Want to start hiking but don’t know where to begin?
Hiking is widely considered to be one of the most beneficial outdoor activities. Apart from making you physically and mentally fit, it also allows you to explore and experience the wonders of the world.
Whether you are a beginner or an expert hiker, you need to learn how to plan and prepare for your hiking day.
In this post, we will provide the ultimate guide to the hiking essentials for beginners. We will share with you tips on how to get ready for your first hiking trip while still having great fun.
Let’s get to it!
1. Find a hiking partner or hiking group.
Accidents may happen at any time, and when they do, you don’t want to be abandoned somewhere without help. You need a companion, someone who can aid you when danger comes. Especially if you’re a beginner, you need someone with expertise in hiking and the trails you’ll be trying.
Also, hiking with a group gives you a sense of belonging. Waking up early to spend a long day on the trails despite any weather conditions takes a certain kind of person, and those people tend to appreciate others who share their passion.
It would be ideal to not have to convince someone to tag along if they aren’t going to enjoy themselves or appreciate the experience. Rather, having a hiking group (or partner) will allow you to spend the day with others who know both the challenge of hiking and the reward that awaits.
How to find a hiking partner:
Ask around – Ask your friends, workmates, or family if anyone wants to try hiking, or if someone is already a hiker. This way, you can spend time with people you already enjoy being around while also getting in the health benefits of hiking.
Find a group – Look for hiking groups or clubs that are within your local community, college, or university. This can help you meet new people and hike with people who are probably at a variety of skill levels.
Visit hiking gear stores – Check to see if they have flyers about hiking clubs or organizations that you could get involved with. If not, the people who work there probably have some great information to offer about local clubs or even people that they go hiking with themselves.
Reach out through social media platforms – Facebook and Instagram are two good sites where you can find a lot of hiking enthusiasts. If you can’t find people locally through social media, you can still join a national (or international) group where you can share and learn tips and tricks about hiking.
Check hiking classes and events online – Many fitness sites organize hiking events for beginners. This can help you join a community of other learners who will be going at your pace.
Create a Slack account – Join several chat groups that talk about hiking and backpacking. This can help you gain other people’s perspectives and learn from their experiences. When a group of hikers convenes, you’ll share stories and experiences, both good and bad. These conversations can be helpful cautionary tales as you learn from others’ mistakes, or they could serve as inspiration for your next hiking adventure.
Join Meetup – This is one of the largest online groups where you can find hiking buddies that live within your area, making this an ideal method of joining a community of fellow hikers. Meetup will connect you with like-minded people who would be happy to have you join in on their adventures.
Hiking alone does give you a sense of freedom. However, as a beginner, it is best to hike with a group or partner until you really get the hang of it and feel comfortable being able to manage a potential emergency on your own if it were to arise. Once you are an expert, you might want to do more solo hiking, but if you are still new to the sport, stick with a group.
And keep in mind that you can still have a sense of solitude when hiking with a group. Once you adapt to each others’ speed and skills, you may naturally separate a little, allowing for each person to find their own pace. If you have a good leader, that person will keep track of everyone’s progress in the group.
2. Look for a hiking route that is for beginners.
One of the most common mistakes that beginner hikers make is choosing a difficult trail—one that is either too long or requires too much climbing. If your hiking partner is a legit hiker who has loads of experience, this is okay. But if your hiking partner is one like you who is also a beginner, you might want to choose a more accessible route. Here are some other things to keep in mind when you are looking for a hiking route:
How long do you want to spend hiking? Do you have a few hours, or do you want to hike all day? Also, remember to factor in how long it will take to get to and from the trailhead. Keep in mind that an average walking pace is around 3 mph, but the pace of your hiking may be slower, depending on the terrain, elevation, and amount of weight you’re carrying with you.
Your fitness level: Take an honest assessment of what kind of shape you’re in. You don’t want to end up suffering through a long, strenuous hike that you’re unprepared for. There are hiking trails for every level of fitness, so don’t let this factor turn you away from hiking in general.
Elevation gain: If there is a lot of elevation gain on a hike, it will be quite difficult. With some practice, you’ll learn how much elevation gain you can reasonably handle. For reference, a trail that has an elevation gain of 1,000 feet in one mile is considered to be steep. Also, a rule of thumb to follow is that for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, you should add one hour of travel time to your trip.
