Category Archives for Hiking Fundamentals

How to use trekking poles title

How to use Trekking Poles

HOW TO USE TREKKING POLES 

HOW TO USE TREKKING POLES

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

Trekking pole use for hiking, walking, and backpacking is a given for most experienced outdoor travelers, yet we often see new hikers hesitant to bring them along. Whether it’s a misunderstanding of how they are used, lack of knowledge on their benefits, or simply an ‘I don’t need those’ mindset, we see many hikers choosing to hit the trail without them.

Unfortunately, this is one of the most common mistakes made by beginner backpackers and hikers. Trekking or hiking poles reduce fatigue on your joints, provide additional stability in challenging terrain, and can even be combined with shelters to create multi-purpose use.

Check out our tips below on why you should be using trekking poles, how to use them properly, and when to adapt their set-up for various terrain.

Want to Know How to Use Hiking Poles Correctly?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

  • check
    The benefits of using walking sticks
  • check
    How to setup your poles correctly
  • check
    How to use walking poles correctly
  • check
    How to adjust them for different terrains
  • How to use trekking poles correctly

Do

  • check
    Adjust your poles to the proper length before hiking
  • check
    Use the wrist straps for reducing hand/wrist fatigue
  • check
    Adapt your pole technique to the terrain
  • check
    Know basic maintenance for handling problems on the trail
  • check
    Remember to use the proper tip (carbide for soft soils and rubber for rocky surfaces)

Don't

  • Assume that trekking poles are unnecessary
  • exclamation-circle
    Just ‘set and forget’ the length
  • exclamation-circle
    Be afraid to commit some weight to the poles while hiking - that’s what they are for

Benefits of Using Trekking Poles

If you hope to enjoy your time on the trail for many years and many miles, take a closer look at the benefits found whilst hiking with trekking poles. Using poles early and often may be one of the simplest ways you can extend your body’s ability to hike.

Further Hiking & Backpacking Reading

If you are new to the world of hiking or backpacking then check out our hiking 101 guide, or alternatively, get started on your prep by going through our guides on what to bring hiking or for longer trips, our backpacking gear checklist.

Stability

It’s no secret that the terrain you, often, find yourself hiking through can be rocky, rooty, steep, and uneven. Never ending paths of awkward foot placements make ankle twisting slips and falls very common.

The use of trekking poles, however, greatly increases your steadiness and reduces the likelihood of a bad fall while on the trail. Once you cross your first stream with the aid of trekking poles, you’ll never look back!

mature backpacker on a mountain ridge in hiking tights

Reduced joint fatigue

When hiking without trekking poles, your feet, legs, and knees take a beating with every step. Just imagine how quickly that impact can add up over the course of many miles. For many, this can result in sore, fatigued joints or debilitating overuse injuries like tendonitis.  

Take advantage of the shock absorption found in most quality hiking poles to help lessen the impact your joints experience while hiking, particularly on downhill sections which can be rough on knees.

Pro Tip: Trekking Pole Maintenance

Wiping down your trekking poles after every trip and clearing the tension adjustments of mud and debris will greatly extend the life of your poles.

Additionally, take the time to learn about your their internal components. Many common problems experienced on the trail, such as a pole section not locking in place, are easy fixes with just a little know-how.

More balanced fitness   

If you’ve ever witnessed the toned calves of a thru-hiker, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that consistent hiking will strengthen your legs considerably.  Why not spread the workout to your upper body for full-body fitness?

Distributing some of the impact force from the ground through your poles and the arms holding them, not only minimizes joint fatigue in the legs but, also, helps to build fitness in your arms. The extra boost from pole planting will allow you to move quickly while toning arm muscles.

100% legs = tired feet, ankles, knees

70% legs + 30% arms = less fatigue, better full-body balance

How to Correctly Size Your Trekking Poles

Determining pole length

The length at which you set your hiking poles (if adjustable) will depend on the terrain you plan to hike. Generally, you’ll want to look for a 90° angle formed at your elbow when holding the handle of your trekking poles, tips placed next to your feet. This will provide the ideal support position for hiking, while still maintaining natural movement of your arms.

For lengthy, uphill sections of trail, it is recommended that you shorten the length of your poles (1” to 4” depending on gradient). This results in a more powerful pole plant helping to boost you onward and upward.

Woman hiking in trail of stones

Long, downhill segments require a longer pole height to better aid with stabilization and shock absorption. This small change in the length of your poles can be critical for joint protection when gravity is pulling you down fast.

Proper wrist strap use

Improper strap use is something we, frequently, encounter out on the trail. Here are a few tips to ensure that you are attaching yourself to your trekking poles in the correct manner.

Many hiking pole styles are designed for wrist strap adjustability via a small, removable block located at the top of the handle. Confirm that yours are set properly - wide enough that you can easily slide your hand up through them yet small enough that you still feel slight tension from the strap while holding the handle.

  • 1
    Slide your hand up through the strap from behind the pole’s grip
  • 2
    Grip the handle of your trekking pole - the strap should now be running down, between your thumb and forefinger into your palm and around the back of your wrist
  • 3
    Make sure that there are no extra twists in the strap and that the webbing sits flush against your skin
  • 4
    If you let go of the pole it should fall down out of your hand

Techniques for Using Trekking Poles

You may not recognize it at first, but there are, actually, several strategies behind the method and rhythm to which you swing your poles forward. Knowing the differences before you hit the trail will help in determining which may work best for you. Ultimately, your goal should be to develop a rhythm with your hiking poles so that they act and feel like an extension of your body’s natural movement.

A hiker pauses for a rest at a clearing while ascending into the mountains

Where to plant poles

It is commonly recommended to plant trekking poles opposite your forward leg (right pole plant when the left foot is forward and vice versa), providing maximum stability while matching the natural inclination of our arm movement whilst walking. I find it limiting, however, to say that this is how you should always do it.

In fact, I routinely prefer the opposite strategy of placing poles next to the foot with which I am stepping. This method provides greater joint support and helps with propulsion forward.

I, often, find myself switching between the two methods throughout a hike based on my rhythm and the terrain. My point here is that there are a time and place for both methods, with neither being the only ‘right’ way. Keep the below comparison in mind and practice both to determine which works best for you:

Planting trekking pole with...

...Same Leg

...Opposite Leg

Greater propulsion/speed

Better overall stability

Increased joint support

More natural motion

Moving them forward

As you move forward with each solid pole plant, raise your forearm slightly to allow the trekking pole to swing forward ready for its next plant. This should be a subtle, natural movement with the arms and less of a noticeable pickup and throw forward.

  

Terrain Considerations

Stream crossings

Using trekking poles when fording rivers and streams is a great way to add stability to your frame within moving current. Face upstream if the current is strong and maintain a tripod position as you shuffle sideways through the water. Don’t forget to use your poles as a way to probe upcoming rocks or other underwater hazards that may not be visible from above the surface.

Steep terrain

As we mentioned earlier, experienced trekking pole users will alter the length of their poles when hiking straight up or downhill. You will want to set a shorter length for ascending and a longer one for descending. When going uphill, try to incorporate a solid pole plant and arm push to better launch (that is what it feels like when you time it correctly!) yourself over trail obstacles.

When traveling through steep, downhill terrain or rock stairs we, often, find it more comfortable to place our hands on top of the grips. Establish both poles on the lower level before stepping down. This is a great way to reduce impact experienced by your joints when your entire body weight comes crashing down onto the next step.

