There’s a scene in “A Walk in the Woods,” the screen version of Bill Bryson’s memorable 1998 account of his common-sense-plagued hike on the Appalachian Trail, in which Bryson (played by Robert Redford) and hiking buddy Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) crest a hill and their jaws drop. You see the awe in their eyes, then the shot switches to what’s grabbed their attention.
“Smokies,” whispers Bryson.

Content from GetHiking! Fall 2015

That one moment — that first look at the vast Great Smoky Mountains National Park — explains why they’re on the trail — why they’re still on the trail. Why they’ve endured surprise snow storms, drenching rains, hungry bears, endless climbs, know-it-all fellow hikers and assorted other obstacles to remain on the trail.
For those little moments that leave you in awe.
The first trout lily of late winter, assuring you that warm weather is indeed on the way. That early April day on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail near Mount Pisgah when the world is awash in a pastel of budding leaves. The vista from Hump Mountain on the Appalachian Trail, where you lose count at seven the number ridgelines disappearing into Tennessee. A light snow falling in a meadow at Doughton Park.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring fact of all?
Just about anyone can enjoy this experience.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to help you see how easy it is to embrace a life on the trail. We’ll tell you about the gear you’ll need (and, eventually, the gear you’ll want), we’ll talk about the beginner-friendly trails where you can take your first hikes, and, once you’re feeling comfortable, we’ll tell you about how to take your hiking to the next level by tackling more challenging trail and doing longer hikes.
Today, we start by dispelling a few common hiking myths:

  • It’s the forest! I’ll get lost. This is why we start on beginner-friendly trails; that is, trails that are shorter, trails that are in good shape and are distinct, and, perhaps most importantly, trails that are well marked. For instance, you wouldn’t want to take your first hike in a National Forest. While some trails are well marked, others require more trail-savvy intuition to follow. After a while, you’ll develop a feel for how to follow a trail. Initially, though, you’re wise to stick with North Carolina’s State Parks, where the trails are well maintained, well-blazed and there’s almost always a map, either at the trailhead or the Visitor Center.
  • You need all kinds of pricey equipment. Need? No. Want, maybe. But starting out, for short hikes all you need are sensible shoes: running shoes or sneakers will suffice for your first few two- or three-mile hikes. You also need water. Even if it’s cool out, even if you’re only hiking a mile or two, get used to taking water — even a bottle that you carry — on the trail. Staying hydrated keeps your body happy, and a happy body is key to your overall happiness on the trail. Clothes-wise, comfort and warmth are key. As you hike longer, you’ll benefit from more hiking-specific clothes. But initially, what’s in your closet should work.
  • There are bears. Yes, there are bears — and you should be so lucky as to see one! Bears want nothing to do with you and will hightail it in the opposite direction once they get wind of you. One caveat: mama bears are protective. Do not get between a mama and her cubs, and you should be fine. And not to heighten your concerns, but there are also snakes, poison ivy, annoying flying things and more elements of nature that get a bum rap. Part of the reason you’re on the trail is to make you aware of the natural world you live in.
  • I can’t walk that far. There’s a perception that taking a hike is a long and arduous affair that involves a lot of sweating and achy muscles that take weeks to recover. Hiking should not be equated with boot camp. You hike at your own pace, you go as far as you feel like hiking. If you encounter a pond a half mile down the trail and end up doing nothing but exploring that pond, well, that’s hiking. Sure, to some folks hiking is a test of endurance. Make of it what you like.
  • Still, I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up. That’s one of the beauties of our GetHiking! program. We introduced the program two years ago with a two-fold mission. One, to expose existing hikers to new trails. Sure we do some repeats: some trails insist on being hiked regularly. But our main goal is to provide a supportive environment for new hikers, folks who’ve read about all the physical and psychological benefits of hiking, but don’t know how to get started. The main way we achieve this goal: we lead our hikes from the rear. If you’re slower, if you like to savor the experience, if the unstable terrain is a challenge, we’re back there with you.

So, intrigued?
Next week, we’ll be back with a report on five hikes especially suited to beginners.
In the meantime, check out our GetHiking! program. You can see the hikes we’ve got planned, get a sense of who’s hiking, see how you might fit in. Sign up for a hike and give it a test run.
We’ll see you next week — or on the trail, whichever comes first.

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Read a review of “A Walk in the Woods,” at