I recently relocated from London, UK, to Portland (Oregon), USA, and had no doubt that my hiking life was not over, but actually started a new chapter. After hiking for so many years, hiking the the USA shouldn’t be that hard, right?
Well, after 5.5 years in the UK, I am by now a fully formed British hill walker (yes, this is what we call it in the British Isles), so becoming an American hiker is not actually a very easy move. I do know it took a few months (years, actually) to get the hang of hill walking, public transport in the UK, finding trails and understanding local etiquette, so I should expect the same now I guess. Unlike my arrival to UK as a relative newbie to the outdoors world and hiking specifically, by the time I left the UK I had become pretty experienced, clocking thousands of miles under my feet, fully upgrading my gear and skills – so acclimatising to hiking in USA should be easy.
The first stage of figuring out hiking in the USA was to get to know local trails: what is available, understanding accessibility, weather, regulations, dangers and gear. During the course of my research I have learned a few things I wasn’t aware of as a British walker and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one, so here is a little guide that has come out of my rapid introduction to hiking in USA.
Permits and right of passage
The UK and the USA are not very different when it comes to land and right of use – most of the hiking and backpacking in both countries is done in national parks or forests (though the USA has more authorities that are dealing with this). While in the UK all the land is owned by private entities, in the USA there are parts of the country that are owned by the federal government and allowable uses are defined by legislation.
If you hike in the UK you have the right of passage in most places as long as you adhere to the signs and trails that exist; wild camping on private land or in national parks is not allowed (bar Scotland and Dartmoor National Park). This right to hike and backpack in the UK is called “the right to roam” and you can learn all about it here. In the USA camping and hiking generally only happens in national parks or forests and the conversation about land use while hiking with land owners is rare. The few times in which a need for right of way comes up is with regards to some long distance trails such as the PCT, AT, CDT and others where the organising body has made agreements with land owners about right of way.
Since most of the hiking and backpacking in the USA is done in natural parks (national or state parks), the federal and state authorities regulate land use, camping and parking with the use of permits; some require paying a fee and some just require registration. There is a whole variety of permits that depends on the kind of activity you choose to do, the actual park you go to, which authority is dealing with it and how long you will be doing the activity. I wish I could list all the permits needed for anything in the USA, but that is an endless list; I’m afraid you will need to research the specific park you want to go to. Just for an example, here are a few permits you might encounter:
- Parking permit for day hiking if coming in a car – most parks will require a day parking permit in state or national parks, usually $5 per car per day, but annual permits are available. Can be obtained at the entrance of most parks
- Backcountry/wilderness permits – multi day permits to national parks and require pre-applying and an expected itinerary for the trip. Might cost a small fee but not having one will incur a heavy fine
- Thru-hiking permits – a special permit that is organised by a trail’s association to allow thru-hikers to pass public, state and national land while limiting the number of trail users
Some states are extremely organised, like Washington state, and they have a clear site with all permits or passes you might need in their territory. Sadly, this is rare. The closest thing to a centralised site with information and permits is Recreation.gov, which is working to digitise all permits and passes in the long run.
Accessibility – car, public transport and trail heads
The USA is very much the land of the car with distances and fuel costs to support that way of being; this means that public transportation is sparse at best or non-existent in reality. Some areas, especially more dense urban areas, might have intra-city public transportation, but inter-city or regional public transportation is hard to find.
The British hiker can easily rely on public transport for any hiking trip, reaching the far corners of the British Isles, and I personally didn’t own a car in the UK and managed to reach pretty much any where I needed. Buses, trains, taxis, ferries and anything in between are available to get to trail heads anywhere in the UK. True, they may be less convenient than a car, they will be late and routes will be cancelled, but at least it exists. The British walker can (and should) use public transport for hill walking and it is the only way when doing long distance trails.
For hiking in the USA, getting into a car and driving to the trail head is pretty much the only way, which means that you need to be aware of any parking permits you might need for any park you choose to hike in. If you are visiting, renting a car tends to be the best way for shorter trips and rental costs in the USA can be very, very low. For more than 4 days I would recommend using Uber for getting a ride to any trail head that is relatively close to a city – they are amazingly cost effective. For long distance trails, Uber/taxies are the only way to get to a remote trail head and you should be ready to pay several hundreds of dollars easily, but in the grand scheme of your trip it should be just fine, and probably worth it! You can also check thru-hiking forums for each long trail for ride shares or taxi shares to the trail head.
If you really want to try to use public transport it is possible, but very challenging. The Pacific North West is a bit more supportive of public transport so options do exist: you can reach Timberline lodge on Mount Hood with buses from Portland or use the Gorge bus during summer from Portland also. These options are great for longer trips when you are visiting from the UK, just bear in mind the long travel times.
Weather, gear and completely location dependent issues
Talking about hiking in the USA is not like talking about hiking in the UK, or even western Europe; it is like talking about hiking in Europe as a single place. Naturally, there are huge variations depending on the place you want to hike; be prepared for this and know that each area is a different climate, geography, geology, social experience – and requires different gear.
The main point to remember is that generally, if you are familiar with hiking in Europe, it will be simpler to hike in the USA when looking at them as similar environments: further south is warmer, but unlike southern Europe, the southern USA has no Mediterranean Sea to make it moderate, it is just desert in the southwest and tropical in the southeast. The further north, the colder it will b,e with the border to Canada similar to northern Europe: stunning summers and snowy and freezing winters. The north west is similar to the UK: wet, damp and green. The north east: similar to Poland or west Russia, snowy and forested.
I think you get the idea here: be prepared as you would travelling anywhere in Europe, not just in the UK. I live in the Pacific North West which means I have similar conditions compared to what I had in the UK: rain, mud and relatively temperate temperatures, so my gear haven’t changed much. When I head down to the High Sierras I will treat it more like the Dolomites: dry, windy, exposed with hot days and cold nights.
