Perhaps you're craving a little quality time in the great outdoors. You may be intrigued by the idea of hiking but not sure where to start.
As a beginner, hiking seems like a secret club with a complicated set of rules and specialized gear. We all started as beginners though, and I'm here to tell you, getting into hiking is not as hard as you think.
Hiking has never been more popular, and for good reason. As we spend more sedentary time indoors staring at glowing screens, many of us feel a primal yearning toward the sunshine and wide-open spaces. To explore a wild place at human-powered pace, under our own steam, in direct contact with nature, is healing for both body and mind.
If this strikes a chord with you, now is the perfect time to get started. These essential hiking tips for beginners will give you everything you need to safely plan, prepare for, and complete your first few hikes.
You'll learn as you go along, and before you know it, you'll be as comfortable on the trails as you are anywhere.
General Hiking Tips for Beginners
Before we get into the details, here are a few things every aspiring hiker should know.
Anyone Can Hike
The outdoor industry is not always inclusive in its representation of hikers in advertising, but don't let this stop you. The outdoors welcomes everyone, no matter your skin color, size, gender, age, ability level, or anything else.
Hiking Can Be a Social or Solitary Activity
Many beginners prefer to hike with others, which is a clever way to learn. Ask a hiker friend to take you out (they'll be happy to share their passion), look for a local Meetup or hiking group (Facebook is handy), or recruit an inexperienced buddy to learn with you. But if you find you enjoy the solitude of being alone in nature and want to hike by yourself, that is perfectly fine too.
It's Normal To Feel Tired Sometimes While Hiking
Don't worry, this doesn't mean you're in trouble or you're not ready to hike; it happens to all of us. In fact, it's a key part of what makes hiking such a great workout. You'll be surprised by the amount of energy your body can squeeze out if you keep pushing just a little further past that point.
Choosing Your First Hike
You're excited about getting into hiking and ready to experience the trails. Now, where should you go? Here are a few tips to get you started when choosing your first few hikes.
1) Start with a day hike, rather than a backpacking route (which requires carrying camping gear and staying out for multiple days). This will give you a chance to get used to hiking before dealing with the logistics and gear puzzles of a multi-day adventure.
2) Find a trail near where you live. Hiking Project, All Trails, and Google are all good resources; search for "trails near (your town)." You might be surprised how many hiking trails are nearby; you don't necessarily need to travel far or organize a big trip to try hiking.
3) Start with a short hike. If you've never hiked before, a 2 or 3-mile trek can be plenty and might take you an hour or two depending on altitude and gradient. If you're fit and feeling adventurous, 4-6 miles is reasonable and will take 2-3 hours unless the terrain is very rough or steep.
4) Look for loop or out-and-back trails. Loops are preferable because the entire route is a new experience. Out-and-back also works well because you can turn around whenever you're ready to be halfway done. Avoid point-to-point hikes, which start and finish in different places, unless you can easily arrange the necessary transportation.
5) Consider the elevation profile of the hike you choose. This is the line graph of elevation versus distance. If there is a lot of up and down, the hike will generally take longer and feel more challenging than if it's flat. Allow extra time for hikes that include a lot of elevation gain.
When searching AllTrails, you can filter trails by "elevation gain" and difficulty (easy, moderate, or hard) so it's easier to find a trail that will match your expertise and fitness.
6) Choose a popular trail in an area that isn't too remote. Look for something that is hiked frequently (you'll be able to tell if it has a lot of comments and reviews on AllTrails), well-marked and maintained, and not too rugged or mountainous. You don't want to deal with deep river crossings, lingering summer snow in high mountains, or frequent mountain thunderstorms.
7) Choose the right terrain for the season. Some hiking routes have a limited window of just a few months when they can be safely hiked. For example, avoid hiking in a hot desert in summer, and avoid hiking high in the mountains unless it's mid-to-late summer (when the snow has melted and the weather is mild).
