Hiking isn’t as simple as going for a walk – there are a lot of other things to consider before you hit the trail. Like any arduous physical activity, you must prepare your body, your mind, and your rucksack for the strains and challenges of hiking.
In this guide, beginners can make this process easier by finding out what they need to know. We’ve separated the guide into three easy-to-follow segments:
- What Is Hiking?
- Hiking Checklist
- Tips For Choosing A Hiking Routine
Between these three parts, you’ll be able to address any concerns you have over hiking. For example, those who know what hiking already is can simply skip ahead and get to the good stuff below. If you’re a total beginner, you’ll get the most value out of this guide by sticking around for the whole thing. Throughout the guide, we’ve also buried links that contain more information about hiking and similar outdoor activities, for those who are eager to learn.
With that ground covered, let’s start with what hiking is and why everybody should hike!
What Is Hiking?
Hiking is walking, everybody knows that, but that doesn’t mean the walk to the nearest convenience store is a hike. Specifically, the common definition of hiking is “the activity of going for long walks, especially across country.”
The Cambridge and Merriam-Webster dictionaries highlight interesting facets of that definition, too. Cambridge Dictionary uses “the activity of going for long walks in the countryside” while Merriam-Webster uses “a long walk especially for pleasure or exercise.”
Both definitions highlight that hiking is an activity. Stepping over a grassy field on your way to somewhere else isn’t a hike, it’s when you purposely take yourself off the beaten path and go for a long walk in the backcountry. There’s a reason why the most popular US hiking trails are forays into national parks or up the country’s most impressive mountain ranges. During such adventures, you need to be properly prepared. This further distinguishes the act of hiking from walking.
As the primary US definition states, it can be done for pleasure or exercise, or both at the same time. Let’s take a look at the health benefits of hiking.
Health Benefits Of Hiking
People have been hiking for a long time, so it isn’t some new-age fad where people seek to get away from their computer screens for a day. Instead, there are tangible mental and physical benefits to getting outside and exploring your local wilderness. You get to experience the sights and sounds of nature while taking in the freshest air around, especially if you’re hiking at altitude. What’s not to like?
Walking is a cardio workout, just like running, so it comes with a raft of health benefits that happen once your blood starts pumping. Here are just a few:
- Your blood pressure and blood sugar levels become stabilized.
- Your heart strengthens, reducing heart disease chances.
- As a weight-bearing exercise, your bone density gets improved.
- Similarly, the muscles in your core, your hips, and your legs (abs, hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, etc.) strengthen.
- All that footwork improves your balance.
- Keeps your weight down by shedding calories.
Then there are the mental benefits. Most types of exercise benefit your mental health by releasing endorphins and improving your confidence and self-esteem. Unlike other exercises, exposing yourself to nature acts as a natural de-stressor that alleviates anxiety for a short period. Hiking in particular also exercises your hippocampus and the pattern recognition parts of your brain that help with navigation.
Hiking also goes hand-in-hand with camping, so there are other skills you’ll likely learn on your hiking journeys. Whether it’s map-reading, wielding a utility knife, or playing a sad game of Tetris while trying to pack your backpack, each one is a skill that you’re honing which develops your brain.
Why is that important? Neuroplasticity, that’s why. This is the term for how well your brain responds to new information. Put simply, by learning new skills and information you learn how to learn more. You become more receptive to new information and experiences, allowing you to become a more skilled individual.
To gain the most out of your hiking exercise, follow these five tips:
- As a beginner, start slowly by taking on short hikes that are close by.
- Use hiking poles to work out your upper body muscles at the same time.
- Tackle a hill if a mountain is too intimidating. This still burns calories and improves heart rate.
- Gradually take on more uneven terrain so you get used to balancing yourself.
- Pack extra weight in water and other gear to increase calorie burn and improve muscular strength.
As always, stay safe while exercising. You can do this by bringing a friend when you’re a beginner so you don’t get lost out there. You should also know your hiking trail before you even go – we have more information on this below.
The best way to be prepared is to create a hiking checklist. Fortunately for you, we’ve gone ahead and done that already! Here you’ll find a rundown of all the equipment you should bring on a hike. Do you need them all? Probably not, when you’re going on short hikes, but try to have most of them to get the most out of your hiking experience.
If you can think of something else or you have your own concerns that need to be addressed by certain equipment, throw them in your backpack too. Bring whatever can make you feel comfortable. That said, be aware of overpacking. Also, acknowledge that some areas have wildlife that may be attracted to certain items.
