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Hiking: Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Is it okay to hike in sneakers?
A. Sneakers are great for brief outings on well-maintained, flat trails. But many hiking trails can be muddy or have crumbling surfaces, rocky scree, and roots. There is nothing like a good pair of hiking boots for added support, protection and safety.

Unlike sneakers, hiking boots can withstand the wear and tear of walking on abrasive granite. Their grooved soles provide better traction on rough surfaces. High-cut boots (those that come up around your ankles) provide greater support than low-cut models and help protect you from protruding sticks and stones. If they are lined with Gore-Tex® fabric, you will have the added benefit of waterproof performance.return to top

Q. Is it okay to throw away biodegradable items, like apple cores and banana peels?

A. No one likes hiking a trail littered with other people's trash. While items like apple cores and banana peels will eventually biodegrade, food leftovers of any kind diminish the outdoor experience for the hikers behind you as well as habituate the animals to human "leftovers." We recommend you carry out whatever you carry in and dispose of it properly elsewhere.

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Q. How do I introduce my young children to hiking?

A. Gradually. Before you try a day-long hike, try an hour-long hike and be prepared to carry a straggler or two. Make it fun for them. Let them bring a friend. Point out the wildlife, and have them find special plants or trees so they learn more about the natural world around them. Be sensitive to children's energy levels and need for frequent breaks.

Always bring a first-aid kit on your hikes – especially with children. Moleskin and adhesive bandages can be real lifesavers if you or your little ones get blisters.

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Q. How should I cross a stream?

A. If a stream crossing is unavoidable, search for the best crossing site. Note that mountain streams are often deeper than they appear.

The most experienced hiker in the group should cross first, perhaps without his or her pack, to find the best route. (It is easier to return to shore or recover from a fall without a heavy pack on your back.)

Waterproof hiking boots can keep you dry when crossing a shallow stream. Do not cross barefoot, as mountain stream beds are often slippery or rocky. Always face upstream when you cross moving water. Check depth carefully as you cross, and use a walking stick (or better yet, two) for better balance.

If you find a log spanning the stream, exercise caution before using it as a bridge. Many hikers find it unsettling to walk on a log several feet in the air with a rushing stream below them. The surest-footed hikers should carry the packs across, one at a time. Those less experienced or confident should straddle the log and inch their way along – less graceful, perhaps, but a lot safer and drier.

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Q. How much water should I carry?

A. As much as you comfortably can. People often take too little water. Three quarts per person per day is a good rule of thumb, depending on the length of the hike, the weather and your level of fitness. Take a lesson from athletes. Recent studies show that cyclists given an unlimited supply of water had over 50% more stamina than cyclists who were offered no water on training rides. You will feel much more energetic and can better tackle those mountain ridges when you are well hydrated.

Many experienced hikers will pack a few gallons of water in the car before they leave home so they can drink some and/or top off their water bottles before they hit the trail. You will also have a fresh supply of water waiting for you when you return to the vehicle.

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Q. Should I use a hiking stick?

A. It depends entirely on you. Many hikers enjoy using a stick, or walking staff, even though they are in great physical condition and have a good sense of balance. Others wouldn't dream of it. If you are fording streams or hiking at high altitude for the first time, take a stick for added stability. Some hikers use an adjustable walking stick or a trekking pole (or sometimes two) for stability on challenging terrain. Trekking poles are not only helpful for stability on an ascent, they also help take some of the strain off of your knees on the way down.

The height of your stick is a matter of personal preference. Most fixed-length sticks are shoulder height or higher. Adjustable poles offer the added versatility of telescoping down to a short length. If you encounter a really steep climb or just don't want to use your pole(s) for a while, you can strap them on your pack.

Some adjustable poles have a special camera mount on the top of the handle that turns your walking stick into a monopod for slow exposure photography.

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Q. What foods should I bring on a day hike?

A. For day hikes, we have found that bagels, pita bread, fruit such as oranges and apples, and gorp, chocolate or energy bars are ideal – foods that pack a lot of energy and won't disintegrate on the trail. Many hikers pack traditional European-style lunches of bread, cheese, fruit and hard meats that don't require much refrigeration, such as pepperoni or summer sausage.

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Q. What's the best way to pack my backpack?

A. Each pack is different, as is each person's center of gravity. How one person loads a backpack may not be ideal for another. Generally, try to keep the heaviest part of your load centered close to your back and shoulder blades.

Because a woman's center of gravity tends to be lower than a man's, some women find that putting heavier items at the bottom of the pack is best for their balance. Some backpacks designed for women ride lower, with the weight concentrated near their waist. On some of these packs, the sleeping bag rides on top of the pack.

