Having to take that first step in any journey is exactly what makes it so overwhelming.
Feeling prepared enough…knowledgeable…ready…
But going through those fears and obstacles is what makes it worth it in the first place.
At this point, you’re considering heading out to the trails to start hiking for the first time so what I’d like to do is lay out the land for you.
Below is everything you need to know about how to start hiking for beginners; the gear, the safety, the right trail, and how to prepare.
Because taking the first step is the only way we’re going to get there.
Finding The Right Trail For You
The biggest mistake that most beginner hikers make is picking out a trail that is too advanced for them. When you’re first starting out it’s important not to let your ambition be too big for your stamina. Use the tips below to pick out the perfect trail that matches where you are physically but also challenges you to improve.
Most people think that if they pick a short route that means the hike should be easy. What they don’t consider is that there is a 1,000 ft elevation gain during that short route that is going to wipe you out once you get to the top.
If the trail you are eyeing has an elevation gain of 1,000 ft in one mile you can consider that a steep hike and you should be adding an extra hour for it when planning. According to a hiking columnist for the LA Times a beginner hiking trail should be less than 5 miles with an elevation gain of no more than 700 ft to 800 ft.
Much like elevation, how long your hike is going to be will have a significant impact on whether it’s a good beginner trail or not. Most experts recommend any trail that is 5 miles or less when you are first starting out. A normal walking pace will cover about 3 mph on flat ground but when you are hiking trails you can expect to cover about 2 mph because of the rough terrain.
If you don’t feel that you’re quite at that level yet then start taking short walks in your neighborhood. Every week increase your walk by a mile and pretty soon you will be ready to hit the trails with no problems. There are some more tips on preparing your body for your hike below in the next section.
Ask Local Groups
What better way to find out which trails are not only good for beginners but that also offer the most beautiful views and scenic nature than by talking with those who have already gone before you!
Make a post on Facebook and ask your friends who live in the area what they recommend for hiking beginners looking to hit the trails for the first time. There are even local hiking groups on Facebook you can join where you can ask a whole community of hikers what they think might be best for you.
Or, you can head to popular trail sites like alltrails.com that have reviews from other hikers on difficulty, elevation, distance, and beauty to easily find info on the perfect hiking trail for you.
Never go to the outdoors for a significant amount of time without checking how the weather looks for your area. You might think a little rain could never hurt you but it can actually have a bigger impact than you think.
Small water crossing can become strong rivers with a lot of rain and rough, jagged rocks can become slick and hard to traverse. You also don’t want to be caught in a storm without the proper gear to protect you.
Another consideration to make is what time of the year you plan on going on your first hike. Some trails may be closed due to fallen snow or excessive rain. And if you are hiking late in the year you want to account for a shorter day by making sure you get back to your car before the sun starts setting.
How To Physically Prepare For Your First Hike
Getting started on your first hike can be intimidating if you aren’t in great physical shape. Always start with a hike that is less than 5 miles and has an elevation of no more than 800 ft. This will keep you from attempting any trails that could potentially injure your body. Below are several exercises you can use to feel more confident about taking your first trip.
If being late for work is the only time you get your heart rate up then there’s a good chance you need to warm-up before your big hike with some smaller trips outdoors. I recommend taking a stroll through your neighborhood for a week straight to get your body used to movement and exercise.
Then you can start adding a mile every week to start building stamina for your hiking excursion. I would recommend building up to at least 1 extra mile farther than what your hiking trail will be. So if your trail is 3 miles then you should be used to walking at least 4 miles on a flat surface. This is because the trail will be on more rugged terrain and will probably involve some kind of elevation.
Most people think of stretching as the thing you do before you work out. That’s true, you should be stretching before your daily exercise and before your big hike. But stretching also increases our flexibility and decreases the chances of sustaining an injury while hiking outdoors.
By increasing your flexibility your body is able to handle more hard impacts and over-extended positions. It can also help after a long hike with decreasing soreness in the body.
Whether you’re a smoker or not, taking on a big hike can really challenge your lung capacity. It can cause you to need to stop more often and extend your trip longer than you planned or it can even create pain in your chest.
There are several breathwork exercises that can help to increase your lung capacity that are easily done while sitting at home watching tv or working on your computer. This is probably the most under-considered aspect of taking on a hike for beginners. Adding this step into your preparation will have a significant impact when you’re out on the trails.
What’s The Right Hiking Gear For Beginners?
There’s a tendency to overcompensate in the hiking gear area for most beginners. The fear of the unknown can cause most people to feel like they need to buy the most high-tech gear or latest trends. Fact is, you can get by on your first hike without needing to invest much as long as you pack properly.
Ten Essentials + Backpack
Originating back in the 1930’s by an organization out of Seattle called The Mountaineers, the list of the ten essentials started as a list of items every hiker and backpacker should bring with them on a trip to the outdoors.
Since that time, the list has progressed into a list of 10 systems that you will need to modify depending on the hike you want to explore. Bringing some kind of combination of these items will prepare you for any emergency because you never know what might happen in the wild.
A Map and Compass are the two key items for beginners to bring on their first trip to the outdoors. You shouldn’t need more than these but if you happen to be in an extremely remote location you might want to consider an altimeter, a GPS device, a personal locator beacon or satellite messenger.
Headlamps are the preferred method of illumination for most hikers because it allows you to have full light without sacrificing one of your hands to hold the light. You can also consider a hiking flashlight though if you don’t have a headlamp available.
Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must for any hike outdoors. Most people are even more susceptible during cloudy weather because they believe they cannot get sunburned and do not wear any sunscreen. Truth is, the clouds don’t block all of the sun’s UV rays and you can be even more susceptible.
