If you are not a hiking pro, this is where to start. Learning how to hike safely can mean the difference between a fun day outdoors or the hike from hell. This article will get you hiking in the right direction.
Let’s start at the beginning. You don’t need any special skills to hike. The definition of hiking is to “walk for a long distance, especially across country or in the woods.” So if you can walk, you can hike (if you’re in a wheelchair, there are hikes for you too!). Consider this a guide for backpacking beginners too, many of the principles are the same.
The only thing you need to be mindful of is where you’re walking. The government doesn’t put street signs up on every trail. Sometimes it can be a little tougher to figure out where you are when you don’t have a street junction to reference. If you are going to hike, just know where you are going and where you want to end up. And then walk it.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” ― Benjamin Franklin
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, AllTrails, or EveryTrail. If books are your thing, there are great hiking guidebooks out there as well.
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 elevation of 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.
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.
A typical mistake beginners make is wearing jeans and regular clothes, which are not the greatest, especially if you get wet. Workout clothes are a better choice.
Make sure you dress warm enough and in layers. People die of hypothermia, so this is important. You can always take off layers. Long pants 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 and unbutton the front when it’s hot. Hiking clothing has come a long way. A lot of it can be worn on the trail, but looks good enough to wear in real life too. I’m a big fan of Kuhl and REI clothing. It generally costs a little more, but works well on the trail and lasts longer.
Your feet are important and should be protected against debris and the elements. If it’s going to be muddy or rough, wear hiking boots. If not, sneakers are acceptable. I have a guide on whether or not to get hiking boots here.
Water is important, bring plenty of it. If there’s any chance it can get cold or rain, bring a sweatshirt and rain shell. And a snack or two just in case.
A nice solution that I use is a daypack (a small backpack) with a water bladder in it. The water capacity is 100oz, so it pretty much lasts for a while. And there’s plenty of room for snacks, clothes, and all the little things you need. If you don’t want to invest in a backpack, just use any old backpack. It might not be the most comfortable thing, but it works.
If you’re scared about getting lost and/or hurt, I recommend getting a GPS rescue beacon, especially if you plan on hiking more than once. If you are lost, sprain your ankle, have a medical emergency, whatever, you just push a button and the search and rescue team will hone in on you. Worth every penny in my book.
Bring a map, printout, or guidebook with your hike directions. Don’t rely on a smartphone for directions. Phones get dropped, screens crack, batteries die, people go out of cell range. It’s okay to use in addition to a hardcopy.
First, I highly recommend that you start your hike as early as possible. The later you leave it, the more crowds there will be.
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.
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.
Likewise, check on the weather conditions. If you’re hike goes up a mountain, make sure you check on the conditions at the summit. It’s generally colder and windier the more you go up.
Lastly, let a close friend or family member know where you’re hiking and when you will be done. It can be as simple as texting a link to the hike page. If you get lost and they don’t hear from you, the can call 911 and everyone will know where to look.
Okay, so you’ve planned, got everything together, and are now ready to do some hiking!
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tzu
To start, look at your directions and figure out where you are according to your guide. Then read what you should be looking for next. For example, in 1 mile, make a right at the junction. And then hike until you reach the landmark that you’re looking for. Walk and repeat.
In addition to a printed version of the hike directions, I also use a GPS device to check on my position. You can use your smartphone in lieu of a GPS device, but make sure it can work in flight mode. When you hike out of cell phone range, the phone will continually search for a signal, quickly draining your battery. For smartphone apps, I’ve had a lot of luck with GaiaGPS. You can download maps and put it in flight mode to save battery.
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.
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.
Here are some tips on how not to be a bozo out on the trail.
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.
First, let someone know that you’re back and safe.
It also helps to stretch after a hike to avoid sore muscles the next morning.
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.
“The one who asks questions doesn’t lose his way.” – African Proverb
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.
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.
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.