Take a hike.
It’s about the best advice you can get.
Hiking is not just about fitness and health but it also underscores one of the biggest advantages of exercise in general — mental wellness.
Making your way through stands of redwoods, along a rugged coast, along a mountain’s ridge, across a meadow or along a stream helps put things in perspective.
But perhaps more important are the chance encounters with strangers that can provide gifts of philosophical insight to just pleasant exchanges.
The 209 is a hiker’s paradise. There is a repertoire of varied hiking abilities within minutes from most folks’ door to a smorgasbord of mountain, hill, and oceanside hikes for the beginners to those tackling strenuous options within several hours.
You can browse the Internet for ideas or chat it up with others who have hiked before, but for someone starting out there are two books that can give you a good overview of Northern California hiking options. Ann Marie Brown’s “Easy Hiking in Northern California” published by Foghorn Outdoors for $14.95 covers all types of geographic options complete with distance, average time and other tips on what to expect on each hike. Her introductory pages offer a good primer of what you should do to prepare for and take on a hike. She also offers suggestions on the best time of the year to hike.
The other book is “101 Hikes in Northern California: Exploring Mountains, Valleys & Seashore” by Matt Heid. It is published by Wilderness Press for $17.95. It covers hikes from Fresno-San Luis Obispo-Sequoia National Park north to the Oregon border. They are rated from one star (Mono Lake which has almost no loss or gain in elevation and takes about an hour) to five stars (Half Dome which covers 16.4 miles round trip, takes 10 to 12 hours, has a net elevation gain of 4,800 feet, requires a permit, and a lack of fear of heights.)
He also offers benchmarks to look for on each hike, suggested times of the year to hike, plus how to get more detailed maps.
My personal favorite is “Yosemite National Park: A Natural-History Guide to Yosemite and Its Trails” authored by Jeffrey Schafer. It is published by Wilderness Press. It comes with a folding topography map and covers 100 hikes in Yosemite ranging from short excursions to half and full-day hikes to multiple day hikes.
Part of the fun of hiking is researching various options. That helps explain why I’ve accumulated a library of 15 books dealing with hikes in Northern California as well as enough topography maps to plaster a wall or two.
Although the first two books do a good job of covering the basics there are seven things that I would emphasize that you definitely should get if you’re going to hike even though each is often recommended as options.
HIKING BOOTS: Not all trails require hiking boots but your feet will thank you if you use them even when they aren’t suggested. I hiked in Yosemite and twice on Mt. Whitney in a good pair or cross trainers. Not only are hiking boots designed specifically for walking on smooth surfaces such as granite and other terrain, they offer more support and comfort. The surprising part is you can get a do-able pair for the same price or even less than a pair of good cross training shoes. You definitely will want to try the boots on. For better quality, expect to spend $140 to $180. At that price point boots are more rugged and can take the punishment — as well as make it easier for your feet to do so — of long hikes on desert pavement, over jagged rocks or boulder fields. If you don’t want to head to Dublin or Sacramento for the closest REI given the Stockton location has been shuttered, Bass Pro Shops now carry Keen and a couple of other hiking boots I’d recommend that are more sturdy that their regular fare that suffices for those enjoying the great outdoors but aren’t hiking 10 to 12 miles a day and on rocky terrain. The new 5.11 Tactical store in Manteca actually has three solid hiking boot options that have a bottom and sturdiness that make it more of a rock climber’s dream but not at the same high price point.
HIKING SOCKS: There is a difference between good exercise socks and hiking socks. Hiking socks made of wool are designed not just to cushion but to keep your feet dry from sweat. I also make it a point to carry an extra pair of socks on longer hikes in case my feet get wet crossing a stream. After several years of resisting hiking socks that cost around $20 a pair for those a third of the price on the assumption they couldn’t be all that better, my feet wished I had splurged a long time ago. There is a significant jump in quality and comfort.
