SJ is full of trails ripe for exploring – we’ve got the Pine Barrens, the Delaware River waterfront and the best Shores in the state. But where do you begin? Hiking boots or sneakers? Pants or shorts? Can you bring the kids or should you hire a sitter? Take a look at some tips from local hiking pros and then get outside and soak up the South Jersey sun.

Beginner hikers should explore in groups, even in the flat, sandy forests of S

Beginner hikers should explore in groups, even in the flat, sandy forests of S

Know your limits

Chances are your body isn’t exactly in hiking-fit condition. Before you hit the trails, make sure you know how far you can go. “If you’ve never gone hiking, you don’t want to go out and do a 10-mile trail necessarily,” says Tom Dunn of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. An easy way to see what you’re prepared for is to walk around your neighborhood, adds Dunn. “Start out with short walks and then extend them until you feel comfortable.”

Your treks around town take care of another crucial step in your preparation, says David Bicking, hiking chair of the Outdoor Club of South Jersey. “Buying a new pair of shoes and deciding to go on a five-mile hike with them – that’s an invitation to pain,” he says. To prevent painful blisters, break in hiking shoes gradually, first by wearing them around the yard to do chores, then by taking them on longer trips.

Do your research

SJ’s trails are beginner-friendly – most of the forests are flat and sandy, and easy to tackle in about a day. But hikers of any experience level should map out a route before they start or risk being exhausted in the middle of nowhere.

“Go online – you can find trail maps and print them out ahead of time in case the kiosks or ranger stations have run out,” says Dunn. Use the maps to determine what trail lengths and environments will work best for your physical condition. “If you’re in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, you’re obviously in a forest setting. If you’re at Franklin Parker Preserve, you’re going to be out in the open for a number of trails. You have to be prepared for whatever kind of trail you’re going to. Will you need protection from the sun? Will you need protection from insects?” Simple Internet searches will help you pack, says Dunn.

At any park, if there is a ranger station, be sure to stop by. “It’s not a bad idea to check in and let them know you’re going hiking,” Dunn says. “Things change in certain locations, due to weather. Trees blow down, or they had to change the trail. The only people who would know that are people who work there.”

Get geared up

You don’t have to buy expensive equipment for hiking in SJ. Bicking recommends wool socks, which will keep your feet dry and help prevent blisters. Older hikers might also benefit from walking sticks, which can be found at sporting goods stores.

Bicking doesn’t usually wear boots for his SJ jaunts – he prefers walking shoes or sneakers – but he says buying boots for hiking can be useful. “If you are older and your ankles aren’t that strong, boots will give more support,” he says. They will also keep your feet dry from SJ’s cedar swamps, which are frequent along trails in the Pine Barrens.

Read the weather forecast before you start out on your hike – it’s common sense to stay home in a thunderstorm, says Richard Colby, a member of the New Jersey chapter of The Sierra Club and editor of its newsletter. But always be prepared for sudden bad weather, he says. “Be aware of possible escape routes to the nearest shelter. It’s not a bad idea to have a lightweight rain poncho with you as well.”

Always dress in layers no matter the season, advises Bicking. “It could be 20 degrees outside, and you’re sweating. Take off a layer at a time to vent off your body heat and keep yourself comfortable.” He recommends wearing synthetic clothing, because cotton and denim won’t help keep you dry. Opt for light-colored pants instead of shorts so you can easily spot ticks. The safest practice is to tuck pants into socks to prevent ticks from latching onto your skin. Spray insect repellent on your skin and your clothes before you go.

And don’t forget that even if you’re under trees, you need to prevent sunburn. Wear hats and sunglasses as well as sunscreen. “Treat yourself as if you were going to be lying out in the sun – what SPF would you wear for that?” Bicking says.

The lakeside trails of Franklin Parker Preserve

The lakeside trails of Franklin Parker Preserve

Pack your bags

For short, simple hikes, Bicking likes having nothing besides a bottle of water and his walking shoes – but if your hike will take more than two hours, plan ahead.

“Drinking a lot of water is counter-productive; there might be nowhere to go to the bathroom,” Bicking says. For most hikes, a few cups of water should be enough. The standard 16-ounce water bottle should get you through an afternoon hike, but if it’s hot, bring more, depending on your endurance. Keep hydration simple, adds Bicking. “If you start to feel thirsty, you stop and take a drink.”

Healthy snacks like apples, granola bars or trail mix are easy to carry and will help keep you energized. If you know you’ll be gone all day, pack a picnic lunch and select a trail that has a spot to eat, like the trails through the Brendan T. Byrne Forest, which have picnic tables and campsites near Pakim Pond. Keep in mind that store-bought trail mix is often loaded with sugar and salt, so it’s healthier to make your own. “If you’re just starting out, you don’t have to go to the trouble or expense of doing that,” Bicking says. “But once you realize that hiking is something you enjoy and you’re interested in, then it’s not a bad idea to spend the money and make your own.”

If you’re bringing food, bring something to clean up when you’re done. Put your trash in a bag and keep that in a backpack, says Bicking, until you can dispose of it in a proper receptacle. Bring tissues or toilet paper in case nature calls and you are too far from a restroom, and bring a bag for waste. “Leave it better than you found it,” Bicking says. “If you’re really conscientious, bring an extra trash bag and pick up litter as you’re walking by.”

Bicking also recommends packing a simple, inexpensive first aid kit, with bandages, antiseptic wipes and tape in case of an emergency.

Cape May’s Higbee Beach

Cape May’s Higbee Beach

Bring the kids! (maybe)

Bicking remembers leading a hike through the Pine Barrens where a young couple brought their kids – in a stroller. Not exactly advisable, he says, especially in the sandy Pine Barrens, but the kids and parents all seemed to enjoy the hike, even as they clambered over branches and roots. He advises parents to be smart about what their kids can handle.

“Usually younger kids are going to get bored after a few miles,” he says. “You have to know what their endurance is. Don’t go off on a five-mile hike with a 4-year-old in tow.” An easy way to start short hikes with kids is the Mullica River Trail (or yellow trail), which starts at the Atsion Recreation Area in Wharton State Forest, says Bicking. There you can make one- or two-mile loops, or go longer if you wish.

For older kids, parents should know their endurance as well – but it’s a different kind. See if hiking is something that interests them before bringing them out on an all-day hike. Start small, just as you would to build endurance with young children. Bring extra snacks for kids any age, says Bicking, “if only just to placate them.”

Be smart

If you are new to hiking, stay on the safe side and stick to the trail, says Bicking. “Usually the trail is there for a reason. Venturing off the trail means you might be trodding on delicate plants,” he says. Look for SJ trails that are blazed – the trees or rocks are marked with a colorful signal to show you’re on the right track. And don’t go it alone – hiking with a group is always safer. Apps like MapMyHike and AllTrails can help put you back in step in case you do get lost.

And if you know your limits and plan ahead, all that’s left to do is enjoy your hike, says Colby. “Stop frequently to enjoy looking around, listening and finding peace.”

August 2015
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