Planning and Preparation
Once you've chosen your trail, it's time to prepare. Here are the 3 most important tips to help you get ready for a safe and enjoyable hike.
1) Have a navigation plan and a backup. Download a free GPS app like Hiking Project or Gaia GPS onto your smartphone, and be sure to save the route for offline use if that's available in your chosen app. If you'll be trekking in a park with a website and a trail map, or if you've found a helpful trail guide online, print a copy and bring it with you. If you're striking out somewhere more remote, consider taking a topographic map and compass and learning how to use them.
2) Check the latest weather forecast for where you'll be hiking, and choose your clothing and gear accordingly. It's possible to hike in almost any weather, but if you're just getting started, make things easier by choosing a relatively pleasant day. A little rain is fine, but thunderstorms, snow, or very cold temperatures (down into the 4°C/40°F) require caution.
3) Tell someone where you're going (send them a route map or trail name), when you should definitely be back by, and what they should do if they haven't heard from you by then. Usually, they should first try to contact you, then if they can't reach you and it's well past "worry time" - for example, it's after dark when you were planning on a simple day hike - contact park rangers or emergency services.
What to Wear Hiking
If you're just getting started, don't worry if you don't have "official" hiking clothes. You can hike in almost anything that's comfortable for you. However, since clothing is a big part of how we regulate our temperature outdoors, here are 3 essential tips for choosing hiking clothes.
Avoid Cotton Clothing
It gets wet easily from sweat or rain and dries slowly, which can leave you feeling surprisingly cold even in mild weather. Same goes for denim, which is also heavy and can be uncomfortable for hiking. Instead, choose lightweight fabrics that breathe well and dry quickly. Good examples are synthetic fabrics like workout clothes and natural fabrics like merino wool.
Dress and Pack in Layers
Throughout a hike, it's natural to feel hotter and colder as the terrain, weather, and your effort level all change. Start with a lightweight pair of pants or shorts and a t-shirt for when it's hot, and pack a few extra layers - a long sleeve shirt, plus perhaps an insulated jacket and a rain jacket depending on the weather forecast. Don't be surprised if you have to stop a few times to add or remove these layers during the hike.
Wear Comfortable Footwear
This doesn't need to be fancy hiking boots; any pair of well-fitted athletic shoes will do. In fact, many experienced hikers prefer to hike in trail running shoes. The most important part is that they are comfortable, don't rub your foot in any particular place, and are roomy (your toes should not touch the front) to allow for your feet to swell a bit as you walk.
What to Pack for Day Hiking
Day hiking, where you hike for a few hours and then return home, is much simpler to pack for than backpacking, where you carry camping gear and sleep along the trail. This is one reason why beginner hikers will want to start with day hiking first.
Here's a quick guide on what to pack for a day hike.
It may sound simple but this is one of the most critical hiking tips for beginners: carry enough drinking water. In hot weather, dehydration becomes dangerous within just a few hours, and it's easy to underestimate how much water you'll need. A simple rule of thumb: half a liter per hour in normal weather, or 1 liter per hour when it's hot. You can just load up your day pack with water bottles, but many hikers enjoy using "camelback" style hydration systems with a hose you can drink from while you walk.
Hiking takes energy, so be sure to pack plenty of snacks even for a short hike. Include a mix of some sugars and carbohydrates (dried fruit for example) for quick energy, plus plenty of protein and fat (like nuts, roasted chickpeas, or beef jerky) to keep you feeling full and replenish all the calories you'll be burning. There's a reason "trail mix" is so named: the mix of fruit and nuts tastes great on the trail and is just what your body needs. Protein bars also work well, and if you'll be out all day consider packing a sandwich, pre-cooked pasta, or other no-fuss lightweight meal.
Day hikers don't need to carry too much gear. Here are a few hiking essentials to tuck into a small backpack for your comfort and safety.
