Hiking is an all-around healthy activity that keeps your mind sharp, your body fit, and your soul refreshed. Nature provides the ultimate escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Stress evaporates once you step into the forest, sink your toes into the sand, or descend into a canyon.
In fact, hiking is so therapeutic that some countries’ doctors are now prescribing nature as a medical treatment! Though strolling through the woods or climbing a mountain can’t cure cancer, disconnecting from noise and cell phone service can have some pretty medicinal effects that improve both mental and physical health.
So you’ve probably decided to hike, and that’s why you’re here! It can seem a bit daunting to load a backpack with all of the gear that you will need for your hike and venture into the woods, but with the right tools, both tangible and intangible, you will gradually become more comfortable.
This blog post is going to help you get started on planning and embarking on your first hiking adventure! For more in-depth information on all things hiking, camping, outdoor recreation, and National Parks, I will be sprinkling links to various blog posts that I have written throughout this post.
For now, I am going to share with you my beginner’s guide to hiking! This guide is intended to help you plan your first adventure and give you the tools to have a successful hike!
Beginner’s Guide to Hiking
Plan Your Adventure
For your first hiking adventure, I’d highly advise planning your hike before you hit the road. Experts may love the thrill of spontaneity and uncertainty, but a certain amount of planning is crucial to ensure your safety, no matter what level of expertise you consider yourself.
Planning in advance will keep you aware of possible closures, required permits, various rules and regulations, current weather conditions, fee areas, etc. You don’t want to arrive at a trailhead with zero knowledge of the terrain, rules, fees, distance, or closures, so some amount of planning is helpful prior to your adventure.
Consider Going With a Partner
I hesitate to say this because I very much encourage and support solo hikers, but for beginners, it could potentially be safer and more enjoyable to bring a partner along or go with a group, preferably with at least one person who is experienced.
Arrange an Easy Hike
Scour the Internet to determine your first hike. AllTrails is extremely helpful, as are Facebook groups and Instagram posts. Some of my favorite Facebook groups are Adventurers on Heels, Travelers of the US National Parks, and America’s National Parks – The Group. Look for hiking groups specific to your state or region for local content.
Instagrammers such as @jess.wandering, @reneeroaming, and @theloverspassport are helpful for beautiful destinations and trail inspiration. Digital or physical magazines are also fun to browse through, like Travel + Leisure and National Geographic.
Consider weather conditions, elevation, terrain, and distance before you set out on your first trail.
Here are some examples of how these elements can affect your hike:
Hiking in 100+ degree F temperatures in the dry desert of Death Valley will drastically contrast with a 0-degree F trudge in Alaska. Those are extreme examples, but even a 55-degree F wet rainforest hike will come with a vastly different experience than an 85-degree F hike with thunderstorms and hot sunshine. Rain, snow, ice, wind, storms, and temperature can all affect how you prepare and execute your hike.
Higher elevation automatically guarantees a more difficult hike since the oxygen level is lower and the conditions can be more brutal. You are considered to be hiking at a high altitude if you are at 8,000 feet above sea level or higher; the effective oxygen amount dips by roughly one-half percent every 1,000 feet you climb. Simply walking one mile on a 14,000-foot summit in Colorado will take a toll on your lungs. Beginners should stick with lower elevation, if possible, unless you live in, and therefore are acclimated to, higher elevated areas.
Desert terrain is going to look widely different than mountainous terrain; rainforest trails will contrast deeply with coastal hikes. Deep sand and thick mud will be different to walk on than dry or rocky trails. Rock scrambles can be slippery in the rain while rainforest trails can contain many treacherous river crossings and flooded pathways littered with fallen leaves.
A two-mile hike with 1200 feet of elevation gain will be significantly more difficult on your knees than a six-mile hike with 200 feet of elevation gain. As you begin to hike and understand elevation gain, you will most likely set a physical “miles to elevation gain” ratio limit for yourself.
For your first hike, I’d recommend starting with an easy, flat trail that has beautiful views in just a short distance. These trails might be quite popular since they are easy to access and easy to hike, so you might not be alone.
Popular trails are usually in demand for a reason; they come with wonderful landscapes like waterfalls, mountain peak views, prominent rocks, slot canyons, etc. But once you grow comfortable, try stepping off the beaten path; you will typically find not only solitude but astonishing landscapes that aren’t scattered all over the Internet.
AllTrails’ trail reports are great resources when it comes to scoping out the conditions of the trails. Just like other apps, you will see a trail’s elevation gain and distance, but unlike other apps, hikers just like you share raw details of their personal experiences and updated conditions. So if you’ve got your eye on a trail, pop on over to AllTrails first.
