Hiking: A Beginner’s Guide
Hiking is a wonderful way to experience nature. Wherever you live, make the most of your local trails with these safety tips to ease into a new hobby.
Choose a Place to Hike
Hiking trails are not always well publicized, but there are probably more in your area than you realize.
A simple Google search will usually reveal nearby hiking trails, and depending on your location, national and state parks are obvious places to look. For local ideas, check your town’s website for a link to recreation opportunities.
Locals are also great resources for hiking advice. You can ask a friend who hikes for their favorite trails, or try calling a local outfitter. Most outfitters employ outdoor enthusiasts who can give firsthand hiking information that is more in-depth than written content, and generally, they love to share knowledge and encourage others to experience the outdoors.
Study the Terrain
When choosing a trail, consider your fitness level and how much of a challenge you can handle. Be honest about your abilities. Remember that walking two miles in an air-conditioned gym is very different from walking two miles on uneven outdoor terrain.
Before you go, locate a trail map and note the trail’s length, difficulty, and the type of terrain.
Apps like Alltrails.com can offer hiking ideas as well as trail reviews, which will give you a reading of the terrain’s difficulty.
When you consider terrain, also check the weather before your hike. Depending on terrain, you should know what type of weather is prevalent—Is snow likely? Is there shade? Will you be exposed to wind?—and if you would need to expect extremely muddy conditions, streams to cross, and other obstacles.
Bring the Proper Supplies
While you can find plenty of hiking gear at stores like REI and complex trips might demand packing the Ten Essentials, much of this gear is unnecessary for a beginner going on a day hike.
One of the appeals of hiking is that it is a low-cost activity and has a low barrier to entry. Consider keeping it cheap for a few hikes before springing for costly gear. Once you know you like the sport, you can level up your gear as your hikes grow more demanding.
Regardless of budget, you should pay attention to your footwear. While many people pay for hiking boots, many beginner trails are suited for sneakers, so long as you do not mind them getting muddy. The important thing is comfort; if you buy new boots, break them in before hiking.
Water is another consideration. When you consider your time on the trail and the weather, factor in your need for water (and possibly food) and bring enough supplies.
A simple first aid kit might also be useful. At minimum, consider having Band-Aids, antiseptic, and an ACE bandage handy. Those with other medical conditions should plan accordingly and pack the necessary medications.
Hike with a Friend
While hiking can be enjoyed as a solitary activity, many people find it more fun (and safer) to hike with a friend. A knowledgeable hiker can help you plan a positive experience for your initial hikes, or you could start with another new hiker and explore together.
If you are hiking with children, consider their ability as you study the terrain. Generally, it’s good to start with a short trail that allows lots of time for kids to stray and get absorbed in plants, animals, rocks, etc. Focus on enjoying the experience rather than logging miles.
Remember that children will get cold and hungry much faster than an adult usually will. Packing the essentials to keep them warm and fed will mean carrying more gear, but the result will be a happier traveling companion.
If you are hiking with a dog, make sure to check the regulations for the trail you are visiting. Leash laws vary, and in some places, like many U.S. national parks, dogs cannot be on trails even if they are leashed.
Tell Someone Where You Are Going
Always leave a hike plan with someone you can trust. Tell them where you are going and when you expect to return; this will help them know when to look for you if you do not return in a reasonable timeframe.
Minimize Your Impact
When you begin hiking, you are entering an outdoor community. Many outdoor enthusiasts work to protect the natural world so that others may also enjoy it.
To help minimize your impact on the outdoors, consider following the 7 Leave No Trace Principles below:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare. Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.
- Dispose of Waste Properly.
- Leave What You Find.
- Minimize Campfire Impacts.
- Respect Wildlife.
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors.
With all this planning, it is easy to over-complicate the process and forget the most important ingredient: fun.
Hiking is walking in the woods. That’s it. Find a trail you can reasonably handle and maybe a friend to enjoy it with you. Then, get walking.
The Next Step
If you are ready for a more difficult hike and need more information, check out REI’s extensive post for beginning hikers.