Experiment to see what works best for you. "With an external frame pack, I would rather pack things close to my back than strap items to the frame so they stick out behind me," says L.L.Bean employee Tim Paul, an avid mountaineer who recently climbed Mt. McKinley. "It throws off my center of gravity."

External frame packs have several outside pockets and internal compartments, while most internal frame packs are basically large bags. "Organization is very important when it comes to internal frame packs," Paul says.

"You can use different-colored stuff sacks for each section of your gear, such as food, clothing, toiletries and stove fuel. That way, you don't have to dismantle everything to grab what you need," he adds.

The things you use the most during your hike, such as a jacket, candy bars, a camera, a compass and a guidebook or map, should be tucked in a side pocket or on the top within easy reach.

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Q. How do I wash myself if water is scarce?

A. "I don't worry too much about staying clean on the trail," says Mary Yeo, who recently climbed Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, with a group of breast cancer survivors on Expedition Inspiration.

"I take a bowl of warm water, and literally I mean a bowl, and a baby wipe. Starting with my face, I work my way down. You can have a pretty complete bath with just a little water.

"I also swear by my backcountry pack towel," she adds. "They are compact and you can squeeze them out and use them as a washcloth and then a towel. You can even dry your hair with them."

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Q. What is the best kind of stove fuel to use?

A. Several L.L.Bean salesclerks prefer to use butane cartridge stoves in the summer. Butane is light, clean and requires no pumping or priming to produce an instant flame. You simply plug a cartridge into your stove, turn it on and light it.

During the colder months, many use white gas or unleaded fuel. The fuel is inexpensive and produces a lot of heat, which is critical during winter when campers melt snow for drinking water.

Remember to replace your fuel every season and don't store fuel in your stove's tank for extended periods. Fuel should be drained at the end of the season or burned off to prevent impurities from clogging the fuel lines and burners.

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Q. What is the difference between an internal frame pack and an external frame pack?

A. Internal frame packs have soft frames built into the pack. The bag hugs the body tightly and comfortably and is very well-balanced, which is invaluable when hiking or climbing on difficult terrain. The absence of an external frame also lessens the likelihood of snagging the pack on branches as you walk.

External frame packs usually have more pockets and compartments than internal frame packs. The rigid external frame also allows backpackers to carry heavy loads more comfortably than in an internal frame pack. Many hikers choose this style for extended trips.

"The important thing is that the pack feels right on you," says L.L.Bean employee and avid mountaineer Tim Paul. "On the Appalachian Trail, which is a pretty open trail, half the hikers have external frames and half have internal frames. It really depends on what rides comfortably on your shoulders."

"My personal preference is an internal frame pack," said L.L.Bean salesclerk Mary Yeo, who climbed Aconcagua in South America with Expedition Inspiration. "It moves with my body. And when you take an external frame pack on a plane or bus, it's bulky to handle."

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Q. How much do I really have to "carry out" when I go backpacking?

A. Everything. Many backpackers use zip-lock bags to carry in food and supplies. As you consume food, convert the bags to garbage bags for your wastepaper, toilet paper and sanitary supplies. Make sure your waste is securely stored, or even double-bagged, so it does not leak or spill onto food or clothing in your backpack.

If you have the energy and initiative, carry out any other trash you find.

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Q. What should I do if I get lost in the wilderness?

A. First, take every step to prevent becoming lost. Take a map and compass class at a local community center or outdoor store. Before you hike, study a map of the area to become familiar with the trails, nearby roads, streams, mountains and other features. Leave a trip plan with family or friends. As you hike, observe the topography around you (ridges, recognizable summits, rivers, etc.). They serve as good reference points, particularly when you are above treeline.

Always hike with a map and compass. If you become disoriented, stop, pull out your map and calmly look at the countryside for familiar landmarks. Few people remain truly lost after consulting a map and studying the terrain for five minutes.

To help orient yourself, you may want to head to a ridge or high ground so you can identify hills or streams that are marked on your topographical map. But don't wander too far from your original route, especially if you don't have a map. If you have told family members or fellow hikers where you plan to hike, that area is where rescuers will start searching for you.

Should you continue to be lost, S.T.O.P. (stop, think, observe and plan). Try to go back to your last known location if it is within a reasonable distance. Decide on a course of action and stick to it. Most important, don't panic. You will be using up energy that you may need later on.

If you can find no familiar landmarks by backtracking, then stay put. If you carry a whistle, blow it at timed intervals to signal rescuers or other hikers who could lead you back to your campsite or trail.

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