It’s time to leave the stresses of modern life behind and head to the mountains. Or the desert. Or the forest. Or anywhere with a trail. That’s right—it’s time to start hiking. This guide will help you learn the ins and outs of hiking so you can hit the trail with confidence and ease. Nobody has to know you’re new to this.
Before You Head Out
Getting started with hiking isn’t hard, especially if you begin with easier trails that are close to home. Nevertheless, hiking always takes at least some knowledge and preparation. To get yourself ready, check out these tips for planning for your first hike—and all the ones to follow.
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When researching hikes, you’ll often see the “trail type” as a category of information at the top of the page or in a sidebar. Here are definitions of several common trail types:
Loop: Start and end at the same place without repeating any part of the trail.
Out-and-back: Hike to the trail’s end point, and then return the way you came.
Point-to-point: These trails have more than one access point/trailhead because they are often at least several miles long. If you have the stamina, you can hike to the end and back to where you started. Alternatively, you can get off the trail at another point so you don’t have to repeat any part of the path. Just make sure you’ve arranged a pickup or ride back to your car!
Lollipop/Semi-loop: Hike out to a loop and then repeat the first part of the path back to the trailhead.
Interpretive: These are short and easy nature hikes, often with educational signs about the area’s history, wildlife, and flora.
Spur trail: These short trails branch off from a main trail, and often lead to a scenic viewpoint or a special feature.
There are many other types of trails out there, but these are the most common to run into as a beginner.
Hiking a mile is not the same as walking a mile. When hiking, you have to consider several factors including, but not limited to: elevation changes, trail obstacles, length, and seasonal challenges. Research the elevation gain of a trail before you go. Be aware of any injuries you may have (e.g., bad knees) that would make climbs or descents problematic. Don’t merely check the elevation gain over the whole distance of the hike; see how quickly the change happens. An elevation gain of 1,000 feet over a distance of 5 miles isn’t so bad, but that same elevation gain over 1 mile is steep and grueling. If you’re not in top shape, choose trails with minimal elevation gain or gentle switchbacks.
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Decide what length of trail you’re comfortable with, depending on your fitness level and how long you’d like to be out. The rule of thumb for hiking is to allot 20 minutes per mile for flat, easy terrain. Add in difficult or steep terrain, weather challenges, and time for meals or breaks, and you’re looking at much longer than that baseline. When you’re a beginner, it’s better to choose shorter hikes until you know what you can handle. Find out if there are any trail obstacles along the way (e.g., boulder crossings, mud, fallen trees). You’ll especially want to know if you’ll have to cross any streams without the aid of a bridge. If there is a water obstacle on the trail, refer to the below section called
“Crossing a Stream or River” for more information. Depending on where you’re hiking, the season can drastically affect what the landscape is like. Check the trail’s best seasons and if it’s open year-round. Keep in mind that you’ll have less daylight during fall and winter than in the summer. Also, make sure to check the weather forecast before you leave. A little rain is OK, but a huge storm could make the trail dangerous or even inaccessible. Ultimately, choose a trail that inspires you and don’t be intimidated: there are plenty of beautiful trails out there that are doable even for beginners. Just start small and work your way up to longer and more challenging hikes, if that’s what your goal is.
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Hiking is a great way to get in better shape, but you should still make sure you (and any hiking buddies) are physically prepared to tackle a trail before you begin. If you haven’t exercised in a while, spend time getting in shape so you can actually enjoy your hike instead of panting at the mere sight of a hill. Take frequent walks around the neighborhood or park, take the stairs, or hit the gym—do whatever it takes to prepare your body for an excursion. Focus on strengthening your muscles, increasing your endurance, and improving your balance and agility. If you need workout ideas, check out our workouts for hiking article. If you’re already in moderate shape, you can start by regularly doing easy hikes and slowly increasing their difficulty. Feeling ready? On the morning of your hike, drink lots of water and don’t skip breakfast. You do not want to get “hangry” on the trail. Ideally, you should eat breakfast two hours before you head out, and fuel yourself with non-sugary carbohydrates; a light breakfast such as whole-wheat toast or whole-grain cereal with low-fat yogurt will help you stay energized. Avoid eating an abundance of saturated fat or protein, as these components digest slowly. Don’t forget to stay hydrated and eat right during and after a hike, too!
Depending on the trail and the time of year, the gear you’ll need to bring on a hike could vary. However, there are some essential items you should bring on every day hike. This list will get you started:
Select a daypack (a backpack meant for day hiking) that feels comfortable when loaded. Most daypacks have a capacity of 20-35 liters. Choose a bigger pack if you intend to work your way up to longer hikes, or if you plan to go hiking with kids and hold some of their gear.
If you spring for a new daypack instead of using something you already have, make sure the pack is designed for convenient access to water. It should have an outside pocket meant for holding a water bottle and/or be compatible with a hydration system such as a CamelBak reservoir.
Invest in quality clothing layers so you can dress according to what the trail and the weather may bring. Layers allow you to regulate temperature and moisture, and can shield you from elements like wind and rain. Refer to our guide on what to wear when hiking for an explanation of how layers work and what you should look for.
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The right footwear can make or break a hike. It can be difficult to find the right hiking shoes or boots, so don’t purchase them on a whim. Take time to research different types of shoes and find your best style and fit. If you decide on boots rather than hiking shoes, we put together a guide on how to choose hiking boots. And don’t forget to break them in!
Even if you don’t plan on night hiking, it’s good to keep a flashlight or headlamp stashed in your pack just in case.
Bring a knife or a multi-tool. They are incredibly useful, and you never know when you’ll need one.
A first-aid kit is an essential on any trail. It should at least be stocked with bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relief medication, blister treatment, tweezers, and antihistamines (for allergic reactions).
You never plan on getting lost while hiking, but that’s always a possibility. Stow a map and compass in your daypack, and make sure you know how to use them.
For more hiking gear tips, our day hike essentials checklist has you covered. And, you’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: make sure to pack plenty of food and water. Bonus tip: This isn’t “gear,” but it’s something else you should bring—cash. Some trails require a day pass that you display on your car’s dashboard or hang from your rear-view mirror. Avoid a parking ticket and research whether your intended trail has a fee. Passes can usually be purchased at the trailhead or national/state park entrance, but it’s often cash-only.