- Navigation device and backup: for example, a smartphone with offline GPS app (look at Hiking Project or Gaia GPS) plus a paper map as a backup.
- Warm insulated jacket - puffy or fleece (if it might get cold).
- Gloves and warm hat (if it might get cold).
- Waterproof rain jacket (if there's any chance of rain), which doubles up as a windbreaker.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses to protect your skin.
- Insect repellent (if you're hiking in an area with mosquitoes, biting flies, or other annoying little buggers).
- Ziplock bag and toilet paper (in case you need to go to the bathroom outdoors - more on this below).
- Light source, ideally a headlamp or small flashlight, in case you miscalculate your timing or run into problems and need to find your way after dark.
- Depending on the length and remoteness of your hike, also consider carrying a small first aid kit, fire starter, knife, and emergency shelter. These may not be necessary for an hour-long walk in a local park, but in more remote locations they can make all the difference. Read more about the "ten essentials" for hiking here.
On The Trail
Congratulate yourself on planning and preparing for your hike. High five!
Now comes the fun part. These hiking tips for beginners will help you stay comfortable and safe while on the trail.
1) Pace yourself and aim for an even, comfortable effort. You might be working hard, especially on the uphills, but try to not push so hard that you're gasping for breath. You'll be able to hike comfortably for longer if you slow down for the uphills and use the "talk test": could you have a conversation with a hiking partner while walking? If not, you're pushing faster than necessary and risk exhausting yourself sooner.
2) Drink before you get too thirsty and eat before you get too hungry. If you're starting to feel low on energy, think about when you last ate a snack. Food is fuel and a quick snack break can do wonders for your energy levels. Try to take short breaks, just a few minutes, as you feel yourself getting tired. Grab a snack, sit down if you need to, but don't stop for too long or it'll be hard to get going again.
3) Going to the bathroom outdoors can intimidate new hikers, but it's not that bad. Basic practice: find a hidden spot away from the trail and not near any streams or lakes (to avoid polluting the water). To pee, if you're a woman, simply squat down, go, and either squirt yourself with some water or wipe with natural materials or toilet paper (if that seems scary, invest in a Shewee). To poo, same idea, but dig a hole at least 8 inches deep first and bury your waste in it. In all cases, if you're using toilet paper, do NOT just leave it or even bury it. Pack it out in a Ziplock bag. I promise it's not so bad, and it will keep the outdoors from turning into a disgusting public restroom.
4) If you lose the trail or become disorientated, the most important thing is to stop walking. Take some deep breaths, have a snack, think about the last time you knew where you were. If you can, mindfully backtrack to there, and look for a reference point such as a rock, tree, or mountain. If you're really not sure where you are, try staying put and making noise to see if a nearby hiker can help guide you back. Avoid the temptation to make panicked guesses about which direction to go; it's easy to end up even farther off trail.
5) If you encounter wildlife, in most cases simply pause and enjoy the sighting while keeping your distance. Most animals are afraid of humans and have no motivation to hurt us. In the rare case of a bear or cougar sighting you should stop, make yourself look big (raise your arms above your head), speak loudly in a firm deep voice, and back away slowly (never run) until the animal moves on.
6) Most hikers are a flexible bunch, but if you're unsure how to interact with other hikers on the trail, here is some basic trail etiquette:
- Hikers going downhill on a narrow trail should step aside and yield the trail to those climbing uphill. In practice though, don't be surprised if an uphill hiker steps aside for you when you're moving downhill; they probably just want to take a break and catch their breath.
- Mountain bikers should yield to hikers, but it's kind to step off and let them pass if it's easy. Getting started again is harder for bikers than hikers, especially when riding uphill.
- Hikers and bikers should both yield to horseback riders. Horses are easily startled and this endangers the rider, so it's polite to ask the rider if it's ok to pass before you get too close.
- Chatting among your group is fine, but many hikers seek out nature for peace and quiet, so it's courteous to be mindful of your conversation volume and not play loud music.
