THE FOOLPROOF GUIDE TO HIKING FOR BEGINNERS
For many, hiking is an adventure in exploring the great outdoors, a way to appreciate nature, and the motivation they need for living an active lifestyle. Whether your desire to take up hiking is rooted in one or all of those things, you're already on the right track.
Even if with little to no experience in the great outdoors, learning to hike doesn't require any prior experience. Once you learn the basics, you'll be on the road to gaining a satisfying new hobby.
This guide will help you familiarize yourself with some of the fundamentals of hiking, demonstrating that with minimal supplies and a little training, hiking can be for almost anyone.
The panoramic views and breathtaking landscapes are what draw many people to hiking, but those aren't the only reasons to take up the activity. Immersing yourself in nature through hiking provides convincing benefits to both your physical health and mental well-being.
Whether you are heading out on a short afternoon hike or a day-long excursion, hiking acts as a great low-impact cardio workout. Some of the advantages associated with cardio exercise include (1):
The physical nature of hiking can combat your risk, and actually reverse the effects, of osteoporosis and arthritis (2). By increasing bone density, regular hiking and walking slow down the rate of calcium loss in your bones, making them less likely to break. Hiking is also a weight-bearing exercise and promotes the strengthening of your bones and muscles.
Hitting the trail offers numerous benefits to your mental well-being such as reducing stress and anxiety, improving your mood and memory, and preventing depression (3). It has even been found to help your brain think more creatively and develop better problem-solving skills. Here are the specifics of just how hiking helps improve your mental state:
Stress and Anxiety Reduction. Walking long distances helps to pacify negative thinking and can alleviate the anxiety you feel when reflecting back on stressful situations (4).
Mood and Memory Improvement. Interacting with nature for as little as one hour boosts your cognitive abilities, increasing your mood and your memory span (5).
Creative Thinking and Enhanced Problem-Solving. Research shows that walking instead of sitting is more conducive to generating new ideas (6). You can increase your creative output by as much as 60% when you hike (7). Additionally, time spent outdoors improves your brain’s ability to solve problems, increasing your attention span by as much as 50% (8).
Hiking not only improves your body and mind, but it's also a chance for you to bond with loved ones, make new friends, and escape the grind of your everyday routine.
Some of the factors to consider when choosing the right hike are elevation, rating, and difficulty. Before you start deciding on a trail, however, you need to start by determining your current fitness level. Be honest with yourself about your capabilities, and if you have any medical concerns, talk to your physician before you begin.
Knowing and understanding your fitness level and health status will help you decide the hike most suited to your abilities.
Most hiking trails are classified by a general system to help you determine if it’s suitable for your circumstances.
Easy: Well-maintained, oftentimes paved trail with little or no elevation gain. Suitable for most ages.
Moderate: Steadier elevation gains combined with rougher terrain that may have roots or other obstacles. Suitable for physically fit people.
Strenuous: Steep ascents with a long, challenging route with rocky terrain that could contain debris. Generally a full-day hike. Suitable for experienced hikers that are physically fit.
Difficult: Long and rugged trail usually in a remote location. Requires multiple days to complete. Suitable only for expert hikers in peak physical condition.(source)
It is equally important to understand the type of trail you are setting out on. Here is a guide to common hiking terminology you might find when reviewing a trail's description:
Loop: A hike that begins and ends at the same point. Sometimes referred to as a circuit trail.
Out and Back: Takes you to a particular destination, usually a lookout point, lake, or waterfall, and then back along the same trail to get back to your starting point. The distance listed on the hike is generally to the end and back again. Sometimes called an in-and-out trail.
Point-to-Point: A hike that is designed to be walked from one point to another, generally too much time to return to your starting point. This kind of destination trail can be fun but usually, requires you to be dropped off at your point of departure and then picked up once you’ve reached your destination.
Day Trail: A short trail that can be completed in less than a day.
Long Distance Trail: A trail that takes more than a day to complete and usually has areas along the way for camping where you must pack in your own water, food, and supplies. Sometimes called a backpacking trail.
Most National and State Parks often have websites with details of the marked trails, including maps, distances, difficulty ratings and expected durations. Alternatively, we highly recommend taking a look at AllTrails.com which allows you to search for hikes in your area and filters to help find one suitable.
This can make starting out safer. You could take a friend or family member along or use resources to meet other hikers in your area through local social groups.
Before hitting the trail, consider a walk through one of your city’s parks. Most parks feature paved walking paths and well-maintained vegetation which can allow you to practice before heading out on a more remote trail. Your city’s parks department offers more information.
