Hiking and outdoors-related activities gain participants each year. According to CNBC, an estimated 142 million Americans take to the great outdoors annually. Outdoors gear retailers such as REI have posted steady financial gains over the past several years as more and more people become involved in hiking, climbing, camping, etc. A hashtag search on Instagram yields upwards of 22 million posts tagged “hiking” at the time of this writing. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy reports that the number a registered AT thru-hikers almost doubled from 2015 to 2016. In short, hiking is popular and continues to grow in popularity.
As an avid hiker, and someone who writes about hiking and guides others on their hiking adventures, one of the questions I’m asked the most is “How do I start hiking?” and “Where do I start hiking?” I hope to answer both of those questions in the space of this article.
If hiking has a season, that season is upon us as summer approaches. One of the first things I advise newer and would-be hikers is to consider what they want to get out of hiking. For some it’s the physical challenge. Depending on the profile of the trail, length, and your physical condition, hiking can be a leisurely stroll or an all-out cardio burner. Others hike simply to see amazing scenery. Some are inspired by sweeping mountain vistas, lush forests, and picturesque waterfalls. For a great number of people, hiking provides a spiritual experience or the chance to get away from it all. We in the hiking community refer to this motivation as HYOH – Hike Your Own Hike. Everyone has different motivators, and each hike is intensely personal. So, think about what you hope to get out of hiking before you begin.
There is also the question of gear. What do you carry on a hike? It’d take a much longer article to discuss gear choices in depth, but I’ll provide a few essential pointers. Let’s start at the bottom: you need comfortable, durable footwear. I joke and say that you might have all the food, water, and latest high-tech hiking gear, but if you can’t walk, it won’t be much good to you. Hiking is about moving, and being able to move over various terrain comfortably is essential to an enjoyable trek. I’d counsel you to visit a local outfitter, speak to their staff, and try on different types of footwear to find out what’s right for you in regards to comfort, fit, style, and price.
A good backpack is another hiking essential. You’ll need to be able to comfortably carry water, food, and other gear appropriate for your hike. Like footwear, I suggest you visit your local outfitter and try on different packs, because not backpacks are created equal. A knowledgeable staff can help you choose the right size and type, and above all they can help you achieve a perfect fitting backpack.
The clothes you hike in should be seasonally appropriate. I prefer to hike in nylon pants designed to be tough, lightweight, and fast-drying. The same goes for shirts. I generally avoid 100% cotton anything for a hike due to its production and retention of moisture. In other words: cotton is hot and doesn’t dry fast. Hiking pants and shirts can get expensive, but it’s worth investing in clothing that wicks away moisture, is long-lasting, and allows freedom of movement. This is not to say it’s wrong to wear jeans and a t-shirt hiking. I’ve done my fair share of that. But from experience, you’ll eventually want to upgrade to clothing that’s designed for all the beneficial qualities I’ve mentioned.
In your pack, you’ll want to have water, and a sufficient amount. How much water you carry on a hike depends on you. Consider the season, trail length, etc. On some hikes I’ll carry just a water bottle, on others I’ll pack my bladder. The way you transport water is also a personal choice (bladder, water bottle, filtered straw, etc.). Remember: HYOH. But one thing is certain: water is essential and you need to carry sufficient water on every hike.
Finally, a map should always be with you. You might carry a topographical map, or a simple trail map, but whatever the case, a map is essential. Maps allow you to plan your hike and not get lost. Knowing how to read your map goes without saying.
Now that you’ve thought about the motivation behind hiking, and considered what gear is essential for a successful hike, knowing where to hike is a question you’re probably pondering. Living in the upstate of South Carolina affords access to some of the best hiking anywhere, both in the state and in nearby Western North Carolina. I’m going to list a few areas I love to hike, and would suggest to you to help you get started.
Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area of South Carolina. This wilderness area is rugged with diverse terrain and points of interest. Located in, there are several trails of varying length and skill. One of my favorite destinations within the MBWA is Jones Gap State Park. In my opinion, Jones Gap offers something for everyone. There are easy trails that follow rivers and streams, moderate waterfall hikes, and strenuous mountain treks.
I also recommend the Foothills Trail. This 76-mile-long trail crosses several dense forests and mountain peaks. The points of interest are almost too many to name. You can thru-hike hike the Foothills Trail, or hike it in sections that best suit you based on your abilities and what you’d like to accomplish.
Another area I enjoy hiking is the Ellicott Rock Wilderness area. This 8,274 acre rugged, natural area is unique in that it encompasses three states: South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. The area is framed by rugged terrain, dense forests, and the mighty Chattooga River, a designated Wild and Scenic River.
If you’re into waterfalls, western Greenville, Oconee, and Pickens counties are a waterfall chaser’s dream. Oconee County even designates itself “Land of Waterfalls”. These great waterfalls are accessed via trails of every skill level. Of all the waterfalls I recommend, Yellow Branch Falls near Walhalla is a personal favorite. The trail is 3.5 miles round-trip, and is easy-moderate. Likewise, another waterfall in the area that doesn’t get as much attention, but is not less spectacular, is Miuka Falls, located along the 3.6 easy Winding Stairs Trail. There is also a nice cliff face along the trail that’s good for salamander spotting among its base and crevices.
Finally, if you’re looking to go over the border, and you like high mountains, the Pisgah National Forest is my go-to area to hike, and it’s located just outside the SC upstate in Western North Carolina. Here you’ll find an assortment of trails in every length and skill, including the tallest mountain peaks east of the Mississippi River.
Like your gear choices, every hike is an individual decision. I can’t stress enough that you should consider your skill level, physical condition, the trail’s length, and the terrain/profile before tackling any hike. It goes without saying that a new or non-seasoned hiker, which is the demographic this article is directed towards, should not bite off more than he/she can chew and ease into more advanced trails and hikes. There are plenty of trails for every skill level, so take it slow!
As always, have fun, respect nature, leave no trace, and hike your own hike.
See you on the trail!
Roger Upton, Carolina Trekker
Roger Upton is a native of the upstate of South Carolina. He has a lifelong love of nature and of hiking. He has section hiked most of the southern portion of the Appalachian Trail, and has hiked in the Rocky Mountains, Tetons, Yellowstone National Park, the Badlands of South Dakota, and more.