Hiking is a rewarding activity, but getting started can feel intimidating if you’ve never done it before. Hiking is all about preparation, so doing some research is the perfect starting point.
In all likelihood, you’ve been on a hike in your life, even if you haven’t realized it. A long walk through the natural areas in your neighborhood is considered a hike to some, so getting in the habit of walking in more remote locations won’t be a stretch for most. The key is to have fun and ease your way into more challenging situations; taking it easy is more than okay for your first hike.
This article will be the ultimate guide to hiking for beginners, giving you a comprehensive understanding of what you’ll need to be ready to go on your very first hike. It will cover everything from gaining a better understanding of what hiking entails and what you’ll need to wear and bring to understanding trail etiquette.
Understanding What Hiking Is
Hiking is simply taking long walks in natural areas. When we hear people talking about hikes they’ve gone on, they often discuss altitude changes, extreme weather conditions, and other factors that make hiking sound like an intense activity, meant only for those with ample experience.
But in reality, hiking is a simple leisure activity that you can make as relaxed or intense as you want it to be. Even the most experienced hikers usually enjoy a casual walk in the woods now and again.
When discussing the activity, there are three primary forms of hiking that people typically refer to:
- Day hiking: Day hiking will be the primary focus of this article and is what people are usually referring to when they say they “went for a hike.” Day hiking is going for a walk in an outdoor area that starts and begins on the same day. Regardless of how long the hike is, it’s considered a day hike if you don’t sleep outdoors.
- Backpacking: Backpacking expands on the concept of day hiking because it is a multiple-day hike that may require you to sleep outdoors. Backpacking entails packing all of your supplies in a backpack and hiking to at least one destination where you’ll sleep. Backpacking trips can be any length but must last at least one night.
- Thru-Hiking: Thru-hiking is a term used to describe backpacking that follows a set route of point A to B along with an established end-to-end trail system. The Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail are examples of end-to-end trails, and people who backpack for extended periods on these trail systems are considered thru-hikers. You do not have to hike the trail system in its entirety with a thru-hike, but you have to choose a section of the trail to hike (sometimes referred to as “section hiking”), starting at one point and ending at another.
Day hiking is the best choice for beginners, who can then expand upon their skills and get into backpacking and thru-hiking if they choose to. Backpacking takes a considerable amount more planning and effort to achieve, so getting comfortable with hiking before you attempt a backpacking trip is recommended.
How To Train for Hiking
In training for your first hike, start walking around your neighborhood! While the scenery may change, the activity won’t. Walking is the best method of training for beginner hikers. Don’t shy away from those hills either; preparing for incline is integral to hiking.
The best way to get into hiking is to start simple and build upon your skills and experiences. You shouldn’t need much training to prepare for your first hike, but as you hike more and attempt more challenging trips, it’s essential to make sure you’re physically prepared.
The most important thing to keep in mind when planning your first hike is that there will be some amount of physical exertion. Even if you choose an easy hike for your first trip, you should plan on getting your heart rate up and potentially breaking a sweat.
If you have a medical condition that could provide potential complications, make sure you talk to your doctor before going on a hike. Many more remote areas require helicopters to rescue injured hikers, so adequate preparation is important.
How To Choose a Hike
Once you’ve decided you want to give hiking a go and you’ve determined you can safely do so, it’s time to choose your first hike. Remember that hiking is supposed to be fun, so choosing a hike for beginners is an essential first step.
Going for your first hike gives you a baseline understanding of what hiking is all about and how to work out the kinks. When choosing your first hike, consider looking for hikes that are low in both mileage and elevation gain.
How To Find the Right First Hike
If you’ve never hiked before, knowing how to find hiking routes can feel like an impossible task.