When setting out on the trail, make sure you leave enough time to return to your starting point well before sunset. Factor in that you may need additional time to locate trail markers and deal with unplanned obstacles, especially if it's a trail you’re unfamiliar with.
Most hikes have a map posted clearly at the trailhead. However, it’s best to plan ahead and have your own map printed off and with directions written down if necessary.
Choosing appropriate footwear and apparel is an essential aspect of planning your hike. From top to bottom, what you wear on your hike can mean the difference between having the time of your life or being miserable, or even worse, putting your life in danger.
Your footwear is easily the most important thing to consider before you begin your hike. Keep in mind that regular running shoes don’t provide the necessary traction for stabilizing you on an uneven or rocky terrain. Before you head out to select a pair of hiking shoes or boots, be prepared to answer the following questions:
Depending on what kind of hiking you’ll be doing, there are a few different footwear options to consider.
Offering less support than boots, hiking shoes or sneakers are best suited to well-defined trails and short hikes. Hiking shoes won’t carry a lot of weight, meaning your body will have to make up for the weight your shoes aren’t supporting. Since they are lightweight, hiking shoes are best suited for summer weather as they are usually well-ventilated.
Sturdier and more supportive, hiking boots feature stiffer construction and offer more ankle support. As a trade off, they are typically much heavier than hiking shoes. For longer hikes and rough terrain, hiking boots provide the most protection. We have reviewed nine of the best Hiking & Backpacking Boots on the market to help you choose the most suitable for you.
Suitable for even the roughest of terrains, backpacking boots are best for multi-day hikes. They feature thick outsoles and are built to withstand most weather conditions, although they do require a longer break-in period.
If you’re going to be hiking on wet or muddy trails, look for shoes that feature waterproof materials. For excessively rocky terrain, select boots that offer good ankle support. Once you’ve chosen the right footwear, you may want to supplement with a good set of insoles for additional comfort and support.
Select socks that are made of wool or a synthetic material that are water-resistant. Choose lightweight, ankle-height socks for hiking in dry weather. If you are hiking in cold or wet conditions, wear insulated midweight socks. Ultimately, your hiking conditions will determine the best socks you should use.
To help you choose suitable socks, we run the rule over six brands in our review of the best hiking socks on the market.
When setting out on your hike, remember to prepare for any weather. It’s always a good idea to bring along a hat, gloves, and a jacket. Here are some essential clothing items and guidelines to dressing for the outdoors.
As the temperature changes throughout the day, you’ll need to be prepared for adding or removing layers.
Base Layer: For mostly warm weather, start with a synthetic material t-shirt and shorts. For cold-weather hiking incorporate long underwear. Make sure your base shirt is comfortable and made of a breathable fabric.
Insulating Layer: An insulating layer keeps you warm when the air is chilly. A fleece jacket or wool sweater are good choices.
Waterproof Layer: Even if you aren’t expecting rain, it’s best to pack a good waterproof rain jacket or windbreaker and waterproof pants. A poncho can also come in handy for dealing with unexpected downpours.
For low-altitude summertime hikes, shorts are your best bet and give you the ultimate comfortability. If you’ll be walking through a thick brush area, pants will protect your legs the most. When in doubt, a good pair of convertible pants will have you covered for any circumstance. Quick-drying fabrics like nylon or spandex will keep you comfortable.
In the summer, a baseball cap keeps your face protected from the sun, but a wide-brimmed hat will protect your ears as well. For rainy conditions, a full-brimmed, water-repellent hat will keep your head warm and keep rain out of your face.
Above all else, avoid cotton apparel. While cotton might seem like a practical fabric choice, it’s not suitable for hiking. When cotton gets damp, from absorbing sweat or rain water, it will trap the cold against your skin which can result in hypothermia. So leave your denim jeans at home and opt instead for fabrics like nylon, silk, or wool.
The length of hike you’re planning will determine what type of equipment and quantity of supplies you’ll need to take along with you. Once you are out on the trail, you are responsible for your own safety, which means packing the proper essentials.
There are 10 basic items that all hikers should carry on them, no matter what distance they'll be hiking. Every hiker should be familiar with, and know how to use, these 10 essential supplies before heading out into the wilderness:
1. Navigation. A map and compass are two items every hiker should carry. Electronic GPS units and smartphone navigation are all handy, but you need a non-electronic back-up to be safe. Learning to read a compass along with basic map-reading skills are vitally important in the event you become lost in the outdoors.
2. Sun Protection. This includes sunscreen, sunglasses, hats and protective clothing. Sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 will protect your skin against UVA and UVB rays and should be applied every two hours. Don’t forget to use lip balm with sun protection as well. Sunglasses are an indispensable item and protect you during the summer and in the winter from snow blindness.