Winter hike

Snow

One of the best adjustments you can make when using trekking poles in deep snow is to add a large diameter basket near the tip. This prevents the tip from sinking too deep and provides better traction. You may also want to shorten the length of your poles in deep snow.

Rocky surfaces

If you will be hiking over trails that feature long sections of bedrock or consistent boulder hopping, you will benefit from adding rubber feet onto the tips of each pole. Without them, you will find that your pole’s carbide tip frequently slips upon planting your it onto a rocky surface

Additional Hiking Pole Uses

Every good hiker or backpacker knows that the best gear items are those that have multiple uses. Consider these clever ways in which you can, also, incorporate trekking poles.

Shelter support

Trekking poles are a great way to support your tent or tarp each night while backpacking, especially since you will already have them with you on most trips (hopefully, we’ve convinced you of this by now!). This is a popular strategy amongst ultralight backpackers because it eliminates the need to carry folding, aluminum poles designed only for use with a tent. This Stratospire 2, from Tarptent, is a great example of a shelter that incorporates the support of trekking poles.  

Pro Tip: Protect Your Gear

It wouldn’t be much fun to retrieve your nice camping tent from a gear duffel only to find it has been punctured by the sharp tip of your trekking poles, which you stored in the same place.

Make sure that the sharp, carbide tip on your trekking poles is properly covered with a rubber pad before shoving them in with other gear.  

Depth or surface condition testing

Have you ever hopped off a rock without knowing whether the mud in front of you was a negligible ¼ inch deep or a shoe-ruining 6 inches? What about leaping onto a rock while crossing a creek unsure of its stability?

Eliminate the mystery of unknown terrain by probing with your trekking poles. We, commonly, check things like mud or snow depth, rock stability, and even tap logs we’re about to step on in hopes of scaring critters away before our foot is on top of their home.

Emergency splinting

Trekking poles can serve as the critical support necessary for creating a splint commonly used for serious sprains or bone fractures experienced while on the trail. If you’ve ever taken a wilderness first-aid class or read through what you should carry in a backpacking first aid kit, you’re familiar with the need to sometimes improvise emergency medical supplies in a backcountry setting.

hiking injury

Trekking poles were the most commonly used item for improvising splints during scenarios throughout my training as a Wilderness First Responder.

Bushwacking

Trekking poles are really nice to have when hiking through areas that have dense vegetation or heavy foliage. For some reason, we seem to prefer moving branches and foliage out of our path with poles rather than our faces.

Camera monopod

Any skilled photographer knows the importance of stabilizing the camera for obtaining crisp images worthy of sharing. Consider purchasing a small handle accessory that turns a trekking pole into a convenient monopod for better photos.

Bear awareness

When hiking in bear country, we will routinely tap our hiking poles together for extra noise in hopes of alerting a bear or other large predator that we are coming. This is, particularly comforting when hiking around blind corners and is a lot less annoying than bear bells.

RELATED GEAR REVIEWS

GEAR GUIDES

INDIVIDUAL PRODUCT REVIEWS

Rock Cairns Title

Mountains Out of Trail Markers? The Controversy About Rock Cairns

MOUNTAINS OUT OF TRAIL MARKERS? THE CONTROVERSY ABOUT ROCK CAIRNS

MOUNTAINS OUT OF TRAIL MARKERS? THE ONGOING CONTROVERSY ABOUT ROCK CAIRNS

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

The work of wise men or the litter-like leavings of hill-wandering nitwits? The debate over the use and abuse of rock cairns is one that rages on.

In the past, the issue was usually the preserve of mountaineering clubs, trekking groups, and the odd disgruntled, cranky purist. At biannual meetings it was one of the items that, despite a few ruffled feathers, was generally passed onto the next one without any conclusive decision being made on the matter.

These days the topic has become something of a polemic, having gained greater notice and attention owing to a number of incidents and the sheer volume of cairns now bedecking our hill and mountainsides. Cairns are fast becoming, some claim, not only a bit of an eyesore but also an ecological concern and potential health hazard.

Cairn on Beinn Eighe

Rock cairn on Beinn Eighe

So, just how did these once inoffensive, handy waymarkers come to be regarded by some as a serious contender to the love of money for the title of The Root of All Evil? And what are we to take from the controversy and all its kerfuffle? Use them or ignore them? Build them or leave no trace?

In this article, we’re going to take a wander through the improbably high-profile world of rock cairns, stopping off to explain how to use them, when to ignore them, and also, of course, to shed some light on what all the fuss is about.

Before that, let’s have a little sneak preview of the main points we’ll cover.

Do

  • check
    Take each and every cairn with a pinch of salt — in many locations distinguishing a bona fide waymarker from a bogus one is a tricky business
  • check
    Stop and reassess your whereabouts if you think rock cairns might be leading you in the wrong direction
  • check
    Respect the rules concerning cairn building set by national parks and other authorities
  • check
    Feel free to regale those who leave litter in and around cairns with the most colorful language in your vocabulary (!)

Don't

  • Rely solely on cairns for navigation — always carry a map, compass and/or GPS device
  • exclamation-circle
    Be tempted to add new rocks to existing cairns
  • exclamation-circle
    Build rock cairns for fun, commemorative purposes, or ‘decorative’ purposes

Rock Cairns? What Gives?

When informed that the most heated debate in the hiking world at present concerns the assemblage of small rock piles in wild and mountainous areas, most non-enthusiasts are fairly nonplussed. Even for those of us who are regular outdoor-goers and familiar with the controversy, the cases of the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps can easily lead to a spot cognitive dissonance when assessing the merits of their arguments.

To better understand those arguments and provide a little background to the issue, let’s first take a quick look at the rock cairn’s rise from humble beginnings to international infamy*.

*Kinda…

A Short History of Rock Cairns

Etymology

The term ‘cairn’ is one of Scotland’s greatest linguistic contributions to the English language, second only to the now ubiquitous ‘wee’, ‘blackmail’ and, of course, ‘whisky’. The name derives from the Gaelic ‘carn’, meaning ‘stone mound’, ‘heap of stones’, or ‘rocky hill’.

Origins

The oldest remaining examples of cairns were sepulchral constructions built to inter and commemorate the dead. The most famous examples are perhaps the Clava Cairns in Scotland and the Cairn de Barnenez in Brittany, France, which have been dated to 2,000 BC and 4,850 BC respectively.

Cairn on Cairngorm

A rock cairn sitting atop Cairngorm Mountain, Scottish Cairngorms

When cairns were first used for navigation purposes is largely unknown, but accounts from early expeditions in the Himalaya, Hindu Kush, European Alps, Karakorum, and South America all made mention of cairns which were explicitly used to demarcate routes.

In Scotland, rock cairns were (and still are) customarily constructed on hill and mountaintops by picking up a stone at the foot of the hill and depositing it on the summit, as described in more detail in this article from Cairns of Scotland.

Rock Cairns Today

These days, rock cairns are fairly ubiquitous. Even in zones where trails are commonly waymarked by painted panels (blazes) or signposts, the cairn lives on and is thriving despite its detractors and stiff competition from officially endorsed, newfangled equivalents.