Your feet carry you everywhere you go. In 21st Century society, it’s easy to forget the load that our feet bear since we’re not on them all day, in most cases. The key to an enjoyable hike is to have perfect hiking boots. If your hiking boots are ill-fitting, then your hike is going to get cut short by discomfort or even injury. By hurting your own feet, you could put yourself out of commission for a few days.
There are different types of hiking boots that change depending on your hiking habits, so your ideal boots may be different when you blossom from a beginner hiker into a pro that tackles tougher trails. With that in mind, take a look at three types of hiking boots:
- Hiking Shoes – These are low-cut shoes (not boots) that have flexible midsoles and are perfect for light travel. They’re closely related to trail-running shoes, which are also preferred by hikers who travel light. If you have some of them around, they may serve you well through your beginner hikes.
- Day Hiking Boots – These are your standard hiking boots. They’re ideal for day hiking, which are hikes that you can complete in one day, and so traveling light is best for these journeys. They lack support for long hiking journeys.
- Backpacking Boots – These are heavy-duty boots that provide unrivaled stability for your feet and legs. They’re designed to carry heavier equipment and are great for travel both on and off the beaten path.
No matter what type of shoe you choose, you should pay attention to the material the boots are made from. This impacts the weight, durability, breathability, and water resistance of the boots. Their uppers could be made from different leathers, like nubuck, split-grain, or full-grain, or they could be made with synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, or fake leather.
These all come with their own advantages. Leather is tough but this means they’ll need to be broken in, after which they’ll fit perfectly, for example. Meanwhile, synthetics tend to have the best breathability and are often made with water-repellent membranes like Gore-Tex while also being lighter than cowhide.
Both leather and synthetic boots can get expensive but pricing is generally weighed against how long they will last, so consider good hiking boots as an investment.
Inside the shoes, look for EVA or polyurethane midsoles that cushion the feet and reduce the impact forces that happen when walking for long periods. EVA is lighter and cheaper while polyurethane is durable but firmer, so it’s more common in backpacking boots.
On the bottom of the boots, take a look at the lug pattern. This is how the traction on the soles is arranged, affording you certain advantages on terrain. Hardcore mountaineering boots will have thick, curved lugs designed for boring into the ground, for example. If you go for those kinds of lugs, make sure they’re spaced out so mud is easier to remove. If you anticipate hard and flat land, you don’t need to have much traction on the boots at all.
When sizing hiking boots, remember that you’ll be wearing socks and that your feet swell during the day, especially if you’ve been on them all day. Know your foot size, including specific measurements, and get a shoe that gives you some room to swell in. You should also be able to wiggle your toes inside the toe box without them being restricted. Break in the shoes before you go hiking in them.
For a lot of the gear below, you’ll want a backpack to properly store it all. Check out the volume of the bags, often given in liters, and figure out how many days of hiking they are intended for.
- 20 to 35 liters are ideal for 1 to 2 days.
- 40 to 50 liters are ideal for 1 to 3 days.
- 50 to 70 liters are ideal for 3 to 5 days.
- 80 to 110 liters are ideal for 5 days and more.
Backpacks should be comfortable when you’re wearing them and suitably ventilated, so your back doesn’t sweat too much from contact. If you expect rainy weather, make sure the bag comes with a rain cover that keeps water away.
Some backpacks have an internal frame while others don’t, or have it mounted along the outside. Frameless backpacks are much lighter, bear that in mind if you want to travel light. Also, you should pay attention to how many pockets each bag has. Make sure there’s a pocket or pouch for a water bottle, you’ll need to stay hydrated.
Appropriate Clothing For The Day
You need to dress appropriately when going hiking. If you’ve ever been camping then you’re already halfway there. Get a good coat that’s waterproof and will keep you warm but make sure you have some way of taking it off, so you’re not stuck wearing it for the whole trip.
Here are some other quickfire tips:
- Stay away from denim and cotton, they’re your enemy in both cold and hot weather.
- Wear pants that are sturdy but comfortable, you’ll be twisting and turning a lot while walking.
- Consider a brimmed hat to keep the sun off of your head.
- Consider a wooly hat to keep the frost out of your hair.
- Consider gloves to keep your fingers warm.
- Get sturdy shoes (obviously, we’ve covered this above).
- Wear everything nylon, polyester, and merino wool, especially underwear.
A Change Of Clothes
Okay, so you got more clothes. What’s next? More clothes! This is why you’ll likely need a backpack because, if you’re hiking longer than a day, then you’ll need to change your clothes. They’ll become dirty quickly through physical activity. If you’re only out there for a day, with nobody else, you can get away with a change of underwear and socks. There’s no need to take multiple jackets or rough-and-tumble pants, they’re supposed to get muddy when you go hiking.
