The Elkin and Alleghany Rail Trail in Elkin, N.C. on May 14, 2022. Photo: Lisa Lopez / Carolina Public Press

A few days before a hike, I often let my imagination get in the way of practicality. I conjure up all of the sensory stimulation the forest offers — the smell of the wet leaves, the sound of twigs cracking under my feet, the feel of an early morning chill. It’s easy to get caught up in the anticipation, but I’ve learned that hiking is much more than communing with the wonders of nature. It’s about organization and planning for adverse scenarios. As the saying goes, expect the best, but prepare for the worst. 

After several day hikes on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, I have learned to take preparation seriously. A walk in the woods can be a wonderful way to spend a Saturday, but you need to plan for unpleasant things like slips or falls, bee stings, even curious bears. An unexpected trail or bridge repair can derail your entire day. Fortunately, we North Carolinians are lucky to live in a great trails state and we are even more fortunate to have a large community of folks willing to provide resources and advice.

The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea network is one of these great resources. The group helps bring trail enthusiasts together to build, maintain and advocate for the trail and to ensure that all people feel welcome. As I’ve shared before, the MST has a website that is full of helpful information about planning your trail hike. It provides volunteer opportunities and updates with  the latest news about trail segments. 

In addition to the terrific updates and guides that the MST website provides, I recently discovered the Mountaineers Ten Essentials list, which was formalized in 1974 when it debuted in the third edition of “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.” The Mountaineers Ten Essentials list dates to the climbing courses of the 1930s. The publication now has nine editions, and it is written entirely by volunteers. It mirrors the combined knowledge of hundreds of outdoor skills instructors.

The list seeks to answer two basic questions:

  • Can you prevent emergencies and respond positively should one occur?
  • Can you safely spend a night (or more) outside? 

Whether the trail is difficult or easy, the Mountaineers Ten Essentials will help get you prepared: 

  1. Navigation: map, altimeter, compass (GPS device) 
  2. Headlamp and extra batteries
  3. Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes; and sunscreen
  4. First aid: including foot care and insect repellent 
  5. Knife: plus, repair kit
  6. Fire: matches, lighter and tinder, or stove as appropriate
  7. Shelter: can be a lightweight emergency blanket
  8. Extra food
  9. Extra water: the average adult should drink 2 cups of water an hour or one liter of water every 2 hours on the trail
  10. Extra clothes: sufficient to survive an emergency overnight

Additionally, I always bring my smartphone with the AllTrails app downloaded. It not only shows me local trails, but it can be used for many activities, such as horseback riding, rock climbing, mountain biking, running, fishing and skiing. I also recommend the Mountains to Sea trail guides, which provide all the information needed to complete each of the 18 trail segments. These guides give you information about where to get supplies, lodging, camping, food, water along the trail and trailheads, complete with GPS coordinates. 

Here are some additional resources for your hiking journey:

Happy hiking!

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Correction: An earlier version misstated the recommended water intake for adults. It has been updated. Adults should drink 2 cups of water an hour or one liter every 2 hours on the trail.

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Lisa Lopez is the Development Director for Carolina Public Press. She oversees fundraising development for Carolina Public Press across North Carolina.

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  1. Regarding #9. I have hiked the most strenuous trails in the state, and I can’t remember when I ever drank anywhere close to 2 liters of water per hour. Even on a full day of backpacking I doubt I ever drank more than about 4-5 liters.