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How To Start Hiking: Essential Tips For Beginners

If you’re looking to start hiking, you’ve come to the right place! While hiking is a relatively easy activity to get into, there’s a lot to learn if you want to become more experienced and venture out on challenging or remote trails. From safety considerations, to gear, to proper trail etiquette, it can feel overwhelming to just start hiking.

The good news is, the best way to learn is by doing. As you spend more time on the trail you’ll naturally pick up new information. This article is designed to help you start hiking by providing a basic overview of the most important information you need to know to get started. Keep reading to learn more about how to start hiking!

A couple standing on a hiking trail in front of mountains in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Quick Tips to Start Hiking

  1. Wear shoes with good traction.
  2. Know basic information about the trail before you go (distance; elevation gain; difficulty; etc.).
  3. Carry a map.
  4. Bring enough water and snacks.
  5. Check the weather forecast before you go.
  6. Dress appropriately for the weather.
  7. Read any signs at the trailhead for important information about the trail.
  8. Stay on trail.
  9. Pack it in, pack it out (aka take ALL of your trash with you, including dog poop bags!).
  10. Don’t be afraid to take breaks on the trail.

A couple and their dog stand on a rock in front of an alpine lake surrounded by mountains while hiking in Idaho.

Guide For Beginner Hikers

Choosing a Trail

Choosing the right trail can make or break your hiking experience, especially as a beginner hiker. In general, I would recommend choosing an easy or moderate trail near a major city, or in a national park or other well-developed area, for your first few hikes.

Where you’re located is also going to impact what trail you should choose. For example, there are a TON of beginner-friendly trails in Colorado, especially near cities like Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, and Grand Junction. However, there are also many hikes that would be extremely challenging or dangerous for beginners, including some Colorado 14’ers and popular alpine lakes.

Remember, you can work up to more difficult hikes over time. If you decided to start hiking because you have a big hiking goal on the horizon, getting out on the trail regularly and working up to progressively more challenging trails is going to be the best way to train for it. You may also want to consider lifting weights, with an emphasis on strengthening your lower body, back, and core to help you prepare. Having a base level of fitness is going to make hiking easier, but it’s not an activity you need to train for when you’re just starting out.

After finding a hike, make sure that you research any permits or fees you may need for the trail or the trailhead. Some national parks have timed-entry reservations during peak times of year, so if you’re planning on hiking you need to plan to advance.

If you want to know how to find hiking trails in your area, you can download my FREE GUIDE on the best hiking resources!

the best resources for finding epic hikes

What to Consider When Choosing a Trail:

  • The distance.
  • The elevation gain.
  • The terrain & difficulty of the trail.
  • The environment (hiking in the desert, at high altitudes, or in humid climates all come with unique considerations).
  • The time of year (some trails may be inaccessible during certain times of year).
  • Your fitness level.
  • How popular the trail is (in other words, how likely are you to encounter other hikers).
  • Whether you need a permit or if there are any special parking considerations (many trailheads are located along paved roads, but some require a high-clearance, 4WD to access).

Woman standing next to an alpine lake near Aspen, Colorado.

Packing the Right Gear

When you first start hiking, it can feel like you need to buy a bunch of expensive new gear before you can hit the trail. While there are certain pieces of hiking gear that you’ll want to invest in early on, the best hiking gear is the gear you already have. For example, you probably already have items like a backpack, water bottle, first aid kit, and athletic clothing. Try to make do with what you have before buying something new. Remember, you can invest in more technical hiking gear once you begin hiking more often and you know you’ll actually use it!

The 10 Essentials

For maximum preparedness on a hike, you should always carry the 10 essentials. This is a list of 10 items that hikers should carry in case of an emergency. There are many inherent risks associated with hiking, including inclement weather, wildlife, accidents, and dangerous trail conditions. Having the 10 essentials handy can help you navigate a variety of emergency situations and potentially save your life.

If you start hiking regularly, the 10 essentials should be the first pieces of gear that you purchase. You may also have many of these items around the house. Depending on the environment you’re hiking in, there may be additional essentials you need, like bear spray or a WAG bag (this is a bag to pack out your poop, which I discuss more about below!).

Woman wearing a hiking pack stands in front of a waterfall in Telluride, Colorado.

1. Navigation:

Remember, you’re not going to have cell service on most hiking trails. If you’re hiking in or close to a major city you may have cell service, but you should never rely on it. Always carry a map while hiking. This should ideally be a physical map, but I recognize learning how to properly read a topographic map can take time and shouldn’t necessarily hold you back from starting to hike. You can also download maps from apps like AllTrails or Gaia GPS, but they may not always be reliable (if you’re relying on your phone for your map, make sure to have a backup battery charger!). Keep in mind, if you stick to a well-established and heavily-trafficked trail, it should be easy to navigate.

2. Illumination:

Carry a headlamp in case you find yourself out after dark.

3. Sun Protection:

Wearing sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses can all protect you from the sun’s rays on a long hike.

4. First-Aid Kit:

There are a lot of ways you can potentially hurt yourself when hiking, so carry a small first-aid kit to help treat minor injuries on the trail. Helpful items to pack include band-aids, moleskin, gauze, antiseptic wipes, Tylenol/Advil, scissors, tweezers, and any medication you may need.

5. Knife:

A knife can serve a variety of purposes on a hike, including coming in handy in the event of an emergency.

6. Fire:

It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll find yourself in a situation where you need to start a fire during a hike, especially as a beginner hiker, but fire is something that can serve a variety of purposes in an emergency. It can keep you warm, dry clothing, allow you to cook, and the smoke can alert emergency officials if you’re lost. Put a lighter in your first-aid kit or carry waterproof matches for easy fire starters.

7. Emergency Shelter:

Having to spend an unexpected night on the trail when hiking is another extremely unlikely situation, especially on an easier/heavily trafficked trail. With that said, emergencies can strike at any time, especially out in nature. Having an inexpensive and lightweight emergency bivvy in your pack can save your life if the worst should happen while hiking.

8-10. Extra Food, Water, and Clothes:

Always carry more food and water than you think you’ll need on your hike in case you’re out longer than expected. Also pack extra clothing so you can stay warm and dry in the event of inclement weather.

Hiking poles aren’t an essential to start hiking, but they can be helpful for balance and stabilization in rough terrain. A lot of people find they have knee pain during steep descents when they first start hiking, but hiking poles can help relieve some of that pressure.

Dressing For Your Hike

Dressing appropriately on a hike typically means dressing for the weather. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to run out and buy a bunch of fancy, new hiking clothes. You may want to invest in hiking-specific clothing over time, but odds are good that you can find something in your closet to wear when you first start hiking, especially if you already own athletic wear and you’re hiking during the summer

Woman overlooking Zion Canyon while hiking in Southern Utah.
You can often find me hiking in Align leggings & a sports bra, with a sun shirt or other athletic top handy.

Wear the Right Shoes & Socks

If you’re going to invest in any piece of clothing when you start hiking, it should be a pair of hiking shoes with good traction. There are a TON of great hiking shoe options out there, and you can typically find sales year-round.

When it comes to selecting a hiking shoe I highly recommend going to an outdoor gear store, like REI, to try on multiple options to find the shoe that works best for your feet. REI also has an excellent return policy, so you can give your new hiking shoes a couple of test drives on the trail before you fully commit.

Whether you decide to wear high-top hiking boots, low-rise hiking shoes, or trail runners is ultimately a matter of personal preference. Be aware, that leather hiking boots can take some time to break in, so beginner hikers may prefer a hiking shoe or trail runner you can wear comfortably out of the box. Ultimately, you want to make sure your hiking shoes have good traction to help you navigate rough and uneven terrain safely.

I’m personally a big fan of wearing Altra trail running shoes when hiking. These fit like a pair of sneakers so I can stay light and fast on the trail. Altra shoes are zero-drop, which can take time for your feet to get used to. They also have a wide toe box, which is great for folks with wide feet. I’m also a big fan of Merrell for hiking boots and shoes.

Wearing the right socks when hiking can make all the difference when it comes to finishing the trail with blisters or not. Wool socks make ideal hiking socks because they’re moisture wicking, which means they dry quickly if they get wet. A pair of wool socks isn’t essential to start hiking, but it’s a piece of clothing that I wish I invested in sooner. My favorite brands are Darn Tough and Smartwool.

Layer Up

How you should dress for a hike is going to depend on things like the weather, time of year, and environment you’re hiking in. In general, you want to make sure that you wear or carry multiple layers of clothing to stay comfortable on the trail, especially if you’re hiking in an area where the weather can change quickly, like Colorado.

Layers to Consider Wearing/Carrying:

  • Baselayer
  • Mid-layer/fleece
  • Outer layer/puffy jacket
  • Raincoat
  • Windbreaker
  • Sun shirt

If you’re hiking during the winter make sure you have gloves, a warm hat, warm socks, and a neck warmer (technically optional, but nice to have!).