Time of year and weather:
Some trails are not open in the early spring because they still have snow on them. In the fall, keep in mind that the sun sets earlier, so you want to plan your trip to avoid being stuck out after dark. Always make sure to check the weather forecast before you go hiking so you can dress and pack comfortably.
Logistics: Some hikes require more planning than others. For example, if you hike a route that begins and ends at different places, you’ll need to work out vehicle transportation between your start and end points.
How to find a hiking route:
Do your research. Check guidebooks and websites, and search for easy routes that beginner hikers usually take. Guidebooks are great resources because they tell you all of the information that you need to know, including the difficulty of the trail, distance, elevation, available water sources, unique features of the trail, and, most importantly, directions. Websites will often show recent reports that can help give you a sense of the current trail conditions.
Talk to the locals. Either find people who live in the community where the trail is located, or connect with locals in your own community and ask where you can start a hike. You can also call a ranger station in the area of your potential hike. Rangers usually have up-to-date conditions on the trails and are experienced at suggesting hiking trails for all skill levels.
Word of mouth. Ask hiking enthusiasts or other people if they know a beginner-friendly route. This is often how the best places are found—and especially ones that may not be overcrowded.
3. Check the hiking trail.
It’s not enough to just “look” for a hiking route. When you choose one, there are a few things you need to consider.
How to find the perfect hiking route or trail (the things you need to consider):
Distance. Your hiking pace may be slower than your walking pace, depending upon a lot of factors, such as slope, elevation gain, your weight, the weight of your backpack, etc. Consider all these factors when choosing how far you can hike. As a general rule, a beginner will struggle hiking more than 8-12 miles in a day, regardless of their level of fitness. The fatigue that sets in after this amount of distance is mainly mental, and it takes an expert trail leader to help inexperienced hikers push themselves past this distance.
For an afternoon hike, it is best to stick with 6-8 miles. If you want to get an earlier start and have lunch along the trail, you will probably hike closer to 10-12 miles. If your trail has a lot of hills or mountains, take a mile off of your route for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain. This means that a new hiker who could handle 10 miles of flat terrain may only be able to hike 5 or 6 miles in areas where 4,000 feet of elevation is common.
Time allotted. You also need to consider how much time you have to finish a trail. Do you have the whole day or just a couple of hours? Start by thinking about the amount of time you want to spend hiking and work backwards from there. Plan for about 30 minutes of hiking per mile, and add an extra 30 minutes for every 1,000 feet of elevation you gain.
This is a conservative estimate, but it is better to finish your hike with time to spare than to be rushing or end up in the dark. So, if you want to do a three-hour hike, find a relatively flat 6-mile trail, or maybe a 4-mile trail that includes an 1800-foot peak.
Elevation gain. This is one of the most challenging parts of a hike—how steep the slope of your trail is. The more elevation gain there is, the more effort you have to exert to finish a hike. Elevation gain will be taken into consideration when you are thinking about your time and distance, but make sure that you are also being honest with yourself regarding your fitness level.
Logistics. Some hikes include camping and other activities. There are also those that start at one point but end at another. These hikes need planning and logistics. Do some research on your potential hiking trails to find notable things that you may want to see, such as waterfalls or lakes. You will want to try to locate any points of interest on a trail map, and then find trails that pass it.
Also, make sure to find a good trailhead that leads to your trail. This is where your trail meets the road, and there are typically parking lots and sometimes even visitors’ centers at these locations.
You will want to research your desired trailhead ahead of time to gather information on that location to gauge how busy it is and if the parking is limited. You may have to get to some of the more popular trailheads early in the morning to secure a parking place.
When selecting a trail, choose one that is a little shorter than the distance that you can typically walk on a level surface. After that, obtain a map of the trail and review the changes in elevation. As previously noted, for every 1,000 feet gain, add an hour or two to your estimated hiking time.
It is not enough to simply select a good hiking trail that seems a good fit. You need to familiarize yourself with the terrain, obtain a map, and review reports about that trail so you can be fully prepared on the day of your hike.
4. Check the season and the weather.
Weather is a popular topic in the hiking world, as it’s a relevant subject for anyone who is planning to spend many hours outdoors. Depending on the time of the year, some trails may or may not be accessible (e.g., when the path is covered with snow). Likewise, always check the weather forecast so you can prepare your hiking gear and clothes appropriately.
Weather forecasting is not always accurate, as we all know. It’s most difficult to gauge an accurate forecast in mountainous areas, where you may be hiking. However, it’s important to be aware of the range of possibilities in the area where you’ll be hiking so you can pack clothing and rain gear that is appropriate for any possible condition you may encounter.
