How to hike the High Peaks and not be That Guy

high peaks Mt. Marcy summit

From the summit of Mt. Marcy, the highest of the High Peaks. (No, don't start here.)

By Casey Normile

So you've decided to you want to hike up one of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks. That's great -- the High Peaks are one of the best parts about upstate New York (if not THE best part, though I'm biased).

But when you climb your first Adirondack High Peak, you don't want to be THAT guy. You know him -- the guy with only one water bottle, jean shorts, Converse sneakers, and a camera. Not only will you look silly when the fully geared-up 46ers pass by you on the trail, you'll also feel ridiculous when you're thirsty, hungry, tired, and blistered halfway up the mountain.

After hiking 21 of the 46 High Peaks, you can now learn from the many mistakes I've made...

high peaks Bear Den Mountain sunrise
Sunrise on Bear Den Mountain.

1. Don't underestimate these mountains.
It's the most important rule. Even if you're doing a trail you've done before with people who have hiked before and have enough gear and layers, you can still get lost, hungry, weak, dehydrated, surprised by a storm or injured. Respect the peaks.

2. Don't be the guy who only brings a bottle of Aquafina in a drawstring Nike bag.
I was that girl for my first high peak, Cascade (the traditional starter mountain). Bring at least two liters of water, bring food, bring layers, bring a first aid kit, bring a map, and bring a flashlight. Even if you feel silly, you won't look it. You'll look prepared, you'll look like a hiker, and you'll feel good about it when those things come in handy.

3. Check the weather.
One morning in November my friend and I set out to do Whiteface Mountain, a large-but-friendly peak. We had no winter gear (spikes for shoes, extra food, hiking poles, gloves, hats) or clothing. I was wearing track pants for Pete's sake. But we thought we could handle a few inches of snow.

Not even halfway up we met a man on his way down who just shook his head and said, "In about 20 minutes farther up the mountain the snow will be up past your knees." We quickly turned around and headed back home.

When you want to find out what's happening in the High Peaks, check weather.com and search Keene Valley. Also check out the Adirondack Mountain Club's website for more High Peaks weather information and summit forecasts.

4. Don't even think about or look at a trailess high peak until you know what you're doing.
Twenty of our beloved High Peaks are actually trailess, or without a mapped or maintained trail. Some are well-worn by other hikers anyway, but some are not. Not at all. Until you can navigate a map, use a compass easily, have researched and read about the trails and gotten used to the physical demands of the High Peaks, stay on the clearly marked, cleanly maintained, well-traveled trails. Please. It's not adventurous, it's dangerous. Getting lost and climbing through waist high snow and freezing river water for five-and-a-half hours in the Dix Wilderness would teach you this lesson well.

high peaks Dix Mountain
From atop Dix Mountain.

5. Don't wear jeans.
Just don't. They're impractical, stiff, take forever to dry, they chafe, and you will look like you've never hiked a day in your life.

6. In fact, don't wear cotton.
In this situation, it is not the fabric of your life. Cotton doesn't breathe well, so it will trap all of your sweat, leaving you drenched and overheated. (That is, until you hit the summit and summit winds will leave you freezing.) Look into athletic clothing or hiking-specific clothing made of synthetics or wool. It dries quickly, is made to breathe, and will wick the sweat away from your body so you're dry.

7. Don't wear sandals.
Maybe it's maternal instinct kicking in, but whenever I see someone on the trails wearing flip flops or Birkenstocks, it doesn't confuse or bother me, it makes me angry and want to send them home to think about the decisions they've made.

Wearing sandals for a hike opens you up to many opportunities: twisting your ankle, slipping on wet rock, losing your shoes, tripping, cutting your feet on rocks or branches, and exposing them to the wet and cold for hours.

Get hiking shoes instead. It's a great investment. They're rugged shoes that will survive a lot of abuse and provide great support. You can research and find which shoe is best for you based on price range, support needed, and the type of trails you plan on hiking. At the very least, wear some sneakers.

8. Be friendly to fellow hikers.
The trails are one of the few places where you're expected to look into the eye of passers-by and say hi. Dare to make conversation and you'll meet some pretty fascinating people up there. I met a guy at the top of Mt. Marcy who had just finished climbing the highest peaks in each of the continental United States and was headed to Alaska and Hawaii next. That's someone you probably wouldn't meet at a bar.