Chortens in the Khumbu Region, Ama Dablam in Background

Chortens in the Khumbu Region, Ama Dablam in Background

The pleas and prohibitions of many park and land management authorities, as well as activist groups, have done little to stall the infectious proliferation and spread of cairns in wild places worldwide. From the Wadi Rum to New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego to the Drakensberg range, thousands of hikers every year still navigate by this most rudimentary of human technologies, and a substantial percentage, we’d imagine, still play a part in their construction.  

Perhaps the most famous cairn in the hiking and mountaineering world is the Gilkey Memorial at the foot of K2, built to commemorate Art Gilkey, a member of 1953 US expedition to the world’s second highest mountain.

And the world’s highest summit cairn? Despite the obvious inconvenience and other notable distractions, even Everest’s summiteers aren’t averse to a spot of cairn building (even if it’s barely visible through all the prayer flags).

The Rock Cairns Controversy - Squabbling Over Stones

The debate about rock cairns is not a new one. In recent years, however, opponents of unauthorized and willy-nilly bump-builders have become more vocal-slash-irate than ever before. As increasing traffic in wild areas has resulted in the construction of more and more cairns in almost every wild corner of the globe, the number of disputants has grown with them. In locations as diverse as Arizona, Iceland, Acadia, Wales, and Australia, their fury has been aired in newspapers, on websites, television, and, no doubt, many a hillside. Resultantly, an equally vociferous faction of proponents of rock cairns has emerged to defend their place in our wild areas. But what’s the beef all about?

The ‘For’ Camp: Why We (Might) Need Rock Cairns

Navigation

The purpose of rock cairns since time immemorial has been as a navigational aid for travelers in wild areas. Whenever we get lost, we see a cairn and — in theory — can then easily get ourselves back on track. Even if we aren’t lost, cairns make for a handy means of hassle-free travel, almost like a large-scale, real-life, outdoor version of connect-the-dots.

Hiker heading to cairn

A hiker heading towards a cairn through a snowfield

In the days of multiple heinous threats to the earth’s beloved wild places, to many minds cairns are a very slight intrusion on the natural environment in comparison. Low-tech and low-key, they stand as a largely unobtrusive alternative to the painted blazes, gaudy signposts, and theme-park-like placards found on many trails around the world.

To others who are less assured in their use of a map and compass, cairns are often blessed beacons that guide the way out of many a potential jam. Their presence, some might add, can also allow non-hikers to enjoy the occasional hike without fear of getting lost (this, however, may cause as many problems as it solves). 

‘Artistic’ Merit and Ecosystem Protection

Two of the most sizable bones of contention wielded against cairn building have been their blight on natural scenery and damage to fragile ecosystems. These claims are countered, however, by those who contend that cairn-building is a valid art-form and also helps to keep hikers on a single route, thereby reducing deviations which may cause more damage to off-trail soil and vegetation.

stones-1994691_1920

A rock cairn created for artistic purposes

So, given their practicality, helpfulness, and possible artistic value, just how did rock cairns come to be the outdoor community’s answer to the question of gun control, Brexit, and/or the Pepsi vs. Coke debate? Alas, for every argument in favor of building cairns, there is an equally, if not more, valid one against doing so…

The ‘Against’ Camp

Misdirection

Seeing a cairn a few hundred meters ahead of you on the trail can be a comfort and reassurance, particularly if you’re hiking in heavy rain, snow, fog, or unfamiliar territory. But what if there are two, situated in opposing directions? Which one is legit and which was built by bored hikers to amuse themselves during a lunch break or breather? What, moreover, if there are eight?

Cairns, useful in fog

Cairns, useful in fog

The problem with the ‘little men’, perhaps, is that they don’t speak…

Many of us have had a ‘what the…?’ moment out in the backcountry when encountering a lonesome cairn or collection of cairns that appear to serve no purpose and lead to no obvious destination. Many times, this is not a big issue — we do a quick recon, consult our map, or lose a few minutes reestablishing our bearings otherwise. Other times, it can be nigh on deadly, as described in this thread by hikers and climbers descending on Italy/Switzerland’s iconic Piz Badile, and in this article on Scotland’s Ben Nevis, where cairns have recently been blamed for the deaths of numerous hikers.

Visual Impact

As mentioned above, one of the main charges being leveled against rock cairns is their aesthetic imprint, with some going so far as to call them ‘natural graffiti’, acts of ‘vandalism’, and ‘pointless reminders of the human ego’.

Wow.

But maybe they have a point…

rock-cairns-isle-skye

A collection of 'artistic' rock cairns on the Isle of Skye

In popular mountainous areas, in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to find sections of trail where rock cairns are not visible, and others where maybe a dozen or more form an untidy coterie of blemishes on an otherwise entirely natural landscape.

Given that the original raison d'être for rock cairns in wild places was purely to provide directions where established trails were less visible, the above criticisms seem fairly valid. Also, cairns tend to stand as unofficial rest stops or staging points on many routes, and nowadays it’s not uncommon to find litter scattered around the cairns or wedged between the rocks.  

Cairn stop

A cairn break stop

How each of us view the visual impact of rocks cairns is undoubtedly subjective and, of course, maybe not immune to the influence of relativity. Those used to built-up areas may deem the visual intrusion slight compared to the concrete behemoths found in the city. Those from rural areas, or who call any given wild area ‘home’, may be more likely to take umbrage at that area’s increasing embellishment.

Environmental Impact

Those of us who have added our contribution to rock cairns at any point have no doubt done so carrying an exculpation at the back of our minds. Just one little rock, we think, isn’t going to do much harm. If, however, X amount of people think likewise times 365 days per year, that’s a lot of rock!

Despite appearances to the untrained eye, rocks are both habitats and preservers of habitats.

Displacing rocks to build cairns increases erosion by exposing the soil underneath, which both damages trails and in turn increases the risk, in some areas, of landslides and flooding in the valleys below.

Landslide in forest dirt road and warning sign.

Landslide blocking a forest dirt road.

Also, given that many rare mosses, larvae, lichens, flies, snails, fungi, and plants all call rocks their home, our seemingly negligible act could amount to something of a genocide or mass diaspora for our one little rock’s minute inhabitants. The slogan ‘leave no trace’ tends to leave room for thoughts that certain behaviors are okay so long as they are hidden or unseen. While the intended meaning of the counsel holds true, it’s best complemented by the more conscientious and responsible addendum ‘do no harm’.

Navigational Nonchalance

Another oft-cited drawback of rock cairns is their potential to inspire an overly lax and casual approach to navigation. Many hikers and non-hikers alike all too often head to wild areas assuming that the presence of rock cairns eliminates the need for proficiency in the use of a map and compass. While this may well be the case on clear days and where rock cairns are well positioned, in poor visibility or where they are not it could prove to be a fatal mistake.

Pro Tip: Using Rocks as a Compass

For navigation purposes, observe which way rime or ice forms on cairns. Rime usually forms on the windward side, so if you know the prevailing wind direction you can establish the four cardinal directions without a compass. 

Also, if cairns have moss on one side and not the other, the chances are the mossy side is the north side (in the northern hemisphere; vice versa in the south).

lichen and snow on rocks

Who Should Build Rock Cairns? and Why?

Editorial Two Cents’ Worth

Personally, I’m of the opinion that rock cairns would be lovely additions to our city streets, squares, sidewalks, and offices, but are superfluous adornments to our wild places when exceeding the bare minimum required for navigation. There’s no doubting the utility of rock cairns, as long as their construction and placement are carefully managed so as to avoid any disastrous deviations from the route.