A Map Or A Compass
Bring a map or a compass, preferably both. A compass is easy enough, you probably have an app on your phone that acts as a compass, but with maps, you may need to do some research.
First, you need to know how to read maps. You also can’t take a globe with you to figure out where you are in the woods. You’ll need to have maps that cover your local area and your hiking ground. Having multiple maps that show the area at different levels of detail is ideal so you can see the big picture and also pinpoint your current location.
First Aid Kit
This is an obvious but important piece of equipment that you should have. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Your first aid kit can be relatively simple or as complicated as you want, depending on how long you’re out there and how prepared you want to be. A basic kit should at least have the following:
- Antiseptic wipes and/or antibacterial ointment.
- Bandage adhesives.
- Would-closing strips.
- Gauze pads of various sizes.
- Hand sanitizer.
- Medical tape.
- Blister cushions/gel pads.
- Pain relief meds (be aware of adverse reactions to ibuprofen and paracetamol).
- Treatments for allergic reactions.
- Treatments for insect stings and bites.
- A manual explaining what to do with all of the above.
Fortunately, you can buy first aid kits that’ll have all of these covered. To this setup, you can add antibiotics, if needed, and you’ll likely want to bring along some sun cream to stop burning. Antacids, diarrhea meds, cough, and throat medicine, you can take the entire drug store with you if you have the room and a reasonable expectation of needing them.
We’d also suggest bringing a multi-tool, cotton swabs, and a heat-reflecting blanket that can be used for signals if you get lost, among many other things. A notepad for leaving notes or writing down critical information is a good idea too, and you can also use it to write or sketch in your downtime.
Take snacks that are simple, easily prepared, and won’t perish while you’re out there. This means it’s going to be a lot of canned foods, energy bars, and trail mix made up of nuts and seeds. Canned foods are eaten instantly and last for a long time, though they can get heavy if you’re carrying a lot of them. As a beginner, you shouldn’t be spending days in the wilderness, so energy bars and trail mixes should do, with maybe one canned meal. Keep the food simple yet packed with energy via carbs and proteins, with minimal preparation time required.
Bring water, it’s important. You should aim to get 3.7 liters if you’re a man and 2.7 liters if you’re a woman, and then you should top up with a little more because you’ll be losing it through sweat and heavy breathing. Get a sports bottle that can fit into your bag, it makes carrying water much more convenient.
If you’re hiking over several days, you’re going to need more than 3 liters. That’s heavy. Instead, you can treat water from streams and lakes using specially made tablets or gadgets. These filter the water so it becomes drinkable and you don’t have to carry it around since you’re getting it on-site.
These are typically a good idea if you’re venturing out towards the sun. These protect your eyes from catching damaging rays of light in areas where the sun shines brightly. They don’t have to be anything fancy, there are not many people around to critique your fashion when you’re on the trail.
An emergency bivouac should be part of your hiking arsenal. As a beginner, there’s every chance you’ll wander somewhere and not be able to get back before sunset. You can bring a buddy to stop this, as we suggested, but it’s best to be prepared. That means bringing a deployable bivouac that you can sleep in for the night. It needs to cover most of your body while being comfortable (yes, this means try it out in your backyard) and resistant to water, so it keeps the outside world out.
These are the small things you’ll want for added comfort. The most important one is toilet roll, for if you’re going to be in the wilderness for long, but otherwise you can leave a lot of the toiletries and amenities at home. If you have a rigorous first aid kit, you’ll already be packing wipes and creams, and gels that you can use for washing and general maintenance.
Tips For Choosing A Hiking Routine
Now that you know what hiking is, why it’s good for you, and what equipment you should bring with you when you go, it’s time to figure out where you’re going. We can’t suggest your local hill, we don’t know where you live and we want to keep it that way, but what we can do is give you the tips you need to prepare yourself for a hike and choose where you go.
There are five main steps to planning your hike, check them out.
Assess Your Physical Condition
Be honest with yourself, are you up for a hike? Sometimes it’s best to go on regular walks to get used to walking long distances. This conditions you for the long walks, often uphill and on uneven ground, that you’ll face when hiking. Running is even better than walking for conditioning yourself and staying fit.
Also, consider any conditions you have that may make hiking more dangerous than it would be for others. If you’re a diabetic, you’ll need to factor that into the foods you bring, how much physical activity you’re exposed to, and you can bet your insulin pen needs to come along for the ride.
Once you’ve worked out those logistical issues, you should be ready to go. As a beginner, we’d strongly advise going with others so they can help you. You’ll learn how to pace yourself and you’ll be in safe hands if you go with somebody who has hiked before.
