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How to go hiking and live to talk about it

Get physical

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North Carolina and the surrounding states have some of the best hiking in the nation. But with hiking, what you get out of it usually depends on the research you put into it first.

The first step is to ask yourself what you want to see and how much you're willing (and able) to do physically to get there.

Do you want to visit waterfalls without breaking much of a sweat? Then the three-mile Dupont State Forest hike 40 miles southwest of Asheville is probably for you.

Are you looking to take in a panoramic view that stretches for hundreds of miles? The Craggy Pinnacle Trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway is a 1.5-mile roundtrip hike that offers 360-degree views of the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains.

If ambling through meadows is your thing, Graveyard Fields off the Blue Ridge Parkway offers fields of wildflowers in a valley surrounded by 6,000-foot mountain peaks.

Hikers just looking for the ultimate place to have a picnic should try Max Patch Mountain on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The mountain was cleared for pasture in the 1800s and is now open land on a high knob with 360-degree views.

Key points to ponder when hiking are how long and how flat the trail is. Trail lengths can be misleading. A person who regularly power walks five miles in their neighborhood might struggle on a five-mile, round-trip trail that gains 1,700 feet in elevation and is steep in spots.

Leg muscles that aren't used to climbing can go wobbly and then numb even on relatively short hikes, a dangerous combination when steep areas and slippery sections of trail are involved.

Here are a few tips to consider for safe hiking:

• When hiking a trail you aren't familiar with, find out when the sun sets. Leave yourself plenty of time to get back or call for help if you are injured.

• Be sure to pack 60 ounces of water per person for every two hours that you plan to hike and to bring food. Take into account how much the water, food and supplies you are carrying weigh.

• Bring along a cell phone. Reception is often better than you'd expect, especially in open areas and on mountaintops.

• Be careful to stay on the marked parts of the trail. It's marked for a reason. Bring along a compass. It could be invaluable if you accidentally walk off the trail.

• Acquire a map and take it with you. Trail maps are often available on the Internet.

• Hike in groups and let someone know where you're going and when you plan to return. Consider bringing a first aid kit.

• Mountain weather is often highly unpredictable and may change in half an hour. Be prepared for sun or rain.

• North Carolina has the highest mountains in the eastern United States. If you are hiking a trail that rises in elevation, be prepared for double-digit temperature differences from the bottom to the top. Also keep in mind that sunset can plunge temperatures at high elevations into truly chilly conditions, even in the summer. Consider dressing in layers.

• Make sure you have plenty of gas in your car's tank and consider taking along an extra container in your trunk. Many of the state's best hikes require long drives off the parkway or main highways into areas that are fairly remote.

A good way to figure out what kind of hike you can tolerate is to start closer to home. The Charlotte Outdoor Adventure club (choa.com) has great local hikes led by experienced hikers. That's a good time and place to try out new hiking boots, too.

CHOA also leads regular hiking trips across the state for hikers of all experience levels.

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