Imagine, the sun is just starting to rise, bathing the valley with a perfect orange glow, in front of you, jagged peaks reach into the sky and slowly reveal themselves with the rising sun. The soft bubbling of a nearby stream fills your ears as a herd of Elk slowly grazes off in the distance.
This scene is not fantasy, this is reality, being good at hiking can transport you to the most beautiful places on the planet. Undertaking hiking as a new hobby is the greatest decision you will ever make but it is important to understand the basics. Let’s first break down hiking into 4 steps:
Following these four steps is a great way to safely enter the world of hiking. A quick internet search of “how to start hiking” will yield thousands of results, most of which are completely useless. I wrote this guide in response to the plethora of subpar content on the Internet. My hope is that this article lays excellent groundwork for your foray into hiking. There is always more to learn but I am confident this outline will give you the confidence needed to follow your dreams and discover the beauty of our planet.
It is important to properly prepare yourself for any hike being undertaken. Since you are just starting, most hikes will be day hikes, probably close to where you live. As a beginner, one of the first steps of preparing is to know your limits. There is no need to pull a 32 kilometer day on your first day, keep it simple and you will have more fun. The same goes for the route you choose, pick a hiking trail close to home that is relatively simple. Build on your experiences until you feel safe undertaking more strenuous and dangerous hikes.
Part of preparing is understanding the conditions and elements you may be facing. Do some research on the trail you will be hiking, its topography and the weather conditions for that day. Begin to understand the space you are entering and what features you should be prepared for. Every trail is different from the next, doing your homework will allow for complete immersion.
Here are some tips on what to research before your hike:
- Hiking outdoors means there is no shelter and you are at the mercy of the weather. It is important to read the forecast, you can then pack appropriate clothing and gear depending on the conditions.
- Finding a good trail. Draw a radius around your home, try to keep it close, maybe a 1-2 hour drive. Inside this radius should be your hiking trail, look for public parks and public land that offer trails. Try and pick one that is fairly easy to get to and you feel confident about completing.
- Trail reports. There are plenty of websites that rate and list hiking trails. See if you can find one in your area talking about a good hike.
- Have fun. When preparing for a hiking trip, remember to view it as an experience, it should be fun. No need to go over the top or over think any part of the process, remember, we are meant to be outside, not behind a computer!
Sometimes the hardest part of the hike is actually getting there. Because hiking takes place away from development, finding a trailhead can be a bit of a journey. It is important to plan ahead and have directions.
Finding a Trail
When I begin to plan a hike, I use Google Maps, it is the best software available for targeting trailheads. Once a trailhead is pinpointed, feel free to use satellite imagery to gain an overview of the terrain and topography. See if you can spot the walking trail on satellite imagery, there is a good chance you might!
Look for rivers, inclines, valleys, any large features that would be helpful to prepare for. Understanding the landscape will make the hike even more enjoyable, especially once you begin to recognize features you saw from home. If you are hiking with other people, they will be impressed with your geographic knowledge.
Estimate your speed
It is also important to plan how long you will be hiking for, whether it is multiple days or a few hours. Because it is your first time, plan to hike 1 mile an hour (1.6km/hr); this is a very conservative estimate and once you feel comfortable, your speed will most likely increase.
Example: There is a beautiful trail nearby that is 10 miles long (16.1km) but you only have 3 hours for hiking. Try only walking 1.5 miles (2.41km) up the trail, turning around and hiking back; remember, start small! This is a good experiment to see how fast your hiking speed is, once you are aware of your capabilities, use the information for future hikes.
It is good practice to bring a map or GPS along on every hike. It is smart to be prepared, you never know when a map will be useful. Hiking in remote areas can be overwhelming at first, with no street signs, it is hard to tell the direction. Having a map will give you the confidence needed to continue hiking and let you grow to be an experienced outdoorsman.
One of the most important activities to engage in before a hike is packing. A reminder, there will be no restaurants or water fountains outside, everything needed must be brought along. If this sounds daunting, don’t worry, it is nothing you haven’t done before. Think about it like going to school but instead of books and pens, you bring gear and food.
Food and Water
Even if your hike is only a few hours, it is important to always bring food and water. Hiking is more than a simple walk, it involves weather patterns, sun, temperature changes, and topography, much different than walking in a mall or a city. Because you will be exercising, your body will crave both food and water. It is important to prevent hunger and dehydration to keep the experience fun.
I always pack twice the amount of food required, even bringing two days of food for simple day hikes. The benefit of this practice is two-fold, not only can I eat as much as I want but I can prevent my hiking partners from becoming hungry as well. The happier your team, the better experience will be had by all.
As for water, it is important to always bring at least 2 liters per person, per day. Having this much water will be a healthy amount, enough to keep everyone hydrated on a day hike. If you suspect yourself of consuming even more, do not hesitate to bring more! Some hikers will invest in a water filter, carrying the tool and refilling their bottles along the way. There is nothing more important than having enough water on a hike.
As you are well aware, it is important to go into the hike prepared. I made a simple list of gear every beginner should bring with them. Being self-sufficient while hiking will lay the groundwork for even more hikes in the future.
- There is no need for a large overnight backpack but having a simple bag will make your hike that much more enjoyable. Make sure it is large enough to hold your food, water, and gear, but not too large that you feel compelled to over pack and weigh yourself down.
- Dress in Layers. Wear at least 3 layers of clothes on your hike. This insulates you against any and all conditions. If it is cold, you can bundle up and if it gets warm, taking off a couple layers will be easy and comfortable. I even throw a rain jacket in the backpack if I think it might be necessary!