It’s best to go hiking without assumptions or expectations about the weather. But here are some suggestions on how to get an idea of what your day may look like.
How to check the weather:
Visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website – The National Weather Service can offer you the best information to see if it is probable to hike safely.
Check the wind speed – While checking the NOAA site, you can also check the wind speed charts, cloud projections, and precipitation forecasts. This can help you determine if you are going to be up against heavy winds, which could be uncomfortable. It will also let you know if the sun will be directly beating down on you or if you will have some shade.
Check satellite images – Look at the local area where the trail is located to see the direction any weather is moving in. You may see a storm that isn’t near you now, but that is headed your way.
One of the best things you can do for yourself when you are out hiking is pay attention to your surrounding environment. Take notice if extreme weather conditions look like they are approaching, or if there is a change in the weather (e.g., heat, wind, storms, etc.).
It is best to check out the weather a day before your hike. In the morning of a hiking day, before finally hitting the trails, recheck it. This will help you decide whether you need to change plans or push on with the hike.
However, keep in mind that if rain is in the forecast, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should turn away. Some of the wilder places that people go hiking can be extraordinarily beautiful in the rain, with the rich scents of the earth and the brightness of the flowers illuminated. As long as you’re prepared with rainwear, there is no reason that rain has to interfere with your enjoyment of nature on a hiking trip.
5. Make sure that your body is in good hiking condition.
Before going on a hike, assess your fitness level and the kind of shape you are in. It’s better to be physically ready and be able to enjoy your hike than to suffer throughout just because you didn’t prepare mentally and physically.
There are a few ways that you can assess your fitness level. One of them is by simply running a mile. A mile run is an easy barometer for your overall endurance fitness.
One recent study showed that men over 50 who could run a mile in under eight minutes had “optimal cardiovascular fitness” and therefore had a reduced risk of heart disease. For women, the time to beat was nine minutes. So run a mile and see where you measure up. The best sign of fitness is if you can continuously improve your time.
Another test you can do to measure your fitness is the maximum aerobic function (MAF) test, which was created by Dr. Phil Maffetone. This test is rather simple and intuitive. To do this test, put on a heart rate monitor and find a fixed course such as a track.
Begin by running slowly until you get to 75% of your max heart rate. Run eight laps while maintaining this heart rate by adjusting your speed accordingly and time yourself to see how long it takes. Each time you are able to reduce the time it takes you to run eight laps at 75% of your max heart rate, it means you have become more efficient with your exercise, which strongly correlates with a higher level of fitness.
How to prepare your body for a hike:
Run or walk – This will help build up the muscles that protect and support your ankles and knees. This is referred to as “functional fitness training” because running and walking are both exercises that mimic the movements of hiking, which helps condition and prepare your muscles for your hike. If you know you’re going to be hiking downhill and uphill for a long period of time, try walking or jogging on hilly terrain or using a treadmill on an incline.
Do crunches, squats, and lunges – This will help strengthen your core and improve your balance on uneven surfaces. This is especially important for hiking on rocky or unsteady terrain. Without proper balance, you could easily fall, which would cut your hike extremely short.
Do push-ups – Doing push-ups every day can help strengthen your upper body for heavy and extended backpacking. Especially if you are going on an overnight hike and carrying a lot of materials with you, you need that upper body strength so you don’t quickly wear yourself out. This is especially important if you will be carrying a heavy backpack on uneven surfaces. You need to have the strength to hold your pack while maintaining your balance.
Engage in cardio exercises – Cardio will help you reinforce your lung capacity and build your endurance so you can last on longer hikes. Engaging in at least 60 minutes of moderately intense exercise every day can help increase your lung capacity. As your lungs are benefiting from intense activity, it will also counteract the possible buildup of toxins and tar in your lungs that can be caused by environmental pollutants, allergens, and dust.
Additionally, you need to learn how to breathe properly when walking, running, or hiking. One thing to keep in mind is to breathe from your diaphragm, rather than taking shallow breaths from your lungs. Also, count your breaths if necessary, breathing in for two counts and out for two counts. This will help you pace yourself, save your energy, and keep you strong all throughout the activity.
6. Pack your hiking gear and make sure they are complete.
If you search online, you will see a lot of hikers that list down the must-have tools for every hike. However, this doesn’t mean that each item in their lists is also valuable to you. You need to pick what’s the most important for you.