The single best thing you can do is go to your doctor and tell them you want to go hiking. Ask them for a physical where they can diagnose any issues with the body and give you their professional opinion on whether you’re fit enough to hike or not.
How Much Time You Can Invest Of Your Day
Time is valuable and hiking can be a considerable time investment. You’ll at least be gone for the best part of a day, if not multiple once you get confident enough to backpack through your favorite hiking zones across the country. Decide how much time you can spare.
If you’re a busy homebody, you won’t be able to spend days up in the mountains. Likewise, you should consider that you’ll be without a phone signal or an internet connection, so FOMO for social events and online happenings can occur. We’ve talked a little more about time management below, so read on to discover how distance and elevation can be used to discover how much time a trail will take to hike across.
Anticipate all of these and decide on how much time you wish to dedicate to hiking. Even a half-day hike every so often is better for you than not hiking at all.
Plan Your Route
If you already have a route in mind, there’s no doubt that you got it from one of three ways. It’s either somewhere you’ve always known through word of mouth, you know another place that you’ll need to ask the locals about, or you’ve used a website to find it. That’s how most people find hiking spots nowadays.
When finding trails from good sources, you’ll find valuable information like:
- The difficulty rating of the trail.
- The distance of the trail.
- The directions around the trail.
- The elevation gain of the trail.
- Any water sources present on the trail.
- Dog permissions.
- The trail history and other features and landmarks of the trail.
You should keep those above points in mind when choosing your hiking routes. You’ll want to be as informed as possible on your first trails so you don’t panic if something doesn’t go according to plan.
Get the right maps that correspond to your trail. They can be physical maps or ones that are stored on your smartphone (downloaded, so you can access them without an Internet connection).
Decide What Distance Is Comfortable For You
Staring at a map is one thing but you need to figure out how far these hikes will take you because it’ll feel a lot different when you’re walking through the trail. The best way to do this is to take a look at the distance measurements of the trail. It’s great if you make walking journeys often, so you have a practical idea of how far a mile is.
Remember that the walking pace for the average person is approximately 3 miles per hour. You’ll either be slightly above or below this average. Also consider that you’ll walk a little slower when you’re on uneven terrain, possibly uphill while carrying the weight of all your gear. Walking with weight on your back is much more strenuous than an evening stroll, so you’ll likely lag at first and take even longer to cover the distance.
A 5-mile hike is perfectly respectable for a beginner like yourself, so we’d recommend that for your first hike. You can find hikes that are a little shorter or longer than that too, to match how confident you are in your hiking ability. As we’ve said above, if you’re not confident in hiking then go with somebody who is.
Along with the distance of the trail, take a look at how the trail elevates over time. Wilderness land isn’t flat, so there are going to be hills, mountains, valleys, and ridges that need traversing.
As a beginner, we’d advise you to go for a relatively level trail. Trails that are level are easier on your feet and legs and can be completed in less time. If you need some perspective on how the elevation of the ground changes traversal times, consider that 1,000 feet in elevation will typically add a mile to your hike. That’s also pretty steep, too, so we wouldn’t recommend climbing land with that degree of elevation. However, you can use that number as a reference to measure different elevations. 250 feet can add 15 minutes, if a little more. 500 feet will add approximately 30 minutes. Factor these time differentials into your hiking plan.
Consider Weather Conditions
Lastly, you should pay attention to the weather. Weather forecasts aren’t always accurate but they get the broad weather conditions correct. If a blizzard or some other storm is moving in, maybe it isn’t worth the risk to get caught in it on the trail. Likewise, you don’t want to walk around in a padded fleece jacket if the weather is turning hot at the end of the day. Remember that weather conditions determine what you wear and what you pack, so pack on the day of the hike.
If you’re hiking over several days, use a small radio or your phone to keep track of the forecasts. Most forecasts are calculated at least a week in advance, so you should have some data before you head out anyway, but it’s best to know what’s coming when you’re out on the trail for extended periods.
Now you’ve reached the end of our guide, congratulations! You should now know everything somebody needs to know before they head out. Are there other things to learn? Possibly. Many hikers graduate into fully-fledged campers, backpackers, and mountaineers, all of which require new skill sets and a lot of new equipment. Only you can decide if you’re going to pursue those or if hiking is good enough for you.
With the information we’ve covered in this guide, your first hikes should be a success. If you get a feel for hiking and enjoy the activity, you’ll find that the experience of hiking teaches you a lot too. That said, sometimes it’s easy to forget something when packing, so check back with our checklist if you ever feel like you’ve missed a piece of equipment while packing for the next adventure.
Finally, all that’s left to say is good luck, and we hope you enjoy your hike.