"I now walk into the wild," Christopher McCandless wrote in his journal before heading into the Alaskan wilderness with a sack of rice and not much else (an adventure immortalized by Jon Krakauer in his book Into the Wild). His is just one of countless stories of people going into the woods and never returning. Here's how to not be that ding-dong.
Let's assume you've just moved to Seattle to go to college and you've never walked into the wild before. Here are a few basics:
1. The wilderness is not a theme park.
2. You can't rely on other people for your own preparedness.
3. Nature doesn't give a shit about you.
You should approach your outdoor experience with reverence, curiosity, and a healthy amount of fear. Don't not go because you're afraid of a bear attack, but do go with some knowledge of when, why, and where bears attack. (Not so much in the Cascade Mountains, BTW.)
For your first trip, go with at least one other experienced hiker, if not a group. There are a ton of resources out there, like the Washington Hikers and Climbers Facebook group, Seattle Get Up Get On Out on Meetup, and organizations like the Mountaineers.
Depending on how you identify, there are groups where you might feel more comfortable. The Outdoor Afro Seattle Meetup group ("a community that reconnects African Americans with natural spaces") has nearly 1,000 members. The Seattle Queer and Queer-Ally Hiking Group on Meetup boasts 2,000 members. Every college campus has a recreation office or program—the University of Washington's UWild offers a Backpacking Basics course, and Seattle University has an Outdoor Office that organizes activities.
Even if you're headed out with a group, take some time to learn about where you're going, including trail conditions, elevation gain, and weather. Washington Trails Association has good overall reviews with occasional inaccuracies. (A recent hike said to be eight miles ended up being more like ten.) It's best to read a trip report by someone who's recently hiked the trail and can provide details about creek crossings, blowdowns, snow line, and other constantly changing variables. You can also contact the nearest ranger station to get a report on conditions including trail closures.
The time of year is also a factor, with wildfire/smoke season in August and hunting season in the fall requiring different preparation. Hours of daylight is also critical. Darkness comes early in the fall and even earlier in the woods. I was with a group once and we got off trail on the backside of Mount Index in October where nightfall was more like 3 p.m. That was more than 20 years ago, and I'm still relieved we managed to find the trail.
You don't need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to massively gear up. At the very least, have really good footwear and proper clothing for the season, and pack some kind of combination of the 10 essentials:
1. Navigation help, like a map or compass.
2. Flashlight or headlamp.
3. Sun protection.
4. First aid kit—even if it's as minimal as Band-Aids and disinfectant wipes.
5. A knife.
6. Matches or a lighter.
7. Shelter—a light tarp can also double as something to sit on.
8. Extra food.
9. Extra water.
10. Extra clothes.
Note that your cell phone is not on this list and shouldn't be relied on.
Different passes are needed for different public lands. The Discover Pass is good for Washington recreation lands like state parks and state-managed natural areas. Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks have their own fees, and US Forest Service lands require a Northwest Forest Pass. Confusing, I know! But these fees help maintain the trails. You can order passes online in advance, purchase them at some trailheads, or stop in at a ranger station or information center or REI.
You made it to the trailhead! Now before you head out, take all your stuff out of your car, lock it in your trunk, and roll your windows down if you don't want them smashed by vandals. This isn't the case for every trailhead, but it does happen. That said...
Don't be a dick. Also known as "Be considerate of others" in the seven leave-no-trace principles, this is a no-brainer, but senses are heightened in the woods and dickish behavior comes off as even more dickish. The closer the hike is to the city, the more people there will be, including large families with children begrudgingly dragging their feet and whining. Don't be the dick who runs that child off the trail in your rush to the top.
Noise is more acute in echoing rocky wilderness, so don't be the loud dick everyone else on the trail has to listen to whether or not they want to. Animals are easily frightened, so don't be the dog owner dick with your dog off leash. Garbage is garbage, so don't be the littering dick who insists banana peels are compostable. Eighty percent of wildfires are set by humans, so don't be the fire-setting dick. And lastly, don't be the selfie-stick dick. The woods are not the place to lose a sense of your surroundings. You should for sure snap a picture, but not at the expense of your safety or anyone else's.
You've already nailed getting ready, getting there, and going up—but getting back down is perhaps the more important consideration. If you don't have proper footwear, this is when blisters will really ruin things for you. Regardless of age, your knees are never happy on the return trip. You're fatigued and more prone to stumbling over roots. Having the parking lot in sight is great, but you're not really out of the woods until you've made it to your car. An experienced climber I met refers to this accident-prone time as "biffing it in the parking lot."
Probably my favorite meal ever is the one immediately following a hike. Chances are you're going to be somewhere rural, so if you have food restrictions, don't expect them to be accommodated by the mom-and-pop burger shack on Highway 2. It's good to have a clean and dry change of clothes and comfy shoes for the drive back. Now is the time to post those selfies and let everyone know you #madeit.