Here are some helpful resources that can simplify your search:
- Guidebooks: Guidebooks are a great way to find hikes suitable to your skill level. Hiking guidebooks typically focus on a specific region and offer several hikes in that geographical area. These books have comprehensive information on hike length and elevation gain, trail popularity, whether or not you can bring dogs, and so much more. They’ll often include maps and directions as well, which you may find helpful, especially in the beginning. Guidebooks can be purchased online, but you may have the most success if you go to your local bookstore or outdoor retailer, where the books will be specific to your area
- AllTrails: AllTrails is an indispensable resource when searching for hikes. You can use their website and mobile app to find the best hikes for your needs and even filter your search to your specific needs. There is also room for users to comment on their recent experience with specific hikes, meaning you can get up-to-date information on snowmelt, mosquito population, and so much more. Perhaps the best feature that AllTrails offers comes with their “Pro” membership, in which you can download topographic maps to your mobile device. These maps allow you to track your progress, regardless of cellular service, which can offer you updated information on your mileage and elevation gain and even let you know if you get off-trail.
- Blogs: If you think you’re going to get into hiking more frequently, it might not be a bad idea to start following a few blogs from people in your area. Blogs are a great way to get a feel for your upcoming hike. Bloggers often include photos of their trip, detailed trail reports, and can help manage your expectations. If you enjoy a hike you learned about from a blog, you can try some of their other recommended hikes to see if you enjoy the same type of hiking as them. You can also contact the blogger directly or engage in the comments section if you have questions.
- Talk to the Experts: Park rangers are an excellent resource for hiking. They’re knowledgeable about the area and can give you information about what you’ll need to prepare for that specific hike, as well as directly answer your questions. You can also contact a local hiking group or look at their website, as they may have information on good beginner hikes or even group guided hikes that you can join if you’re unsure who to hike with or nervous about your first trip.
There are endless resources at your disposal to help you choose your first hike. It’s recommended to cross-reference whatever hike you choose with multiple resources to ensure you’re getting the most up-to-date and accurate information regarding that hike. Don’t forget to check the comments section as people regularly add updates.
Tips for Deciding on Your First Hike
Now that you know where to look to find your first hike, you’ll need to consider several factors to determine which hike is the right fit for you.
Below are some essential things to consider when looking at different hikes:
- Location: The location of the hike is one of the most important things to think about when choosing your first hike. Knowing how far you’ll have to travel to get from your starting point to the trailhead affects what time you’ll need to leave for your hike. If the trailhead is an hour away from your starting destination, this gives you a lot more flexibility on when you can leave than if the trailhead is five hours away from your starting point. When choosing a hike for your very first time, consider finding a hike an hour or two away, so you don’t have a long drive home.
- Distance: Another important consideration is how long a hike you want to go on. For your first hike, it’s best to keep it short; look for hikes that are under five miles in length, unless you routinely take walks longer than this. Remember that length isn’t the only thing that impacts the difficulty of hikes; elevation change is also a factor. A hike between two and five miles is a great beginner length, as you should have no difficulty completing it (especially if it’s relatively flat), but you’ll still feel accomplished upon finish.
- Elevation Gain: Extreme elevation gain can instantly ruin a hike if you’re not prepared for it. When looking for your first hike, consider finding a trail with minimal elevation gain. When determining the elevation gain for hikes, it’s important to differentiate between the altitude of the hike and the overall elevation that you’ll gain throughout the hike. Even if the hike begins at a high altitude, the elevation gain will be low as long as there aren’t any steep grades on the hike. Beginner hikes typically see under 250 feet of elevation gain throughout the hike.
- Time: Before choosing a hike, you should plan how much time you want to spend on the trail. Allow some flexibility, in case you end up hiking slower than you intend to. Also, remember that even if you choose a hike that is a short distance, you’ll be hiking much slower if the grade is steep. People tend to walk at a pace of three miles per hour, so if you choose a completely flat hike, you are likely to be able to complete a five-mile hike in under two hours. However, if you add elevation gain, this significantly slows your time down. Aiming for a two-hour window is a good goal for your first hike.
These are just some fundamental factors to consider when choosing your first hike, but they’re important to keep in mind. The key to choosing the proper first hike is to keep it easy.
Look at trail reports for an idea of how people rated the hike’s difficulty. Additionally, guidebooks and online platforms will typically rate the difficulty of hikes, and you should only consider hikes that are rated “beginner” or “easy.”
What To Wear When Hiking
Now that you know what hike you’re going to go on, it’s time to prepare. Preparation is one of the most critical parts of hiking, as you’re often in remote places with limited cell phone reception and a lack of access to food or fresh water.
While you may not think that what you wear will affect your ability to hike, there’s nothing worse than a pair of wet jeans. When planning your outfit before going on your first hike, you should consider both the activity level of the hike and the weather.
Below is a list of items that you should either wear or bring with you:
- Moisture-Wicking Base Layer: An essential piece of gear when hiking, a moisture-wicking base layer is vital in both hot and cold temperatures. Moisture-wicking clothing is made with materials like polyester and wool that ensure sweat is wicked away and encourages airflow, especially helpful in warmer months when cotton clothing would be more likely to hold sweat and cling to your body. In cooler months, it provides a base layer that helps keep sweat from settling on your clothing and allows you the flexibility to add more layers.
- Hiking Boots: A good pair of hiking boots is an absolute must for hikers. While less critical on beginner hikes, hiking boots keep you safe and prevent your feet from hurting as you choose more advanced hikes. Hiking boots are durable enough to withstand rough trail conditions and provide significantly more tread than your average pair of sneakers. They also provide structural integrity to help keep you from rolling an ankle or breaking a toe if you trip or fall.
- Hiking Socks: Good hiking socks are important for several reasons. Firstly, they keep your foot in place inside of your hiking boots. Typically, when you buy new hiking boots, it’s recommended that you try them on with a pair of wool socks since that’s what you’re likely to wear on the trail. Thick hiking socks help prevent blisters and keep you from sliding around in your boots. In addition to this, hiking socks are typically made of wool or wool blends that help to both keep you warm and prevent the collection of moisture in your shoes; this is especially important if you’re hiking in wet and rainy areas.
- Additional Layers for Warmth: No matter the time of year, it’s best to prepare for cool weather when hiking. Even in the dead of summer, it’s crisp at high altitudes. Furthermore, you never know what weather might hit, and adequate layers are essential for safety. Layers are especially important if you’re expecting rain or when you begin or end your hike before or after the sun comes up or goes down.
- Rain Layers: While you may not always think you need to bring clothes for rainy weather, it’s essential to prepare for every eventuality when hiking. Always bring a rain jacket on a hike, even if rain isn’t forecasted. Sometimes, rain jackets come in handy as wind shells, in addition to protecting you from the rain. If you are expecting rain on your hike, consider packing rain pants, as well as your rain jacket, to keep your bottom half dry.
- Hiking Pants: Hiking pants are necessary for your comfort and safety, as well as the protection of some of your less durable clothing. Hiking pants are specifically designed to withstand the activity of hiking, as well as brushing against bushes, branches, and rocks. Furthermore, they’re moisture-wicking and often have features that offer extra room around your knees or cinch at the bottom.
- Backpack: A backpack to carry your supplies is another essential item to bring on your hike. While you don’t necessarily need a backpack designed for day hiking use, these outdoor-specific packs can come in handy. Most are waterproof and moisture-wicking, with extra airflow along the back to avoid sweat pooling in the area. They also have extra features that you might find helpful if you get more into hiking, such as openings in the pack for water hoses.
- Hat (Optional): While a hat isn’t a necessity, it can come in handy outdoors. When you’re on a midday hike in the summertime, a hat helps shield you from the sun, especially if you have fair skin that’s sensitive to UV rays; conversely, beanies keep you warm in the wintertime and can be kept under hoods when it’s raining.
These are good basics to make sure you have on your first hike. While you may not opt for every item on the list your first time around, make sure you have good hiking boots, weather-appropriate clothing, and a backpack, at the very least.
What Supplies To Bring On Hikes
Preparedness is a core tenet of hiking, and you should always be prepared for the worst any time you enter the woods. While the likelihood that you’ll encounter any dangerous situation on a beginner-level hike is low, as you get more and more into hiking, you might eventually get into riskier situations.
It’s best to practice being prepared from the beginning, so you’re never in a situation where you don’t have something you need.
Below are the “ten essentials” that you should bring on every hike:
- A headlamp: Headlamps are a crucial survival tool if you get stuck outside in the dark. They can come in handy in both the early morning and evening after the sun has set. Sometimes, hikes take longer than you think they will, or unforeseen circumstances extend your adventure, and you may find yourself on your hike later than you initially intended to. In such cases, a headlamp is vital in staying on the trail and finding your way back to the trailhead. If you don’t have a headlamp before your first hike, a flashlight will work as well; just make sure you have enough batteries.
- Navigation: Another necessity, navigation can keep you from getting lost. Again, a beginner-level hike should have very well-defined trails, but as you take on more advanced hikes, you’ll want to make sure you keep a navigational system with you. Navigation can include compasses and maps but may also refer to GPS devices or altimeter watches as you get more advanced. If you have AllTrails downloaded on your phone, you will be able to track your location on a topographic map; however, a compass and paper map will work just as well.
- Sun protection: While you may think sun protection only applies in the summer months, it can be equally as essential to protect yourself from UV rays in the winter. When hiking, you should make sure you bring sunglasses and sunscreen, as well as a sun shirt and hat if you need extra protection. Sunscreen is essential to protect your skin from sunburns in the summer, along with sunglasses to protect your eyes. But sunglasses are also important in the winter, as the reflection of the bright sun on the snow can make it difficult to see or hurt your eyes.
- First aid kit: Under no circumstances should you ever go for a hike without a first aid kit. First aid kits are essential for your safety, and if you get injured in the backcountry without one, you could be in serious trouble. Consider buying a first aid kit designed for outdoor use, as it is likely to include helpful tools specific to hiking, such as a tick key. These first aid kits also consider weight as they’re designed to be carried in your pack. Whatever first aid kit you choose to bring with you, make sure it includes instructions on basic first aid care, so you know what to do if you get yourself in a sticky situation.
- Extra clothing: Layers are the name of the game in hiking. Most of the time, what you want to wear when you’re hiking is less than what you want to wear when you’re standing still. But when you reach a viewpoint or stop for lunch, you’ll be reaching for your warmer layers soon enough. Extra clothing is essential when hiking in the winter when cold temperatures or rain could jeopardize your good time. Make sure to bring adequate warm-weather clothing, such as a packable down jacket as well as rain gear.
- Water: There is a high likelihood that you’ll need more water than you think you will. Even if it’s heavy, you should bring ample water for your trek. As you continue to go on more strenuous hikes where bringing extra heavy water will be more of a consideration, you can opt for a water filtering device instead. Water filtering devices include iodine tablets or a water purification system.
- Food: Nothing gets you hungry like a hike, and nothing is worse than not having enough food to keep your energy up. It’s a good idea to eat a large meal before a hike, but it’s equally important to bring snacks and food with you to sustain you during your adventure. For a beginner’s hike, snacks such as protein bars, trail mix, jerky, and dried fruit are easy and lightweight options. However, it’s a good idea always to bring enough food to survive an extra day in the backcountry, just in case there’s an accident.
- Knife: A knife is a safety essential whenever you enter the backcountry. Knives can come in handy breaking yourself free if you get stuck, using first aid, and so much more. Multi-tools can also provide added benefits to your standard knife. Even if you’re just going out for a simple day hike, a knife is an important safety basic that you should always bring with you.
- Fire: Another important essential if you get stranded is a fire starter; you can bring matches, a lighter, or a firestarter. These are especially important when it’s wet outside and when you’ll need the extra help to get a fire going. While this may be less relevant on your first hike, it’s good to be aware of the safety basics you’ll need in the future and prepare for the worst. A fire could keep you warm overnight and signal your location to others if something happens.
- Shelter: Perhaps the least necessary item to bring on your very first hike, a shelter is an absolute necessity when attempting more strenuous hikes and an important one of the ten essentials. A shelter doesn’t necessarily have to mean a tent, ultralight tarps are an option, as are bivy sacks, which provide a great lightweight and affordable option. If you get stranded in the woods, shelters keep you dry and, depending on what method you choose, can provide coverage from wind and cold as well.
Keep in mind that while some of these items might feel like overkill for your first hike, this essential list is designed with getting stranded in mind. If you know you’re going to be hiking somewhere with cellphone reception and many people around, you probably don’t need to pack a shelter.
However, if you’re hiking in a more remote area by yourself, without cellphone reception, and something happens, a shelter could make life a lot more comfortable for you; consider your needs and practice your best judgment.
Almost as important as finding the proper hike to fit your needs and bringing all the right gear is respecting trail etiquette. Most hiking is in remote wilderness areas where it is essential to respect other hikers as well as the wildlife and wilderness itself.
If you have more experienced hikers in your life, they’ll be a great resource to field questions you have regarding hiking etiquette and might be helpful to invite on your first hike.
However, if you don’t have any hiking experts in your circle, don’t fret! Follow these simple basics for hiking etiquette, and you’ll look like a pro.
Respect the Right of Way
Just like there is a right of way on the road, there is a right of way on the trail. Most people you encounter on the trail will be hikers, whether they’re day hiking or backpacking. However, if you keep hiking, then over time, you’re likely to see people on horseback and dirtbikes, as well. Right of way on the trail goes in this order: horses, hikers, then bikers. So if you’re hiking, you’re expected to step aside and let people on horseback pass you, but you have the right of way over bicyclists. That said, if there’s a biker trying to pass you on the trail, the polite thing to do is to pull over and let them go.
Don’t Contribute to Noise Pollution
People spend time in the wilderness to detach from the real world and immerse themselves in the nature surrounding them. It’s expected that everyone respects each other’s experiences, so don’t play loud music or yell at others in your party. Speak at respectful volumes, and opt for headphones if you want to listen to your favorite podcast.
Let Others Pass
It’s not a race, and there will likely be hikers of varying skill levels on the trail, so if faster hikers are stuck behind you, pull over, give a quick hello, and let them pass! They’re likely to be very grateful, and it can even give you the chance to stop and catch your breath for a moment. If you’re stopped for a snack or a potty break, don’t worry about people passing you, there’s usually a natural ebb and flow on the trail. Remember to clear the trail for people actively hiking if you’re taking a break.
People Going Uphill Have the Right of Way
This is a big one, and you’ll look like a seasoned pro if you respect this rule. Hiking uphill can take a lot out of you, and there’s nothing worse than having your momentum ruined. If you come to a hill, you’re descending while other hikers come up, pull over and let them make their way uphill.
Pass On the Left
If all this information seems overwhelming, think of hiking on a trail similar to driving on the road. There’s a traffic flow, and slower cars get out of the fast lane for quicker ones. Regardless of which direction you or other hikers are coming, always pass on the left. If you’re stuck behind a slower hiker, and they pull over for you, they will step to the right and allow you to pass them on the left. Similarly, if you come to a hill and another hiker is hiking up toward you, clear the trail by sticking to the right side and letting them pass you on your left side. Remember to clear the trail as much as possible without stomping on the vegetation that surrounds the trail.
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is a set of principles designed to help hikers understand what is expected of them to be the best stewards of the public land. It consists of seven guiding principles, which may be difficult to memorize at first but are mostly common sense when you consider respecting nature.
