Hiking for Beginners
New to hiking? Ready to get started? Hiking expert Amy Boissonneault overviews everything you need to know.
Let’s talk about hiking! How to plan, what to wear, what to eat, and how to stay safe doing it. This Hiking 101 guide will help new hikers get into the great outdoors with confidence.
What is hiking and why do we do it?
Hiking will have a slightly different definition for everyone – I’ve often debated hikes vs walks and how they are differentiated with my partner. The dictionary defines a hike as a long walk, especially in the country or wilderness. What does hiking mean to you?
There are different types of hiking, including day hikes, backpacking, thru-hikes, and more – for Hiking 101, we’ll focus on everything you need to know to get out on day hikes!
The reasons we hike are plentiful. Being in nature allows us to slow down and shift our perspective – a bit of serenity in a busy world. We aim to explore national parks and other beautiful destinations with awe-inspiring views. And hiking is full of both physical and mental health benefits, including improved cardiovascular fitness and balance, natural engagement of core muscles, and decreased stress levels.
Planning and Preparation
Choose Your Route
One of the most important steps in hiking happens before you even hit the trail – your hiking plan! Your route should be planned ahead of time so you have a clear idea of where you are going, the duration of the hike, and the difficulty level. These three pieces of information will aid in determining your departure time as well as how much food and water to pack in order to keep your energy up along the way. Keep in mind that most hiking trails will end up taking you out of cell service, so don’t rely on your smart phone for directions. These days, most hiking routes have detailed descriptions online or in guidebooks. Another great resource is finding avid hikers in your community and learning from them!
Bring a Hiking Buddy
Solo hiking is an option but, especially for your first trek as a beginner hiker, I recommend finding someone to join you. Bonus points if they’re already experienced hikers!
Weather and Trail Conditions
Be sure to keep an eye on the weather forecast leading up to your hike. You can hike in all types or weather but… do you really want to? A little rain is harmless but if it’s raining cats and dogs and stormy outside, go ahead and postpone your hike for another day.
The 10 Essentials
Every hiker should familiarize themselves with the "Ten Essentials" and pack them on every hike. These essentials mean the difference between an unexpected headline about lost unprepared hikers and getting yourself out of the woods… literally. Here’s what they are:
- Navigation: A topographic map, compass, GPS, PLB, or another trustworthy gadget. Make sure you have something to help you if you get lost.
- Illumination: If you end up on the trail after dark, you’ll want to be able to light your way back. A headlamp is ideal but a flashlight works, too. Don’t forget extra batteries!
- First aid: Add a blister kit and bug repellent to your kit, and you’re ready for (almost) anything.
- Sun protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat with a brim will keep you covered! For extra coverage, try lightweight UPF sun protective clothing.
- Pocket knife or multi-tool: Handy for slicing cheese at lunch but also during emergency repairs.
- Fire starter: Matches or a lighter will do just fine.
- Emergency shelter: A bivy or tarp to protect you from the elements in an emergency.
- Extra food: Pack beyond what you expect to use.
- Extra water: Again, pack more than what you expect to use.
- Extra clothing/insulation: If you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors, an extra layer will help keep you warm.
While you can choose to hike in whatever footwear you like, appropriate hiking shoes or boots will make a world of difference. Not only will your feet be more comfortable, but you’ll also be more protected from potential hiking-related injuries (rolled ankles are all too common). Don’t be the person hiking in flip flops or gum boots.
Hiking footwear ranges from ultra lightweight trail runners to full grain leather hiking boots. The right footwear for you depends on the type of terrain you’ll encounter, the length of hike, and your personal ankle stability. I generally suggest a shoe with at least a little bit of ankle support and weather protection, but if you’re all about keeping things lightweight then a trail runner might be more your style. Sticking to relatively flat and short trails? A good pair of sneakers will do the trick just fine.
If you’re going on short, easy hikes with minimal elevation gain, don’t worry too much about what you wear. Dress comfortably and make sure you have appropriate footwear for the terrain. If you’re getting into longer hikes and building up a sweat, it’s best to avoid cotton fabrics and stick to synthetics! Polyester and fine merino wool are good fabrics to try, as these are ideal for wicking away sweat and will aid in temperature regulation. Cottons, on the other hand, hold onto moisture.
Be sure to pack layers and rain gear, such as a rain jacket and rain pants, as needed! A base layer, hiking layer, insulation layer, and rain wear is a good rule of thumb. Odds are, you’ll shed a layer or two shortly into your hike but once you stop for lunch and/or get into higher elevation, you might want to add them back on again.
For day hikes, you will want a pack to carry snacks, hydration, your first aid kit and extra clothing or rain gear. The size you’ll need will depend on how long your hike is and potentially the number of people in your hiking party. Generally, 10-20L is ideal for a day hiking pack.
If you’re going on longer hikes, a hip belt will make a big difference to your comfort level. Hip belts help disperse the weight from your shoulders onto your hips which will make your pack feel lighter! Some hip belts even have built in pockets which are handy-dandy for easy access to snacks on the trail.
Other features to consider in your pack include hydration systems and rain covers. A hydration sleeve means you can add a bladder or reservoir to your pack and stay hydrated on the go without stopping to pull out your water bottle. A rain cover is a custom-fitted, waterproof cover that fits around your pack to protect it from the elements.
Also referred to as Trekking Poles, these are optional but can come in handy in a few scenarios. Poles will help provide stability and balance during stream crossings if you encounter any on your hike. They are also ideal for steep and uneven terrain, or if you plan to progress into backpacking and are carrying a heavy load. You can opt for either a single pole or a pair, and the right length will result in a 90° angle at your elbow when the tip of the pole touches the ground.
Food and Hydration
What to Eat While Hiking
It’s important to keep your energy up while hiking, and this means packing some tasty high calorie snacks! Trail mix, granola bars, or GORP (good old raisin and peanuts) are go-to trail snacks, but make sure to pack a substantial lunch for longer hikes, as well.
If you or one of your hiking companions can confidently identify edible berries on the trail, then enjoy some of nature’s finest treats!
Not sure how much water to bring? The general rule is approximately 0.5L of water per 1 hour of hiking, but you’ll need to adjust this based on how strenuous your hike is and the temperature outside. Hydration systems integrated in your pack make it easy to carry up to 3L of water. If you’re worried you might run out, map out some water sources along your hiking route and bring a small water filter in your day pack.
The first step in hiking safety is making sure you tell a friend or family member where you’re going and when they can expect you to return. That way, if something happens out on the trail and you aren’t able to alert anyone, your contact can send out a search party. It might seem drastic, but if you’ve ever seen the movie 127 Hours, which is based on a true story, then you know why this is so important. As an extra precaution (or if you forgot to tell anyone where you were going), some hikes will have a log book at the trail head. Sign in here before you set off so there’s a record of where and when you hit the trail.
The other important safety aspect for hiking is that you should always carry a first aid kit in your pack. This should include any personal medication you might need along the way, especially where allergies are concerned.
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace encompasses seven principles that EVERY hiker and outdoor enthusiast is expected to abide by. It is truly the golden rule of protecting nature so that we can continue to enjoy it. The seven principles of LNT are:
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Dispose of waste properly.
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impact.
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of others.
For more details on LNT, visit their website!
I now deem you ready to hit the trail! Remember, hiking isn’t a race – enjoy your time out there, go at your own pace, and start with an easy trail. There’s plenty of time to build up to long-distance and more challenging hikes. If you’re interested in more hiking tips, check out one of my other articles "Tips and Tricks for Staying Comfortable on the Trail". If you have questions about hiking or need some gear for your next adventure, reach out to me or another Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated.