For our wedding night, we got a room on the sixty-something floor of a hotel overlooking Hanoi. We could see roofs and roads shouldering for miles. It’s my hometown, and I was with the love of my life. When I woke up the next morning, it was a luxury - the sunrise view from my quiet and comfortable hotel room on the top of the city. No more crowded party, merry guests and uncomfortable dresses. Just me, the view (and the hubby.)
Two months later, on our honeymoon trip, I got to see another sunrise. This time, it was a lot higher, above clouds and volcanic smoke. I have to say that there was no comparison. It’s not just about the scenery. The mountain air. The satisfaction of reaching the top after three hours going up, and up, and up. You feel the happiness in each muscle. That’s what mountain hiking does to you.
To get there, though, you need some preparation. The more challenging the hike, the more meticulous and further in advance you need to prepare.
Let's start with the basics
Pick a suitable hike
Think about your physical limit. It's easier if you are fit, but you need more information to decide the length of your first hike.
Hiking is a cardio activity, something more relevant to brisk walking and running than lifting weight in the gym. If you don’t run or go for a long walk often, perhaps you should start now as some form of training. These exercises also give you a better idea of how you will cope with hiking.
Climbing up and down the mountain is different to walking on flat terrain. The higher you are, the less air it is and the more quickly you become tired. So, pay attention to the elevation of any hike. It might be more difficult to climb from the ground to a 500-metre height in three hours than to follow a route circling the mountain for five hours and ascend only a couple of hundred metres. I can run 10km without having to take one break, but running up the hill for 2km and I will need to stop at least five times.
Length of time
If this is your first hike, it is probably sensible to aim for no more than five or six hours with an elevation of fewer than 1,000 metres. I wouldn’t consider a multiple-day trip with outside camping unless you run and cycle regularly and you have porters carry your stuff as you need a lot more supply in that case.
The following tips will be based on a short day trip on the mountain.
Have a realistic logistic plan
Don't be out in the dark
It’s important to get there and get back in reasonable time. You don’t want to get stuck on the mountain after dark without proper equipment. Check the sunrise and sunset time of the area of the hike in the season that you want to do it.
In the northern hemisphere, say in England, it goes dark at 3 pm in the winter but stays light until 9 pm or later in the summer. It is not at all like that in the tropics. So always check in advance.
The types of route
It's fine if you go from A to B and back to A. However, some routes don't go in a circle, so make sure you can catch a bus or a shuttle service to get back to your starting point and allow the time to do so.
You need to consider water and rest breaks. At the beginning, you might need to stop more often as you are not used to hiking. Not all guides include this, so you might find your hike takes longer than it is said in the book. If you or any other person in your group are into taking photos, that will slow things down, too.
Take the wrong turns
It’s common to get a bit lost as signposts are either rare or not obvious, and some hiking instructions are surprisingly brief. You don’t have to worry about this if you have a guide but if you are doing the navigation yourself, be prepared and count some extra time for the finish line.
What to pack for your first mountain hike
Here are the essentials
Staying hydrated is crucial. I would bring at least one and half litre per person for a hike of four to five hours. If it's cold, either because you are doing a winter hike or that you aim for a peak above 2,000 meters, a hot water flask would be useful. When I climbed Mount Penanjakan in Java, I was so grateful for a cup of tea when reaching the top.
For half a day hike, you might not need any food but make sure to bring some for when you become tired and need more energy. A bar of chocolate, some banana bread or some nuts won’t weigh you down and could be highly appreciated during your rest breaks.
The higher on the mountain you are, the less protection you have from the sun. So put on the right type of sun cream and bring some extra. You might want to wear sunglasses and a hat with a brim so you can see where you put your feet. A misstep could be dangerous up there.
It’s a make-or-break factor. You want hiking shoes that protect your ankles and give you enough support as well as grip on rocky terrain. Don’t go hiking with city trainers or flip flops, please. I know it sounds like a no-brainer but I’ve seen people up the mountain with those. The poor feet.
If your shoes are new, make sure you break them in before your hike. Wear them for a long walk in the countryside or even just walking around your house for a day.
And here’s the full list
Backpack: light and waterproof
Layers of at least three: a base layer, a middle layer of wool, and a windproof & waterproof jacket.
Socks: one pair on you, and one pair extra. Get the hiking socks because they allow your feet to breath.
Shoes: as above
Hat: as above
Scarf & gloves: Even if it might not be cold at your starting point, bring them anyway. The gloves can give you extra protection if you need to use your hand, and scarf often looks good in photos (just kidding)
First Aid Kit
Food & Water: as above
If you need some ideas for your first (or second and third) mountain hike, read these posts: