Hiking is more than just a wonderful way to get fit, (climbing hills and mountains packs a powerful cardio workout). It’s good for the soul, helps you switch off from work and can be your passport to a life of adventure. This hiking for beginners guide hopes to convince you hiking can be accessible and fun for everyone.
Hiking has taken me into remote areas in the Hindu Kush, along jaw dropping ridges in Spain and into the wilderness of Alaska. Life becomes so much more exciting when you leave the car behind.
How Do You Start Hiking For Beginners?
It’s a big leap of faith taking up hiking when you have absolutely no experience or the last time you went hiking was years ago on an outward bound’s course with the school.
This is why my first piece of advice is to find someone to hike with.
Now I love solo hiking but it’s just not a good idea until you know what you’re doing. There’s basic navigation skills to learn and you need to build up knowledge to explore the hills and mountain trails safely.
If you don’t have a friend to take you hiking, it’s best to join a group. Search on FaceBook and you should find groups in your local area. Meetup is another great way to find hiking groups of like minded people.
It may be tempting to head off alone just like Reese Wetherspoon in Wild, but it’s better to learn survival skills first. One option is to take a hiking skills course such as these hill courses in the UK.
Hiking For Beginners: Guide To Choosing A Trail
There are a few things you need to think about when you pick your hiking route:
How much time do you have?
Will it be a full day hike or just a few hours? Take into account daylight hours – you don’t want to end up benighted. (Keeping a light head lamp in your pack is always a good idea). Factor in the time it will take to get to the start of your hike.
Let’s be realistic with this one. If it’s years since you last went hiking, or it’s your first time, start off with short easy day hikes. It’s always best to build up to longer and more strenuous efforts.
Distance and Elevation
As a general rule most people can walk at 3 miles per hour on flat, easy terrain. As soon as you add elevation to a hike, the amount of time it takes increases drastically. The question is by how much?
William W. Naismith, a Scottish mountaineer pondered this question back in 1892 and came up with a rule that’s still widely used today.
Naismith’s rule tells us to allow one hour for every 3 miles and an additional hour for every 2000ft (600m) of ascent.
This is based on an average level of fitness. Allow extra time if you’re new to hiking, if the terrain is difficult or you’re carrying a big pack.
It’s best to be wary about average times recommended in hiking guides until you’ve tried out a few routes. Responsible guide books usually over-estimate the times for hikes but there’s always a few “macho” exceptions!
Time of year and weather
You should never, ever go hiking without checking the weather forecast. If a big storm is about to hit and you have a creek to cross, you need to be forewarned!
This doesn’t mean you can’t hike in bad weather, (provided you have good clothing and equipment), but you need to match plans to weather conditions. Strong winds will make high level routes dangerous but it won’t stop you enjoying a sheltered hike at low level.
The time of year can be a factor in some places and conditions will vary from year to year. Alpine routes can be closed by snow into the summer months. I’ve waded through snow accessing the Bugaboos (Canada) as late as July!
Check the hiking route information
I know this is an obvious one but you’d be surprised how often people pick a route and don’t check the details.
Familiarize yourself with the route and work out the logistics. Is the start and finish in the same place? Or will you need to shuttle cars or get someone to drop you off?
Staying Safe When You’re Hiking
Now I don’t want to freak you out by this heading. Hiking is generally a very safe activity. In fact there are some easy trails where it would be almost impossible to lose your way or come to any harm.
That said, some hiking routes are more challenging requiring good navigation skills and the ability to hike on steep rocky ground. If in doubt, start with easy trails first.
Hiking For Beginners, Tips To Stay Safe:
Don’t get lost!
It’s a really good idea to learn how to use a map and compass. I would say it’s essential once you start hiking on more challenging routes.
Your GPS may include an electronic compass but it’s always good to carry a compass that doesn’t rely on batteries. A compass is extremely lightweight so I keep one permanently in the top of my pack.
Using a GPS is extremely convenient when you’re hiking and has benefits for even the best navigators. You can use a GPS app on your smartphone but bear in mind your phone doesn’t like bad weather and often won’t work when it’s really cold. It’s better to take a reliable GPS device. The Garmin GPSMAP 64s is a top favourite in the hiking community.
Tell someone where you’re going.
Leave your route plan with someone, especially if you’re hiking solo. It’s also a good idea to make the most of today’s technology and be able to connect with the rescue services if something goes wrong. (Or just send a message to loved ones to let them know you’ll be late).
Phone service and hiking terrain don’t always mix and sometimes it can be hard to get a signal. One solution is to carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) or a satellite messenger such as the Garmin InReach. A PLB is just for contacting emergency services whereas you can use the Garmin inReach to send text messages when you can’t get a phone signal. The Garmin inReach Explorer is a handy combination of GPS and messenger functions.
Over in the UK the biggest hazard is a herd of cows (be wary if you have a dog with you) and we don’t really do dangerous wild animals. I’ll leave it to the Australians to cover their fearsome wildlife, instead here are a few tips if you’re hiking in North America.
We’re mainly taking bears here or possible cougars. I guess wolves can be dangerous but I once had a lone wolf walk across my campsite, eyeball me, then continue on his way. I was more thrilled than scared but it’s worth reading up on these wolf safety tips.
Cougar attacks are also rare. Double bag your food, never approach, stand tall and don’t run away. Read the full tips to stay safe from cougar attacks.
In bear country the top tips are:
- Do not hike alone
- Make noise on the trail
- Carry bear spray and have it accessible
- Never run from a bear.
Hiking For Beginners – Make sure you’re properly equipped!
Make sure you’re properly equipped if you’re travelling in bear country. Keep your bear spray accessible on your belt at all times.
These little critters are my biggest fear on the trail. Tick-borne illnesses are on the rise in both the UK and North America.
Always do a tick check at the end of a day’s hiking. (If possible get someone-else to check all the parts that are hard to see). If you find a tick, use tweezers to extract the tick by getting as close to the point of contact as possible and pulling upwards. Don’t squeeze the body.
Hiking For Beginners – Take an essential survival kit.
What you carry will vary depending on your hike, but my hiking for beginners guide includes a list of ten essentials everyone should consider taking. Originally the list was put together in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, based in Seattle. It’s been up-dated a little to a system approach but remains a go-to list for survival packing.
The ten essential systems:
- Navigation aids
- Headlamp (with spare batteries)
- Sun protection
- First Aid
- Knife (plus gear repair kit)
- Fire (matches, lighter, stove)
- Shelter (such as emergency bivi bag)
- Extra food
- Extra water
- Extra clothes.
Do I take all these items every time I hike? My honest answer is no. Am I always aware of the list packing my bag? Oh yes!
On some easy hikes where there’s no risk of getting lost and it’s a short distance back to the trail head, I might leave out quite a few of these items. If it’s a multi-day hike in a remote area, where you need to be self-sufficient, every one of those items will be in my pack.
What you take is down to you, the nature of the trail, weather conditions and time of year, your fitness and competence. Getting caught out on a hot day in summer – water and sun protection is a priority. You can survive a night out without shelter. In winter it’s a whole different story where clothing and shelter become your no. 1 priority.
(See below for my hiking for beginners equipment recommendations).
Hiking For Beginners: What To Wear On The Trail
It’s taken me a lot of trial and error to find my favourite pieces of kit for hiking. I also trail run so I tend to choose items which work equally well for both activities.
I look for comfort, function and unashamedly for looks. Usually in that order. There’s nothing worse than hiking clothing that’s uncomfortable to wear. Irritating chaffing at the start of a hike will be downright sore by the end!
Items which fit well and have some built-in stretch work for me. Hiking clothing needs to be functional. I’d rather have a few quality pieces from top performance hiking brands in my wardrobe than a whole pile of clothing I never want to wear.
Hiking Shoes & Boots
When it comes to hiking for beginners, your hiking boots or shoes should be your top priority. This is a very personal choice and something you need to get right. Comfortable footwear can make or break a hike. Some people prefer sturdy boots on the trail with good ankle protection, others are happy to wear lightweight hiking shoes or even trail running shoes.
In many ways it depends on the hike. If you’re hiking over snowy passes in winter, you will need boots suitable for crampons if the path becomes treacherous.
Most people carrying heavy packs on a multi-day hike will prefer the ankle support of at least lightweight boots. I used the Salomon Quest Prime GTX backpacking boots when I hiked the West Highland Way and loved them.
When it comes to day hikes it’s really down to preference. I usually wear my trail running shoes but will wear my Salomon XA Pro 3D GTX for wet terrain or my Keen Durand Hiking Boots if I want some ankle support.
Skimping on hiking socks is a big mistake. When it comes to socks comfort is key. Hiking isn’t the time to choose no-show ankle socks even if you’re worried about tan lines!
(I did go through a season running trail races sock-less to avoid tan lines. It was a mistake – get a stone in your shoe and it really digs in when you’re running without socks).
It’s best to make sure the top of your socks sit a couple of inches above the top of your boots. Choose between wool or synthetic socks and whether you want light, medium or heavy-weight cushioning. Medium cushioning can be best for all except the coldest weather.
Wool socks are often best for regulating temperature but pick a blend of wool and synthetic for extra durability. Darn Tough socks are my current favourites.
When it comes to women’s hiking pants, I’m a fan of the trend for hiking in leggings. Hiking in full length pants or leggings can be best for avoiding ticks or scratches from undergrowth. (Though sometimes it’s just too hot and I have to resort to shorts).
Stretchy, breathable and durable are my top requirements. In summer my favourite women’s hiking pants are the The North Face Wandur Hike Pants. I have long legs and I love the way these pants come in 3 different leg lengths.
In winter, protection is key. I look for pants or leggings with water resistant and windproof fabric. It can make the difference between being just right or having really cold legs on a hike.
Of course you can always pull on waterproof over pants, but these can be very sweaty to hike in. I’d rather go with good hiking pants and just keep some lightweight waterproof pants for really wet conditions. Mountain Hardwear and Arc’teryx are favourite brands.
Hiking Tops or Shirts
Advice aimed at hiking for beginners always seems to suggest wearing collared hiking shirts. I’ve never really bought into this trend. I can see a collar is a good way to keep the sun off your neck but I just find hiking in a shirt a bit odd.
I do see the advantage of a long sleeved top if the sun is really intense and will often wear one in really hot climates. When it comes to cooler weather, layers are best. Trapping warm air between your clothing layers helps to keep you insulated.
I don’t buy into the whole merino wool trend. I’ve tried but I find wool just doesn’t wick well enough and can be cold, clammy and slow to dry when it gets wet. I use my merino tops for sitting around the house in winter instead. On the hiking trail, I stick to wicking, quick drying synthetic fabrics from performance brands such as The North Face, Mountain Hardwear and Arc’teryx.
Insulated Hiking Layers
A hiking for beginners guide would be remiss without explaining the different types of insulation on offer. There’s so much choice for hiking it can be over-whelming. Plus so many hikers get this so wrong.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen hikers wearing microlight down jackets in winter. Now don’t get the wrong idea. Ethically sourced down is a wonderful source of insulation at your overnight campsite or sitting on a cold belay stance. It’s just that it’s STATIC insulation and will make you overheat once you start hiking up a mountain.
It’s also rubbish when it gets wet. The feathers stick together in useless clumps. (The only time I’ve hiked in a down jacket was at 7000 m on Lhotse. It was really cold!)
When you’re hiking you want breathable insulated layers. This is where synthetic insulation comes into it’s own. Dynamic insulation made from high loft, low density fibers such as Primaloft or Polartec Alpha. Some of my favourites are The North Face Thermoball, ideal for all seasons or the Arc’teryx Atom AR Hoody for cold weather days. Both these jackets provide wind protection (essential in cooler weather).
If I need a light weight warm layer in summer, I just pack a micro fleece such as The North Face Tech Glacier 1/4 Zip.
Hiking For Beginners – Waterproof Jackets
My choice for a waterproof jacket always depends on the season. In summer, when the temperatures are reasonable, you can get away with a lightweight waterproof jacket that’s easy to pack. My top waterproof jacket for summer is the affordable Marmot Precip.
When it comes to hiking in prolonged rain on cold winter days, I’m a lot more choosy about the jacket I carry. Your waterproof jacket needs to keep you dry! When I’m in the UK in winter that’s a big deal. Scottish winter weather is notorious and choosing the right jacket can be a life-saver. I always go for reliable brands. This is one area where it’s a mistake to skimp on price. You’re looking for a breathable and fully waterproof hiking jacket. My choice is the Arc’teryx Beta AR Jacket. It’s reasonably light to carry and packs a big punch for storm conditions. (If you live in a drier climate than the UK you may find the lighter weight Arc’teryx Beta SL suitable).
I rarely go anywhere without a hat of some kind. A cap in summer to protect my face from the sun and a warm hat or bandana in winter.
When I’m choosing a sun cap I look for a good sized brim and I need a deep cap with a pony tail opening to make sure it stays on my head! Something like this Trailheads cap for running and hiking.
Gloves For Hiking
Like many women I suffer from cold hands and I’m rarely without a pair of gloves even in summer. (Hothands are my no. 1 essential item on any outdoor trip).
It used to amaze me when I ran an outdoor store: the number of women who came in complaining about cold hands hiking, but still wouldn’t invest in a good pair of gloves.
Gloves last for years and every outdoor user should have at least one pair of waterproof, insulated gloves. I have a pair of Sugoi gloves I use everywhere. Even on hot days I will add my super lightweight Salomon Agile Gloves to my pack just in case.
My mother was an optician so I’ve had it drummed into me from a young age the need to protect your eyes from sunlight. Plus wearing sunglasses on a hike makes hiking so much more enjoyable instead of squinting on sunny days.
When you’re hiking you do need glasses that will stay on easily. These are some top picks for the trail:
Hiking For Beginners: Packing For The Trail
Although I might do a very short hike on trails I know without a pack, it’s usually a good idea to take a back pack even on short trips. Remember the ten essential systems listed above and make sure you’re properly equipped for the hike you’re about to undertake.
That said, hiking isn’t about throwing in everything you might need just in case. You have to carry your pack. Take too much and you sabotage your chances of a successful hike. That pack will start to feel much heavier a few miles down the trail. Learn to pack light!
I like to carry my pack-light philosophy over to the actual pack I carry. There’s a trend to equip packs with every latest gizmo until the actual pack weight will leave you struggling to carry anything-else. My current favourite for day hikes is the Salomon Trailblazer 30 (smaller women may find the Trailblazer 20 a better fit).
For multi-day hikes, I have my eye on the wonderfully light Osprey Lumina 60 but it’s hard to go wrong with any Osprey Pack and the new Osprey Kyte 46 comes backed with features for an overnight hiking trip.
I’m a bit old school when it comes to navigation and tend to opt for a paper map and compass. Yet using a GPS and a satellite messenger service really is the future and a hiking for beginners guide needs to point out the obvious benefits. It’s a sensible precaution for backpacking in remote areas.
If there’s any risk of being caught out and stuck on the trail after the sun goes down, it’s best to take a headlamp. Stuff happens on the trail and stumbling along in the dark to get back to your car isn’t a good idea. Especially in the winter months when the days are short. Spare batteries are essential for longer hikes.
Hiking in summer you will be fried without decent sun protection, especially if you’re hiking over high passes. I don’t mess about when it comes to sun protection. On the trail I go for Factor 50. It lasts longer and gives you the best possible protection.
I hate bugs and whenever I head off hiking in summer, bug protection is on my list. Unless I’m in a malaria area abroad, I prefer to avoid products with DEET. I find Avon Skin So Soft or Smidge see off most midges or mosquitoes.
I always think the contents of your first aid kit is a personal choice. At a minimum I always carry some plasters and Compeed blister pads. A crepe bandage is a good idea in case you turn your ankle on the trail.