3. Insulation. Weather is unpredictable and can turn on you without much warning. Carrying an additional layer of clothing and extra pair of socks protects you in the event of unexpected exposure to the elements.
4. Illumination. Every member of your hiking party should carry their own light, be it a headlamp, flashlight, or a packable lantern. Headlamps are small, lightweight, and allow handsfree operation. Selecting a headlamp with a strobe option is optimal for emergency situations, as this feature will extend the battery life. But always make sure to pack extra batteries with you just in case. We've reviewed a selection of lighting options to help you choose the most suitable option for you.
5. First-Aid Supplies. When starting out, it’s best to choose a pre-assembled first-aid kit that will come with all the basic essentials. As you spend more time in the outdoors, you’ll have a better understanding of some of your needs and be able to put together a more customized kit for yourself. You should also carry a compact medical emergency guide that provides instructions for proper first-aid.
6. Fire. Mechanical lighters are convenient, but you should always carry matches in your supplies as well. Look for waterproof matches that are intended for wilderness use and store them in a sealed container. Also, pack some dry tinder that you can use for firestarter if the need arises. You can’t always count on dry firestarter being available in the outdoors.
7. Repair Kit and Tools. For quick fixes, first-aid, and even food preparation, a multi-tool or pocket knife is a lifesaver. When selecting a basic multi-tool, look for one that includes a sharp blade, screwdrivers, can opener, and scissors. Duct tape and nylon cord are also handy items to keep with you for use in survival situations.
8. Nutrition. When packing food, include high-energy items such as protein bars, nuts and seeds, and jerky. As a rule, bring at least one extra day’s worth of nutrition per person.
9. Hydration. Each person should bring at least one water bottle and collapsible water reservoir. Water treatment tabs or a purification filter should also be brought along. Consult your map to locate water sources, and always restock your water supply when water is available.
10. Emergency Shelter. While you might not think this is an essential for setting out on a day hike, you never know when you might become lost or injured and forced to spend a night exposed to the elements. Packing a tarp, weights, and an emergency blanket can keep you safe from wind, rain, and cold if the situation arises.
In addition to these top ten essentials, there are a few other items you may want to consider bringing along if you have enough room in your pack:
Whistle: To summon help in an emergency situation.
Toilet Paper: Can also double as firestarter.
A Garbage Bag: You can also use a plastic grocery bag for carrying out any garbage you create or find.
Insect Repellant: Lotions or sprays should contain DEET or picaridin.
A Trowel: To sanitarily dispose of human waste.
Entertainment: Bring a small book, journal, or sketchpad to enjoy once you’ve reached your destination.
Since you won’t be traveling with too many items for a day-long hike, a small backpack should accommodate most of your essentials - to help sort the wheat from the chaff, we've tested seven of the best hiking daypacks on the market.
Down the road, when you become more involved in hiking you can invest in larger backpacks more suitable for multi-day excursions.
Embarking on a new hike is exciting and intriguing, and since by now, you know most of the basics, it’s time to go over a few tips and tricks that are both useful and practical.
Pay attention. Be observant of your surroundings, if you are distracted by talking with others, fatigue, or wearing headphones, you risk twisting an ankle or hurting yourself worse. Watching your feet can also prevent you from stepping on any poisonous wildlife such as rattlesnakes.
Tell someone where you’re going. Even if you are hiking in a group, make sure to leave a trip plan with a friend or relative. Inform them of where you will be when you plan to be back, what route you’ll be taking, and where you’ll be parking your car.
Reduce weight by repackaging. Keeping your pack as lightweight as possible will conserve more of your energy during the hike. Pour liquids like sunscreen and insect repellents into smaller containers and remove prepackaged food items from their boxes.
Pace yourself. When you first start out on the trail, it can be tempting to power ahead quickly. Even if your hike starts out easy, pacing yourself will preserve the stamina you need to complete the trail. Once you near the end of your hike, you’ll be glad you saved your energy.
Prevent swelling. It’s not uncommon for your hands to swell when hiking. To prevent swelling, raise your hands up as much as possible. Holding on to the straps of your pack or using trek poles can help.
Clean up. When you get home, it’s important to take a hot shower in case you have come into contact with any poisonous plants. Additionally, after hiking in a heavily wooded area, you’ll want to give yourself a good thorough check for ticks.
Learn a correlating skill. The easiest way to enhance your hiking experience is to learn a new skill that will be useful in the outdoors. Plant identification, wildlife tracking, photography, and bird watching are all hobbies that can gradually be learned during hikes and increase your appreciation for nature.