Even say hello to the many French Canadians. They'll give a quick "hi" back and that smile is important to foreign relations.

9. Don't hike Mt. Marcy first.
Mt. Marcy is the highest peak in New York State and therefore draws many first time High Peakers. But my advice is to save it for later. Marcy is a moderate hike, with a slow incline stretched over 15 miles, a beautiful trail, a great open summit with breathtaking views, and gives you the feeling that you're really getting into nature. After hiking into the woods for a few hours, you realize that you really are miles away from civilization and that is pretty cool.

But that's why I suggest saving it. All this would spoil a first-timer and make you think all high peaks will be this friendly. Start with Giant or Cascade -- still friendly mountains, but they don't spoil you.

10. Pick the right hiking buddy.
If you've ever traveled before, you know that even your best friend can become you're worst enemy out on the road. Hiking is the same except more concentrated. You're with this person for at least the next five hours and have to be able to trust them with your life and safety, as well as trust them not to annoy you the whole time up the mountain. Your hiking buddy is who you somehow end up sharing deep conversations -- and half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- so choose wisely.
____

With 46 very different peaks, everyone can find a trail to suit them and experience the exhilaration of reaching a summit, the awesome beauty of the Adirondacks, the rejuvenation nature offers, and the pride in crossing miles of wilderness and climbing thousands of feet. And that only brushes the surface of why the peaks are great. Once you hike one, you'll see for yourself -- and you won't want to stop until you're a 46er.

Elsewhere:
+ The Adirondack Mountain Club has a lot of information on how to plan a hike that is "both safe and enjoyable for you and respectful of wildlife and natural resources."
+ And here's a listing of the 46 High Peaks with distances, typical hike times, and estimated difficulty.

Comments

Great article. I would add a Mylar space blanket, in case you get stuck out overnight. Even though I bring 160 ounces of water on a hike, I always pack my water filter/purifier in case I need to make more. I prefer a headlamp to a flash light. It's good to have the number of the DEC Dispatch stored in your cell phone for an emergency. You can almost always get a signal near the summit of a peak. 518-891-0235

And one more... if you are silly enough to go alone, tell your friends/family your itinerary. Don't be that guy who is gone for a few days before anyone notices he is gone...

(1) Don't think "oh yeah I can do 4 in one day no problem" on your first time out. (Or even on your 6th time out as I learned.)

(2) Don't hike Giant with just a 20 oz bottle of Coke (not me, but I donated that group some water at the summit).

(3) You will get muddy. Deal with it.

Also by the way, I just wrote an app (it's free so it's not like I make money if you download it) for the iPhone/iPad to keep track of the high peaks you've done. I wrote it after realizing I'd like to have all my peaks recorded in one spot. http://www.grapekeeper.com/46-tracker/

I'd add: dress in layers. For winter hiking, the best innermost layer is a flask of whiskey. Nothing warms you up like a good old fashioned hobo blanket.

This is awesome! Although spelled differently, I am named after Mt. Marcy. But at 4'11", I don't quite stand up to the highest point of elevation in NYS.

Now I really want to plan a hiking trip. Thanks for the advice not to start with Marcy first... I wouldn't want to ruin it. Perhaps Cascade and Giant? Time to look at my fall schedule (which is bittersweet, because I'm not quite ready for summer to end just yet).

This is great. My father is a 46er and by age 12 I had hiked 6 of the 46 with him, but then life took over and I haven't hiked in a very, very long time. My boyfriend and I have been talking about getting started again to do the 46 together. Definitely bookmarking for future hikes!

Excellent advice. I can't disagree with a single one of your recommendations. I moved here 3 years ago from California where the peaks are very different but the rules are the same. Do agree with abby that you should add: always tell someone where you are going.

This is great advice. My (now) husband and I hiked an ADK mountain that wasn't even a high peak, and even though we were somewhat prepared (plenty of water and snacks, appropriate footwear, a compass and a map, etc.), we still met with near-disaster. The hike was simply too advanced for my fitness level (at the time). When we got to the top I just wanted to curl into a ball and go to sleep. C, on the other hand, felt fine until he was stung by a horsefly and his thumb blew up. Both of us unhappy and wanting to get home, we decided to take a shortcut.

Bad idea. We were stuck on that damn mountain for another 3+ hours. We would have been better off on the marked trail.

