Hiking is a passion for millions of people, but not everyone has easy access to trails, hiking gear, or essential knowledge about hiking. If you've always wanted to spend more time in nature but haven't had many experiences on the trail, this guide to hiking for beginners was made for you.
By the time you've finished reading, you'll know:
Ready for some hiking tips for beginners? Let’s go.
Hiking alone can be a peaceful and serene experience, but beginners should plan to go with friends. A nice day on the trail can turn fatal if something happens and there isn’t anyone around to get help. And really, having friends with you is just more fun! You can go with a more experienced hiker who can help you along, or head out with another beginner who just wants to get out into nature.
If you’re going to be hiking far from civilization, potentially venturing into bear or bobcat country, a group of three or more people is ideal. Bear encounters and other dangerous run-ins with wild animals are far less likely when you’re traveling in a group.
This might be the most important part of hiking for beginners. The trail you choose has just as much to do with a successful day of hiking as your physical fitness does. Whether you’re hitting the trails near your home or planning a few days of hiking on a vacation, you need to put some considerable thought into the trail you choose.
Aside from trying to find the hikes that have the best views, lookouts, and the greatest feeling of adventure, there are a few other things you should consider. You’ll of course want to choose a trail that fits your experience and fitness level. Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing a trail:
1. How Difficult Should a Hike for Beginners Be?
The strenuous aspect of hiking, the fact that it can be difficult and sometimes grueling, is part of what many avid hikers love about it. The feeling of accomplishing something difficult, pushing your limits, and challenging yourself to conquer a fearsome piece of nature is exhilarating. When you’re choosing between different trails in your area, try to find options that will be difficult for you but not completely miserable or impossible.
2. Mileage Matters—Know Your Limits
The most a seasoned hiker can tackle in a day is about 25 miles; you, as a novice hiker, can expect to hike far less. On flat ground, the average person’s walking speed is about 3 miles per hour. When you add hills and mountainous areas, that speed is going to decrease to about 1.75-2.5 miles per hour.
This means that an 8-mile hike with decent elevation gain will take about 4-5 hours, not including stops. A 12-15 mile hike will take all day, factoring in rest stops, meals, and water breaks. Even without hills, that many miles in one day can be exhausting, which means you’ll slow down throughout the day.
How Many Miles Should Beginners Plan to Hike? We recommend that a day of hiking for beginners be no more than 10 miles. This gives you ample time to complete the trail and still take leisurely breaks to enjoy the view. After all, what good is a hiking trip if all you’re doing is worrying about whether or not you have to pick up the pace?
3. Pay Attention to the Elevation
More important than the distance you’re hiking is the change in elevation on your hike. Going up and down is a lot more taxing than simply walking forward, and it slows you down, too. If you have bad knees, you’ll want to avoid lots of elevation gain and loss on your first few hikes. The best way to do this is to choose trails that hug the edges of rivers and lakes; the moment a trail diverges from the water, it’s likely headed uphill, fast.
But, knee and joint issues aside, how much elevation is doable for you? It’s tough to give a recommendation for exactly how much elevation is ideal for a beginner hiker, because your ability to tackle elevation is highly dependent on your own level of physical fitness. The main thing is to know your abilities and your limitations and pick your trail accordingly.
Out Of Shape, Inactive Lifestyle. If you consider yourself to be out of shape (weaker leg muscles and endurance, regardless of the actual shape of your body), 1,500 feet of elevation gain/loss is sufficient for a challenging hike.
Average Shape, Semi-Active Lifestyle. If you are in average shape, up to 3,000 feet in elevation gain during your hike will make for a rewarding trek that won’t turn miserable. For reference, the popular Mt LeConte trail in Smoky Mountains National Park has an elevation gain of 2,850 feet over 11 miles of trail and is a fun hike with just enough difficulty for a person in average shape.
Very Fit, Athletic Lifestyle. If you’re in peak shape, but just now getting into hiking, the world is yours. It’s up to your judgment, but if you feel up to it, you can handle some pretty gnarly trails as long as you hike them safely. Your inexperience on the trail is the only thing to worry about, not whether you’re in good enough shape. Each year, there are very inexperienced hikers who summit Pikes Peak (7,400 feet in elevation gain) in Colorado. That’s not to say it won’t be grueling—it will. It’s just to say that people who are already in very good shape can stretch their limits pretty far even without expert hiking knowledge.
4. Weather—Do Your Research
If there’s one thing that can really throw a wrench in your plans, it’s the weather. Especially on trails that are at higher elevations, weather can be unpredictable and dangerous if you aren’t ready for it. Before choosing a trail, do a little reading on how the weather is that time of year. High-up places like the trails in Washington’s Cascade Mountains can stay snow-covered until June or even July, making for dangerous hiking conditions.
As a general rule, the higher up you are, the colder and more unpredictable the weather will become. Most of the time, you won’t have much to worry about, but you still need to do your research and make sure you know what you’re getting into.
5. Hiking Apps Are Helpful Tools
If there’s one place you’d expect to remain untouched by technology, especially the smartphone revolution, it’s hiking in the wilderness. However, this isn’t exactly the case—millions of hikers rely on hiking apps such as AllTrails and Hiking Project to provide detailed maps, trail directions, and weather reports for their hikes. It’s much easier than using a paper map and compass, especially considering you can download trail maps and use them without cell service.
The two apps we mentioned are among the most popular hiking apps, and both feature tens of thousands of miles of trails in every part of the world. They also let users provide trip reports to let other hikers know about current trail conditions and help people know what to expect. This makes hiking apps an invaluable resource for beginner hikers who want to find trails that they know they can have a safe and enjoyable time hiking.
6. Other Considerations
Plan out where you’ll have access to water: Some trails have access to fresh, potable drinking water that you can filter and use to refill your water bottle. Others, especially in national parks, have rest shelters and lodges that will have fresh running water available. Most trails, though, will not. It’s not a major consideration, but you should make yourself aware of whether or not you can refill your water on the trail. That way, you know exactly how much water you need to bring with you.
Cell service: Some hikers want nothing more than to be as far away from a cell tower as possible. Others, though, might not feel quite as confident knowing there’s no way to call for help if something goes wrong. If you’d feel more comfortable with cell service, there’s no shame in that—especially as an inexperienced hiker.
Try to find trip reports that mention cell service if you aren’t sure if the trail you’re considering will have it or not. But, don’t get too concerned about this. If you’re hiking in a group, one of your group members can quickly get back to the trailhead and call for help if something happens.
Now that you’ve assembled a hiking group and picked your trail, it’s time to turn your attention to what you’ll be wearing. For hikes 5 miles or less, it won’t matter too much whether or not you’re decked out in the latest hiking clothes and performance fabrics. For longer hikes, though, wearing the right clothes and shoes can make a huge difference in your ability to enjoy the day.
The last thing you want is to be too hot, too cold, or covered in scratches from rocks and thorns because you weren’t properly dressed from the trail. With that in mind, let’s discuss the best things to wear hiking:
Wear a long-sleeve shirt, preferably made from wool or polyester. Though cotton might be affordable and comfortable, it holds onto sweat and does little to keep you warm (or cool). Lightweight wool shirts are perfect for both warm and cold weather, because they let body heat escape without letting outside air in. Polyester doesn’t perform quite as well as wool temperature-wise but does a great job of wicking away sweat.
Why long-sleeve? Even in warmer climates, a high-quality long-sleeve shirt will be plenty breathable and offer protection from the sun. And, when you get higher up, it won’t be quite as warm and you’ll be glad you went with the long sleeves.
Unless you know there’s no chance of rain or cold, you should bring, at minimum, a light jacket or rain jacket just in case you need it. There’s nothing worse than reaching the summit of a long trail and discovering that an “80-degrees and sunny” day at the trailhead actually means “45, windy, and rainy” at the top.
As nice as wearing shorts would feel, it’s usually not a good idea unless you know for a fact the trails are very easy and well-maintained. If there are any thorns, brambles, or rocks on the trail, wearing shorts will all but guarantee you’ll come home with scratches and nicks all over your shins and calves.
