So, you want to start hiking? That’s great! Hiking is a fantastic way to get some exercise, enjoy the outdoors, and explore new places. But if you’re new to hiking, it can be difficult to know where to start. This guide on hiking for beginners will help you prepare for your first hike and make the most of your adventure.
Updated November 18, 2022
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Benefits of Hiking
Hiking has many mental, physical, and emotional benefits. Some of the mental benefits include stress relief, improved concentration, and a stronger sense of self-awareness.
Physical benefits include increased strength, stamina, and cardiovascular health. Emotional benefits include increased happiness, satisfaction, and self-confidence. Hiking is a great way to improve your overall well-being!
Some major benefits:
- Hiking improves your mood by reducing stress. Nature sounds really do soothe the soul
- It lowers your risk of heart disease
- Helps build muscle and bone density
- Hiking can help you lose weight or maintain it
- You can improve social connections when you hike with a partner
Read: Benefits of Hiking
Beginner Hiking Mistakes
There are a lot of things to consider when you start hiking. What kind of hike is it? What time of year is it? How many miles are you going? What’s your level of experience? And that’s just the beginning.
As a beginner hiker, there are some common mistakes you’ll want to avoid. Here are three mistakes that everyone makes when they start out, plus tips on how to fix them!
Mistake #1 Not Having the Proper Gear
There are some things you should always take along on your hikes. The 10 essentials outlines the gear you should pack every time you hit the trails. You may not use every item, and some items you may never need to use, such as an emergency shelter. But if you’re ever in a situation where you do need them, you’ll be glad you were prepared.
Not bringing backup navigation gear, such as a map and compass can get you lost. The reliability of electronics on the trail is risky. You could lose service, run out of battery, or drop or lose the device while hiking. You should always have a paper map and compass with you and know how to use them.
Mistake #2 Overestimating Your Abilities
That trail may look badass and you may be dying to complete it, but are you ready?
When picking your hiking trail, don’t overestimate what your body is capable of. Some trails are more strenuous and may require more food, water, and gear than you’re used to carrying.
Mistake #3 Underestimating Mother Nature
Weather can change suddenly, especially in mountainous areas. You should keep an eye on the forecast for the area you’ll be hiking in. Rain can quickly change into a lightning storm and a snowfall can turn to white out conditions with no visibility.
Make sure you decide, with your group if applicable, when you’ll turn back for inclement weather BEFORE you start your hike.
Now that you have a general idea of what NOT to do, let’s jump in to what you need to know to get started hiking
There’s nothing quite like hiking or backpacking in the mountains and forests to really clear your head and relax. But before you can enjoy the great outdoors, you need to pack the right gear!
The 10 essentials are the most important items you can pack. Every hiker, beginner or pro, should always have these with them. They’re both preventative and survival driven. They increase the chances of a hike without incident and also your chances of survival if an incident does occur.
1. NAVIGATION, MAP AND COMPASS- MAKE SURE YOU KNOW HOW TO USE THEM.
Even if you use a GPS device or an app on your phone, always carry a paper map of your destination. Put it in a Ziploc bag for protection. Electronics can die or malfunction and it’s essential that you have a backup way to navigate.
It’s also important to know how to use your compass and read your map. There are numerous classes, articles, and videos available to help you learn. REI has a great one, which you can watch here.
The compass I carry is the Suunto A-30 for the northern hemisphere. It’s very similar to the one used in REI’s video, which makes learning via the video very easy.
2. LUMINATION Since there’s no artificial lights in the wild, make sure you’re able to see if you wind up being on the trail for longer than expected. Packing a headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries will provide you with lighting should you ever need it.
3. SUN PROTECTION (Even in the winter) sunglasses, sunblock, clothing that blocks UV rays.
4. FIRST AID Cuts, scrapes, and blisters can happen easily on the trail. Make sure you have the supplies to protect them. A basic first aid kit is usually adequate for day hikes, but customizing it is preferable. Read more about building your first aid kit below, under SAFETY
5. KNIFE AND REPAIR KIT Bringing a knife or multi tool and a repair kit will allow you to fix any of your equipment that may break during your hike. At the very least, your kit should include duct tape, scissors, and a knife. Some multitools, like this one, include both scissors and knives.
6. FIRE (WATERPROOF MATCHES/LIGHTER/FIRE STARTER) These items will quickly become essential should an emergency arise. A fire can be made for warmth, a signal for others to locate you if you are lost, and allow you to cook should the need arise.