Excellent article! I've been looking for an article like this! I just decided to start to hike again and eventually become a 46r. I haven't hiked a mountain since I was 22. I will be 40 next year, so it's been a while. I am in the middle of a major weight transition and can not afford to wear anything but jeans. I can't afford to buy athletic clothing I'll only wear for a few months. I guess I'll be "that guy" til 2014 when I get to my goal weight and I won't be afraid of buying hiking clothing.

I thought "don't be that guy" advice means "bury your waste... including toilet paper!"

Ain't nobody tell me what to do.

My son, who has done all 46 peaks twice, says the single most important item is clean, dry footwear -- especially socks.

Also,

A cleared and marked trail is ALWAYS quicker than an off-trail shortcut. Don't make the mistake of thinking it will be quicker to just go straight down the mountain. You will spend much more time picking a path over boulders, wedging through heavy brush, untangling clothing, getting back to your feet, looking at your map again, trying to find a way around that tree/ledge/rock/bear than you ever thought possible.

Over the last few years, I've done a lot of the smaller mountains in the Southern Adirondacks, and I'm ready to take on my first high peaks... the problem is, my friends have no interest in camping in the woods, and the high peak area is so darn far away. It's hard to take on any kind of longer trail when you have to factor close to 6 hours of driving into the day along with the hike.

I *might* be able to convince them to camp at a campground, but even that is doubtful. Are there cheap places to stay that are in the area? Any other options (get new friends? ;)

I don't want to hike up a mountain now....I want to run up one! Great article that reminds me I've got to get this on my to do list.

I've done a few of the Adirondack HP's as well as some non-HP's. A few things to add to what others have said...

For those looking to find a group to hike with, check out some of the local Meetup groups. I've done several hikes with these groups, and there's usually something for everyone, depending on your level.
http://www.meetup.com/hikingmates/
http://www.hudsonvalleyhikers.com/
There are others as well.

For more info on suggested hikes, tips, etc, there are a couple discussion forums filled with tons of information and people very familiar with the Adirondacks and other local areas:
http://www.adkforum.com/
http://forums.adkhighpeaks.com/

Lastly, don't overlook the Catskills! There are some beautiful hikes down there, and they have their own "high peaks" list which can be challenging also.

The first rule is true, and I find that it applies to any mountain. There is an "easy peak" around where I live, which is an hour hike to the summit. Even there, it's possible to get some quick change of weather and freeze if not prepared.

I know many will cringe ~ but I cannot climb as safe with footwear. If I cannot feel the mountain directly under my feet - is the more apt I am take a bad step. However, I do pack my Keens. And, an extensive first-aid kit, along with other survival items/gear that will keep me safe and sustain me for several days. So, if you see me on a trail, and I am barefoot, please don't give that look as if I am clueless. It just works for me, since I was 8 years old, when I first convinced my father packing my hiking boots was better than my wearing them.

Great article and great comments! I have 31 done and hopefully will get two more next weekend (Street & Nye). Laurie one on the people hiking with us will be barefoot too! Hey if it works for you go for it. Paul, look up Sharp Bridge Campground. It is a DEC campground off exit 30. Or the Keene Valley Hostel. Go up the day before... also there are meetup groups that regularly go up there (meetup.com). One is called Central NY Mountaineering... just Google it.

Paul, the Adirondack Mountain Club runs two lodges, at Johns Brook and Heart Lake. They offer accomodations and meal if you're not interested in back country camping. You can stay in Placid or Keene Valley to do some of the high peaks too. If your friends won't camp then these are a few great options.

A woefully deficient article it is, with no mention of eggs and pancakes (and the requisite real maple syrup) at the Noon Mark!

But that other stuff is important too.

Just getting to this now. Good article, though some more specifics about the high peaks/Adirondack region would be nice (most of this is pretty typical hiking do's/don'ts). Getting more folks to appreciate what we have in our backyard is great, though. And while all these suggestions are good, reading the DEC Region 5 search & rescue reports (you can find them on the DEC press releases page) clearly shows the main sources of trouble. Don't go beyond your capabilities, and even if you do plan to stay on a marked trail, know what to do if you lose it Follow those and the good preparedness info here (and in the comments here) and you on a safe start.

