Getting started as a new hiker can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never ever gone hiking before and ESPECIALLY if you don’t have supportive friends and family cheering you on. I promise hiking doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive but there are a few things you should know before you begin hiking and backpacking.
How to prepare yourself for hiking
Start where you’re at. Yes, it is true that the more ‘fit’ you are the longer or farther you’ll be able to hike. But that does not mean that you should put off hiking because you don’t think you are ‘fit enough’ yet. (Unless you’re doctor says you’re not fit enough…. then that’s a different story that you need to sort out with them.)
If you don’t think you’re fit enough to hike 5 miles, start with 2 miles. If you don’t think you’re fit enough to hike up 1,500 feet in elevation gain, choose an easier trail with less steep terrain.
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Aside from choosing a trail that fits your current physical abilities, be sure to nourish your body the day before and the day of your hike. Drinks lots of water in the 24 hours leading up to your hike so you don’t start off dehydrated. Make sure to eat plenty of fats and protein before and throughout your hike to keep your body moving. Depending on how difficult the hike is, you might be burning ~4,000 calories, hiking days are not the days to be limiting or cutting calories.
Set yourself up for success by getting a good night’s sleep before your hike and gently stretching your legs and hips before you start hiking, especially if you had a long drive to the trailhead.
What to wear hiking
Any synthetic clothing that you feel comfortable in. You don’t have to buy expensive, brand name, hiking-specific clothes – you can if you want to! But you do you. When I say ‘synthetic’ think athletic wear, athleisure, running or workout clothes, most commonly made from polyester, nylon, or spandex blends and some can be made from wool. Try to avoid cotton as much as possible.
Be sure to choose pants and a shirt that you can move freely in and won’t have to be adjusting or pulling up all day. If you’re just starting out, wear socks and sneakers that you know you’ll be comfortable walking in all day. If you’ve been hiking for a little bit or know you love it and want to get out more, it’s worth investing in good quality, wool hiking socks and hiking boots or trail running shoes that fit your feet well and have great traction on the bottom of the soles.
Be ready for sudden changes in weather and always bring extra layers like a long sleeved shirt and/or a warm jacket or fleece.
Hiking essentials to carry
Did you ever notice that some stereotypes exist because they’re kinda true? If you read enough search and rescue reports and news articles about missing hikers, you’ll start to notice a trend: Missing hiker found dead from exposure wearing a tank top and carrying only a water bottle.
Don’t be that hiker wearing dollar store flip flops and only carrying a selfie stick and a small bottle of water.
As much as we don’t like to think about it, things don’t always go as planned out there on the trail and we need to be prepared and able to take care of ourselves in a situation where other people, vehicles, and emergency services probably won’t be very close by. Even the most experienced hikers could get lost or injured, the most important thing is that you know what to do in case that happens and can keep yourself safe for several hours or possibly overnight until rescue teams can come to get you.
This means always hiking with a backpack that has some high-calorie snacks in it, more water than you think you’ll need (2 liters or more per person,) a first aid kit, a headlamp or flashlight, a jacket, rain gear, a map and compass, water treatment, a whistle, a pocket knife, emergency fire starters or waterproof matches, bear mace if in bear country, and an emergency GPS device if you can afford one – this will allow you to call for help even if you don’t have cell phone service.
Basic hiking skills you need to know
How to use a map and compass. If you’re just starting out and mostly hiking in local public parks, small nature preserves or close to urban areas, using a map and compass may be slightly less imperative. I say that because I don’t want you to never go hiking just because you don’t know how to use a map and compass, but the farther away from home you wander and the more remote wilderness areas you go to, the more important this becomes. So it’s definitely a skill worth learning if you’ll be hiking more regularly.
How to start a fire. Again, don’t let this hold you back from hiking if you don’t know how to already, but the more you hike, and the more remote places you hike, the more important this skill becomes so you know how to start a fire to keep yourself warm or boil water in emergency situations, or even make a signal fire if you become lost.
How to treat water. Even the most novice hikers should carry some sort of emergency water treatment with them and know how to use it. Whether that’s a water filter or something like Aquamira, if you run out of water on a hike or become lost, you’ll need away to rehydrate yourself without also adding waterborne illness to your list of woes.