The most convincing, if terse, rebuttal to the claims of the pro-cairn-building faction should, perhaps, stress the fact that mountainous, wild terrain presents enough variables and natural hazards without adding man-made ones to the mix in the form of errant waymarkers. The common sense answer to the issue where safety is concerned, therefore, might read something along the lines of the following: keep the babies, throw out the bathwater.

Trailless path

With regard to the visual impact of rock cairns, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to suggest that earth’s natural spaces face enough man-made threats to their purity and wildness without any further blows being dealt by the impromptu handiwork of self-appointed beautifiers. In constructions and monuments, after all, the world is well-off; in truly pristine wilderness it is fast becoming impoverished. Would it be an exaggeration to suggest that each whimsically erected cairn marks an ironic return to the cairn’s original purpose, serving as a memorial shrine to our genuinely unspoiled landscapes while simultaneously contributing to their demise?

Given all of the above, I believe rock cairns should only be built by designated park or nature area authorities, or volunteers acting under their direction. While this may seem like a fairly sweeping encroachment on the ‘freedom of the hills’, like most freedoms our personal clout ends where the interests and welfare of others begin.

Pro Tip: Dismantling Cairns

Before setting about any vigilante work in dismantling cairns, be sure to check they are not ‘official’ cairns, commemorative cairns, or part of a historical ritual site

If you agree with the above points, then I’d recommend following the guidelines below. And now that I’ve taken myself off the fence, please feel free to respond, berate, or otherwise opine in the comments box at the bottom of the page!

Appropriate uses

  • To provide waymarking on routes that will be visible in snow, fog, and whiteouts
  • To mark routes where there are no other waymarkers and/or are off of established hiking trails
  • For safety
  • To avoid the use of (potentially) unsightly painted blazes, poles, or signs to mark trails
  • To prevent deviations into potentially fragile ecosystems or micro-habitats near existing trails

Inappropriate uses

  • ‘Decorative’ rock piles
  • map-signs
    Unauthorized commemorative rock piles
  • map-signs
    Boredom-inspired rock piles (i.e. Jenga-like creations) where there is no trail
  • map-signs
    ‘Ego’ cairns used to mark your passage (like, you might say, a dog peeing on a tree (!))

If you’d like your say on the matter, the US National Parks Blog is inviting opinions on rock cairns here.

Hiking Navigation Further Reading

Check out our other guides on navigation:

RELATED GEAR REVIEWS

GEAR GUIDES

INDIVIDUAL PRODUCT REVIEWS

10 Essentials for hiking and backpackign title

What to Carry: The 10 Backpacking & Hiking Essentials

WHAT TO CARRY: THE 10 BACKPACKING & HIKING ESSENTIALS

WHAT TO CARRY: THE 10 BACKPACKING & HIKING ESSENTIALS

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

It’s a loaded question for any prospective backpacker or hiker, knowing you can only fit but so much in a pack:

What should I carry while out on the trail?

Whether you are preparing for your first trip into the backcountry, or a seasoned thru-hiking expert, analyzing your gear selections will become a habit for every adventure. One of the underlying joys of backpacking involves the process of discovering how little you, truly, need to survive and thrive in wild, rugged environments.

Despite the increasing trend towards ultralight, or minimalist, backpacking, there are certain items that you should always consider. These essentials should become an integral part of your packing strategy, regardless of trip length.

Below, we’ll define these hiking ten essentials for hiking, providing experienced insight on why they are important. We’ll, also, guide you into selecting the right items, within each category, to ensure that you are always prepared for the unexpected.

Do

  • check
    Educate yourself on the backpacking 10 essentials for hiking (just keep reading!)
  • check
    Consider every item before every trip, regardless of length
  • check
    Leave your intended route and expected completion time with a friend or family member

Don't

  • Assume accidents happen to other people, not you
  • exclamation-circle
    Carry items you don’t know how to use

What are the 'Hiking Essentials'?

History

Evolving over time, a definitive list of essentials for backpacking and hiking first appeared in print within the 1974, 3rd edition of the popular mountaineering book series: Freedom of the Hills. The origin of that list, however, can be traced back to climbing instructional courses offered in the Pacific Northwest, in the 1930’s, by The Mountaineers, a non-profit outdoor community organization. Organizers of this 12,000+ member community stress that the purpose of the 10 hiking essentials list has always been to answer two questions:

“Can you respond positively to an accident or emergency?”

&

“Can you safely spend a night, or more, outside?”

The Mountaineers Club on Mount Rainer in 1909

The Mountaineers Club on Mount Rainer in 1909

Further reading: If you are new to the world of the outdoors then check out our beginners guide to hiking or our how to backpack for beginners.

Evolution of the essentials

The classic essentials, those that formed from The Mountaineers classes and were popularized by Freedom of the Hills, involved a list of 10 items:

  • 1
    Map
  • 2
    Compass
  • 3
    Sunglasses & Sunscreen
  • 4
    Extra Clothing
  • 5
    Headlamp or Flashlight
  • 6
    First-aid supplies
  • 7
    Firestarter
  • 8
    Matches
  • 9
    Knife
  • 10
    Extra food

This served as the standard checklist for backpackers and hikers for nearly 70 years. As hikers and their gear evolved, so did the ten essentials list itself. In the 2003 edition of Freedom of the Hills, this transformation was confirmed with an updated list of essentials, which now focused more on systems and less on the specific items chosen within each. The modern-day list of the 10 essentials used by most experienced outdoor travelers is as follows:

  • 1
    Navigation
  • 2
    Hydration
  • 3
    Nutrition
  • 4
    Shelter
  • 5
    Sun protection
  • 6
    Fire
  • 7
    Illumination (lighting)
  • 8
    First-aid supplies
  • 9
    Toolkit
  • 10
    Insulation (clothing)

Further reading: For a fuller checklist  then check out our article on what to bring on a day hike (with downloadable checklist) and our backpacking gear checklist (with downloadable checklist) for those longer overnight trips.

Why Do You Need the 'Essentials'?

Because they’re essential!

Ok, on a serious note, there are a number of reasons you should have these items covered on every trip. First and foremost, they are an integral part of your enjoyment and participation on most outdoor trips. Is it possible to hike for an entire day without food or water? Yep. Would it be much fun? Nope. Have you tried performing camp chores at night without the use of a headlamp? Would you enjoy hiking through a buggy swamp without head netting or bug spray? What about sitting in camp on a 28℉ night without proper jackets or insulation?

hiker looking out over view

You get the idea. Without key gear items, many common trail scenarios would be downright miserable or dangerous. Even items that aren’t frequently used can become essential life-saving tools in the event of an emergency. Bearing the extra weight and bulk is justified due to their importance when, or if, they are needed.

The Ten Essentials

Navigation

Most of us think of using a compass and map when referring to navigational tools for backcountry travel, however, this category has grown to include GPS devices or cell-phone applications. For those traveling off-trail, deep within wilderness boundaries, or regularly experiencing the need to orient & direct their travel, the necessity for reliable navigation is obvious.

Hiker using a map and compass

Albeit less obvious, carrying navigation tools can remain incredibly important for those who spend the majority of their time on-trail or closer to civilization. While it is possible to navigate many trail systems around the globe without a map (some A.T. hikers will hike over 2,100 miles without one since the trail is so well marked), its use may be paramount in the event you find yourself lost or confused. There have been numerous accounts of lost hikers who were found only hundreds of yards from a trail, without ever realizing it was there. A map can, also, be a fun way to orient yourself at a summit, identifying notable mountains in the distance or how far you have until reaching your next camp.  