HIKING POLES: They help steady you going up steep inclines as well as down them by taking pressure off your ankles and knees. You really appreciate them in steep and treacherous terrain or when you’re tired near the end of a trek. They also mean you can avoid for most hikes having to invest in more expensive and studier hiking boots that can run in excess of $160 compared to most decent ones you can buy for between $40 and $65. Those buying the more expensive boots usually also have the hiking poles as well especially when they go into rugged territory. You can get by with one (They are $19.95 each at Bass Pro Shops) but you will appreciate two. That said the best overall poles are going to cost you about $80 or so at a place like REI. I’m sold on them because I can honestly say twice they literally got me out of real bad situations that were touch and go including one time when I was starting to slip down an unstable mountainside in a light drizzle in Death Valley.
GLOVES: Obviously if it is cold you will need winter gloves, but gloves in general help cushion your hand while using hiking poles or balancing yourself against rocks or trees. I tend to use closed finger hiking gloves in the desert mountains where there is more scrambling due to a lack of clearly marked trails and open finger gloves such as those used for weightlifting in the Sierra.
BASE LAYER SHIRTS THAT WICK AWAY MOISTURE: Various manufacturers have different names. Nike refers to them as “Dri-Fit.” They pull away sweat from your skin. That’s important even in winter or in colder temperatures when you may be wearing multi-layers. Nothing is more of a drag than having a shirt clinging to your skin that is soaked with sweat. In colder temperatures it can also help trigger hypothermia.
HIKING SHORTS: It is amazing what you can carry in them. On a typical hike I had my iPhone, wallet, camera, car keys, eye drops, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, lip balm, and still had three empty pockets. You can also slip in a water bottle. It beats having to get in and out of your backpack. After 10 years of serious hiking, there is no doubt in my mind dropping just under $50 for a pair of hiking shorts at 5.11 Tactical is your best bet. Not only are they made to last but in terms of comfort they bury shorts I’ve gotten from REI including those running $30 or more. They move with you when you are literally hugging rocks on steep angles. I’ve had two incidents where I’ve done a number on my legs and the 5.11 Taclite Pro Shorts didn’t even get a tear.
A WATER BOTTLE BELT: These are adjustable for your waist and come with a 10-ounce water bottle and can easily carry typical commercial water bottles. You can also secure your keys in a zipper pouch. They typically cost $30 and are washable.
BACKPACK: Although not a requirement for shorter hikes, if you plan on being out a half day or all day you’d be crazy not to have one. Besides being able to carry food, water, additional clothes, first-aid supplies, rain slicker, and such you can safely carry a SLR camera or other equipment. The backpacks that accept bladders to hold up to three liters of water are by far the best as you can drink from a tube as you walk. It’s safe to say I’m a firm believer in being prepared as you never know what may happen. The best packs have an aluminum frame that prevents much of the weight from rubbing on your back and positions it so that it doesn’t kill your shoulders. The perfect backpacks for me are what one REI associate described as one designed for “aggressive” day hikers. I actually have two Osprey backpacks that fit the bill thanks to their suspension system and capacity. I got the second one so that when I have someone hiking with me that only has a school type backpack they won’t be destroying their shoulders. Each backpack put me back about $200. I’d do it alone for the convenience of the bladder to not only access water but to distribute the weight much more effectively than if you’re packing a number of water bottles.
Hiking for all ages
On one of my most recent hikes on Mt. Whitney we came across people in their 70s, hikers as young as 10 years old and people of various degrees of physical fitness. Hiking is something you can do at your own pace.
The best encounter I ever had with a stranger while hiking was ascending Wildrose Mountain in Death Valley that has a summit elevation of 9,064 feet. I passed a lady who was going up in her 30s. Then, several switchbacks later, I came across her grandfather who I later found out was 78 years old.
He seemed to be struggling even with a walking stick. I greeted him by saying, “It’s worth the effort” to which he replied without missing a beat, “it already is.”
During a brief three-minute conversation I found out he was an engineer by trade, that he lived in Menlo Park and that when he retired from Hewlett-Packard at age 63 he didn’t want to sit around the house. He was never really super active. But he didn’t like what he saw happen to other friends who retired, and became lethargic, gained weight, and developed health issues that watered down their quality of life. So he decided he was going to hike every mountain peak that he could in California that was 7,000 feet or higher that had trails. He was on Wildrose for his third time.
I’ve done Wildrose four times, including once in the snow. With a little luck I’ll make trip No. 5 this November.