If there is a serious chance of sun shining down on you during your hike you may want to consider long sleeves, a wide brimmed hat, and long pants to cover any exposed areas of skin.
First Aid Kit
A kit should come with all the bandage and ointment essentials you will need but you may want to also bring some insect repellant with you on your hike.
Repair Kit and Tools
A camping knife is a must-bring item no matter how long your hike is going to be. Outside of that, you will want to consider a repair gear kit that can help you patch up a backpack if needed or even some clothing that got stuck on something sharp.
Lighters are going to be the best bet when you’re out in the wild but there are other fire starters you can count on to get the job done. Waterproof matches or flint and steel are also good methods to start a fire in nature. I would also recommend bringing some dry tinder in case the area you are hiking is moist and won’t allow you to use the foliage around your trail.
In the most extreme situations you may need to change up your trip to make it an overnight stay. Hopefully this never happens to you but if it does you want to make sure you have an emergency shelter available just in case. These types of shelters take up very little room in your pack and are extremely light in weight. They are well worth the space.
Make sure you bring more food then you believe will be necessary for your hike. It may go without saying, but no junk food! Leave the potato chips at home and bring nuts, fruits, or nutritious bars on your journey.
Just like nutrition you will want to bring more water than you believe necessary for your trip. Water is actually more important than food as the body will survive without food for up to three weeks but can only survive without water for up to three days. Having some kind of water bladder attached to your bag is an easy way to stay hydrated throughout the trip and you can easily refill as you journey on.
Bring some more clothes in your pack then what you are wearing while taking your first hike. You never know if your clothes will get wet or caught on some thorns and ripped up.
A pro tip is to avoid jeans when possible because the rough fabric can chafe your legs during your hike, especially once you start to sweat. Bring breathable materials that will allow your body to air out while making the long trek.
You also won’t need huge, tough hiking boots that will stomp on anything in its path. These usually take a while to break in and can cause blisters on your feet. Instead, go with some trail running shoes or a good, comfortable pair of sneakers. And don’t wear cotton socks! They can absorb too much moisture and become heavy.
Maybe this one is implied in the ten essentials but you are going to want to bring some kind of hiking backpack. Not always necessary to bring a giant pack with you but normally a school backpack isn’t going to cut it in the outdoors. You want a pack with lots of compartments and straps to be able to hold all your gear safely.
How To Be Safe During Your Trip
As long as you bring the ten essentials on your trip you will be prepared for most minor cuts and scrapes that can happen in the outdoors but when a bigger accident occurs, you don’t want to be without a plan. Follow the tips below to ensure that, even in the worst case scenario, you can feel safe knowing help is only a moment away.
Tell A Friend
Even if you feel like your hike isn’t going to be very long and poses no real danger you still want to send a quick text letting someone know where you are going and which trail you plan on heading down.
My friend was once hiking through a small preserve in my hometown, which had pretty basic trails, and came across a biker who had crashed their bike and was injured badly on a routine trail. My friend had to run to get help at the beginning of the preserve and luckily the biker was ok. You just never know what might happen when you head into the outdoors.
Do some planning ahead of your hike and understand exactly where you plan on entering and exiting. Know what the trails are called, how long they are, and have a backup plan if you need to change route for any reason. Sometimes a trail can be closed that you didn’t know or maybe you’re getting more tired than you anticipated and want to cut the hike short.
You should also have all emergency safety numbers programmed into your phone. If you have reception you can call the park headquarters or local authorities to help you out in a jam.
When hiking for the first time it may be easy to get lost in the beauty of nature and your surroundings. But it’s important to always keep an eye out for potential dangers like snakes, falling rocks or branches, slippery surfaces, or even large animals.
What Trail Etiquette Should You Follow?
Let hikers that are headed uphill have the right of way if you are heading downhill. If someone gives you the right of way even though they are headed uphill then count your lucky stars and thank them for their kindness.
I always let bikers have the right of way. Just makes more sense that in a less visible area the faster moving object should continue on its course instead of needing to stop and let you walk ahead. But there is a general rule that mountain bikers are supposed to yield the right of way.
“Leave No Trace” is a common phrase among outdoor enthusiasts which helps maintain a mindset around maintaining the beauty of nature Anytime you head into the outdoors you want to make sure you’re leaving it exactly as you found it. So that means any wrappers, paper scraps, or other materials that come with you need to be properly disposed of before leaving.
If you need to pee then just make sure you find a nice private spot where others can’t see you and stay at least 200 ft away from any water sources. Now, if you have to go number 2 then head off trail and dig a hole at least 6 inches deep and 4 inches wide. Do your business and make sure to cover up the hole with the dirt you displaced.
Whether you need to take a call, you’re listening to music, or you are hiking with a group of friends, be respectful of the people around you. Some hikers are there to get lost in nature and return to more basic surroundings. Make sure that you enjoy yourself and that you are also helping others enjoy themselves. That’s the unwritten rule of trail etiquette.
Pro Hiking Tips
- Make sure the rest of your day after the hike is relaxing and you don’t have a lot to do the day after. If you aren’t physically active, you are going to feel some soreness in your legs that is definitely going to make you want to stay in bed.
- Eat healthy after your hike. Don’t go chasing fast food because it’s the most convenient option. Drop by a local grocer that focuses on healthy, natural food and grab something quick for yourself. You will feel much better afterwards.
- Do a lot of stretching, and if possible, swimming for a few days after. Getting your heart pumping and blood moving will help your body heal faster from the soreness.
Now you’re ready to hike that trail you’ve been eyeing but didn’t know exactly how to start. The most important part after reading this article is that you take action in some way. Purchase those shoes that have been holding you back. Take a walk right now around the neighborhood to start getting your body ready. Do what it takes to complete your first step on that trail because when you get there the experience is so much better than what you have imagined in your head right now.