These are some things you will see reported in AllTrails’ trail reports:
- Current trail conditions, such as muddy or slick grass or rock, fallen trees, obstacles, or closures
- Updated road, park, and trailhead closures
- Difficulty levels
- Solved discrepancies in regard to pet policies
- Restroom availabilities and closures
- Water source updates
- Date-stamped photos
- Current weather conditions
- Opinions on whether a particular trail is “worth it” or “kid-friendly”
Prepare Safety Measures
Understand how to read a map and navigate with a compass. Download maps for offline viewing on an app like Gaia GPS or AllTrails. If you are going to be in the backcountry, away from cell service, I’d suggest carrying a Garmin inReach Mini, or a similar satellite communication device, with you on the trail. No one wants or expects the worse to happen; but if it does, you’ll be prepared because help is just a button away.
On your first hike, you will most likely be on a well-marked trail in a populated park, but it never hurts to understand how to read a map. When you venture into the backcountry, or simply onto a poorly marked trail with confusing forks, you will be prepared to find your way.
Hike in what you’re comfortable wearing. It’s as simple as that.
Once you gain experience and learn what works and what doesn’t for your particular body, you can tweak your wardrobe.
I started out in jeans, cotton tees, and Converse tennis shoes, and I learned the hard way that that wasn’t what I was comfortable wearing on the trail. Everyone has to start somewhere!
But to help you get started on the right track, I’m going to share the items that I’ve grown to love over the years, some of which have been recommended to me by reputable people but I haven’t tried myself yet. I didn’t start out with this gear by any means, but if I’d known back then what I know now, I’d start by wearing this gear, or something similar. It might cost more upfront, but the gear I’m recommending is durable and built to last through the toughest conditions and in the most extreme outdoor situations.
- Hiking Tops. Long-sleeve base layer for cooler temperatures. Mid-layer fleece layer for cooler temperatures. Waterproof and windproof rain jacket for cooler temperatures or rainy conditions. Short-sleeved breathable top for warm weather. Long-sleeved breathable top for sun protection on a hot, sunny day. Sports bra tank for an extra hot day. Wear sunscreen on any exposed skin!
- Hiking Bottoms. Fleece-layered leggings for cold weather. Waterproof pants for rain or layering with fleece leggings in frigid temperatures or snowy conditions. Shorts for summer.
- Wool Socks. Long Darn Tough wool socks for the winter. Short Darn Tough wool socks for the summer.
- Waterproof Boots or Shoes. Keen Terradora waterproof boots for every terrain and weather condition.
- Trekking Poles. Black Diamond Trail Explorer
- Hat. Columbia Bora Bora Booney sun hat.
Select Your Backpack
REI and other outdoor outfitters have employees waiting in the hiking and camping sections to give you a personalized fit for your first backpack. If you don’t live near an outfitter, make sure there is a return policy on the pack you are planning to purchase in case it doesn’t fit the way you’d like it to.
The fun part about backpacks is that they can be customized to YOU. With the overwhelming amount of packs available with various features, you have the capability to choose the elements that you want. From pocket quantities and frame options to weight and size choices, you should be able to find a pack that fits your needs. If you don’t know what kind of backpack you want, here are some elements that are great to have on your pack:
- Padded shoulder straps
- Chest strap
- Hip belt with zippered pockets
- Large, expandable water bottle pockets for different size bottles
- Trekking pole loops
- Multiple-sized pockets for easy access and organization
- Framed, mesh back to disperse the weight off your shoulders and cool off your back in the heat
Pack Your Backpack
Whenever you go out hiking, always carry the 10 Essentials in your backpack.
Snacks, like trail mix or protein bars.
Water, at least a half-liter (about 16.9 ounces) per hour of hiking in bottles or hydration bladders.
Shelter, like a space blanket, lightweight tarp, bivy sack, or simply a large plastic bag.
Layers, wicking, insulating, and waterproof/windproof. Gloves and a beanie if cold or hiking in pre-sunrise or post-sunset.
First-Aid, simply a small pouch with things like band-aids, gauze and dressing, medical tape, blister pads, tweezers, wipes, sting relief, and an assortment of pills.
Knife, multi-use for things like protection and repair.
Fire, a lighter and matches to start a fire for warmth, safety, and emergency purposes.
Navigation, like Gaia GPS, a compass, and a topographic paper map.
Light, a headlamp in case you are stuck on the trail when it gets dark.
Sun protection, like a sun hat, sunscreen, sun shirt, and SPF lip balm.
Once you get comfortable on the trail and want to spend hours, or days, on the trail, you will find that you need (and want!) quite a bit more gear. Your small backpack with the 10 essentials will suddenly become a bulging pack filled to the brim with things like a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a bear canister stuffed with food and scented items, a stove, and more.
Read my Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking where I share how to plan a successful backpacking trip, provide gear recommendations, reveal tips on how to thwart common fears of spending the night outdoors and peeing in the woods, and more!
Don’t Be Afraid
Fear, anxiety, and stress are normal reactions in everyday life, but those emotions are intended to evaporate on the trail. While it’s still perfectly fine to be a little nervous about your hike, try to keep your thoughts positive and your mind sharp and focused. While dangers certainly lurk in the woods, I am going to share the four most common fears of hiking and attempt to quell them for you!
