||"a mountaineer who came back is good for the next time". This is a phrase often repeated by a member of our local branch of CAI. Actually it hides a great truth: it is very hard to perceive and overall foresee a danger in the mountains. Thus it is worth spending some words about our and others' safety.
Mountain accident statistics outline that a big percentage of accidents occurring in the mountains involve less experienced hikers: sometimes because they were not informed about the difficulty of the chosen trail, or because they were not prepared for a sudden change of weather (very frequent in the mountains), or because their gear were not appropriate (choosing the right footware and clothes may be of primary importance).
I remember an article telling about two hikers who lost their way at about 1500 m of altitude: after the sunset they were not able to find the way to come back and they had to spend the night in the open. In autumn temperature drops quickly also at low altitude: as they had not enough to cover themselves up, the alpine rescue team found them with a beginning frostbite. I do not want to frighten anyone: I only want to say that it is necessary to assimilate also other hikers' experience in order to understand and to mature.
In the above mentioned case, for example, a headtorch would have helped them extending the available time to find their way back (headtorches are light and useful!). Furthermore an additional pullover and a pair of gloves would have relieved their suffering.
You have to begin from little things, even if someone may think that they are trivial.
Gear selection tends to be a very personal thing, even if some personal belongings have to be put in the backpack, also for a two hours hike. Actually, the first thing to think about is the backpack. Easier said then done: I walk into a shop and I have to choose among ten brands and an infinite number of models! Let's focus on two subjects: first of all, what is my activity? A 30, maximum 40, litres backpack is the best for a one-day hike. Overnight hikers typically carry larger packs (55-60 litres). A bit of advice: do not believe that a very big backpack can be useful for all occasions, because a nearly empty backpack is not comfortable to carry; the weight is concentrated in the lumbar region, causing backache.
Also, there are backpacks both for women and for men. In the end the best you can do is try some models and see which is the most comfortable. Another suggestion: trying an empty backpack is useless, you can verify if a backpack is comfortable for you, only if it contains something heavy. Thus, you may ask the shop assistance for a rope or a pair of boots to put in the backpack and verify if shoulder straps are padded enough and weight is well distributed.
Let's see what we need to carry to fill up our backpack (actually we usually think "what may I leave at home?" to make the backpack lighter!). First of all, we have to take something to eat and above all to drink, even for short hikes. If you don't want spend money for water-bottles, you can use plastic bottles, recycling them (a downside: plastic bottles are not insulating). Water is best, whereas fizzy drinks are to be avoided, because they do not quench one's thirst. Drinks containing mineral salts and vitamins are fine (actually, a little excessive for a walk).
As regards food, I can only give this advice: avoid very salty and slowly digestible food. The goal is to keep yourself light: eat sufficient food to recover your strength. A piece of chocolate, for example, could be a good idea: particularly at the end of the hike, simple carbohydrates give prompt energy; complex carbohydrates, on the contrary, are better for prolonged efforts. Dried fruit is rich in potassium, so it helps to prevent cramps.
As already said, clothing must be adequate. You may start your hike in a t-shirt, but during the day conditions may change, also because the hike touches different faces of the mountain: after a sunny stretch there could be a shady one where you may be cold; every 1000 m of altitude temperature decreases of about 6°C, on average; the temperature felt on the skin is affect also by the wind. Ideally you should dress like an onion: layers of clothing keep you warm by trapping dead air between them. Also, they allow for flexibility in keeping the body at a comfortable temperature by letting you add and subtract layers thereby preventing over-heating and heavy sweating.
Various kinds of technical fabrics are now on the market. They are light-weight, quick to dry and guarantee breathability: Capilene t-shirts, Terinda (Dupont) tracksuits, pile (and or windstopper) pullovers, Gore-tex jackets... and so on. In general terms I only suggest to avoid jeans: they are not windproof, do not keep skin temperature and in case of wet weather they need a week to dry! And do not forget a pair of gloves, a hat, a light plastic raincoat (for example a large one that can cover the backpack too) and a change of clothes: socks, pants and t-shirt.
Leave a change of clothes in the car is very important, but it is a good idea to keep it in the backpack too: if you are caught in a storm during a hike and then you reach a refuge, you can change and keep dry. A little advice: it is better to keep the change in a plastic bag: the rain may wet the backpack, but your clothes keep dry!
What else? A good jacket which protects from wind and wetness: a low cloudy day (with high degree of humidity) is almost as a rainy day.
Windstopper clothes are more and more common: they are windproof, but they do not keep you warm. A pullover is the best thing.
