sounds, such as shouting or loud conversation. Some hikers purposefully avoid loud sounds, out of deference to other hikers. Staying quiet will also increase the likelihood of encountering wildlife. (This is a hazard if dangerous animals are present; see "Personal safety issues" above.)
  • Hikers sometimes trespass onto private property. Such trespass can alienate the property owners and close down hiking rights-of-way. To maximize hiking opportunities for everyone, most hikers will understand where private property lies and avoid it—or get permission from the owner. Staying on trails will also minimize the probability of trespass.

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