Cotton Kills

When it comes to the materials you should wear when hiking, remember the old adage, cotton kills. Once cotton gets wet it doesn’t dry, which can be dangerous, especially during cooler weather. Wearing cotton on a short hike in mild weather probably isn’t going to be the end of the world, but generally it’s a good idea to wear synthetic or moisture-wicking fabrics, like wool, that dry quickly and are designed to be sweat in.

Woman hiking on a trail in Tucson, Arizona surrounded by giant saguaro trees.

Remember to Leave No Trace

One of the best parts about hiking is getting to connect with nature. Practicing the seven Leave No Trace principles helps to minimize your impact on the environment while out hiking and exploring the outdoors. Many of the negative impacts from hiking and outdoor recreation are cumulative, so it’s important that everyone does their part to help keep our trails pristine for years to come!

Here’s a quick overview of the seven Leave No Trace principles:

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare 

Many of the tips in this post will help you plan and prepare for your hike. Always research the trail you’re hiking before you go so you know what to expect. Make sure you dress and pack appropriately for the trail conditions and weather. If you’re hiking alone, make sure you tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces 

When you start hiking you should stick to developed trails. Depending on the environment you’re hiking in, you may find that developed trails traverse rocks, sand, or snow. These types of surfaces are also considered “durable” for Leave No Trace purposes. Only venture off-trail if you need to take a bathroom break, as discussed below.

3. Properly Dispose of Waste

Pack it in, pack it out! If you bring something with you on a hike, it should come back out with you. This includes trash and pet waste if you’re hiking with your dog. It’s also courteous to pack out any trash you find on the trail.

When it comes to managing human waste, your best option is to go to the bathroom before starting your hike. If you need to pee during your hike, make sure you’re at least 200 ft. from water sources and fully off the trail so you don’t have any surprise encounters.

Different areas have different best practices for dealing with solid human waste. In most environments it’s appropriate to dig a cat hole to poop. Dig a hole 4-6 in. wide and 6-8 in. deep, squat and do your business, and remember to pack out your toilet paper afterwards. In desert or high alpine environments where human waste doesn’t break down easily, it’s important to carry a WAG bag so you can pack out your waste. Read more about best practices for pooping while backpacking and hiking.

4. Leave What You Find 

This principle is about respecting the natural environment and its resources. Different areas have different regulations when it comes to whether or not you can take natural objects, like rocks. Taking or damaging cultural resources, like archaeological sites and artifacts, is illegal in the United States. Carving into trees or rocks is also a no-go when hiking.

Man in lime green shirt and Colorado hat standing in front of Lower Blue Lake while hiking in Colorado.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

This Leave No Trace principle isn’t relevant to hiking, but if you’re out camping during your hiking outing, it’s important to practice campfire safety. Always check for fire bans before having a campfire. Even if a formal fire ban isn’t in effect, the conditions may make having a campfire unsafe (dry conditions, high winds, etc.), so always consider whether it’s safe to have a fire.

Keep campfires small and make sure they are always attended to. When you put out your campfire, make sure it is out completely before leaving the area. Stir the ashes and make sure they are cool to the touch.

6. Respect Wildlife 

Make sure you maintain a safe distance from wildlife. As a general rule of thumb, you want to stay 25 yards away from most wildlife, and 100 yards away from predators. Never feed wildlife. This can make wildlife accustomed to humans, which is harmful to wildlife.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

This should go without saying, but be kind to others on the trail. Keep reading below for basic trail etiquette while hiking!

The member-driven Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics teaches people how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. This copyrighted information has been reprinted with permission from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

Female hiker standing on a rock on a trail in Capitol Reef National Park.

Proper Trail Etiquette

Keep in mind that different places around the world have their own rules and norms when it comes hiking etiquette. Always research any local regulations and customs before hitting the trail. The information I’m about to share is generally accepted trail etiquette in the United States, per organizations like the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and American Hiking Society.

In general, uphill hikers have the right of way when hiking in the United States. This means if you’re hiking downhill and see hikers coming up, you should step to the side to let them pass (assuming you’re on a single-track trail). Hikers are also expected to yield to horses on the trail. Technically, mountain bikers are supposed to yield to hikers, but that may not always be safe or possible depending on the situation. Always use your best judgment and stay alert on multiple-use trails.

Enjoy Your Hike!

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