Hiking For Beginners: 11 Essential Tips

Hiking For Beginners: 11 Essential Tips

In This Guide
  • How to get ready for your first hike
  • Beginner hiking tips, etiquette, and hacks
  • Reader Q&A

Hiking for beginners can be intimidating, but there’s really not much to it. You don’t need any special skills to hike; you just have to be able to walk and know where you are. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in nature, get a good workout in, and recharge your batteries. This guide will give you some essential hiking for beginners tips to make your hike safe and fun.

1. Pick A Hike for Beginners

cris hazzard tired on hike
If you choose a hike that’s too tough, you will suffer.

The biggest mistake beginners make is overdoing it. They pick a hike that’s either too long or has too much climbing. If you’re just starting out, pick a hike under 5 miles with minimal climbing. If you want to do a longer hike, make a training plan in advance. Do an extra mile or two each week and build up to your target distance.

Don’t forget to look at the total climbing on your hike. A flat 5 miles is much different than 5 miles straight uphill. If you are doing a hilly or mountainous hike, read my guide on mountain hiking.

There are a ton of great resources to find a trail. This website has many beginner-friendly trail guides. You can also visit sites like GaiaGPS, or AllTrails. If books are your thing, there are great hiking guidebooks out there as well.

You’re going to want to get familiar with the hike before you go. Read the trail guide, know what to expect, where the turns are, and how long it should take you. You don’t have to memorize anything. You should just have a good idea of what to expect.

2. Pick Hiking Gear For Beginners

cris hazzard in kuhl shirt
Today hiking clothing is fairly fashionable. You don’t have to look like you’re on a safari.

The nice thing about beginning hiking is that you don’t really need any special gear, you can probably get away with things you already have.

Let’s start with clothing. A typical mistake hiking beginners make is wearing jeans and regular clothes, which will get heavy and chafe wif they get sweaty or wet. Wear wicking workout clothes, which are designed for being active. Long pants or tights are good for making sure your legs don’t get scraped up on bushes along the trail. Likewise, long sleeve shirts will protect you from the elements, but you can roll up the sleeves when it’s hot.

Shoes are also important. A good pair of sneakers or trail runners is usually your best bet. If you have an old pair of hiking boots in your closet, it might be better to leave them behind if you haven’t worn them in a while, they could cause blisters.

Next on the list would be a backpack, water (bring more than you need), snacks, and extra layers. Be prepared for rain, or for the temperature to go up or down.

If you want to dive deeper into what to bring, I recommend reading these articles:

3. Understand Your Map

Reading Paper Map
Don’t just rely on a smartphone app to know where you are. You need a paper map too. All the hike guides on this site include a printable topo map. Thanks to Ken T and Doc H for the photo!

Understanding where you are and where you are going is key to enjoying your hike. A combination of electronic navigation and paper is a good route for hiking beginners.

To start, print out the hiking guide and map. If it’s raining, throw them in a Zip-Lock bag. Read over the guide, study the map, and have a good idea of what to expect. I like to know what my next landmark is as I hike. For example, I’ll read the guide and know that say, in a mile, I make a right turn at the junction. Having this in my head keeps me aware of the next move.

I also load a GPX file onto a GPS device. A GPS can pinpoint your location using satellites. The good news is that most smartphones have GPS built in these days. The bad news is that most smartphones are easy to drop, shatter, get wet, etc. so you can’t rely on them. But they are good to have a backup. Here’s what I do.

I download a GPX file (basically a file that has a line on a map) load it onto my GPS units (yes, I have more than one). An easy way for a hiking beginner to do it is by downloading an app such as GaiaGPS or AllTrails. These apps have many hikes already shared and loaded by other other hikers. You can also upload a GPX file to them (which you can download for all the hikes on my site).

When you use an app, you’ll also want to make sure you download the maps for offline use. This ensures that you have the map even when you don’t have a cell phone connection. And here’s one last tip. Put your phone in flight mode before you hike. When a phone goes out of cell tower range, it drains a ton of battery by searching for a signal. Putting it in flight mode (with GPS or location services on) saves your battery. The help pages for the apps I mentioned will show you how.

So how should a hiking beginner use the GPS? Use it as a backup. Try to use your guide and maps to navigate, and then confirm your location by making sure you’re on the GPX line on your app.

Here’s some more articles that you can dive deeper into:

4. Time It Right

hikers on line at summit
Hikers line up to get a picture at the summit of Mission Peak, CA. Start early and avoid the crowds. Photo Miguel Vieira

First, I highly recommend that you start your hike as early as possible. The later you leave it, the more crowds there will be. Conversely, if you’re scared to hike alone and want other people on the trail, leave at a popular time. It might be harder to park, etc. but you’ll have company.

5. Two-Minute Prep Session

Wilderness Permit
Don’t show up to the trail only to find that you need a permit. Do your homework. Photo Ray Bouknight

Every hike requires a little prep work, even if it just takes a few minutes.

A few trails require a permit (always mentioned in my guides). If you’re not sure whether you need one, a call to the park office will clear it up. They’re often free and obtainable before your hike.

And this might seem like common sense, but you need to check the weather before your hike. If the weather looks bad, wet, crazy, you should do the hike on another day. And be aware that the weather conditions on mountains can be drastically different that the closest town. For example, it can be 72F in Mt Baldy Village with a blizzard on the summit of Mt Baldy.