7. EMERGENCY SHELTER Emergency shelters can save your life. Seriously. It’ll protect you from the elements and help you retain body heat. You can pack a tent, tarp, bivvy, even a space blanket. Emergency bivy shelters are lightweight, inexpensive, and take up almost no room at all in your pack.
8. EXTRA FOOD You should bring more food than you think you’ll need. The NPS recommends bringing one extra day’s supply of non-cook foods high in nutrition. You never know when a situation will cause you to be out longer than you anticipated.
9. EXTRA WATER For the same reason you should bring more food, you should also bring extra water or know where to find it on the trail and how to treat it so it’s safe for drinking. We touch more on how much food and water you should bring at the end of this article.
10. EXTRA CLOTHES You should always bring an extra layer that’s warm along with you. Weather conditions can change quickly, especially at high altitudes. Having an extra jacket, waterproof shell, a hat and gloves, and warm pants will go a long way in helping you stay comfortable. Extra socks are always nice too!
There are great options on the market today for hiking footwear. The type you should choose is dependent on several factors including your comfort with the footwear, the terrain you will be hiking on, and the length of your trek.
Trail running shoes are lightweight and comfortable, sometimes right out of the box. They’re not as supportive as hiking boots, but they do break in very quickly. They’re great for paved or smoother trails. If you’ll be hiking on a rocky trail, trail runners may not be the best option for you.
Day Hiking Boots
These boots are sturdier but many still have some flexibility. They are sturdier than trail runners and provide more stability. Day hiking boots are ok for most short backpacking trips too.
These are the sturdiest and usually heaviest boots. Backpacking boots are generally taller, coming to the ankle or above, and provide more support for longer hiking trips. The wide soles provide you stability which is great when you’re carrying a weighted pack.
Hiking Clothing For Beginners
If you follow a few basic rules about the clothing you wear hiking, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a new hiking wardrobe, you may even have what you need on hand. I like to find my hiking clothes in the fitness departments of big stores like Walmart or Meijer when I’m grocery shopping. They usually have a good sale or I score in the clearance section. Here’s what you need
No cotton – Cotton hold moisture against you, literally. It can cause chafing and irritation as it holds onto your sweat and keeps it on your skin. The dampness it holds can also make you cold and possibly contribute to hypothermia when and if the temperature drops.
Merino Wool- Think wool is itchy and uncomfortable? Does a rough and itchy blanket from your childhood come to mind? Merino wool isn’t that.
Good merino clothing can feel softer than cotton, which makes it easy to ditch the cotton on the trail. Merino wool is warm, thanks to it’s loft which allows warmth to be trapped between the fibers, and it’s moisture wicking capabilities are wonderful.
Polyester or Nylon– These two materials are moisture wicking and dry quickly. They work well for base layers and for your other clothing as well.
What To Wear On Your Hike
Wear sturdy pants, but not denim. Although it is great at protecting against scrapes and thorns, denim is not comfortable when hiking and restricts your movement.
These BALEAF hiking pants for women and men are both functional and comfortable. Made from quick drying materials and featuring zippered pockets, these budget friendly hiking pants are great for getting started.
Yoga or athletic pants are not sturdy, but most are great for hiking on some maintained trails, such as those at a local nature center. Just a warning from my own experience, a single thorn or trailside branch can tear the material easily.
Be sure to have the clothing from the 10 essentials in your hiking pack in case it does happen.
Any shirts or tops made of the materials listed above
Make sure you have a rain shell and a warm jacket in your pack, if you’re not already wearing them
Day Hiking Backpack
A backpack is one of your most important pieces of gear. It’s going to carry the weight of all you hiking necessities so it needs to be comfortable, sturdy, and be the correct size for your torso.
An ill fitting pack can cause back pain, shoulder chafing, or cause you to walk with an unnatural gait. Choosing the right pack doesn’t have to be difficult. Follow these tips to choose the daypack that’s right for you.
Daypacks come in an array of sizes. The size you need is dependent on how much gear, food and water you will take with you.
11-20 liters These packs have room for your 10 essentials, snacks, and water. Some even include a water bladder. They are smaller packs and store well when not in use.
21-35 liters Packs this size are large enough to hold your essentials plus a few other things you’d like to bring, such as your camera. This is a popular size amongst day hikers.
36- 50 liters Hiking with your kids? This pack is big enough to carry their clothing and gear as well as your own. You can also use this capacity as an overnight pack if you pack carefully, making it easy to go from day hiking to backpacking if you desire.
The two most important factors in fitting your pack are your torso length and the hip fit of the hip belt. When trying on daypacks, put the pack on and fasten the hip belt. It should be sitting on your hips with the top edge of the belt rising slightly higher than your hips. Adjust the belt so it’s snug, but not uncomfortable.