In all conditions, it is wise to carry a whistle; you may happen to find yourself in a fog unexpectedly, losing your fellow hikers: yelling at the top of your voice tires you losing your strength quickly. Using a whistle allows to save strength and your call out for help arrives farther away.
In your backpack there must always be a simple first aid kit: no particular medical equipment is required, only some plasters (including those against blisters) and a small bottle of disinfectant.
I have above touched on the hat: in sunny day you can wear a "bandana", thus it might be used as an emergency bandage.
A knife for hiking and the backpack is ready. Now you only need to wear shoes and... Of course, shoes: choosing is hard! First of all: climbing boots or walking shoes? The question already excludes various kind of unsuitable shoes: jogging shoes, sandals... A sunny day in August, the cableway takes people to a glacier at 4000m: I see a man with his wife wearing sandals!!
Let's come back to the previous question. Walking shoes are the best footwear for hiking: they incorporate grippy outsole to provide secure traction, are light-weight and allow a great sensitiveness, as their sole is not rigid. Cheap footwear means often (but not always) inferior quality, particularly as concerns sole ("vibram" trademark is generally a guarantee). I do not think that a Gore-tex upper is necessary.
Climbing boots are, on the contrary, heavier, they have a more rigid sole and are more expensive. They are more suitable for terrains covered with snow or along streams. However, do not be shy when you are in the shop: wearing thick cushioning socks, try the boots as long as possible, walking in the shop; when you are at home, wear them again. Finding out that your new boots are uncomfortable in the mountains... it is too late! And suffering from footache or from blister during a hike is the worst way to spoil the day... of course!
WHICH KIND OF EXCURSION ?
Now you only have to decide where to go, keeping in mind two basic principles: difficulty and length of the trail. Your technical abilities and experience must be adequate; length depends of course on your physical conditions and training (when hiking in company you have to consider the abilities of the weakest). In the description guides or in the signs located at the beginning of a route you can find how long the trip is, expressed in hours of walk or in meters of elevation gain.
Hikers usually gain about 350 meters of elevation per hour (of course it depends on the training and physical conditions); the same trail takes about half time walking downhill. If the elevation gain of the excursion is about 1000 meters (that is to say about 3 hour hike), you clearly need to be trained for walking some hours longer, so that you are not exhausted reaching the summit: you have also to come back.
In the summertime you may plan longer hikes or allow more breaks than in other periods.
As concerns difficulty it is not so easy: it is true that all guidebooks classify hiking trails (T as tourists, E as hikers, EE as skilled hikers – more info here), but other elements might modify standard rating. Grade "E", for a trail, might be referred to the good season: in winter or at the beginning of spring, you could find iced strips or strips covered with high snow, making your hike more difficult. Also sections of scree may become tricky if wet.
Thus, you have to collect as much info as possible about the planned hike: guidebooks, internet, friends who have already hiked the trail, refugekeepers. They, and alpine guides too, are able to give the most up-to-date info, regarding trail conditions.
HOW TO GET INFO FROM MAPS
I would end this series of suggestions (I feel like an anxious father!) with a little digression about orienteering. First of all we need a relevant map for the region (the best scale is 1:25.000 ... 1:50.000 scale maps require more experience to be read properly). You will find that it is not so hard to understand it. After some trials you will be able to "plan" your hike: it is a good exercise to know in advance the region and it is the beginning of orienteering.
At home try to read the hike description, following the trail on the map and recording direction changes (first to the north, then to the south...). Take as reference the nearest mounts indicated on the map and eventually write your notes on a sheet of paper (for example: the little bridge on that river stays at 1200 m of altitude ... or the trail forks at such altitude and I have to take left ... or I have to walk along the slopes of that mountain...). During the hike, compare your notes to what you see, trying to locate the mounts around you, the streams..
It is like a game and it allows you to learn the symbology used on the maps: hike after hike you will realize that you will be able to know which kind of terrain you will find along the walk, where the hardest strips are. And last but not least, you will be able to know where you are only by looking at the map. It is very important to be aware about how long you still have to walk before reaching your goal. Dawn will come soon or a storm is approaching... "had I better come back or will I reach the refuge?" It is an important choice that you have to make lucidly.
Another advice: during the walk at the forks, remember to turn back and photograph, in your mind, the landscape or some marks because what you will see coming back might be different. Noticing a particular tree or a strange rock will make it easier to recognize the way when coming back, also when the trail is not well marked.
After all these suggestions, you could think that you had better stay at home. Actually, my goal is to show you how nice it is enjoy the mountains, adopting easy (even if many) measures to prevent troubles.
Hoping to have reached my goal, I wish you "good hike" and, above all, "have a good time!"