It doesn’t hurt to give the park a call before you leave as well. Just call, tell them what hike you’re doing, and ask if all the trails are open. I’ve made the mistake of driving a few hours to a hike, only to find the trails closed for repair. Sometimes trail work or bad weather can change conditions.

6. Tell Someone

Here’s another great tip that’s easy and could save your life. At the very least, tell someone where and when you’ll be hiking. It can be as simple as sending a text message with the hike webpage and note that you’ll be back at a certain time.  If something bad happens, this will increase your chances of being found dramatically.  You can also get very detailed with this nice worksheet that the LA County Sheriff’s Department put together.

7. Hiking Is Not a Race

Deer On Mt Whitney Trail
If you’re going fast and in a rush, you miss opportunities to spot wildlife and other natural beauty.

Remember the story about the turtle and hare? In hiking, steady is better than quick. I often see beginners starting a hike with a really fast pace, only to blow up later. Conserve your energy, especially on a long hike. You never know what situation you’ll have to use your energy on later. For example, if you get lost or take a long trail, you’ll need energy to correct it. It’s a matter of safety. Plan on finishing with some juice in your tank.

Likewise, if you’re hiking in a group, stay with the group. I’ve led hiking groups where a few people just took off from mile 0. If you’re hiking together, stay together. If you do decide to split up in groups, plan on intervals (such as trail junctions) where the group will reform. There’s nothing worse that not knowing where some of your party are on the trail. It’s a sure-fire way to not make it to your destination or turn a day hike into a night hike.

Hiking at a comfortable pace is also a great way just to soak it all in. Enjoy the outdoors, enjoy the fresh air, keep your eyes open for wildlife, and have fun.

8. Watch Your Feet

rattlesnake on trail
Most rattlesnake bites occur when they’re unintentionally stepped on. They blend in well with a dirt trail. Not something to actively worry about, but a very good reason to pay attention to your feet. Photo Tom Spinker

This one might sound obvious but you’d be surprised at the number of people who need to be rescued because of a twisted ankle. The biggest risk you generally have on an easy hike is stepping in the wrong place. This could mean twisting your ankle,  slipping on a rock, tripping on a root, or worse, stepping on some poisonous wildlife. Just be conscious of where you are walking, especially if you are chatting, tired, or wearing headphones.

9. Don’t Fear Getting Lost

If you think you’re lost, the first thing you need to do is stop. Take a look at your guide and see if anything sounds or looks familiar. If not, just backtrack until your surrounding match what’s described in your guide.Getting lost hiking is something that happens to the best of us all the time, and is not a big deal. Backtracking solves the problem 99% of the time.

However, if you backtrack for a while and still don’t recognize anything, stop. See if you have a cell phone signal and try calling 911. You can also try texting to 911, which is available in some areas. If you have a GPS rescue beacon, now’s the time to hit the button. You can also try yelling HELP at regular intervals. If you are in an area that’s open, hang any bright clothing for aircraft and spell out HELP with sticks and rocks on the ground. If you’re cold, simply piling dead leaves on top of you will keep you warm. People have lasted 7-10 days without water, 60-70 without food.  Again, a GPS rescue beacon is a wise investment.

10. Learn Hiking Etiquette For Beginners

mountain biker view of trail
How do you handle a mountain bike encounter? Technically mountain bikes should stop for you, but give them a break and just let them pass. They need to stay balanced to stay safe as they travel much quicker than hikers.

Here are some tips on how not to be a bozo out on the trail.

11. Share Your Experience

First, let someone know that you’re back and safe.

Then share your pictures on social media. The more folks that are outside enjoying the outdoors, the more support and awareness there is. Use popular hashtags like #hiking, #hike, #trailchat, #hikerchat, and #52hikechallenge to connect with other hikers. Make hiking a habit and see your life improve. The 52 Hike Challenge is a great place to start.

52 hike challenge website
The 52 Hike Challenge website helps you make a commitment to hike every week for a year. When you finish, you get a cool patch. And health, well-being, etc…

Hiking For Beginners Q&A

“The one who asks questions doesn’t lose his way.” – African Proverb

Is it safe to hike alone?

Yes. But you should do what you feel is comfortable for you. I hike alone quite a bit and don’t have any problems.

There are tons of Meetup groups that go hiking, so if you want company, give that a try. If you want to hike with your dog, my trail guides list the policy on dogs too. There are also a ton of hiking clubs that you can contact for group hikes.

What if I have to go to the bathroom?

Try to go at an ‘official’ bathroom. I list them in my trail guides.

The only exception to the ‘stay on the trail’ hiking rule is when going to the bathroom. Go far enough away that hikers on the trail can’t see you (about 200 feet is a good guideline). And try and go somewhere that you’re not trampling plants, etc. If you’re doing anything more than peeing, dig a hole with one of these and go in there. If you’re going to the bathroom in a barren area where there is a strict carry-in, carry-out hiking rule, you go in a WAG bag.

Will animals attack me?

Probably not. If you are traveling in bear country, bring bear spray. It also works on humans and mountain lions. In general, animals stay pretty clear of humans. You have a better chance of winning the lottery.

deer on hiking trail
While you probably won’t get attacked by animals, you might encounter them. Keep your eyes open and camera ready. Photo J Jongsma

I love hiking, how to I learn more?

If you have an REI near you, they’re a great place to take outdoors classes and meet other hikers. A subscription to Backpacker magazine can also be useful and inspirational.

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