Now look at the shoulder area of your pack. Is there a gap at the top of your shoulders? If there is, you probably need a shorter pack. Some packs, like my Amazon Basics pack, come with adjustable torso length, allowing you to customize to get your perfect fit.
Hiking Itinerary (FREE PDF)
Emergencies happen. Rock slides, twisted ankles, weather that makes a turn for the worse.
Having a safety plan and hiking itinerary in place is a smart move to help make sure your adventure is a safe one.
A safety plan/itinerary includes things like your trailhead location and the route you plan to take, along with clothing/gear descriptions.Every time you hike you should leave detailed info behind with someone who is responsible.
You can download my free hiking itinerary for your own use here
DIY Hiking Itinerary
Want to make your own? Here’s what you should include
- The names and ages of everyone in your hiking party
- Any medical conditions your group members may have
- A description of your clothing and gear (for your whole group)
- Area you’ll be hiking (National park name, nature area, etc.)
- Trailhead location (GPS coordinates can make finding it much simpler)
- The license plate number, make, model, and color of your vehicle and where you plan to park it during your hike
- Your hike start date and time and date and time you’ll think you will finish
- Name of any trail connectors you will take
- Amount of food and water you brought
- A photo of the bottom of your hiking boot ( you can just text or email this to the person you are leaving this plan with).
First aid kits are one of those things you may never need to use, but if you do need it, you’ll be glad you packed it. You can buy a pre-packaged first aid kit or you can build your own. Whichever way you choose, there are some items you should make sure your kit includes:
- Antibiotic Ointment
- Antiseptic Wipes
- Wound Closure Strips/ Butterfly bandage
- Ibuprofen/Tylenol whatever your choice of pain reliever
- Antihistamine such as Benadryl
- Strip of duct tape or moleskin for blisters. This can be wrapped around a water bottle or something similar before you leave for your hike
- Diarrhea Relief such as Imodium tablets
- Rubber gloves- 2 pairs. They rip easily so you should have a backup pair in your kit
I like to toss in hand warmers as well. They’re nice to have when the temperature starts dropping.
Seeing wildlife while hiking is a special treat, especially if it’s a large animal such as a bear or moose (they’re my favorites!). But wildlife is just what the name implies, wild and unpredictable. There’s a few rules you should follow when you’re on the trail to keep yourself and the animals safe.
- Pay attention to your surroundings. You should know what animals may be present in the area before you start hiking.
- Never feed the wildlife (or allow them to help themselves to your food)
- Give them space. Observe them from a distance. Bring binoculars if you want a closer view.
- If there is an animal attack, report it to 911
Finding and Choosing a Trail
This is one of the more exciting aspects of planning your hike. You’re ready to get out there but where are you going to go?
You have a few options for finding your perfect trail. You can ask friends or co workers who hike where they like to go, use an app such as AllTrails, or call your local ranger station and ask for a recommendation for a trail that fits your skill level.
How much time do you have? Figure out how long you’ll have to hike. You should also factor in travel time to and from the trailhead. Some guidebooks and comments from other users on AllTrails will tell you the average time it takes to hike certain trails.
Think Of Your Skill Level.
Remember When We Talked About Overestimating Your Abilities? As a beginner hiker, you should be careful not to overestimate your abilities. Though it happens to all of us, it’s no fun to start a hike just to find out you can’t complete it.
Take into account your experience and fitness level. Are you able to handle a long distance hike in the time you have available?
What about the elevation gain? Some trails have steep inclines and that makes them more difficult. A steep incline is considered 1,000 feet of elevation gain in 1 mile. For every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, you should add one hour to your hike.
Right of Way
Hikers and Mountain Bikers
Hikers have the right away, but the bike is probably moving faster than you. It’s going to be easier for you to step aside and let the bike go by. If you’re on a shared trail it’s a good idea to stay alert for bikes, although my experiences show that they’re generally good at announcing their presence.
Hikers and Horses
Horses have the right away. If you encounter horseback riders on a trail, you should give them as much room as possible to get past you. Refrain from making loud noises or making sudden movements as this can scare the horse and possibly cause it to injure the rider.
Hikers and Other Hikers
Hikers going uphill have the right away. It takes effort to get up a steep incline, and losing your momentum on the way up can make it harder. Yield to hikers going uphill as you’re coming down. You’ll appreciate the effort when it’s your turn to go uphill.
If you’re hiking in a group, you should hike single file. If you encounter a group of hikers, it’s best for the single hiker to move to the side until they pass.
