Make urban hiking your next adventure—and discover the best of your backyard.
By Liz Thomas
Like most hikers, I love to hit remote trails and really get away from it all. Unlike most hikers, I also love to walk in cities, right in the middle “of it all.” Over the past five years, I’ve completed multiday urban hikes in 10 different cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Montgomery, Bend, Tucson, and now Grand Rapids. Urban hiking opened up a new world for me. I move at a speed at which I can process my surroundings and my place among them. Walking on city streets, sidewalks, and parks, I’ve learned that any town, even the one you live in, becomes a wildly new place on a thru-hike.
You don’t even need to consider yourself a hiker to turn a walk in your town into an urban adventure. Urban hiking is about setting goals and exploring new places. It’s about connecting with your community and the environment around you. It’s about getting outdoors and moving, even if you live far from the wilderness. It’s about discovering hidden pockets of nature. It’s about exploration. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Advantages of urban hiking
• You don’t have to worry about running out of food or water.
• You can sleep indoors each night.
• You don’t need to buy (or carry!) as much gear as you would for most backpacking trips.
• You (usually) don’t have to worry about bugs or other wildlife.
• If you get lost, cold, or injured, home is a phone call (or Uber ride) away.
• You can urban hike when many nature trails are too snowy or require specialized gear.
• Urban hiking is great for beginners—no special skills required.
Navigation tips for urban hiking
• You’ll need to plan ahead like any hike, but most urban routes require only a computer or phone. You won’t (usually) need special topographic maps or map and compass skills.
• Before I start a trip, I plot my route in Google Maps. Use Google’s Walk and Bike features to find the best routes between Points A and B.
• The Walking Directions often will take you on safer roads that have less traffic. I’ve also found that sometimes, the best walking route is actually a biking route. Using the Biking Directions feature will route you onto bike trails. Biking Directions may not always be the fastest or most direct way between Points A and B, but are often more scenic.
• To account for plenty of time to explore the city, I hike fewer miles per day on an urban hike than on a wilderness hike. Try to stick to daylight hours, when cars can best see you.
Gear tips for urban hiking
While an urban hike doesn’t require quite the same gear as a wilderness hike, it’s still important to have the essentials. I carry the following in a small backpack.
• My fully-charged smartphone with access to my Google-mapped route.
• Extra clothing in case it gets cold or rains.
• A water bottle and snacks (restaurants and drinking fountains aren’t always nearby).
• Sun protection including a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
• A way to charge my phone (like an external battery pack).
• A flashlight or headlamp.
• Good footwear. I wear comfortable walking shoes with wool or synthetic socks (not cotton). On an urban hike, just any hike, taking care of your feet is essential to having a good trip. Since pavement is a firmer surface than dirt trails, consider footwear with good cushioning for an urban hike.
• Bright clothes. I often wear a fluorescent yellow safety vest that I purchased at a hardware store. It’s reflective and gets drivers’ attention when I am crossing streets. If I suspect that I’ll be stuck hiking in the dark, I also carry extra bike lights or headlamps to attach to my backpack.
Sleeping on an urban hike
People often ask me where I camp on multiday overnight hikes in cities. I don’t feel safe setting up my tent in parks (and it isn’t legal in many cities). Instead, I plan my routes so that I end each day’s hike at (or near) a friend’s house, or hostel, hotel, or Airbnb.
About Liz Thomas
Liz Thomas is among the most experienced hikers in the U.S. and is known for backpacking light, fast and solo…and in cities. Liz is affectionately known as the “Queen of Urban Hiking,” having thru-hiked and/or pioneered twelve routes up to 250+miles long across ten U.S. cities. She is an advocate for getting people to hike “what they got” by taking to city trails, streets, and parks.
Liz has hiked more than 17,000 miles on wilderness and urban trails and previously held the women’s self-supported speed record on the 2,181-mile long Appalachian Trail. She’s hiked 20+ long distance wilderness hikes including the Triple Crown of trails. She’s the author of Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-hike, which won the 2017 National Outdoor Book Award for Best Instructional Book.
Liz holds a Masters in Environmental Science from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the prestigious Doris Duke Conservation Fellowship for her research on trails, conservation, and trail-side communities.
Liz has been seen on/in Good Morning America, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo! News, Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Family Circle, Outside, and Gizmodo. She is a regular contributor to Backpacker Magazine and instructor for their online class, Thru-hiking 101. Liz is an ambassador for American Hiking Society and previously served as the Vice President of the American Long Distance Hiking Association. A former outdoor staff writer at Wirecutter, the product review site of The New York Times, she is currently the senior editor at the gear review website Treeline Review. Liz can be found @lizthomashiking on Instagram and Twitter and at www.eathomas.com