Remember, you should always carry a physical map even if planning to rely on electronic versions. Batteries, which lose power in cold temperatures, shouldn’t be your only source of navigational power in the wild. Carry a map and know how to use it!

Sun protection

Consider sun protection (both UVA & UVB) even when hiking through regions that won’t be hot or sunny. Don’t make us quote mom’s everywhere with the reality that you can still damage your skin (any tanning or ‘burn’ is evidence of such damage) on cloudy days, particularly at higher elevations.

Man hiker looking over fjord panorama

This can be achieved with traditional sunscreen on exposed skin. Additionally, you can protect your skin with a UV protectant hiking sun hat or clothing, like this hoody from Black Diamond, a favorite among outdoor professionals. This is growing in popularity, as it saves you from having oily, sticky skin throughout the day.

Insulation

Perhaps the best way to address your insulation (clothing) for future outdoor trips is to familiarize yourself with the concept of dressing in layers for outdoor travel (you can also check out our hiking clothing guide). When done correctly, this method allows you to be prepared for drastic changes in temperature, commonly experienced in wild, rugged places.

The general idea is for one layer to wick moisture away from your skin, a second layer to trap warm air, and a third to keep out the elements (wind & rain). Always be prepared to experience temperatures at least 10 - 20℉ below what is forecasted.

backpacker wearing 3 layered clothing system

Illumination

Having light never seems that critical...until you don’t have it. It can be crucial in the event you need to attract emergency personnel or travel at night. Beyond that, it just makes life so much easier in camp. Small tasks such as cooking, hanging bear bags, or even finding zippers to get in/out of your tent can be frustrating without light.

Lanterns can be nice to have in a group camping environment but have little use elsewhere on the trail. Overall, we prefer the use of a headlamp, which keeps both hands free while still providing ample light where you need it (Check out our guide to the best backpacking headlamp). Remember to always pack extra batteries, and keep a headlamp in your pack even on day trips where you expect to be done before nightfall. We have passed many hikers stumbling down the trail in darkness, with no light, because they expected to be done earlier.

Best Lights & Lanterns

First-aid supplies

We’re not going to waste much time explaining why you should carry first-aid supplies on a hike. It should be obvious. Instead, here are some considerations to keep in mind when selecting which kit to bring:

  • Purchasing a pre-made kit is, typically, the easiest & most affordable option (Best Backpacking First Aid Kit) - You can also build your own backpack first aid kit or add/remove items from stock versions as your experience grows
  • Only carry items that you know how to use - Carrying a needle and thread is rather pointless if you don’t have the skills to suture a wound
  • Perform regular inventory checks - I once pulled out my med kit for a band-aid, a feature of virtually any kit, and discovered that I had none. I had used the last one on a previous trip and neglected to replace it. Know what’s in your kit before you go!
  • Consider a first-aid class if you spend considerable time outdoors - Emergency medical supplies are only as good as the hands they’re in. Possible courses include basic CPR, Wilderness First-Aid or Wilderness First Responder

Fire

With the newer systems approach to the essentials, ensuring that you will have the ability to start a fire can be done in a number of ways:

  • Lighter
  • Matches (be sure to store in watertight container)
  • Striker & Flint
  • Tinder (our favorites include Vaseline soaked cotton balls or dryer sheets)

Fire starting tools are important for several reasons, particularly in those environments where the overnight temperature will be below 60℉ (hypothermia can happen at temperatures well above freezing).

campfire-69212

A spark is, commonly, used to start most backpacking stoves. A fire can, also, be used to help cook meals in the event of a stove malfunction, purify drinking water, keep you warm on an unplanned night in the backcountry, or even signal for help in dire emergencies.

Repair Kit and Tools

Your ability to repair critical gear items should grow, proportionally, with the length of your trip and/or the depth of wilderness that you will be exploring. Common items carried by many hikers and backpackers include duct tape, multi-tool or knife, spare cordage and patches to seal small holes in sleeping pads (these often come with the purchase of a new pad).

Develop the habit of customizing your repair kit for each and every trip. For example, there are several items that I carry in a repair kit while on a canoe or kayaking excursion that I would never care to bring on a backpacking trip. At the end of the day, it’s hard to beat the versatility of a single folding sheath knife and some duct tape, which find a space in my pack on almost every adventure.

Nutrition

Carrying the right food to take hiking or backpacking is a delicate balance of needing to bring enough to replenish the crazy number of calories burned while on the trail, while not, unnecessarily, weighing yourself down with several days of extra food. 

A prudent hiker will always carry enough food to survive an additional 24 hours over what is expected on their trip.

Nuts, trail mixes, jerkies, chocolates, cheeses, meal bars and dried fruits are common choices, providing the needed calories for an extra day hiking without relying on a stove to cook them, which you may not have in an emergency.

Nutritional Facts

Hydration  

How much water to bring backpacking? Consider three aspects related to hydration before heading out on any day hike or overnight backpacking trip:

  1. Your capacity to carry it - bottles? reservoirs? how many liters?
  2. Water availability along your intended route
  3. Ability to filter and/or purify it

We are big fans of the small, lightweight SteriPEN Ultra, which kills over 99.9% of all bacteria, viruses, or protozoa in 90 seconds, or less. A filter is not, typically, necessary unless your water sources are known to be filled with heavy sediments (muddy). If you choose a UV filter, keep in mind that they rely on battery power and so we still carry backup iodine tablets just in case.

woman taking water from forest spring on hiking trip

Emergency Shelter

A common mistake made by day-hikers is to forego any kind of shelter. A small emergency bivy or tarp takes up minimal space inside your pack, yet provides critical warmth, insulation, and protection from the elements in an unexpected night out. Even circumstances that don’t require spending the night can benefit from a bivy.

Imagine breaking your leg only 2 miles from the trailhead on a popular hike. While it’s unlikely you would need to spend the night, being so close to the trailhead and amongst numerous other hikers who can seek help on your behalf, you may be sitting idle for multiple hours while rescue personnel reaches you with the proper equipment. If it’s cold outside, that may be a serious problem, especially now that you won’t be generating any heat from movement.

Beyond the Ten

Waterproofing

That new $300 down-insulated sleeping bag is so incredibly warm...until it gets wets. Don’t forget to waterproof critical items inside your pack, either with waterproof stuff sacks or a pack liner. Contractor grade trash bags are a simple, cheap, lightweight option for waterproofing your pack. Traditional pack rain covers are heavy, bulky, expensive and rather ineffective when backpacking in rain for several days of steady drizzle.

Bug protection

We, typically, consider bug protection alongside sun protection as one of the ten essentials. Since it is not officially part of the modern essentials list, however, we’ve included it here. Bug sprays are effective (look for picaridin - just as effective as DEET without the carcinogens) but protection can, also, come in the form of permethrin-treated clothing or bug-netting.

Bonus Tip: Remember to wipe excess bug spray or sunscreen off of your skin at the end of the day. The oils & chemicals found in each can be harmful to your sleeping bag insulation.

mosquito-719613_1920

Communication devices

Some adventures may require more reliable forms of communication, or signaling, than a cell-phone. These are, most often, used in big mountain ranges or extreme areas of isolation, far away from cell service. Popular options include:

  • Personal locator beacon
  • VHF radios
  • Whistle
  • SAT phone

Comfort

Remember, the goal of setting out into the unknown is not just to survive but, also, thrive! Below are examples of items that may not be essential to your survival, but essential to your comfort.