Wildlife, particularly bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and snakes, create terror in many hikers’ brains. Hostile, violent wildlife encounters are rare. Even rarer are unprovoked violent wildlife encounters. If you maintain a safe distance, keep your food stored in a bear-resistant canister (overnighters), hike in a group, and make some noise when in the midst of wildlife, you are almost guaranteed not to get attacked. Carrying bear spray will give you peace of mind and grant you a fighting chance should you defy the odds and get approached by an angry bear.
According to Travel Channel, the chances of a bear attack are 1 in 232,000, and only 71 bear attacks have been recorded in USA National and State Parks in the last 122 years.
As for snakes, they can be avoided by wearing gaiters and staying out of tall grass and heavy brush where these slippery creatures like to shelter from the heat. Avoid wearing headphones so that you can listen to rattles. Nonvenomous snakes far outweigh venomous snakes, and while a few thousand people get bitten by venomous snakes per year in the USA (that’s still a low number), only a handful have died.
Running Out of Food or Water
If you’re in a populated state park with short trails and access to plenty of water and concessions, you may not experience the fear that backcountry hikers become overwhelmed with. It’s a rational fear, but it can easily be quelled with knowledge and preparedness.
Consider your hike duration and difficulty and bring at least one-half liter of water per hour that you will be on the trail.
As for food, it’s better to overpack than under-pack if you will be in the backcountry. If it’s your first hike, and you will just be on a short, easy trail, you will just need small, calorie and protein-dense snacks like trail mix or protein bars. For those who will be on a longer hike with little or no access to potable water, carry plenty of water and a filter so you can refill at a natural stream, river, or lake.
Injury on the Trail
Injuries can become more critical in the woods and away from cell service; therefore, the fear is heightened for many hikers. Injury can sometimes be avoided, and can almost always be prepared for.
Carry a stocked first-aid kit and know how to use everything inside. I also carry a small pamphlet inside my kit that contains a list of how to care for certain injuries, such as snake bites or dehydration, so that when I’m in the moment, I avoid the initial panic and dive straight into solving the issue.
It also wouldn’t hurt to attend a Red Cross first aid and CPR class or wilderness first aid session online or in person!
Carrying a satellite beacon like the Garmin inReach Mini would give you 24/7 access to emergency services should the worst happen to you.
Unfortunately, solo females feel the brunt of the weight of this particular tragedy. It’s disheartening to hear stories of women getting attacked, usually by males.
Nature is an escape; it shouldn’t be a place for fear. Obviously, hiking in a group could help crush your fear, but I also know that independent females shouldn’t feel the need to be accompanied by a male or group of hikers. Carry protection and portray confidence. Always let someone know where you’ll be.
Leave No Trace
When recreating in the woods, it’s important to leave no trace. In fact, anytime you’re outdoors, whether it be in your backyard, your local city park, or the backcountry, you need to respect the landscapes and wildlife.
These are some of the responsibilities of an outdoor recreator:
- Never leave trash on the trails.
- Always pick up after your pet.
- Don’t build a fire in the midst of a fire ban.
- Camp in established sites where possible.
- Don’t cut down wood from trees.
- Don’t approach or feed wildlife.
- Leave campsites and rest spots better than how you found them.
- Don’t take souvenirs from any protected outdoor space.
- Don’t alter trail signs or markings, and never assemble or disassemble cairns.
The Seven Leave No Trace Principles
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
To read more about Leave No Trace, follow the link to their website or read my in-depth guide on each of the seven principles and how you can apply them to your camping and hiking adventures.
Miscellaneous Tips for Beginners
- Hikers yield to horses. Bikers yield to hikers. Downhill hikers yield to uphill hikers.
- Dogs must be controlled, leashed, and picked up after. Watch for signs indicating pet restrictions.
- When passing other hikers, offer a greeting.
- Hike quietly so that everyone may enjoy nature’s natural sounds. Keep your phone on vibrate and use your “inside voice” as though you’re in a movie theater or classroom.
- Don’t block a trail. If you need to take a break, step aside to let others pass.
- If you notice that a hiker is going faster behind you, step aside to let them pass.
- Stay on the trail. Never take shortcuts unless otherwise signed.
- If hiking in a group, hike in a line, not a row. Leave room for others to pass.
I hope I have managed to convince you to give hiking a try! Your first adventure might not be your finest; mistakes will surely be made as you learn the ropes and gradually grow more comfortable in the outdoors.
Hopefully, you will become hooked and crave more experiences just like, and even better than, your first one. Don’t get dissuaded if something doesn’t go as planned; oftentimes, the best moments come unplanned and in the wake of a mishap.
Relish those remarkable views, inhale those fresh scents, and listen to nature’s calming symphony as you wander through dense forests, cross babbling rivers, summit prominent mountain peaks, stand under roaring waterfalls, squeeze through tight slot canyons, maneuver through damp caves, and stroll sandy coastal beaches. You never know what you’re going to stumble upon when you’re outdoors!