If you’re brand new to hiking, it can seem intimidating to know where to start. And do you really need all that hiking gear?? My goal here is to break it down and show you the hiking essentials every beginner needs, extra hiking gear that is nice to have, and a few things you should know before head out on the trail.
Bare hiking essentials beginners need to get started:
A comfortable backpack. This may be a given, but you’re going to need a way to carry around the few gear items you need to take with you on the tail. The key here is a *comfortable* backpack. Luckily with day packs, there is a lot more variety out there compared to bigger multi-day packs. Since your day pack should be pretty lightweight, and probably won’t have a hip belt, the fit doesn’t have to be quite as particular here as it would be for a multi-day pack. When trying on packs you want to make sure you can’t feel the straps digging into the sides of your neck or the sides of your rib cage or boobs if you got ’em. Then make sure it’s not pushing or rubbing weird on the back of your neck, or that the bottom of the pack doesn’t hang too low, weighing down or rubbing against your tailbone or butt.
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Consider the pockets and compartments in the pack – are there too many? Will you lose things in there? Does it have outer pockets for water bottles or a pouch for a water bladder, if you use a bladder? Does it have little pockets on the shoulder straps to keep snacks or mace in – will that bother you or no? Just some things to think about.
Reusable water bottles. For most day hikes, anything longer than 1-2 hours, I recommend carrying at least 2 liters (64 ounces) of water with you, possibly even more than 2 liters if you think you’ll be out more than 6-8 hours, or you’ll be climbing more than 1,000-2,000 ft in elevation and there are no water sources along the way. I just think it’s an epic waste to use disposable water bottles and it’s too easy to just throw a couple Nalgenes in my pack. While I like and prefer water bottles, that is personal preference and I know some people do really like to use a water bladder instead, which is totally fine! Most water bladders hold between 2-3 liters, which is perfect.
A first aid kit. It’s always a good idea to carry first aid supplies, for yourself if you get blisters or fall and get scraped up, or if you come across another hiker who needs help. If you’re day hiking, you could get away with a smaller first kit, but if you’ll be out for several days and be hiking further away from emergency services, you should carry a more hefty first aid kit.
A good map if it’s a new area or wilderness area. If you’ll be hiking in an unfamiliar area or especially a wilderness area, you need a map!! And you need to know how to read it. Places like REI, other outdoor gear shops, or local colleges or outdoor centers may offer free or cheap classes on how to use a map and compass – take advantage of them. Or if you can’t find a class, look up videos and articles online and practice in your local parks. Start small and close to home so you don’t get yourself too lost, but get a map of the area and go out and practice using it in a local park, finding landmarks, finding yourself on the map and orienting it properly.
Sunscreen and bug spray. Protect yo self before you wreck yo self out there! Seriously though, we all know the damaging effects of UV rays, but a sunburn will also make your hike super uncomfortable and your body will then require even more water to recover. So, just use sunscreen or protective sun clothes/hats, okay? And bug spray, depending on where you’re hiking you may be lucky to not encounter any bugs or you may spend your entire trip swatting bugs away from your face and picking them out of your partner’s eyes. The tricky thing is, as hikers, we want to avoid DEET in our bug spray because DEET is notorious for completely eating through the synthetic fabrics of our expensive, much loved, backpacking gear. Not all is lost though, your next best option is a Picaridin based bug spray for your skin (which has been proven just as effective as DEET as repelling mosquitoes, but is still too new of a product to have real studies done on ticks) then you could treat your usual hiking clothes with Permethrin spray to repel and actually kill ticks and mosquitoes who come in contact with it. Permethrin is not harmful to humans when used properly, and will have to be reapplied after several washings, or you could buy pre-treated hiking clothing that will have longer lasting bug killing effects. I also highly recommend a baseball cap and bug head net if you’re in an area where the bugs are dive bombing your eye balls.
Snacks. All the snaaaaacks! Sometimes people try to tell me they don’t like hiking, but really, I think they’re just hangry. Your body burns a lot of energy carrying a backpack up and down mountains all day, you’ve gotta refuel it along the way with hiking snacks like these to keep you going.
