The Blue Mountains West of Sydney is notorious for people going off unprepared. This may be because, while hikes start close to civilisation, you can easily walk for weeks without seeing anyone as the area is very large.
For most hikes obtain maps before starting the hike (Courtesy of Audrius Meskauska via wikimedia)
One of the first things to do on any hike is to obtain information. Many of the more popular national parks have information centres, some will have free maps that you can take from information boards and others have nothing. Luckily you can now find PDF maps online. Remember that the National Parks are actually run by the state governments, so each state has their own site.
For more remote hikes or when hiking in areas where the hikes are not sign posted, then try to find topographical maps. State governments are beginning to release these online but can also buy them from map shops.
Tell people where you are going
When you go hiking, you should let people know where you are going and when you will be back. In some areas you can even pickup free (with a deposit) satellite beacons that you can use to call for help in an emergency. Many serious hikers bring their own combination GPS and safety beacon.
At the very least, for tourists, you can check in at these information centres to ensure that you remain safe.
Take enough water
The number one thing to take with you when hiking is water. For a warm day I usually figure on half a litre for each hour that I hike. I usually end up with at least half a litre at the end of the hike. While it might seem like I am carrying more than I need, remember you need a reserve in case you end up lost or suffer from an injury. On several hikes I have had to give other people water for various reasons, including when their water bottle bursts or on one occasion there was a person throwing up because of the extreme heat, ,so she needed some extra water.
Metal water bottles are ideal for hiking (Courtesy of Wikimedia)
I generally take my water in 500-600 ml plastic water bottles. Many people buy those metal hiking bottles which are better because they are very unlikely to burst, and others use the backpack water carriers.
The next most important issue on a hike is your footwear. Though often any discussion of shoes can become controversial. There are experienced hikers who believe that a pair of Dunlop Volleys are the best hiking shoes around while others won't walk down a garden path without their sturdy leather hiking boots. So rather than try to give a definitive answer I will provide a few insights.
Sports shoes are light and provide plenty of grip. They can even provide more grip than hiking boots on slippery surfaces such as rocks. Their main issue is that they are not waterproof. However you can hike comfortably over level surfaces with new sports shoes. Because their soles are very soft, they tend not to last very long if you use them often for hiking.
Similar to sports shoes. Trail runners have all the advantages and problems of a sports shoe, except they have a hiking sole. Many people prefer trail runners over boots because they are lighter.
For many years I used hiking shoes, which are basically the same as hiking boots but with with a shoe like ankle. They are often waterproof making them good in muddy conditions and light like other shoes.
After injuring my ankle several times I switched back to hiking boots. Now there are a whole range of boots available and I normally buy the ones with a medium ankle. These are lighter and less restrictive than a full boot, but still provide plenty of ankle support.
Full hiking boots are both the sturdiest and the heaviest boots available. With these you will have the maximum ankle protection. I used to only hike with leather boots. It takes time to wear them in and they are pretty heavy, but they usually last a long time.
Take a First Aid Kit
For most hikes it is a good idea to bring a first aid kit with you. Generally when you choose a first aid kit as a hiker, you are looking to get the smallest one that they sell. They will usually contain things such as scissors, tweezers, bandaids, bandages, gauze, a sling and maybe even some distilled water for washing wounds. You may want to add some other items to the kit, usually things such as antiseptic cream, antihistamine tables, pain killers and so on.
First Aid Kit and Manual, large enough to be a group first aid kit
Many injuries result in shock, so the first thing you need to do is warm that person up. Pull out the thermal blanket. Lost overnight in the bush, you want to stay warm, bring out the thermal blanket. Being hunted by a alien Predator, don't bother covering yourself in mud Arnold Schwarzenegger style, just cover yourself in the thermal blanket.
But seriously it is useful for many other purposes, including as a reflector to attract help and even as a dew collector to collect water. You can also use it as a ground sheet if you need to sleep on wet ground. In hot weather, you can use it as a solar collector to cook meat.
They are also very cheap and light, so you have no excuse not to have one with you.
Wear the right clothes
There are usually two types of hikers, those who own all the proper hiking clothes and those who just wear sensible clothes for the bush. I am definitely in sensible clothes category.
The most important rule is wear something to protect you from the sun, have enough clothes to keep you warm if you are stuck in bush over night and make sure it is all losoe and comfortable.
Of course I tend to do day hikes in warmer climates ,so I tend not to have to worry too much about the clothes that I wear other than having a good hat.
If you find yourself walking through scrubby country then long pants and long sleeved shirts will stop you being scratched.