  • Camp chair
  • Hygiene kit (wipes, soap, toothbrush/paste)
  • Backpack pillow
  • Camera equipment
  • Field journal/notebook

How to Stay Outta Trouble

Panic Time

Having a panic time, and leaving it with someone you trust, is, perhaps, the single greatest step you can take to avoid backcountry emergencies.

What is a panic time?

It is a predetermined time by which you would advise your friends or family to start contacting authorities if they have not heard from you. Remember to consider the time to reach cell coverage once back in your car and always give yourself a reasonable buffer to allow for minor changes in your expected exit from the wilderness. For example, if I plan to be out of the woods by 3:00 pm, my panic time might be 8:00 or 9:00 pm.

Be sure to leave a contact list for the closest rescue personnel, as well as an intended route description. That is, likely, the key information that will help clue rescuers to your possible location in the event of an emergency.

How to Get Out of Trouble if it's Too Late

Don’t panic

If you’ve followed our advice to here, yet still find yourself in a bad situation, remember to relax. Take a few moments to compose yourself before carving out a game plan for how you will proceed. It, often, feels grimmer than it truly is.

Focus on priorities

One of the first topics discussed in survivalist courses is the proper order for survival tasks. If an unexpected night out is quickly becoming evident, focus on shelter and your ability to protect yourself from the elements. If that’s taken care of, start considering your hydration. How much do you have left? Is there a water source nearby? Be smart about what you do with your time when every minute counts.

Use the essentials

If you’ve, smartly, carried the ten essentials that we’ve discussed in detail above, then you’ll have a plethora of tools at the ready. That, my friend, is the whole point!

RELATED GEAR REVIEWS

GEAR GUIDES

INDIVIDUAL PRODUCT REVIEWS

hiking with dogs

Hiking with Dogs (Bringing your best friend on the trail)

HIKING WITH DOGS (BRINGING YOUR BEST FRIEND)

HIKING WITH DOGS (BRINGING YOUR BEST FRIEND ON THE TRAIL)

HIKING WITH DOGS

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

If you are an outdoors lover, and a dog lover then there is nothing more wonderous than bringing your four-legged friend along on the trail.

To ensure you and your companion have a great time it is best to plan ahead and account for your dogs limitations, and bring any gear that you may need. To help you sort out what's important, we'll take you through our complete guide to hiking with dogs.

LOOKING FOR THE BEST GUIDE TO BACKPACKING WITH DOGS?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

  • check
    Is your dog a suitable trail companion?
  • check
    How to prepare your pup for the trail
  • check
    What doggie related gear you should bring
  • check
    What trail hazards to protect your pooch from

Do

  • Bring a leash - no matter how well trained you think your dog is.
  • Bring plenty of food and water for them.
  • Do ensure they are fit enough for the planned hike.

Don't

  • Don't let your dog disappear off trail or out of your sight.
  • Don't push them too hard - keep an eye on their behavior and energy levels.

Hiking with Dogs

Dogs can be great trail companions for several reasons. First of all, they enhance your mood. Dogs may even help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides. Dog owners are found to have healthier hearts, and petting dogs helps overcome depression. In many ways, they help owners deal with emotions, PTSD, ADHD - and exercising with them even helps with arthritis! All this is of course on top of many health benefits of being outdoors.

New to Hiking? Related Reading

If you are considering taking up hiking, then start by looking at our guides to the 10 essentials for hiking, and our idiots guide to day hiking for beginners.

If you are lucky enough to have a dog, you should seriously consider the perks of taking him on a hike with you. Here are just a few things to keep in mind...

Is Your Dog a Good Hiking Companion?

Hiking with your dog can be a blast, but not all dogs are made for the trail. Here are some important things to keep in mind before taking your dog along on a hike that he may not enjoy as much as you:

Fitness

Your dog may not be in the best fitness condition to do a strenuous hike. Consider how much exercise your dog typically does. If he is overweight, he may struggle to hike far distances, hike for an extended amount of time, or even move very quickly.

If you are concerned your dog is overweight, you might consider increasing his exercise with simple walks and playtimes to bring him to a healthier fitness before attempting a hike. Similarly, if your dog seems to be underweight, do not risk overexerting him. Instead, consider having him evaluated by your vet.

Behavior

If you plan to hike around other people, you should know how your dog behaves with others, including children. If your dog tends to growl or even bite, you should keep him on a leash or restrained in some way. Leashes with harnesses are great for restraining dogs without pulling on their necks. ​

You should know how skittish your dog is or how excited he is by other dogs, birds, and wildlife in general. You don't want to risk a hike when you haven't brought a leash, and your dog runs away. You will also want to be on guard if you expect these kinds of behaviors - even with a leash, a dog can startle and slip away before you can react.

Age

Another factor is how old your dog is. Obviously, much older dogs may not be well-suited for a hike. Perhaps they do enjoy hikes, just much shorter ones that are walked quickly and which aren't particularly strenuous. Older dogs may tend to trip on things they don't see or have trouble climbing certain obstacles. You should change your hiking plans if age is a factor, and make sure you bring water and other supplies in case your dog does have an injury or fatigue.

On the flip side, very young dogs - including puppies - may be overexcited, have bursts of energy and trouble focusing on the trail, and might jump on other hikers or be encouraged by children to prance around. Puppies under one year are still developing, so they should only go on half-day hikes so as not to injure themselves.

Young smiling woman and dog in mountains. Snowshoeing in Whistler Balckcomb. Vancouver. British Columbia. Canada.

Health

Fitness and age can be factors related to health. It is always a good idea to have your dog see the vet for a full physical review. You may have missed subtle changes in your dog that a vet might identify as something problematic. You don't want to put a dog in a situation where his health could be worsened. 

Size

If you plan to have your dog walk your pace beside you the entire trail, you should consider how big he is. Certain trails might be easy enough for any dog to walk down; however, some trails might be long and filled with high obstacles that a small dog will have trouble tackling. If at any point you plan to hike across a stream that has some flowing water, this could pose an additional risk to smaller dogs. Medium and large dogs should fare well on most trails so long as they're healthy and fit.

"Come, Here boy!"

Getting your dog to listen to you falls under his behavior - although it is essential to correctly identify whether or not your dog responds to a "come back" call. Assuming you plan to have your dog hiking without a leash, or even if he is startled and scatters, you should be prepared for calling him back to you. It is often recommended that you master a call that works for your dog before considering taking him out for a hike.

Preparing Your Pup for the Trail

Planning is vital for all hiking trips, but there are some additional steps you should take to ensure your dog is safe. Besides, your hike shouldn't just be about you - what should you do to make sure your dog is having fun as well?

Vaccinations

Especially if you're planning to take your dog into the outdoors when he's not as accustomed to it, you should make sure your dog is up-to-date on important vaccinations. A stop at the vet will clear up any concerns.

In particular, you should be concerned about rabies and make sure your dog is wearing his rabies tag. Prevention against fleas, heartworms, and ticks are crucial for outdoor excursions. You should also make sure your dog doesn't have any wounds or injuries that might worsen if out hiking. Ensure your pet has been microchipped, and make sure the information on his collar is updated too.