- Always bring your phone, most even have GPS built into them. Being able to communicate with people is very important for safety.
- Small Knife. Having a knife will prove to be handy in a myriad of situation. From cutting cheese to repairing your backpack, there is no end to the possibilities.
- Water bottle. Using a water bottle or water bladder is the best way to carry water on the trail.
- When the sun comes out, you will be forever grateful that you do not have to squint. Sunglasses will make hiking better by minimizing squinting and headaches.
- Sun Block. Being exposed to the sun for an entire day, your skin will be saturated with UV rays. Remember to block up and avoid cancer.
- Bug spray. When hiking near bodies of water or in the woods, it is likely insects will become particularly bothersome. Having some bug repellent goes a long way to making an enjoyable hike.
- Comfortable shoes. There is no need to spend exorbitant amounts of money on “hiking” shoes. Just wear the most comfortable pair of shoes you own, those that you play sports in or can jog in are perfect for hiking.
The day has arrived, after all the prepping, planning, and packing, you are finally hitting the great outdoors. It is probably a good idea to wake up early, this gives you plenty of time to have a hearty breakfast and be physically prepared for the rigors of hiking. After eating, a quick check of your packing should be conducted. It is best practice to pack the day before, this prevents any rushing around and forgetting items.
Once you are confident in your pack, the next stage is getting to the trailhead. Use your GPS or map to safely navigate there. Be prepared for unexpected road closures or delays, hiking trails exist a bit further into the country and road conditions can be impossible to plan for.
At the trailhead, it is important to apply sunscreen and bug repellent, they are easy to forget but will alleviate most pain associated with hiking. Double check your route against the map and make sure to hike in the right direction.
While hiking, it is important to not only enjoy the surroundings but to be careful where you step. By looking ahead on the trail, you can keep yourself from being tripped up. I always try to look at where my next step is going to be instead of where my foot already is.
Smart hikers take plenty of water breaks throughout the day. If you ever feel tired, thirsty, or overheated, taking a short break is the perfect remedy. Hiking is not about how fast you can move or how many miles can be covered, it is about total immersion in the natural world. Be sure to match your physical rhythm with that of the natural world all around you.
Check your position on the map every 30 minutes to an hour. By staying vigilant on your location, it will mitigate any possibility of becoming lost. If the trail looks to disappear or the route becomes impossible to find, consult the map first. Even if you know where you are, it can be a fun exercise to test your navigation skills.
As your hike nears the end, double check your pack to ensure you have everything you brought. Leaving trash and garbage behind is a terrible thing to do, imagine if everyone did that, then hiking would be like a walk through a dump! A good motto is “pack it in, pack it out”, the only thing you should be leaving is footprints.
Reflecting on your Hike
As you head back to the transportation home, reflecting on what you saw and experienced is an important part of the hike. Talk to your hiking partners and discover what their favorite parts of the hike were. Did you enjoy it? What did you like best? What did you like least? Which feature should the next hike contain?
By discussing the hike and dissecting the good and bad parts, you can start building a portfolio of hiking experiences. This will help you plan your next outing and find hikes with similar or different appeal.
Common Misconceptions About Hiking
As a beginner, there will be countless times people offer their unwanted advice. Most “tips” or unsolicited “hiker hacks” are untrue and downright dangerous. It is important to identify these false facts and know the truth.
- More gear is always better. This is the first myth that you can throw right in the trash. Never think that you need the newest shoes, or the newest backpack to make hiking more enjoyable. For a beginner, any old backpack will do and don’t worry about what you wear, you are going outside and it will get dirty. Plus, the more gear you pack, the more you have to carry. Forego the need to have stuff and only bring the essentials.
- It’s a short hike, no need to be prepared. Even if the hike you will be undertaking is short, that doesn’t mean you should skimp on the preparations. Bringing some extra food and water, while being up to date on the map isn’t a waste of time, it is part of the experience.
- More alcohol will make the hike better. I am not trying to be a damp towel or ruin anyone’s good time, but alcohol is probably the worst liquid to ingest while hiking. Hiking is a form of exercise, you will be exposed to all the elements the Earth can throw at you, mixing alcohol with it is not smart. Alcohol makes you dehydrated faster, drinking while hiking can lead to cramps and maybe even injuries. Alcohol will make you tired, if you have just hiked a couple hours into the woods carrying only enough provisions for a day hike, falling asleep and having the sun go down is a recipe for disaster. Drinking alcohol facilitates poor decision making, increasing your chances of becoming lost. It’s best to leave the party at home and partake once you return from the hike.
Growing as a hiker
I hope this Beginners Guide to Hiking helped to clarify your own hike. As you become better at hiking, there will be a plethora of trails that open up for exploration. Starting small will ensure your ability to focus on perfecting your skills and building a foundation for success.
Inevitably, as your journey into hiking expands, the simple trails around your hometown may feel less exciting. This is part of the growing experience, and for many, finding more exotic and harder hikes are the direction hiking leads them. For others, becoming a proficient hiker means bringing others into the outdoor world. Maybe you have children or parents who you want to experience the outdoors with. Having the basics well practiced will make you the hiking expert and when outside, others will turn to you for guidance.
Focus on understanding the basics and remember to follow the four basic principles:
The outside is calling your name, I hope to see you out there! If you are planning on an overnight hike, you should read “A Guide to Overnight Hiking” next.