And for the new guys, remember getting to the top you're ONLY HALFWAY DONE! Don't move on to the next peak unless you are absolutely certain you have enough energy, daylight, food and water to turn around and make it back. Don't be THAT guy.

Great advice. I would add also: make sure to bring climbing poles. They help especially with the decent and for the older hiker. I have done three high peaks in a day but that is pushing it - 11 hours. You must be in decent shape and have great footwear, extra socks, and tons of water. There is no experience like being on the summit of Haystack or Skylight. Probably the best moments of my life.

This is all great advice! My fiance and I have just started the trek to become a 46ers and we are looking for places to camp for the hikes. I feel like all of the DEC campsites are an hour + away from the trails. Does anyone have any recommendations on where to put up a tent the night before we hike?

Good article. In response to Carissa Herry above, camp in a tent at a designated site with your fiance, which are located practically on the trails. Or sleep in a lean-to, again, which are practically located right on trail.

First thing I did was buy a map, compass, 13th edition Adirondack High Peaks Guide Book, and re-trained myself how to read a topographical map, use a compass and navigate that way in case of a mistake on trail, or an emergency. Then you buy all the fancy gear to keep you dry and warm, or cool and dry. Hike many lesser peaks at first such as Poke-O-Moonshine, Blueberry, etc...I did those first to gauge my fitness and ability.

My first high peak was Big Slide, which I hiked on Sept 9th 2010, I had a backpack with water and gatorade (no filter), map, compass, headlamp, whistle, snacks, Zero degree bag (LOL), Knife, firestarter, and a bunch of other stuff like paracord, etc... Even with all the gear I still felt like "That Guy" because I lacked experience.

Did Cascade last year for my 1st peak in Fall (viewless day, but the sleet and freezing winds won't soon be forgotten!), repeated it this spring with awesome views! Thanks to this article, I will consider Giant for next adventure.

@Wendy McLaughlin I am sure you have what you need buried in closet or can find second hand easily. Wool, nylon, polypropylene, blends and cotton used in layers will work very well. Find some tough lite weight clothing that has full and comfortable range of motion, breaths and drys quickly that layers well. Look up Layering for Outdoors and use base layers like workout tops pants or lite thermals to stay dry or cotton tees to help cool. Search "Cotton Kills". Get some insulating layers like fleece, wool, goose down and study the pros and cons of each. Good outerwear does not need to be expensive such as North Face and Mountain HardWear but you do get some impressive gear for the money. I remember when they sold their stuff out of vans and I was putting down long trails with a heavy mix of military, scouting and Campmor gear carrying 75+ pounds. For the past 30 years I have watched my gear shrink in size, weight and "Living" without it to now be able to carry half that weight for multi day trips depending on water, food and season and being very comfortable in most situations. Read some of the stories of the early ADK explorers and then the Arctic and Mt. Everest accounts and see what they used. Invest in a good pair of hiking boots and backpack that fit perfect and are designed for gender. LLBean has good values quality gear and people to help you with proper fit (used to work there). Any good outfitter will allow you to wear your boots for a few days indoors. Do this as well as breaking them in before hand if they are mid weight or heavier. I could go on and on as I was blessed to have taught this for many years and led many newbies and love sharing it. I would enjoy meeting at Washington Park after work and share what I know and learn some new tricks. I will tell you all about Gore-Tex, moleskin, space blankets, WFR (woofer), Survival Rule of Threes, wicking, goose down, orienteering, clouds, Beaver Fever...

Casey - Thanks for the encouraging article ... The first I've read that actually made me think I could do it! (I was starting to think I may be one of those "out of shape - don't recommend this trail" hikers! I've day hiked Glacier - always with a base camp - but my friends say the high peaks are more rigorous (even more than Siyeh Pass) Since I've never carried my house with me - backpacking is the challenge I am excited to take this summer with seasoned hiker friends. I've been practicing on hills with 25 lbs in my pack so far. Any advice to help me prepare and for not going belly up - other than what you've recommended and making sure I stay close to the experienced hikers :) ?

My husband, me and our golden recently took a trip to Lake Placid. We checked out Giant and Cascade (hiked up both for 30 to 45 mins each) Trying to figure out which we would choose for our 1st hike. I really liked cascade and was very pleased with the friendliness and concern of all our fellow hikers. It was getting a bit late when we discovered cascade and many hikers were just coming down as we were going up. Each one of them asked in a concerned manner if we were planning on going up to the top as it would definitely be dark coming back down.
I'm going to take the next couple of weeks and prepare as and do cascade - our first high peak! We are very excited.
If any of you have any advice would be greatly appreciated on how to prepare for this first hike.