Pro Tip: Check Where the Local Vet Is

If you plan on hiking/backpacking a fair distance from home, make sure and look up the closest vets and make a note of their number in case of a pooch emergency.

Endurance Training

The fitness of your dog is important when considering hiking. Unfortunately, preparing your dog may take some time and effort, so you shouldn't expect to take your dog out on a tough hike out of the blue.

Begin with some small walks, especially in the morning or evening when it's cooler, and gradually increase frequency and intensity. Not only will this be an excellent way to support your dog for whatever hike may come his way, but it will also help with your fitness - and give you some insight to how he will behave.

Destinations

If you want to hike with your dog, it doesn't have to be a full-blown mountain trail. Those are great, too, of course, so long as you bring enough supplies with you for that kind of trip. However, there are many ways to hike with your dog that are simpler and more accessible. For example, try parks or even trails around lakes and neighborhoods. Beaches are another great place to take dogs, whether it's a beach by the ocean or one next to a lake. Wherever you go, just make sure you're both prepared first!

The All Important Dog Pack

Yes - there are packs for dogs, and they can be handy! Your dog can carry supplies in his pack, but it's important that the pack fit properly.

The Dog Pack

Dog hiking backpacks come in different sizes - and for different sized dogs. There are packs designed for a full day of hiking as well as packs that are smaller. Some packs even come with guards against brush, covers to keep out moisture, and core cooling characteristics to help make your dog more comfortable. Some packs are even for multi-day excursions. 

Packing and Strapping on the Pack

There are plenty of things that can go in these packs, including safety kits, collapsible water bowls, and snacks that are for your dog. The trick is making sure you pack the bag well so that it's not lopsided, lumpy, or too heavy. Additionally, check the tightness of the bag so that your dog is comfortable. You can watch his behavior after you strap the pack on to gauge his discomfort.

Packing the Rest of Your Dog Gear

If you truly want to be prepared, take some time to bring extra things that will keep you and your dog both happy and safe. These are things besides the basic food and water needs that you may or may not think about.

Further Reading: Don't forget anything yourself with our comprehensive guide to ​​things to bring when hiking. Sure you have a suitable bag? Check out our picks for the best daypack on the market.

“Dog First Aid Kit”

By taking a backpacking first aid kit and adding to it, you can very efficiently make a pack that works for the both of you. Dogs are prone to injuries ranging from stings and bites to serious cuts or even broken bones. Packing an eyewash or saline means you can rinse out a dog's eyes after it's been sprayed by a skunk or gotten any other foreign objects in them. Benadryl can be given to your dog at about 2mg per pound every eight hours if he shows hives or other reactionary signs of an allergy, although it may make him drowsy.

Bandages that stretch are great for making wraps until you can have an injury properly looked at. Dogs tend to bleed a lot, so a styptic pencil dabbed on small cuts can prevent too much bleeding from occurring.

Multitools are useful for anyone, including if a quill or thorn is stuck in your dog's paw. A slip lead or muzzle is useful to quickly reel in a dog as dogs tend to revert to their instincts if injured or frightened.

Mylar emergency blankets are helpful for dogs and humans alike to maintain body temperatures after injuries. Musher's wax can protect cracked paw pads on your dog, medical staplers can seal severe cuts, and tick nippers can properly remove the whole tick.

Finally, as with allergies, dogs can take specific forms of pain medicines - but not the over-the-counter kind. Consider looking into a canine prescription that they can chew.

A happy husky dog hiking in the mountains

Booties and Other "Clothing"

An injured paw needs protection. Dog booties can offer that in a cinch. These booties are also useful for protection against snow in the winter if a dog's paws tend to get snow built up between pads. Booties are also great for hot surfaces, like pavement but also rocks that have been in the sun all day. You can, therefore, use booties in response to an injury or you can put them on your dog to protect them from the elements for the longevity of the hike.

Toys

If you plan on going on a very long trip, your packing list will have to include many of your dog's things, especially if you're overnighting somewhere with him. Otherwise, you can keep it simple - and enjoyable. Consider bringing a couple of toys.

If your dog likes to play fetch, bring a ball or frisbee. Maybe he just likes to play tug-of-war with a cloth toy. Or maybe he prefers a rubber toy to chew on at a break along the trail. You can even bring a little peanut butter to put inside some toys to give him something to chew on while also getting a little bit of energy.

Food & Water Planning

Of course, you've got to bring the food and water! It's hard enough figuring out what you need for yourself on these hikes, including snacks that don't melt in your pack and fruit that doesn't squish. But what about your dog?

Ideal Trail Snacks for Dogs

Think about how much your dog typically eats during the length of time you'll be away from home, then bring with you even more. Dogs will burn more calories than usual - just like humans.

The foods you bring can include full meals that he would typically eat, depending on how long you plan to be gone. Kibble can be great as a snack as well. The best thing, however, is to bring some treats that you can feed your dog periodically along the trail. This can include nutritious and easy-to-pack snacks like dog biscuits, training treats, dog food rolls, jerkies like dried liver, or bars made especially for dogs.

Bringing Water for your Pooch

Knowing how much water to bring for your dog on a hike is vital - and depends on several factors. First of all, the breed of your dog and his size can impact how much water he needs compared to dogs of other breeds and sizes. Also, the weather conditions of the day will affect him just as they may impact your intake of water.

How long you plan to be on the trail is, of course, another critical thing to consider when packing. Collapsible water bowls are a great way to encourage your dog to drink. You'll want to give him a little throughout the day to avoid over-hydrating or him drinking so fast he gets nauseated. This will also keep him from finding puddles of water that he encounters along the trail and that may not be clean.

Doggie Trail Hazards

What to watch out for on the trail...

Animals

Other animals on trails could include large animals like bears or cougars, but realistically many others can be just as dangerous. There may be venomous snakes or even coyotes. There are also other domestic dogs who may pick a fight. Even small animals such as raccoons could be seen in the daylight, a sign of rabidness. You'll have to be alert to keep your dog safe from sudden surprises.

Weather

Snow and ice can cause problems if it builds up in a dog's paws. If the weather is excessively wet or cold, you may have to monitor how your dog is getting along without a chance for a break in some shelter.

Heat is also dangerous, so be sure to not over-exercise your dog - especially in direct sun or without enough water. And, of course, if the weather is dangerous to people, it could be dangerous to dogs. You'll have to take special precaution that your dog stays safe and not startled if lightning strikes or if a sudden threat like a tornado or dust storm surprises you nearby.

Young woman with dog on a sunny day hiking in high mountains

Overdoing it

Dogs and people alike can over-exercise or overexert themselves. It's important to make sure you're both well-fed, have sufficient water, aren't in the sun for too long at a time, and get the breaks you need. Dogs may push themselves too far to stay with you and please you, so be aware of how your dog is feeling. If any injury occurs, you'll need to be careful in how you proceed.

Water

How good is your dog at swimming? You should be wary of any large bodies of water, including lakes but also streams that may be deep in places or which may flow very quickly. A dog could choose to swim on a beach but experience strong undercurrents. You don't want to be in a situation where you risk yourself trying to get your dog out of deep water. Also, Giardia poses a threat to dogs that get into contaminated water supplies. It may take weeks for the symptoms to appear so that you realize your dog has been in contact with the parasite.