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is an organization who’s mission is to protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly. Their education and the awareness they raise helps preserve our natural lands and parks and helps keep them healthy and beautiful for all to enjoy.
Following the LNT principles is a huge part of being a responsible hiker, and it’s important it be included in a guide on hiking for beginners. We all have to do our part to keep our wild areas wild and beautiful so we can continue enjoying them for years to come.
Principles of LNT
Plan ahead and prepare (When preparing your packing list, it’s a good idea to pack a reclosable bag to pack out your trash)
Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Look for established campsites and use the6m whenever possible. If you need to make a new site, try to find an area free of fragile vegetation to set up camp on.
Dispose of waste properly. When using the restroom outdoors, be sure you’re at least 200 feet from any water source. This helps prevent contamination to the water and the spread of disease.
For solid human waste, you should dig a hole 6-8 inches deep, this is where bacteria in the soil that break down the waste are found. In some areas, you must pack out all solid waste. There are special bags available for this that make this task more bearable.
No matter where you are, you should always pack out used toilet paper.
Leave what you find. As tempting as it may be, don’t pick those pretty wildflowers. Leave the cool artifacts and rocks for the next adventurer to enjoy as well. Also included in tis principle is the need to minimize site alterations.
You shouldn’t build new fire rings or build “natural” furniture with downed logs or branches. This principle helps keep the wild just that, wild.
Minimize campfire impacts. Before building a campfire, be sure to know the fire danger for the area you’re in. Some areas no longer allow campfires and instead require the use of a backpacking stove to cook meals.
If you are going to build a fire, do so in an area with abundant wood and not in a place where it is scarce such as alpine environments or a desert.
Respect wildlife. Don’t feed the animals. As cute as they may be, they’re still wild and need to stay that way. When you encounter wildlife, give them space. If they change their actions at all, you’re too close.
Be considerate of others. This one is pretty simple. Everyone wants the same thing on a trail, to enjoy the outdoors. Don’t disturb the solitude with loud music or conversation. Also, visual disturbances are distracting and LNT suggests neutral or earth colored tents/shelters in lieu of brightly colored ones to minimize the visual impact they have.
Using the Restroom
In most areas, burying your waste is acceptable, as long as you do it right. When looking for a spot to do your business, make sure you do these 3 things
- Locate a spot at least 200 feet away from any water source
- Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep to bury your waste in
- Pack out any used toilet paper
Some areas, such as canyons, require you to pack out waste. You can use a doubled up Ziploc bag or other waste bags available at outdoor retailers. Check with the authority where you plan to hike to find out what their requirements are for waste.
FOOD AND WATER
The amount of food and water you should bring on your hike depends on several factors such as temperature, humidity, and your body weight. You should aim for at least 1 liter every 2 hours or so. If you’re planning a day hike that will take around 8 hours, you should pack 4 liters of water or plan to refill and treat naturally sourced water.
For food, aiming for 200-300 calories an hour is a good starting point. It’s better to pack a little too much food than to be hungry or fatigued before finishing your hike.
When getting your water from a natural source such as a spring, you must treat the water before drinking it or using to cook. Otherwise, naturally sourced water runs the risk of bacteria and other pathogens making you very sick.
There are many water treatment options available and it can be confusing when trying to pick one. I’m going to talk a little bit about water filters and water purifiers.
Water filters physically remove bacteria and protozoa from the water. Some of these are introduced to the water supply by animal urine. It’s safe to assume that every source of natural water is contaminated until you treat it or filter it.
My favorite water filter is the Sawyer Mini. It’s also a favorite amongst the hiking community. It filters out over 99% of bacteria and protozoa, and removes 100% of microplastics. It’s lightweight at only 2 ounces, screws onto water bottles or connects to your hydration hose, and lasts for up to 100,000 gallons of filtered water! It’s also budget friendly, normally under $20, and is a great filter to have in your gear arsenal. You can find the Sawyer Mini here.
Water purifiers kill off viruses which are much smaller and harder for most filters to remove from the water. Viruses are more of a concern if you’re hiking in undeveloped/underdeveloped countries.
A popular water purifier is Aquamira. The 1 ounce treatment can treat up to 30 gallons of water. It doesn’t change your water’s color or give it a weird taste. It has a long shelf life and stores easily.
Now that you have the information you need to hit the trails, get out there and get started! If you have any questions feel free to send me an email, I answer every single one.
Related Posts and Resources
How to Build Endurance for Hiking
How to Overcome Fear of Heights
Hiking for Beginners on a Budget
What Not to Do As a Beginner Hiker
Hiking and Backpacking Resource Page