Rain gear. I always bring an extra layer, like a fleece jacket, and my rain coat. Always. If the forecast is calling for rain, then I also bring my rain pants and baseball cap for a little extra protection. Maybe it’s the infamous Colorado weather, but even on our sunniest of days we can get a wicked hail storm at pretty much any moment. So, better safe than wet and freezing.
A headlamp. Sometimes things can get a little crazy out there and you never if you might get held up, and be returning later than expected. Way later. Like in the pitch dark of night kind of later. But even if something crazy happens and you get delayed, just having a good headlamp with you so you can see the trail back out again could be a life saver.
Water treatment. I also always bring my Aquamira, just in case I find myself in a situation where I need to treat extra water. It might be one of those situations where you get stuck on the trail for whatever reason and find yourself low or out of water and still a long hike back to the trail head. If there are streams or lakes around, you can refill your water, treat it using Aquamira or a filter, and go on your merry way.
Extra hiking gear that is nice to have:
Trekking poles. I know, if you’ve never used them before, they may look and seem silly. But trekking poles are amazing! They help us climb up hill more efficiently, they help save our knees and joints on the down hills by taking some of the pressure and body weight off of our tired legs, they help us keep our balance on stream crossings or tricky terrain, and help us keep our rhythm and pace on flat trails.
Camera. If you own a good camera, like a DSLR, it may be worth it for you to take it out on the trail to capture landscapes, wildlife, or the night sky.
GPS or emergency beacon. If you do a lot of solo hikes in wilderness areas, I would actually argue this is a necessity rather than a ‘nice to have’ but if you’re just starting out and are going to be in groups on well-traveled trails, I understand might want to put off investing in an emergency GPS. But it is really nice to know you can always get help when you need it even if there’s no cell phone service, plus most have the ability to let friends and family back home track you as well, which is fun, and very calming for worried mothers everywhere.
Poop kit. Again, I could argue that this is a necessity instead of a nice to have item, but if you’ll be hiking mostly on trails with public bathrooms or pit toilets near by, you could probably get by without one. But I always, always, always bring mine just in case. You really do never know when you’ll have to go, and if the time strikes while you’re in the woods, you need to be able to properly bury your poo or carry out your waste so it doesn’t end up in someone’s campsite, on their dog, or in the water ways.
What to know before you go hiking:
Check the weather. It’s always good to at least have an idea of what you’ll be up against.
Get familiar with any local ‘dangers’ or risks like what wildlife is in the area, do flash floods happen there, will you be climbing high enough in elevation that you need to account for totally different climates?
Take a first aid class, wilderness first aid course if you can. The longer you hike, the longer it will take emergency services to get to you. The more you know how to prevent and injuries and illness in the woods, the better.
Learn the basics of Leave No Trace. The only way to preserve and protect our trails and wilderness areas is to reduce our negative human impacts on the land and Leave No Trace. There are 7 basic LNT principles that show us exactly what to do and not to do while we’re hiking so that others can also experience the joy of the outdoors after us.
Learn how to start a fire and carry a couple light fire starters in your first aid kit or backpack. Being able to start a fire, whether for warmth or as an emergency signal, could literally be the thing that saves your life if you’re lost of stuck in the woods.
Learn how to read a map and compass. Not only is this super useful to be able to find out where to go and track your progress, learning to use a map and compass can also save your life if you are lost in the woods.
Don’t let those items or skills intimidate you and keep you off the trail. You can go hiking and slowly build up your skills and gear stash at the same time. Just start off on easier trails, close to home as you’re learning and only move to longer, more secluded trails when you feel ready and have more of those skills under your belt.
For more hiking tips for beginners, check out these posts:
- What to include in your hiking itinerary
- Tips to stay hydrated on the trail
- The worst hiking advice I’ve heard, and what to do instead
- Campsite Safety tips
About the author, Mallory Moskowitz:
After studying Recreation, Park & Tourism Management, Mallory spent several years teaching environmental education, guiding hikes, and leading backcountry trips. Her life-changing trek from Georgia to New York on the Appalachian Trail is what sparked the creation of Your Adventure Coach, to share backpacking tips and resources with as many new hikers as possible.