There’s no better way to get thoroughly acquainted with a new destination than by exploring it on your own two feet. But hiking, although it’s an accessible sport, is one that takes some planning — and even short trails require taking certain steps and considerations to ensure your safety.
In this post, we’ll walk you through hiking essentials for beginners, from what kind of gear you need to how to find the right trails to take hiking on at the right level. We’ll also cover basics in hiking etiquette, such as Leave No Trace and how to determine who has the right-of-way on the trails.
Learning how to hike is the best way to start hiking… so let’s dive in!
How to Start Hiking for Beginners
It may seem to some that a beginner’s guide to hiking is pretty much unnecessary. Aren’t the steps simply: put on shoes, go outside, put one foot in front of the other?
And while many hikes, especially shorter and easier ones, are pretty simple, establishing good hiking habits and setting a precedent you’ll follow as you scale up your journeys will lead to more satisfaction (and safety!) in the long run.
Choosing high quality gear, learning about trail etiquette and knowing how to decide whether or not a trail is right for you simply by its description are all key steps to creating a healthy hiking habit that will last a lifetime.
So let’s get started on figuring all that stuff out, shall we?
How Long is a Beginner Hike?
One of the first things many beginning hikers want to know is: how much trail can I do? Figuring out your personal fitness level and abilities is one of the most important parts of establishing your hiking skills.
While the answer to a question like “how long is a beginner hike?” will vary based on the beginner in question, generally speaking, you want to leave double-digits trails to folks who know what they’re doing. (Don’t worry, they’ll still be there once you have some practice under your belt.)
As someone who’s just figuring out hiking basics, shorter trails make for a better playground to practice in. Loop trails are even better since you just keep following the trail and still eventually end up right back where you started from.
Many trails also climb uphill or see elevation gain — which can lead to some awesome views. But even if you’re in great shape, don’t underestimate the intensity of a steep trail climb, especially with food, water, and equipment on your back!
For brand-new beginners, we recommend choosing a trail of under five miles and less than 1,000 feet in elevation gain, or an even easier one if you’re out of shape. There’s no shame in choosing easy routes, and besides, many of them offer stellar views… and are a great way to ramp up to the exciting, exhausting hikes you’re looking forward to.
(Psst: There are also ADA accessible hiking trails in many of America’s national parks and select state parks, too. These trails make it possible for everyone to experience the great outdoors, regardless of ability levels.)
Choose a Hiking Route
So, as a beginner, you’re looking for easy and short. But as your skills improve, what goes into choosing a great hiking route?
Fortunately, there are tons of great resources available today to help you get as many details as possible about a given trail well before you’re at the trailhead.
One of our favorite apps is called AllTrails, and is available both through your web browser and as a mobile app. It lists a trail’s total length, elevation gain, and difficulty level, and also has a space for user ratings and photos to get you an even clearer picture of what’s to come.
Of course, for the most consistent and accurate information, going directly to the forest service desk is usually the best option. But once you have those pamphlets in your hands, how do you actually go about narrowing down your options?
The first two things you’ll want to keep in mind are trail length and elevation gain. These are the factors that affect the trail’s difficulty level and may determine whether or not it’s within your reach.
After that, you might consider more personal preferences. Would you rather hike through a tree-shaded forest or a sprawling desert? Want to see waterfalls along the way, or hoping for a copse of wildflowers? Apps like AllTrails, as well as in-person suggestions from forest service people and other officials, can help you find a trail that will meet all of your needs.
Finally, keep in mind that different trails will place different requirements on your body and your group in general. For instance, a desert trail with very little shade will require more sunscreen and water, while one that runs alongside a river gives you a chance to refill your bottle — so long as you treat the water properly! It’s actually easy to make wild water safe to drink with a plain old beach (see this website for details), but you can also purchase items like LifeStraws to filter natural water in real time. Trails may also be dog-friendly or not — and even those that are may require you keep your pet leashed at all times.
Choose Your Hiking Gear
One of the coolest parts of hiking is that it’s pretty simplistic. Unlike, say, SCUBA diving or even dirt biking, it doesn’t require a whole lot of gear.
But it does come with some gear requirements… and if it’s a sport you’re going to want to continue participating in for a long time, it makes sense to invest in good gear from the beginning.
The most important pieces of hiking gear for beginners are boots, a backpack, and a water bottle or hydro-pack. Other pieces of gear you might decide to add later, like trekking poles.
Choosing high quality boots is a pretty personal thing, but the people at your local outdoor store will be happy to assist you. For day hikes, comfort is key, and you can get away with a shoe that doesn’t offer quite as much support as the ones you need for, say, a multi-night backpacking adventure. But in general, you’ll want a shoe that offers an adequate amount of support while also being lightweight and, ideally, waterproof (or at least water resistant). One of the best beginner boots is Merrell’s MOAB line, which stands for Mother of All Boots. They’re multi-purpose and can get you started no matter what kind of trails you’ll be hiking on most frequently.
A backpack is another essential piece of equipment since even on short hikes you’ll need to carry basics like water, sunscreen, and snacks. Hiking backpacks come in a wide range of shapes and sizes; for a beginner, a day pack will probably be the best bet. Larger packs meant for multi-day trips are too large, and it’s too easy to fill them up with heavy items you don’t need!
Finally, you’ll need a water bottle — or, if your backpack has room for one, a hydro pack like a CamelBak, which helps you maintain easy access to water without having to stop and unscrew the top of a bottle. CamelBak makes HydroBack backpacks that offer a little bit of storage room, but are perfect for people using their packs mostly for water-storage purposes on day trips.
Hiking Etiquette for Beginners
You’ve got a trail picked out and the right gear to do the job. So what are the rules you should know before you hit the trails?
There are a few pieces of hiking etiquette that are important for beginners to learn early.
Take, for instance, right of way. If you’re hiking on a trail with an incline, hikers coming uphill generally have right of way over hikers descending. On a flat surface, it’s harder to tell — but in any scenario, you can always just ask the other party if they’d like to go first.
If you encounter other types of travelers on the trail, like bikers or horseback riders, as a hiker, you’ll want to yield right-of-way to these groups since they’re generally faster and more powerful.
Finally, you’ve probably heard about Leave No Trace practices, which are designed to help hikers and other outdoor adventurers experience the outdoors without impacting the environment, so that future generations can also enjoy our natural surroundings. For instance, Leave No Trace principles requires campers to reuse old camping spots and firepits, and require all who enter the outdoors to pack out all of the garbage they bring into the wilderness, including human excrement. For full details on Leave No Trace principles, check out the website.
Hiking with Kids and Dogs
If you’ve got kids and dogs along for your trip, you may want to bring them hiking, too! Dogs love a chance to exhaust themselves in the great outdoors, and plenty of kids really enjoy the experience, too. There are some things you need to know before you head out on your big adventure, though.
For starters, as mentioned above, not all trails are dog-friendly… and amongst those that are, there are often leash requirements which specify that dogs must be kept on a leash at all times, and may even have a certain leash length requirement (generally six feet or so).
Even on trails where these rules are not stated, keeping your dog leashed while hiking is a good idea. Your pup could see a squirrel or some other interesting something and be tempted to run off after it, and it can be hard to make them come back after that. You’ll also want to ensure you’re offering your pup water breaks just like you’re taking for yourself. Dogs have needs just like you do!
As far as hiking with kids is concerned, you as a parent will have a better sense of your child’s abilities (and interest level) than any guide. But generally speaking, kids are probably going to be better off with shorter hikes and may require some encouragement to avoid losing their focus. As always, make sure you’re offering them plenty of food and water and also keeping them protected from the sun with proper clothing and sunscreen. If going for more than just a day hike, use our tips for how to camp with a baby.
(Psst: hiking with really little ones? If you’re strong, brave, and willing, you can try hiking with your baby in a sling! These carriers can make it possible to take on the adventures you’re after even while your kids are still very young — though not every baby likes being carried this way.)
Hiking for Beginners: Q and A
Let’s finish out our ultimate guide on hiking with some answers to frequently asked questions.
Is it safe to hike alone?
While hiking in groups is generally safer, many hikers do successfully hike alone in all sorts of environments. The important thing to remember is to make noise frequently if you’re in a place with bears or other wild animals to warn them that you’re coming, and also to ensure you have all the proper equipment you need to safely complete the hike — including a map!
It’s also a good idea to leave your itinerary with somebody who won’t be coming along for the journey. Tell them your expected route and timing and leave information for emergency services to contact if you’re not home or back in contact within the scheduled time.
What if I have to go to the bathroom?
Well, friend… you’re going to have to do like the animals do and do it out in the woods!
In all seriousness, “going” outside is part of the hiking experience, though every trail is different. There are some places that are so popular and crowded, it’s not really going to be welcome — or even a possibility. (For instance, if you’re starting with the paved trails around interpretive centers in national parks, you’re not going to want to stop and pop a squat in the middle of the crowd.)
But once you’re off the beaten path, heading behind a tree to do your business is pretty standard. It’s a good idea to hike with toilet paper and plastic bags so you can pack out any trash or solid waste. Do keep in mind that some trails offer restroom facilities at the trailhead, so if you want to avoid dropping your pants outside, “go” before you go.
Will animals attack me?
Many beginning hikers are inordinately afraid of animals of all sorts, imagining bears and cougars lurking behind every corner. And while it’s important to be aware that you’re in the animals’ home when you take to the trails, in most cases, these critters are even more afraid of you than you are of them.
Still, taking proper precautions goes a long way toward ensuring that everyone’s safe. You can warn bears you’re coming by singing or regularly calling out “Hey, bear!” so you don’t startle them on the trail. If you’re hiking in an area with rattlesnakes, you’ll want to keep at least one eye on the ground to ensure you don’t run into any unexpected slitherers. No matter where you’re hiking the forest ranger or service person on duty will have additional information about the animals in the environment and the steps you need to take to avoid interfering with or scaring them.
What does Leave No Trace mean?
As mentioned above, Leave No Trace is a group of principles designed to minimize the impacts of hikers and other outdoor adventurers on the landscape. For full details on Leave No Trace principles, check out the website.
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