While not every new hiker falls victim to these common mistakes, knowledge is half the battle. Being aware of the most typical hiking blunders means you’ll be prepared to set out on the trail avoiding disaster.
Wearing new boots. You just got yourself a new pair of hiking boots and can’t wait to try them out on the trail. A new pair of boots though, will be stiff and cause your feet some serious soreness and blistering, potentially ruining your hike. It’s best to break in your new boots by wearing them around the house for a couple of weeks before hitting the trail with them.
Neglecting to check the weather. Doing a little research ahead of time can save you from hiking in unsafe conditions like thunder and lightening. While hiking in the rain isn’t generally an issue, if you are planning a shorter hike, you’ll be able to plan your timing around the weather.
Forgetting to stretch first. Before setting out, you’ll want to do some loosening up to prevent sore muscles. Do a few routine stretches to help prevent day-after soreness.
Forgetting to eat or drink. It’s never a good idea to wait until you’re already thirsty to drink water. You should take a drink every half hour at a minimum. Likewise, rather than putting off lunch until you reach your destination, you should snack along the way to keep your energy up.
Going off-trail. While there are ways to safely practice off-trail hiking, it requires specific planning. Hiking off-trail, including taking “shortcuts,” is one of the easiest ways to get yourself lost or injured.
Packing too much. For your first day hike, it’s advisable to just stick with the 10 essentials and a few extra supplies. Evaluate the contents and weight of each item in your pack and ditch anything that isn’t necessary. Extra supplies will only weigh you down and cause you to get tired faster.
Feeding the wildlife. Whether intentionally or accidentally, feeding animals in the wilderness can change their foraging habits. It can also cause animals to associate humans with food, which comes with unintended consequences. Store and dispose of your food properly to prevent wild animals from accessing it.
There are few common-sense guidelines that will allow you to enjoy the trail, maintain the trail for others, and preserve nature as it should be.
Pack it in, pack it out. This longstanding rule of Leave No Trace is self-explanatory. For the sake of future enjoyment, leave nature how you found it. You shouldn’t leave without everything you brought with you.
Don’t create noise pollution. Most people hike to get away from the noise of civilization and enjoy the sounds of nature. Speak quietly and turn your cell phone’s noise down. If you plan on listening to music, wear headphones, so you aren’t disturbing the peace for others.
Be mindful of where you “go.” If you have to relieve yourself while out in nature, ensure that you’re at least 200 feet away from water sources and trails where others are walking. Bury your waste in the dirt and pack out used toilet paper in a plastic bag to dispose of later.
Share the trail. When going downhill, yield to hikers going uphill. Cyclists should yield to foot traffic, and if you encounter any horseback riders on the trail, as a hiker, you should yield to the horses. When hiking with a group, remember not to take up the entire width of the trail. Hiking single-file will allow others to pass. When hiking a wider path, stay to the right, reserve the left for passing.
Abide by local regulations. Read the guidelines posted at the trailhead. Often, individual trails will have rules and regulations specific to that area or the particular season.
Be courteous. When encountering other hikers, it’s customary to acknowledge them with a greeting or smile. Most people enjoying the outdoors are friendly, and it’s considered good manners, and part of fostering a positive atmosphere, to recognize others along the trail.
Take care of your pet. If you bring your dog along on your hike, remember to keep it leashed at all times. Keeping your dog under control is vital to making sure your pet is safe on the trail. Don’t forget to also dispose of your pet’s waste instead of leaving it along the path or in the woods.
By now you’re well-versed in all the basics and ready to get out there and have some adventures. For more guidelines and information, here are some sources for expanding your growing knowledge of the world of hiking.
1. Circulation Medical Journal's article on Exercise and Cardiovascular Health
2. American Hiking Society's leaflet on "Health Benefits of Hiking"
3. Stanford Researchers find link between mental health & nature.
4. PNAS find link between nature and reduced anxiety.
5. Interaction with Nature improves Cognition and Affect for people with depression.
6. Postive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking - Stanford University.
7. Stanford finds walking improves creativity
8. Improving creative reasoning through immersion in Nature - PLOS
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In an age when everyone seems to be locked to their small blue screens, I am vehemently passionate about getting more people outside to enjoy the wonder of nature. I grew up with the outdoors on my doorstep, and when I headed off to university I picked a degree in geology that allowed me to spend a lot of time outside on field trips! Over the last 30 years, I have camped or hiked through the wilderness on 5 continents. I hope my posts are informative for both the grizzled veteran and the complete novice alike.