- Some hikers like to say hello as they pass, some prefer a subtle nod, and others would rather stay in their own world. Don't take any of it personally and do what feels right to you.
Protecting the Trails
In our enthusiasm to enjoy the outdoors, it's all too easy to accidentally harm the beautiful places we hike through. The universal mantra for outdoor lovers is "leave no trace," which includes guidelines such as:
- Don't leave anything behind: not buried toilet paper (animals dig it up), not candy wrappers (obviously), not even food scraps (they attract animals and habituate them to human contact).
- Stay on the trail, especially in steep areas prone to erosion. If the trail zigzags up a hill, follow the zigzags instead of taking a shortcut.
- Resist the urge to take things with you, like flowers, rocks, or interesting artifacts. Leave them for others to enjoy too.
- Don't leave your mark on nature. This includes carving markings into tree trunks, digging holes (except for disposing of human waste), feeding wild animals, and building fire rings.
Is Hiking Safe?
Many beginners wonder if it's dangerous to go hiking, especially alone. It's natural to be concerned when taking on an unfamiliar activity, but in most cases, hiking is very safe. The issues most people worry about - predatory wild animals and dangerous humans - are extremely rare while hiking.
The real risks are more mundane: running out of water, getting lost, or being unprepared for cold weather. Fortunately, these can all be minimized with a little preparation and planning, including the tips mentioned here. So, research your route, pack the right gear and enough water, tell someone where you're going, and then relax.
Beginners should stick to less remote trails, but if that's not an option where you live, consider taking a SPOT or Garmin InReach. These satellite communication devices give you a way to request emergency help even when you're beyond cellphone reception, and are especially useful as an emergency backup option for solo hikers in case of an injury or other unexpected mishap.
Backpacking For Beginners
You've logged some trail miles and now you're starting to wonder: what would it be like to not go home in the evening? How would it feel to set up camp in a beautiful place, spend a night beneath the stars, and continue trekking in the morning? Once you feel confident with day hikes over several hours, it could be time to try your first backpacking trip. Here are important tips for beginner backpackers:
Go With Friends Who've Backpacked Before
Backpacking solo can be a wonderfully serene and liberating experience. But if you've never spent a night outside before, those nighttime hours can be long and lonely. As a beginner, it's best to do your first overnight hike with friends or join a local Meetup group or a guided trip.
Borrow or Rent Gear Before You Buy
If you've never been backpacking before, it probably doesn't make sense to buy all the gear before you know if you enjoy it. Ask a friend to borrow some of theirs or look for local gear shops that rent tents, sleeping bags, and other backpacking essentials. Alternatively, try online providers like Outdoors Geek, REI, Arrive Outdoors, or Xscape Pod.
Prioritize Finding a Comfortable Backpack That Fits You Well
An uncomfortable pack can transform even the most spectacular backpacking route into a miserable slog. To check a pack for fit, fill it with gear, loosen all the straps and begin by tightening the hip belt. Then adjust the shoulder and chest/sternum straps until you find a comfortable fit with most of the weight supported by the hip belt. If the pack has "load lifter" straps on the shoulder tops, tighten those to bring the load in closer to your back. Try walking in the pack; it should not rub or shift from side to side.
Load in Order
When loading your backpack, put the gear you won't need until camp in the very bottom (e.g. sleeping bag). Next put heavy items like food toward the middle, as close to your back as possible. Stuff the edges and top with things you might need during the day, like extra clothing layers. Small pockets on the hip belt or sides of your pack are great for those odds and ends - sunscreen, snacks, camera - that you reach for often during the day.
Bring a little luxury, ideally something lightweight that you'll be extra happy to have at camp: a Kindle book, chocolate bar (not on hot days), a few swigs of whiskey, whatever would feel like a lovely reward for a day's hard work.