For cold weather hiking you need to consider more carefully what you wear. There is a saying that "Cotton kills" which is based on the fact that cotton will absorb water and lose its warming properties. Even sweating profusely can lead to this issue. This is when the proper hiking gear comes in essential, from polyester clothes to dry shirts, to wear underneath your clothes.
One last thing not to forget is a good raincoat.
Writing this I have reminded myself to buy myself a whistle as I have long neglected to buy this simple life saving device. Ideally you should be able to use a 'cooee', however the use of the 'cooee' as a call for help has diminished over the years. A whistle can attract attention from people a long way off.
Whistle (Courtesy of Richard Wheeler via Wikimedia)
Take a wrong detour and you may end up returning late, even after dark. Bringing a flashlight, even a small one, is just a sensible hiking measure. I know that most phones have one built in as well, but it makes sense to have a separate dedicated one. The little LED flashlights cost as little as $2 and are still superbright.
For night hiking headlamps are a great way to keep your hands free
For night hiking headlamps are a great option. They leave your hands free. Many come with several brightness settings, including a red light option to preserve your night vision.
Hiking difficulty and standards
When considering a hike you should research how hard the hike will be. Australia uses a set of standards for hikes and while they can tell you how difficult the trail might be, they don't always tell you how difficult the overall hike is.
So AS1 hikes are smooth, flat, with no stairs suitable for even a wheel chair.
AS 2 is suitable for young families and usually has only has slopes for less than 10% of the track.
After that it becomes a little more confusing. An AS3 track should not have slopes greater than 1:10 for most of the track and the track should be fairly smooth with few obstacles.
Then an AS4 track might be classified that way because the track has lots of rocks or it might have a much great grade. Theoretically an AS3 track could be a harder hike than an AS4 track if most of it is a slope. I have certainly been on AS4 tracks that are only that way because some of the track is rocky.
A track can be classified as AS5 for a number of reasons. One of the main ones is usually that it is not a marked track. Though it can also be because the track is rough or requires some scrambling.
When looking at how difficult a hike is, you want to look at several things. The first is the length of the hike, how many hours it should take to do the hike and the level. For example, Mt Maroon in Queensland is 6 km return hike and it is suggest that you give yourself 6 hours to do the hike (I did it in five hours). This is because it is a very rough and steep track with long sections of scrambling.
Usually the time given for hikes is longer than you need, though it is not always accurate. When we did the Ruined Castle Hike in the Blue Mountains the information I had said 6-8 hours return. It turned out to be 6 hours one way. Luckily these days there is so much information available online that you can double check what is written, though be aware much of it just repeats what is on the National Parks Sites. For experience this is often highly accurate, but sometimes they do make mistakes.
The Internet has decided that Australia is full of deadly creatures seeking to kill everyone of us, but in reality when hiking, you won't see anything dangerous and as a general rule, if you don't bother them they won't bother you.
Eastern Brown Snake (Courtesy of Peter Woodard via Wikimedia)
Snakes would be the most dangerous thing in Australia. But the rarely bite people who leave them alone. For other animals, you should learn about dangers in the place you are going. People are often attacked by dingoes on Frazer Island and the occasional person is killed by a crocodile in the Northern Territory.
Dingos can attack when in packs (Courtesy of Wikimedia)
I joined a group of gym junkies on a hike. At the top of one of the hills they turned to me (with my slight paunch) and said "Why aren't you puffing?" With fitness, of course, it all depends on what you train for, and hiking is my thing.
For even a fit person who hasn't hiked much, a modest 10-12 km hike will mean that their legs are stiff and sore. So hikes of this length are a good place to start.
I have seen many people taken on much longer or difficult hikes without either the fitness or equipment. This is not only frustrating for others, but can be dangerous. Sometimes the hike goes over time and ends in the dark or people need to be carried out.
Look after each other
I have become increasingly frustrated with many hiking groups these days. I understand that most people hike at different speeds, but it is important for groups to stick together. On a recent hike on unmarked trails some people who had never been to that area before or bother to research the hike rushed ahead and took the wrong trail. Luckily because of the nature of the hike they couldn't get lost, just simply had to turn around and return the way they came. For other hikes they could have become seriously lost.
On some hikes I end up with a problem. I would often stop to wait for others to catch up to me. However those ahead of me wouldn't do me the same courtesy, instead rushing off so I couldn't see which way they went. This often meaning we lost the trail.
It is not just common courtesy, it is a real danger waiting to happen. On a lot of the hikes I have been on, we don't see any other hikers on the trail at all. The more difficult the hike, the more true this becomes.
When hiking to less visited areas, hike in groups of at least 3 people and stick together, no matter how fast or slow other people are. Be especially careful at junctions or where the trail diverts as people can become separated.