This is a recruitment pitch, a push toward the Maine woods, carved trail signs, footbridges and towering oaks. Not only is hiking a low-cost, lifelong, low-impact sport, it’s an ideal activity for a thickly forested state, where trails weave through numerous parks and conserved lands.
If interested in pursuing hiking this summer, listen up. Below are a few tips for staying safe and comfortable on the trail, pulled together with the help of Maine mountaineer James Albert, a Maine master guide from New Vineyard.
A Skowhegan native, Albert, 59, has been guiding treks, off and on, for the past 30 years. He dreams of completing the Seven Summits, the tallest mountains of the seven continents, and has already reached four of these summits: Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount McKinley in North America, Aconcagua in South America and Elbrus in Europe. The most expensive expeditions still lie before him: Everest in Asia, Vinson Massif in Antarctica and Carstensz Pyramid in Australia.
“My biggest thing is being where nobody else is — going places where nobody else usually goes,” Albert said. “Several times, I’ve been standing higher than anyone else in North America, or Africa — out of a whole [continent]. But I get the same feeling when I climb these mountains around here. They’re just as wonderful, with spectacular views — just a little smaller.”
In western Maine, Albert and his business partner Melissa Shea — also a mountaineer and registered Maine guide — plan fully-outfitted adventure trips across the state and around the world. Their Mountain Guide Service brings beginners and experienced outdoor enthusiasts hiking, backpacking, ice and rock climbing and backcountry skiing.
The bare necessities
Hiking is a fairly low-cost sport. That said, a few bits of gear and apparel are crucial to having a good time in the woods.
“Buy really good boots and really good rain gear,” Albert said. “You can be cheap on everything else, but not your boots and rain gear.”
High-quality hiking boots that feel comfortable on your feet might take some time and effort to find. Visit local outfitters, ask for advice and try on a lot of shoes until you find the right ones. Miserable feet make for a miserable hiker.
Risks of romps
The number one danger while summer hiking is taking a tumble. Typically, the terrain is not forgiving.
“In the wintertime, you fall down and you’re in the snow, but when you’re hiking in the summertime, you’re going over a lot of roots and rocks, especially in our mountains around here,” Albert said. “It’s very easy to trip and pitch forward, so you definitely want to make sure that you don’t get going faster than you should for the terrain and that you watch where you place your feet.”
Albert recommends people use hiking poles, which drastically decrease the chances of falling. Poles also soften the impact on leg joints.
“We always try to make people hike at a reasonable speed,” Albert said. “You travel slow enough so you can breathe right. If you can walk and talk at the same time, you’re going at a pretty good pace … If you see that you’re starting to sweat profusely and can’t seem to cool off, that’s when you need to cool your body down. Find a stream and put your wrist in the cold water. Put a wet bandana on your head.”
Though streams and ponds are great for cooling down, don’t drink any water from natural water sources unless it’s made safe with a water purifier or filtration unit. Untreated water can contain bacteria and viruses that cause hikers to become ill and dehydrated.
Water is the most important item in your pack. Dehydration and hypothermia are year-round dangers for hikers, Albert said. Always pay attention to your heart rate, breathing and how you’re feeling in general. Self-awareness is key.
“Watch out for the plants that you touch,” Albert said. “There are a lot of different plants that can hurt you, not just poison ivy. There’s poison oak and poison sumac. Avoid touching as many plants as you can, which you should do anyway. Just let nature do its thing.”
Hiking alone — no such thing
Hiking with another person or a group is the safest way to go, but relying on hiking buddies to join you on every hike can be a hassle. Some people simply prefer hiking alone so as not to scare away all the critters with conversation.
If you decide to be a solo hiker, make sure to leave your hiking itinerary with someone, that way, you’re not really alone. Be specific about where you’re going and when you plan to be back. This way, if you get lost or hurt, that person will notice and know exactly where to start looking.
“Going alone, you’ll have to bring a few extra things,” said Albert, who suggests that solo day hikers should pack enough equipment to comfortably spend the night in the forest.
In addition to the typical day hike gear, bring extra wound-care supplies, extra food and water and warm clothing to sleep in (such as a down jacket).
In many rural areas of Maine, cellphone service is nonexistent, but if you do get reception, bring your cellphone.
“We like to take people out and let them know that it’s doable,” Albert said. “We want people who live around this area or who come up here skiing at Sugarloaf and see these mountains to know that it’s accessible. It’s not that hard, if they just give it a shot. With just a little bit of effort, they can get out and enjoy the mountains around here.”
For information about Albert and Shea’s guiding service, visit mountainguideservice.com.