One of the biggest differences between hill walking in the UK and hiking in the USA is the dangers one might face. The UK is a very safe place, with really just nature and drivers posing potential problems (and sometimes ticks). The USA, on the other hand, offers a bigger host of problems: here you need to add the presence of weapons, hunting and wild animals, mainly bears. Lets start with the easy one:
The USA has vast areas that are wild and preserved in such way that allows for a thriving bear population. The main bears you can encounter are Grizzly and Black bears, with some potential of Polar bears in Alaska. Bears are a big issue for hikers and backpackers in the backcountry, and for Europeans it is really a foreign concept. When day hiking in the USA it is rarely an issue, but when backpacking and camping, bears are a real issue and must be taken very seriously.
A few good reads about bears for anyone planning on backpacking or hiking in the USA:
- Bear Safety by the National Park Services
- A practical look at dealing with Black Bears (the more common bear) by PMags
- A discussion about bear canisters or Ursack by Andrew Skurka
As a head start, here is a quick run down:
- In bear populated areas make noise as you go along; bears will scare off
- Never, NEVER, ever, pass between a mama bear and her cubs. Ever
- Carry food in smell proof bags when hiking
- In Grizzly bear populated areas or areas where bears are more active, carry a bear spray canister
- When camping in bear areas, store anything smelly in a bear canister and hang it properly
This is a quick run down about bears, and if you feel like I’m overstating the dangers, have a look at this little video (warning: it is VERY graphic)
Besides bears, the USA also has cougars and wolves, but those are very rare and should be treated just as you would a feral dog. As a whole, the rest of the potentially dangerous animals in the USA are the similar to the UK – ticks, mosquitoes, deer and hogs. The biggest issue when it comes to the backcountry in the USA is that animals have larger territories than in the UK and so the potential of danger is greater when roaming in remote areas. Stay alert, keep food safe as you would any where else and if you are bear safe about your food, that will be enough to protect you from any other danger.
Inherently, Americans are not really more dangerous than Brits, but unlike the UK, gun ownership is very popular in the USA and this right is exercised regularly for property defense in rural areas. That is not to say that you will be shot every time you step on someone’s land or garden, but it does mean that people walk around with weapons and making your friendly intent known when passing near someone’s property is important.
There is no need to be alarmed from people but do stay respectful, just as you should when hill walking in the UK.
The other side of armed humans in the backcountry is hunting, and you should be very aware of hunting seasons and areas. Though rarely an issue, hunting on public land is very common in hunting season (October-November usually) but some people choose to stay away from any hunting areas when it is the season. If you do end up hiking and backpacking in hunting season, common sense tends to solve most issues:
- Stay on trails
- If you hear shots, make yourself known to the hunters so they know you are around
- If you are really concerned: get a orange vest from any hardware store and put it on you clothes/backpack
Most hunters will stay close to their vehicles and will rarely hunt deep in the backcountry. Those who do venture off are usually very competent hunters.
Americans love the outdoors – it seems that on any given weekend most of them are out, but I guess it is because there are so many of them. In all honesty it seems, both on the trail and from talking to people, that all Americans love hiking to some extent. In the UK on the other hand, few people actually go hill walking, especially to less travelled areas. The fact that the UK has a relatively small number of hill walkers gives it a community feel, a small group that knows the magic of going outside and loves sharing it with each other. If you do go hill walking you will find that everyone will greet you on the trail, and if sharing a munro or a peak, a conversation is sure to ensue.
On American trails, you will find many hikers with a variety of skills, gear and attitudes, but that doesn’t translate to a fun, communicating experience. It is actually a surprisingly quiet experience hiking in the USA, especially on more popular trails, as people just won’t greet each other, so be ready for that. On the other hand, as you go deeper into the backcountry, on less popular and hiked trails, that sense of community is back in the same way the British hill walking experience is.
As a British walker, remember that Americans of all types are out on the trails and you shouldn’t find their lack of enthusiasm to see you as an indication that you are not welcome; most of them are not even sure why they are there…. too many seem to just be there for Instagram pictures. I do encourage you to keep on going deeper into the backcountry and find some good fellow hikers and backpackers. I will continue saying hello or good morning to other hikers, even if about 2% say anything in return.
My first venture to hiking in USA
To test all my newly researched information, I took on a very close and popular trail near Portland: Angel’s rest to Devil’s rest and the Wahkeena falls. This trail is very, very popular going up to Angel’s rest as it is only 2.4 miles from the car park, but from there it becomes very quiet.
I started my hike early in the morning, leaving the car at 8:40 and doing the quick climb to Angel’s rest. I have seen very few people, and as I continued my way to Devil’s rest further on met a couple of elderly people, local volunteers in the area that do trail maintenance. We chatted casually all the way to Devil’s rest where we parted ways – they to place a pumpkin at the peak and I to find the loop to Wahkeena falls.
After a frustrating hour of trying to find my way, I realized that local volunteers had created a new set of trails that didn’t exist in the maps that I had printed off Caltopo (an amazing free service to get USGS maps). I ended up finding myself and the right trail and opted for a quick jog to the falls for lunch. After that it was an easy walk back to Angel’s rest and down to the parking lot. On my way back from Angel’s rest I saw many, many people making the climb up to the rock – many were jeans clad and selfy stick holding, mostly too busy with themselves to say hi….
All and all hiking in the USA is very easy: you do need a car but that gives you access to so much open land in the country. Maps are easily available at Caltopo for printing, and permits can be easily obtained if you remember to check (and you should, fines can be high). I think I will enjoy becoming an American hiker.
Transitioning yourself? Visiting the USA or just want to stay tuned for more great posts?
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