How to use the bathroom in the woods. This is also something each and every hiker should know how to do – you never know when nature will call and I promise your hike will be much more enjoyable if you find a spot to go instead of trying to hold it in all day. If you have to pee, find a spot well off of the trail where other hikers can’t see you, and away from water sources (cause that’s gross) and let it flow. If you use any toilet paper or tissue, make sure to either pack it out in a ziploc bag to throw away later or dig a 6-inch deep hole to bury it in. For real 6-inches though, not 3, not 4 – animals will just dig up your trash if you bury it poorly and either eat it which is bad for them, or just spread it around and make a mess, which is bad for everyone involved. Alternatively, use a bandana (pee rag) or kula cloth instead of toilet paper. If you need to poop, I have a whole post on that here, but in a nutshell, also make sure you dig a thorough 6-inch deep hole to poop in and place your toilet paper in, cover it back up and I also usually try to place a good sized rock on top of it also to help prevent other animals or hikers from accidentally digging it up.
How to Leave No Trace. We touched on this with how to use the bathroom in the woods, but Leave No Trace principles also apply to your food and trash and how we interact with the natural habitat around us. Essentially, we want to make like ninjas and make sure no other humans or animals can tell we hiked or camped where we did. That means no leaving trash (or food waste) behind, no trampling flowers, no vandalizing rocks or trees, and definitely no starting any 193,000 acre wildfires – yes, that really happened near my house last summer.
First Aid or Wilderness First Aid. I would also recommend this to any hiker, the more of us out there on the trails who are first aid trained and certified, the safer we’ll all be. If you’ll be spending a lot of time hiking and especially backpacking into wilderness areas, I highly recommend taking a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder class.
Essential hiking tips
Always let a trusty friend or family member know where you’re going and when you plan to be back, and check in with them when you get back so they know you’re alive or whether they need to sound the alarm and report you missing.
If you’re in a very hot or desert climate, avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day. Use as much sun protection as possible, like big hats, lightweight long sleeved shirts and long pants, and lots of sunscreen. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, bring more water than you think you’ll need and bring plenty of electrolytes to mix in with it.
If you’re hiking at higher elevations (6,000+ ft) start early and plan to be off of all summits and peaks by noon, before the afternoon lightning storms roll in. Also, be prepared for extreme weather changes, harsh winds, snow, hail and below freezing temperatures, even in the summer time.
Prevent hypothermia by bringing along a warm jacket and a rain coat to block any rain or wind. Once you get soaked or chilled through, it will be very difficult or impossible to warm back up, so prevention is key here by adding warm, dry layers before you get too cold.
Stop frequently for snacks and water breaks, at least every 30-60 minutes, long naps at scenic overlooks are also strongly recommended.
Take your time and take lots of breathers when hiking uphill. Also, take your time and take care when hiking downhill, use trekking poles to help your body move more efficiently and take some pressure off your knees and ankles.
For optimal enjoyment, keep your phone on silent but keep it handy so you can take 1,000 photos to document your hike.
How to increase your stamina for hiking
As you get more interested in hiking, you may want to start attempting longer or more challenging trails – which is awesome! And totally doable, if you work up to it. I know this is annoying advice, but the best way to increase hiking stamina is to hike more! That doesn’t necessarily mean more often, but rather more weight and more distance. Slowly work on increasing the mileage of your hikes.
Also work on slowly increasing the weight of the pack you carry on your hikes – pack in extra water bottles, extra gear, rocks, or even weights themselves inside your pack. This is perfect especially if you’re short on time, you can still make a short hike challenging by carrying extra weight.
Add in elevation gain or stairs if you live in a very flat area. Try more steep hikes or hikes with long climbs once you feel ready for an extra challenge, or load up your pack and climb reps of stairs if you live in a flat region.
Now you know, you can begin hiking with minimal gear and experience, just stay close to home and on easy trails to start off with and as you gain more knowledge and gear over time, then you can start wandering further and further into the wilderness. No questions are too big or too small, and there is no such thing as a dumb hiking question – if you’re still wondering about something, let me know in the comments and I’d love to help you out.
For more hiking tips for beginners, check out these posts:
- Hiking Terms and Lingo You Need To Know
- Essentials For Hiking With Kids
- How To Stay Motivated On A Difficult Hike
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.