That being said, here is a list of the top 10 essentials you need for day hiking:
- Navigation tools such as map, compass, GPS device, etc.
- Headlamp or flashlight, plus emergency batteries.
- First aid kit, plus bug repellent and bear spray (if needed).
- Repair kit and tools, including a knife (which is very important).
- Fire starters, such as waterproof matches, lighter, or candles.
- Sun protection, such as sunscreen, sun-protective clothes, and sunglasses.
- Backup shelter, such as a tent or a plastic tube tent.
- Extra food.
- Extra water.
- Extra clothes.
Select and wear the right socks and shoes. If you have the means, it is better to invest in high-quality apparel. Sore feet and irritating clothing can ruin a good hike.
For a comprehensive list of hiking gears you must have, check out this post.
7. Let someone know where you will hike.
It’s not enough that you have a hiking partner or that you belong to a hiking group. You need to let someone from your immediate circle know where you will be. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong, the faster someone notices, the faster you can get help.
Be sure to give someone the specific details of your planned hike, including when you’re leaving and when you expect to be finished.
You may also want to bring a SPOT tracker for backup emergency assistance. However, this shouldn’t make you lax whenever you go on a hike. Your safety is your personal responsibility.
8. Learn where to go when nature calls.
What to do when nature calls:
If you only need to pee – Find a place that is around 200 feet away from water resources, but is also away from the trail.
For women – Find a bush or some sort of privacy that is away from both the trail and any water sources. Bring wet wipes or toilet paper if you’re not comfortable shaking dry.
If you need to defecate – Find a place away from the trail and at least 200 feet from water resources. Dig a hole (6 to 8 inches deep; 4 inches wide) and then bury your waste.
It is important to carry a shovel with you in your pack. If you don’t want to wipe with leaves or stones, you can pack a special biodegradable toilet paper that is made specifically for camping. If you use this, make sure to bury it with your waste.
As an alternative – You can bring human disposal bags to put your waste in if you don’t want to dig a hole. However, you then need to carry these with you in your pack until you can find a proper place to dispose of them.
To avoid defecating in the woods, make sure to take care of such business before you head out for the trail. The above option regarding digging holes is necessary only when the urge really strikes while hiking.
9. Leave no trace.
Even while enjoying nature, you need to be aware of your surroundings. Be a responsible human and don’t harm our wildlife.
Here are the seven “Leave No Trace” principles, as explained by REI Coop:
Plan ahead and prepare – Do your research to avoid encountering situations where you may become scared or tired, which can force you to make poor choices. For example, research the regulations of the trail so you know you’re following the rules. Additionally, use a map and compass so you don’t have to use marking paint or flagging of any kind to find your way.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces – You don’t want to leave an impact on ground that looks untouched. Some ideal, durable surfaces include trails that are already established, campsites, rock, gravel, and snow.
Dispose of waste properly – Remember to leave any place you go cleaner than you found it. This means making sure to take your trash with you when you leave, and making sure to use biodegradable products of any kind.
Minimize campfire impacts – If possible, forego the campfire and simply enjoy the stars. If you do have a campfire, make sure it is small, and that you create it in an established fire ring.
Leave what you find – Hiking isn’t the time to collect firewood or bring home a unique rock that you have found. Let nature remain exactly how you found it, and just take pictures of anything you come across that seems neat.
Respect wildlife – Admire any wildlife you see from a distance, but don’t try to approach an animal or feed it. You don’t want to pose a health risk to yourself or the wildlife.
Be considerate of other visitors – Respect other people’s hiking experiences by being polite if you encounter other people on the trail and keeping the volume of your voice at a reasonable level. If you are camping, give fellow hikers their space in order to let them be able to feel a sense of privacy.
Our nature will only stay beautiful if we know how to preserve and take care of it. Be a responsible hiker, and don’t do anything that will harm our natural resources.
10. Learn the right of way.
Each person has his own right of way. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been hiking for years now or are just a beginner. You need to respect other people’s rights.
What you need to learn, remember, and apply:
Hikers vs. Hikers – Uphill hikers always have the right of way. This is because, typically, hikers going uphill have a smaller field of vision than those who are going downhill, and may also be zoned out, concentrating on their pace. Some uphill hikers let downhill hikers take the right of way while they rest, but that decision is optional on the part of uphill hikers.