The more you hike, the more you’ll come to understand the concepts of Leave No Trace intrinsically, but the seven principles are outlined below:
- Plan and prepare: If you follow the guidelines above, you should have no trouble planning for your first hike. But it is also essential to check the wilderness area you’re visiting before you go to make sure you’re privy to time-sensitive information. Some wilderness areas may be experiencing hardship in some way or another at the time of your visit, and you’ll want to do everything you can to minimize your impact.
- Leave what you find: One of the key takeaways of Leave No Trace is to leave nature exactly how you found it. If you find a lovely rock or flower, it’s perfectly acceptable to admire it, but you are expected to leave everything in its natural habitat. In addition to this, do your best to clean off your gear before entering new wilderness areas to avoid introducing non-native species to new natural areas.
- If you have a campfire, do so responsibly: Although more applicable for backpackers than day hikers, it’s essential that you avoid any non-essential fire that could cause potential damage. Forest fires are a genuine concern, especially in the summer months, so you should only have fires in wilderness areas where they are permitted and should only do so in established fire rings or pits. Opt for a propane stove as much as possible when outside.
- Be considerate of others: Remember that we are all trying to enjoy the same areas. When you’re on a day hike, follow the above trail etiquette to ensure you’re being respectful of others’ experiences.
- Respect the wildlife: One of the most important principles of Leave No Trace is respecting wildlife. Remember that this is their home; we are only visiting. Do not, under any circumstances, interact with wildlife directly. It is expected that you will not feed wild animals, and if you see them, observe them from a safe and respectful distance and then continue on your way. You’ll often see signs at trailheads with phrases similar to “a fed bear is a dead bear.” While this seems dramatic, understand that if wildlife becomes dependent on humans for their survival, it could seriously impact their wellbeing. If you brought your dog with you, make sure you’ve determined that they are allowed in the area of your hike, and keep them on a leash to avoid them disturbing wild animals.
- Pack it in, pack it out: Proper waste disposal is essential to prevent polluting beautiful wilderness areas. You should be prepared to bring anything you bring into the wilderness with you back out; this includes uneaten food, trash, dog poo bags, and absolutely anything else you brought. You will not find trashcans along the trail, so bring your backpack and a trashbag, collect your trash, and throw it away once you get back to the trailhead.
- Stick to resilient surfaces: There are a lot of fragile ecosystems in wilderness areas, and Leave No Trace is all about minimizing our impact on these areas. Trail systems are designed to prevent people from trampling delicate vegetation, so be aware of your surroundings. Try to avoid stepping or walking on areas with young plants or plants that may break if you step on them.
Hiking Safety Guide
The last thing to consider when preparing for your first hike is your safety and the safety of others in your party. Hiking is meant to be fun, but you’re still challenging yourself physically in a remote area.
Keep in mind the following basic safety precautions when hiking:
- Stay a safe distance from wildlife.
- Always tell someone where you’re going and alert them when you return.
- Bring enough food and water.
- Research your hike adequately, so you’re not surprised by unforeseen challenges.
- Plan ahead, and don’t forget the ten essentials.
- Speak in an “outside voice” to alert wildlife to your presence so you don’t startle them.
- Listen to your body. Don’t overexert yourself and turn back if you’re feeling fatigued.
- Drink plenty of water.
Beginner trails help get your bearings, and there will likely be many other hikers, so don’t stress! Let others know if you find yourself in a concerning situation; practice basic safety and know your limits.
If you’re preparing for your very first hiking trip, this guide to hiking for beginners should give you an exhaustive overview of what to expect and how to enjoy your first hike safely.
Remember that hiking is supposed to be fun, and when you’re just getting started, focus more on getting the fundamentals down than challenging yourself.
Planning and preparation are essential to enjoy your hike safely. Always plan your route ahead of time, bring adequate gear, and respect the wildlife, wilderness, and other hikers whenever you’re outside!