You can get a pair of convertible hiking pants that can go from shorts to pants whenever you need them to, if you’d like. Otherwise, it’s usually just a better idea to wear a pair of high-quality, breathable pants. They give your legs lots of protection from wind, heat, cold, and sharp objects.
For casual day hikes without much elevation gain, your footwear won’t make a big difference in how the day turns out. You can slip on your gym shoes, hit the trail, and have a great time. For more intense hikes, and for people who want to make hiking a hobby, investing in footwear designed for the trail is a must.
When it comes to hiking footwear, you have two options: hiking boots and trail running shoes. Hiking boots are heavier, sturdier, and provide exceptional ankle support. They’re typically waterproof and can also be insulated to keep your feet toasty warm in the coldest conditions.
Trail running shoes are great for traction in all sorts of terrain, but look a lot like normal running shoes otherwise. This means they aren’t as sturdy as hiking boots, nor do they do much for your ankles. But, as far as how they perform on the trail, they’re pretty much identical to hiking boots. The only differences between the two are weight, fit, and ankle support; the choice between trail running shoes and hiking boots is up to your preferences.
As far as socks are concerned, look for wool hiking socks that will keep your feet comfortable and dry as well as keep your ankles from getting scratched up. Most hikers would agree that having hiking socks is well worth the expense, even though it does seem crazy to drop $20 plus on a pair of socks. But they do a superb job and will last for many years. Of course, if you want to wear your normal socks, you’re free to do so—but they might not feel so comfortable after several miles of hiking.
Having sunglasses and/or a hat or bandana isn’t completely necessary, but it does make hiking on sunny days much, much better. You don’t have to use as much sunscreen, and they make it easier to deal with strong winds and blinding sunlight. If you think you'll appreciate having this extra protection from the elements, bring them.
The “Ten Essentials” were developed as part of a hiking and climbing guide published in the 1970s. In that time, this list of 10 things you need to stay safe and prepared on any trail has become the global standard for safety and preparedness.
Having the “Ten Essentials,” even on shorter hikes, will ensure that you’re ready to deal with whatever the trail can throw at you. If you want to be prepared to survive emergencies and accidents while hiking, here’s what you need:
Obviously, if you’re going on a three-mile walk in a state park, packing everything on this list is a bit ridiculous. Most people going on light day hikes don’t bring anything with them but a water bottle and a snack. However, if you plan to take a longer hike in unfamiliar places far from cell service and ranger stations, pack the Ten Essentials. If disaster strikes, you’ll be ready for it.
Trail mix didn't get its name for no reason—the salty, protein-filled snack is perfect for hiking trips. In general, you want high-calorie, salty foods in your backpack while you're hiking. You're going to burn more calories than you thought possible and work up one heck of an appetite. On top of that, you'll be sweating a lot which means you need to replace lost fluids and get salt back into your system.
Trail mix, granola bars, and protein bars are trail food mainstays. Other helpful foods like peanut butter sandwiches, pretzels, and jerky can also help you stay energized while hiking. No matter what you bring, just make sure it's salty and full of the calories and protein your body will be craving!
The majority of the time, when a hiker (or group of hikers) gets into trouble, this is what saves their lives. Before you leave for your hiking trip, tell someone where you’re going and how long you’re planning to be on the trail. Then, let them know you’ll call or text once you make it back to civilization and ask them to contact park authorities if they don’t hear from you by a specific time. This overabundance of caution might seem unnecessary, but it is a life saver.
Especially if you’re going to be hiking in a new place or at a high elevation, check the weather forecast daily leading up to your trip. Most of the time, weather changes won’t be dangerous, but it’s still nice to know what to expect on the trail. This way, you can adjust your packing list, clothing, or hiking plans accordingly and be better prepared on the trail.
If you’re a beginner hiker, you should make sure that your body is ready for the trail, even if you’re already in decent shape. For long trips, you can check out this guide that features a three-month training program. For light to medium day hikes, though, you don’t have to turn into a gym rat to be trail-ready.