Hikers vs. Bikers – Hikers have the right of way, because hikers are basically pedestrians. However, since mountain bikers move faster than hikers, it is often easier for hikers just to step aside and give bikers the right of way.
Because mountain bikers move quickly, hikers should be aware of their surroundings. Experienced mountain bikers will signal their presence by calling out as they descend steep hills or blind turns, and may also let hikers know if there are more bikers behind them.
Hikers vs. Horses – Horses always have the right of way. Equestrians need wider spaces because of the nature of the horses, which are powerful and strong. Don’t make unnecessary abrupt movements, and step off the trail if needed.
While all “right of way” rules are meant to be followed, always use you best judgment to keep everyone as safe as possible. If you have the right of way but it is somehow endangering another hiker or it would be easier for you to step aside, you will want to offer that courtesy to the other person.
11. Learn and follow the “21 hiking rules.”
As a beginner, remember the following rules and take them seriously. They are the fundamental guidelines you need to follow to have a wonderful first hiking experience.
- Plan your hiking adventure well in advance. The more prepared you are, the less likely you will encounter an emergency situation. Do your research and get all of the materials you will need ahead of time.
- Look for a hiking partner or group; never hike alone. This will help ensure your safety and allow you to share resources. A sense of belonging is also a great benefit of hiking.
- Pack the night before, and not hours before. You don’t want to be rushing around at the last, minute going to the store to pick something up or prepping your food. You certainly don’t want to begin your hike in a rushed mood because you had to take care of things at the last minute.
- Pack completely, but pack light. Remember, you will have to carry everything that you bring with you for the entire hike. Only pack what you need.
- Always bring an extra pair of socks. There is nothing worse than having wet feet. Not only is it uncomfortable, it can also lead to blisters and infections.
- Break in your new boots before hiking day. This will help you avoid getting any blisters. It will also allow you to test out your boots to make sure they are right for you.
- Dress appropriately and correctly, following the layering method. Wearing three layers is ideal so you are prepared for any weather. Make sure at least one of your layers is waterproof.
- Never forget your first aid kit. Also, make sure you know how to use it. There is no use in having supplies that you don’t know what to do with.
- Always check the weather announcements before heading out. While they may not always be accurate, you can at least be aware if there is severe weather expected in the area. This will also help you pack appropriately.
- In the case of weather changes, make wise decisions. Turn around immediately if necessary. You don’t want to get caught far away from any type of shelter in an emergency weather situation. This is especially true if it is getting later in the day and you aren’t prepared to spend the night in the outdoors.
- Be prepared for any possible emergency. Disaster can strike at any time, so make sure that you have enough essential supplies to last you a little longer than you’re planning to be out. This includes any prescription medications you take, food, and water.
- Stay dry while hiking. Invest in high-quality rain gear and don’t store your wet and dry items together. Also, maintain your weather gear to keep the waterproofing finish in tact.
- Strategically eat and drink while hiking. You want to keep your body properly fueled and hydrated. Ration out your food to last for the amount of time you are expecting to be out.
- Don’t litter, and leave no trace. Keep nature in its original form so hikers that come after you aren’t left to pick up your mess. You want to preserve the natural environment as much as possible.
- Take care of your feet—they are your treasure when hiking. If you get blisters, the remainder of your hike is going to be miserable. Make sure that your feet are protected at all times.
- Hike at a steady pace—don’t rush. You don’t want to wear yourself out early and then struggle for the remainder of your hike. Know your limits.
- Learn how to use your navigation tools. There is no point in having them if you don’t know how to use them. Your navigation tools can keep you safe and get you out of an emergency situation.
- Let someone from your immediate circle know when and where you are hiking. This will help ensure that someone will notice if you have been gone for an especially long time. The sooner someone notices, the better.
- Bring a camera to capture your first hiking moment. The memories that you bring home should be photographic, not actual pieces of nature. But certainly take a lot of photos so you can remember your experience.
- Bring duct tape for emergency purposes. This can help mend holes in your tent or even cover a blister that may be forming. Duct tape can also help you secure your food bags.
- Learn from the advice of more experienced hikers. Talk to people to find out what challenges they have faced and how they were able to overcome them. Also, learn from other people’s mistakes.
It is so much easier to head out for your first hike if you know the things to organize and consider. Hiking may be a bit difficult at first, but it can be a lot of fun as well if you just know how to prepare.
We hope that these hiking tips for beginners we have provided can help you prepare your first ever hiking trip with your friends or your newfound hiking group.
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