Cliffs

If your dog is running along the trail, he may not spot a sudden cliff edge. Also, he may be startled or chase a chipmunk, finding himself racing into a new territory with a distraction. If you're near the edge of a cliff, make sure your dog doesn't get too close in case the ground breaks away. Just as with humans, cliffs and heights can be seriously dangerous to dogs.

Wildlife Traps

Although there are rules in many places for trapping, not everyone follows those rules. Even legal traps can pose a risk, however. Traps can be snares or leg holds and they may strangle your dog. It's best to make sure your dog stays on the trail as these traps are purposefully baited and hidden out of sight.

Backcountry Etiquette for Pooch

If you're out in the wilderness with your dog, there are some essential things you should keep in mind.

Dog-Friendly Trails

When picking a trail to take your dog on, make sure you're allowed to have dogs. Some trails are designed as dog-friendly, so please abide by those rules.

Leash Law

There are specific rules for many trails about leashes. Even if your dog doesn't require a leash to behave, you may need to put him in one anyway. If he refuses to use a leash correctly, he may not be a good companion for a trail with a leash law.

Yield to Others

Hikers know about yielding to others who are on the trail. When you're with your dog, you should yield to everyone - and make sure your dog is out of the way and not going to harass the other hikers as well.

Tread Gently

No one hiking in the woods should go off the trail and damage the wildlife. This applies to you as well as to your dog. If you find him rooting in something, encourage him to stop, and prevent him from disturbing the wildlife.

Pack In, Pack Out

Finally, all of the wrappers or supplies you bring in should come back out with you. Also, you should carry something to pick up after your dog's waste. This is good etiquette regarding Leave No Trace principles.

RELATED GEAR REVIEWS

GEAR GUIDES

INDIVIDUAL PRODUCT REVIEWS

hiking for beginners

The Foolproof Guide to Hiking for Beginners (and what not to do)

THE FOOLPROOF GUIDE TO HIKING FOR BEGINNERS

Complete Beginners Guide to Hiking

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 day 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.

Hiking 101: Do's & Don'ts

  • ​Start slow and easy. Pick a short, fairly flat hike to start out with.
  • Pack the "10 Essentials" and understand how to use them
  • Be respectful to nature and to others
  • If you "pack it in, pack it out" - don't leave any trash (or other gear) behind
  • Underestimate how long a hike will take you - make sure you give yourself plenty of time
  • Wear cotton! Cotton can kill due to it's inability to get rid of moisture.
  • Wear brand new hiking boots. Break them in before your hike
  • Attempt to take short-cuts - keep to the trail

Benefits of Hiking

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. The benefits of being in nature, for both your physical health and mental well-being are well documented in science.

Check out our hiking quotes

Physical Benefits

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):

  • Reducing your risk of heart disease
  • Boosting bone-density
  • Strengthening your core muscles
  • Lowering your blood pressure
  • Aiding in weight loss

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.

Best Bags & Backpacks

Mental Benefits

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.

How to Pick a Trail

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.

Assess your physical abilities and health conditions

  • Can you comfortably walk a mile?
  • Do you suffer from any allergies, asthma, or heart problems?
  • Do you have joint or ankle problems?
  • How long can you walk before running out of breath?

Knowing and understanding your fitness level and health status will help you decide the hike most suited to your abilities.

As a beginner, expect to travel about 2 miles an hour on a flat, paved surface. For every 1,000 foot increase in altitude, plan for an additional 30 minutes per mile.

Understanding Types of Hikes

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)

Trail Difficulty Ranking

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.

Where to Find information on Hikes

Most National and State Parks often have websites with details of the marked trails, including maps, distances, difficulty ratings and expected durations. Alternatively, to find beginner hiking trails near me 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.

Before setting out on your hike

Consider finding a hiking companion

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. If you want to go as a family adventure be sure to check out our article on hiking with kids.

Explore local parks

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.

Choose the right time

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.

Use a map

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.

Use Trekking Poles

A lot of beginner hikers (and backpackers) scoff at the idea of using trekking or hiking poles (presumably as they see it as some form of weakness). However, as many veterans of the trail will tell you, they greatly help your balance and efficiency of your stride if you learn how to use trekking poles correctly.

What to Wear on Your Hikes

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.

Best Hiking Socks

Shoes & Socks

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:

  • What type of hikes will you be going on?
  • Will you be experiencing wet or cold conditions?
  • What kind of trail conditions do you expect?
  • Will you require considerable ankle support?

    Depending on what kind of hiking you’ll be doing, there are a few different footwear options to consider, check out our guides below for more information:

    Hiking Shoes

    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.

    Hiking Boots

    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. 

    Backpacking Boots

    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.

    Hiking Socks

    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.

    Proper Clothing

    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. For a fuller overview, check out our article on "What to wear when hiking".

    hiking clothes

    Layers

    As the temperature and weather conditions change, you’re clothing requirements will change as well. The most efficient way of adapting to the changing conditions is by layering clothes. This involves designing a system of layers, that can be removed or put on, depending on the circumstances. The three basic layers are:

    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.

    Pants & Shorts

    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.

    Hats

    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.

    Selecting the Right Fabric

    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.

    For further information on some of the best hiking clothing options check out our guides on:

    What to Pack for Your Hike

    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.

    Never Forget Anything Again

    To help save you the pain of realizing you have forgotten something out on the trail we've prepared a handy checklist of what to bring on a hike.

    The 10 Hiking 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 essentials for hiking 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 how to use a map and compass are vitally important in the event you become lost in the outdoors.

    2. Sun Protection. This includes sunscreen, sunglasses, hiking 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 rechargeable 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. 

    5. First-Aid Supplies. When starting out, it’s best to choose the best first aid kit for hiking that will cover your needs (i.e. one that covers all the basic essentials and a bit more). 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 DIY first aid 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 hiking 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 several models, to discover the best hiking daypack on the market.

    Hiking Tips for Beginners

    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.

    Common Beginner Hiking Mistakes

    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.

    Hiking Etiquette

    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 plan to go hiking with dogs, remember to keep them 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.

    Resources & Further Reading

    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.

    Citations

    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

    How Can We Help You Improve Your Hiking Adventures?

    On the face of it, hiking seems like such a simple activity. Place one foot forward after another, and repeat (preferably somewhere pretty). This is largely true, particularly if you are planning on tackling simple, well maintained and sign-posted trails in reasonable weather conditions. You'll find however, that with a little more advanced knowledge you'll gain a greater level of respect and enjoyment for nature as well as the confidence to tackle more difficult routes. 

    Our in-house experts cover a range of hiking related subjects to bring you actionable advice to help you improve your skills and knowledge, to make all your future trips that much more enjoyable. Happy Trails!

    Hikes on top of a mountain

    HIKING GUIDES

    From beginner to seasoned hiker, our experts cover a range of topics to help you get the most out of your next hike.

    Tent illuminated at night

    HIKING GEAR

    Not sure which hiking shoes to buy? or what makes for a good rain jacket? Don't fret! We test & review so you don't have to.

    A hiker pauses for a rest at a clearing while ascending into the mountains

    HIKING TRIPS

    If you are looking for some inspiration for your next hiking trip, then look no further than our hiking trip guides packed with great info!

    RELATED GEAR REVIEWS

    GEAR GUIDES

    INDIVIDUAL PRODUCT REVIEWS

    Hiking Guides


    From beginner to seasoned hiker, our experts cover a range of topics to help you get the most out of your next hike.