The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Hiking

Hiking for beginners can be an intimidating undertaking. Fortunately hiking is one of the easiest outdoor adventures a person can have. It doesn’t require special training or a lot of expensive gear, and no matter where you live in the U.S., it’s likely that a walking trail isn’t far away.

It’s also an activity that’s possible in all climates and seasons.  And each year, there are plenty of headlines about inexperienced (and experienced!) hikers who get lost, injured, or worse (often close to home).

Yet despite the headlines, hiking is still a relatively safe form of adventure. Plus, a little know-how and advance prep can go a long way in making sure your hike is both fun and safe. So whether you’re headed out on your first hike as a beginner or want a refresher, here’s our guide to taking a day hike, complete with a packing list and day pack recommendations. (Note: This is a guide for hiking in warmer seasons and climates. Cold-weather hiking requires a bit more gear and prep.)

5 Important Benefits Of Hiking

  1. Improved Cardiovascular Health – Hiking is a great way to get a workout, and is a fantastically fun way to improve your cardiovascular fitness, especially if you get ambitious enough to throw in some hilly terrain.
  2. Improved Core Strength – Want 6 pack abs? Start hiking. Okay, maybe that’s overstating the benefits a bit, but it is 100% true that hiking on an even slightly uneven surface forces your body to engage your core muscles, as we well as the opportunity to improve your balance.
  3. Stress Relief – There’s just something restorative, relaxing, and stress-relieving about being outside in nature. Many studies support the belief that spending time in green space (think nature preserves, parks, and woodland), actually releases stress and reduces blood pressure.
  4. Exploration – One of the often overlooked benefits of hiking is the opportunity to travel and visit exciting new places. Sometimes just getting out of the car and into your hiking boots is enough to give you a fresh perspective on a place you pass by every day.
  5. Get Social and Make Friends – For safety reasons, we always suggest hiking with a buddy, but hiking in a group is also a great way to catch up with good friends (or make new ones), while getting a bit of exercise and enjoying the great outdoors.

Before You Go

Before you hit the trail for the first time, run through this short checklist. Once you’re more experienced, this trip prep becomes second nature and won’t take as long. (Especially if you’re hiking a familiar trail.)

1. Have a plan.

hiking for beginners - have a plan

Use a guidebook, website, or app to plot your path before you go. Double-check distances and if possible, read trip reports from other hikers. The latter can often help you estimate the time for your own hike. Also be sure to consider things like topography and elevation gain. Two miles across a flat meadow are faster and easier than two miles up the side of a mountain.

Try the MapMyHike app or Gaia GPS app.

2. Check the weather.

The adage “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” was probably coined by a hiker. You definitely don’t need perfect weather for a worthwhile hike. That said, check the forecast and radar before you go so you know what to expect. (Hiking in lightning or heavy snow is rarely a good idea!) One of my favorite weather apps is AccuWeather.

3. Know your limits.

In recent years, social media has led to a surge of new visitors to the outdoors, many who are unprepared for the realities of nature. Social media photos of stunning vistas or winding trails don’t show the work it takes to get there. No matter who you are, hiking on uneven terrain in unfamiliar environments takes a toll and it’s important to know your limits. If you’re a novice hiker, it’s ok to start small and slowly add distance over time. Hiking uses different muscles than even running, biking, or other forms of cardio. Listen to your own body and stay safe.

4. Tell someone.

If possible, don’t hike alone. It’s always better to have someone else with you. If you do hike alone, make sure you tell someone where you’re headed and when to expect you back.

5. Dress for adventure.

It should come as no surprise that footwear is the most important part of your hiking ensemble. Depending on the terrain, sturdy running shoes are usually fine but make sure they have a rugged sole with grip. If you plan to hike regularly, it’s worth it to invest in hiking shoes or hiking boots. (The latter provides more ankle support.) And having waterproof shoes or boots will go a long way in making you comfortable.

In addition to boots, lightweight hiking pants made from a synthetic fabric can keep you cool and protect you from thorns and other prickly vegetation. A synthetic t-shirt or top layer will help you stay dry. And a hat will help with sun protection—plus you can spray it with bug spray to keep flies and mosquitoes at bay.

6. Bring a pack.

Bringing a pack on a short hike might seem overzealous. Yet no matter how short your hike is, it’s a good idea to bring along water and a few high-energy snacks. A small pack will help you carry both—along with other necessities such as car keys or cell phones.

hiking for beginners - packing your backpack

What to Pack for a Day Hike (The Hiking Essentials)

Before you leave on a hike, apply sunscreen and bug spray if necessary, then fill your pack with the following items:

  • Water: Bring at least one water bottle per hiker. (But bring more than that if you’re going to be gone all day.) Make sure you stay hydrated while you’re hiking not just at the end of the hike.
  • Snacks: Bring at least one high-energy snack (such as a protein bar) for each person.
  • Compass and map: Pack a paper map if possible or take a screenshot and cache it in your phone so you can access it even when you don’t have cell service.
  • Rain gear: A packable raincoat or lightweight poncho is good to have on hand no matter the forecast.
  • Extra socks: Hiking in wet socks is no fun. A back-up pair is always a smart idea.
  • First-aid: A few band-aids and some medical tape should be enough to get you through.

Our Picks for Best Day Packs for Hiking

The best day packs are small, lightweight, and streamlined. Some day pack styles even fold down into a smaller bag for storage. Here are five of our favorites.

This is the pack I personally own. I love its minimalist design and small size. I’ve used it everywhere from the local county park to traveling overseas.

It’s hard to beat the price of this pack. With its sleek styling, small size, and great price, it’s the perfect option for a first-time hiker.

Venture Pal’s model offers two water bottle holders and an extra zippered compartment, but still folds down into a packable size.

Osprey is a brand that has made its reputation in dependable, high-performance backpacks. This ultralight option is ideal for any minimalist hiker.

This versatile pack from Eagle Creek is ready for the trail or overseas travel. Padded, breathable straps give it a comfortable fit and lockable zippers keep your belongings safe.