Good reading - Iv'e hiked a good number of the 'dacks - they are the love of my life ...I hike alone,(I know a lot of people who hike alone but we didn't start out on herd trails) I hike with a partner - I hike in groups ...hiking alone is my fav. I'm not stupid. I carry ID, let people at home know where I'm going, and I' go prepared - do a reasonable days hike & no more. I've hiked busy trails & the less traveled paths. Never do a bushwhack alone. I've shared my water with those unprepared as you mentioned in your article - you gave some great tips - we have all seen 'those' people on the trail. Cascade & Giant are both fab hikes ...I have to say Cascade is a fav ...and Ampersand, although not a High Peak is awesome ...a good strenuous almost 6 mile round tripper. Don't get hung up on High Peaks ...there is so much more!

My son is a 46er and I really want to hike all of them myself. I climbed Cascade and Porter 2 weeks ago and climbed Gothic yesterday. Yikes! It was way too hard for me and I was totally unprepared for the steep descent down and how hard it would be on my knees! I am in great physical shape, but I wish I had read your article about which mountains to do first...I will definitely respect the mountains!
Loved your post, and as a mother of a hiker, I couldn't agree more with all of your important safety points!!

I am a fairly new hiker always looking for new trails. I would love to try Giant, Cascade or Ampersand. However, I am afraid of heights. I have no problems climbing, as long as I'm not near a steep drop that I can see. I'm fine on summits as long as they're wide. Should I even bother trying to do any of these 3?

Giant should be fine. Depending on which trail, there are some steep rocky areas, but nothing really exposed. Roaring brook trail would be the most mellow. Giants summit is only open to the west and south, where it drops off precipitously. You should be fine if you stay back from the edge.

Cascade is pretty mellow but the summit is tricky for some people. There is nothing super steep but the openess has freaked people out. I had to walk a woman down a section of rock a couple weeks ago who got to scared to summit and was temporarily separated from her group.

Phelps would be another good high peak to try; trail is entirely in the woods, with a half-open summit with great views to the south.

Tongue Mt, Black Mt, Buck Mt around lake george are all nice, moderate woods hikes with great views. Tongue has several peaks in the range; the most visited is probably 5th peak, if you head further south from there you might experience some steep rock that could be intimidating.

Locally, Berlin Mt has an open summit with good views to the east. From petersburg pass, the trail starts out pretty steep but is in the woods and not ledgy.

Greylock likewise has an open summit with views to the east and a multitude of trails to pick from.

Tongue has several peaks in the range; the most visited is probably 5th peak, if you head further south from there you might experience some steep rock that could be intimidating.

There's one particular cleft on the range that can look tricky. You'd be climbing down it if you go from 5th to Montcalm Point, climbing up if you start the range from Montcalm. The rest is no problem and the open areas are mostly wide and flat. Doing the full loop from the Clay Meadow trailhead (either direction) is a great day but get an early start; I logged 14 miles with 4200' of total ascent, with a couple of detours. You get a little bit of everything, a great workout, and many gorgeous views of Lake George. Bonus: the Hometown Diner is close to the trailhead for a good breakfast. A few photos from last year.

Black & Buck are great suggestions too, but don't forget Shelving Rock Mtn, very easy hike and while not as nice of a view as the others the summit isn't daunting at all.

Visited ADK for the first time last summer and climbed Giant, it was my first mountain hike and I loved it even though my legs were like jelly by the end. A few months later I was in Hong Kong and climbed a 2k' peak called Sharp Peak. I figured since I'd done so well on Giant that this would be easy... boy was I wrong. Probably gained a thousand feet just hiking in before dropping all the way back to sea level before even reaching the mountain, the path was steep scree that was really tricky to negotiate, plus it was like 98 degrees and humid. I had what I thought was a lot of water and it turned out to not be nearly enough. The hike out was miserable and at one point I started to suffer heat exhaustion and thought I might not make it. Lesson learned. Will be back in the Empire State next week to knock out a couple more high peaks, with plenty of water and a respect for the terrain.

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