For multi-day hikes in remote areas, take a comprehensive lightweight first aid kit. It’s best to make up your own but an off-the-shelf kit could save the day!
Knife and Fire
I cannot imagine needing a knife on a day hike or every carrying fire making equipment such as a stove. Backpacking overnight is a different story and most of the time a knife, gear repair kit and stove are must haves for camping.
I once dated an outdoor enthusiast who always carried a little survival tin with snares, tinder and fire lighting material with him everywhere he went. Plus a mean looking hunting knife. (I also had a friend, led by a guide the wrong way off Mount Elbrus in a storm, who spent 6 days surviving on just one mars bar).
Way up the risks on your trail, but for most day hikes, water, food, clothing and an emergency bivy bag are essential. A knife and fire making equipment? Not so much.
NOTE: In most hiking areas lighting fires is strictly forbidden because of the risk of forest fires. Barbeques are for the backyard, not the trail.
Unlike my views on fires and knifes, an emergency shelter is essential for most hikes if you’re venturing into remote or mountainous area.
Being able to whip out an emergency survival bag from your pack could be a life saver. The Grizzly Gear Emergency Sleeping Bag weighs just 5.6 ounces! There’s really no excuse not to have one in your pack.
Avoid survival blankets. You need something you can crawl into if you’re stuck with a broken leg in a storm.
Food on the trail is a personal choice but nutritious high energy snacks are essential. Never underestimate how hungry you can become on a day hike. Sometimes having adequate food supplies can make a big difference. No-one wants to get stuck on a trail because they lack the energy to complete the hike.
It’s always important to pack an extra ration for emergencies. Keep it separate in your pack just in case your day fails to go to plan and you need some extra energy to make it to the trail head.
Even more important than adequate food, hydration is key on a hike. Most people can force themselves to keep going when hungry, but a lack of water can land you in serious trouble.
Always take more water than you need and in many situations it’s worth taking a survival filter and potable aqua tablets.
I carried a Life Straw around with me in Tibet once and I’m not a fan. It’s better than nothing but really limited as you can’t decant the water into a bottle and treat with potable aqua to be on the safe side.
Always carry some extra clothing with you for emergencies. That lovely summer’s day can often change in an instant when you’re in the mountains.
Never go anywhere on the trail without a waterproof jacket and on longer hikes, in winter or poorer weather take some lightweight waterproof over trousers in your pack.
Of course a camera isn’t essential but it’s usually top of most people’s list when packing for a hike. You can of course use your phone. Your camera weight is a big deal camping and so are conditions on the trail. I once had an Olympus Tough and loved it. The camera is seriously indestructible but there are plenty of good affordable compacts to use on the trail.
My partner is semi-pro and uses the mirrorless Olympus OM-D E-M10. It’s superlight for this type of camera and ideal for inaccessible mountain shoots.
Hiking For Beginners – What Do I Need To Know Before Hiking?
We’ve covered the details of picking a route, what to wear and what to take. We’ve also covered safety including how to stay safe hiking in bear country.
All that’s left is a little trail etiquette:
- Leave no trace. Keep the wilderness pristine for other users.
- Check regulations for where you’re hiking. In many National Parks it’s important to keep to established trails.
- Pack it in, pack it out. Take all your trash out with you. If you’re camping overnight it’s best practice to use a camp trowel and pack out toilet paper in a thick sealable plastic bag. (Maybe take an opaque bag to hide it in).
- Look but don’t pick plants or wild flowers.
- Only light camp fires where they are permitted. Use for cooking only and keep fires small.
- Greet people you meet on the trail but respect their space.
- Allow other users to pass you.
- Don’t interfere with wildlife, observe from a distance.
I really hope you enjoy your first hiking trips. This hiking for beginners guide is a long list of do’s and don’ts, tips for staying safe. Don’t be put off.
Hiking is a wonderful way to explore the incredibly beautiful world we live in. With a few sensible precautions it’s possible to explore even remote areas safely. I’d love to hear how you get on…