Don't overpack. The biggest mistake most beginner backpackers make is packing too much and struggling under the weight. Look for a gear list suitable for the season and environment (e.g. desert or mountains) and don't skip safety essentials and warm layers. Resist the urge to overpack nonessentials though, such as spare changes of clothes (it's normal to get a little dirty and smell "natural" while backpacking), heavy multitools, and large bottles of toiletries. These lightweight backpacking tips will help you sort out what's essential and what's not.
Research and Use Proper Food Storage
When wild animals become accustomed to human food, it's bad news for both hikers and animals. Unfortunately, bears that go after hikers' food are sometimes relocated or even killed since they've become a threat to hikers. In non-bear areas, even rodents can do a surprising amount of damage. Make sure you know the risks and regulations where you'll be backpacking and whether you'll need a bear canister or other food storage system for overnight.
Reduce Environmental Footprint
Camp in places that have been used before to reduce wear and tear on fragile environments. Try to choose sites that are a bit off the trail (so other hikers aren't walking right by your tent) and at least 200 feet from water sources like streams or lakes (so water sources aren't polluted and animals aren't discouraged from drinking).
Plan Drinking Water Carefully and Bring a Water Filter
As with day hiking, it's critical to not run out of water during the day, and backpackers will often stop for lunch near a lake or stream and filter water (with a bottle or straw) for the afternoon while eating. It's convenient to camp near (though at least 200 feet from) a water source so you can easily filter water for cooking and the next day's hike.
Keep Your Sleeping Bag and Warm Layers Dry at All Times
They are your lifeline in cold weather. Even if you have a rain cover for your pack, keep these critical items in a dry sack or double-wrapped in kitchen trash bags for extra security and peace of mind.
If your shoulders ache while hiking, adjust your pack so that more of the weight is carried on your hips by loosening the shoulder straps and tightening the hip belt. Tightening the sternum strap across the front of your chest can also help relieve sore shoulders.
Temperatures can get surprisingly cold at night, even when backpacking in summer. Check the weather forecast carefully and keep in mind that if you're hiking in the mountains, it will likely be even colder up there than at the nearby town based on your weather forecast.
Under typical atmospheric conditions (not taking wind and cloud cover into consideration), air temperature drops between 1°C and 3°C for every 1,000 feet (300 meters) in elevation gain. The temperature drops faster in drier air and slower in humid air. When in doubt, assume 2°C for every 1,000-foot gain.
Congratulations, you're now ready for your first hike! It may seem like a lot to get right, but once you've been out a few times it all starts to feel like common sense. Then when you're used to the basics, the possibilities for outdoor adventure are nearly endless. Consider yourself warned: it's easy to get hooked on hiking!
When you're ready to take your hiking adventures to the next level, here are a few suggestions:
If you've been day hiking, try backpacking. Nothing compares to the primal feeling of sleeping under the stars, waking to the golden sunrise, and getting right back on the trail.
If you like backpacking, look into longer routes. It takes a few days to get into the rhythm, and the rewards for pushing past this point can be huge. A week-long trip can feel like a completely different experience than a weekend jaunt. If you really feel inspired, look into the world of thru hiking, where hikers spend weeks and even many months traveling long distances by foot.
People of all fitness levels can enjoy hiking, but if you want to experience longer or harder routes it helps to build strength and stamina. Most common hiking complaints - achy knees, and tired feet - can be prevented with a gradual increase in mileage and a regular strength training routine that focuses on building stability in the glutes and core muscles. Don't forget to stretch too. Yoga is popular for this purpose.
As you gradually build strength and experience, you'll be amazed at how far your feet can take you and what fascinating landscapes our planet has to offer. You may even find that getting into hiking is just the beginning of a long journey. Your newfound confidence and mindfulness built while hiking will carry over into daily life, making you more resilient and happier both indoors and out.
So, lace up those shoes, grab your backpack, and go take a hike.
Maybe I'll see you on the trail.