It’s also a good idea to stretch each morning and evening in the days leading up to the hike. Take a couple of walks around your neighborhood or jog if you feel like it. The important thing is to work some of the rust out of your joints and muscles so that you can hike without pain or soreness.
As your hike day draws near, try to get some extra sleep. This will give your body a little more time to fully recharge before you start stretching your limits on the trail. Similarly, try to eat foods that are high in protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. You don’t have to diet or cut calories; you simply want to make sure that the food in your stomach will help you, not hurt you, as the hike draws near. This means avoiding sugar, saturated fat, and other “heavy” foods that make you feel full but do little to fuel the body.
Talking to expert hikers or just reading books and magazines about hiking can feel pretty intimidating for beginners. Hikers have a large vocabulary of terms and slang words that make it hard for beginners to understand what’s going on. You don’t have to memorize all of the terms you’re about to learn, but take a look and familiarize yourself with them so that you’ll feel more confident talking about hiking with the experts.
For people who have never hiked or spent much time in the mountains, these words sound the same and are often used interchangeably. They are, however, distinct activities, even though they often take place on the same trails.
Hiking: Walking on established trails on single-day trips. No ropes or special equipment is needed, and the event is completed within the day—no overnight stays. Hiking can range from a small, 2-mile trail at a local park or nature preserve all the way to a grueling 17-mile hike in the Grand Canyon.
Backpacking: Hiking that takes place over the course of multiple days. Backpacking requires a larger backpack, a down sleeping bag or hammock-compatible sleeping back, sleeping pad, and backpacking tents. It’s not the same as “camping,” since camping implies you’ll be staying at a designated campground. Backpacking means you’ll be sleeping far out in the wilderness on the trail. Physically, backpacking is no more demanding than hiking, it just requires a lot more time.
Climbing: A completely different category of outdoor pursuit. Hiking and backpacking take place on trails, but climbing is done on mountain faces and rock walls. Climbing is done with ropes and harnesses, and the goal of climbing is more “sportslike” than hiking. Climbers attempt to complete challenging routes that require athletic skill, while hikers and backpackers just enjoy the trail.
While hiking, backpacking, and climbing are three distinct activities, “scrambling” isn’t an activity itself, but rather a part of many hiking or backpacking trips. Scrambling occurs when the trail gets very steep and rocky, requiring you to “scramble” over the rocks, almost on all fours. It’s a helpful term to describe difficult and steep parts of the trail that are still manageable without the help of ropes or other climbing equipment.
When you’re choosing between different trails, keep an eye out for references to “scrambling or scrambles.” While these aren’t inherently dangerous, rock scrambles can feel very intimidating to new hikers, especially those who have a fear of heights. If, however, you have that adventurous itch and are looking for a bit of adrenaline, rock scrambles will be very satisfying for you.
Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, Everest, half of the peaks in Colorado—these are examples of trails for mountaineering. This refers to very technical, equipment-heavy mountains that may or may not have designated trails to follow. In Europe and Asia, mountaineering is usually called “Alpinism.”
Unlike hiking, mountaineering requires extensive training with experienced guides to be done safely. Even then, there are experienced and talented mountaineers who die each year due to the unpredictability of the mountains.
Your base or carry weight refers to the amount of weight you’ll have on you, including the weight of your clothes and backpack. The lighter your carry weight, the easier the hike will be (not to mention less taxing on your joints).
As a beginner hiker, your carry weight won’t matter as much, since you likely won’t be hiking with too much difficulty. It is a good idea, though, to try and keep things reasonably light so that you won’t exhaust yourself on the trail.
These terms, thru-hiking or section hikes, refers to 10-day or longer trips through established trail networks, such as the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. Trails like these require a decent amount of training and are often considered “bucket list” trips for many hiking and backpacking enthusiasts.
Leave No Trace: This is a hiking philosophy that is focused on preserving the nature around you. Basically, whenever you are out enjoying nature, you want to leave everything just as it was before you got there. Leave No Trace is something that all nature lovers should prioritize. That means taking your trash with you and being careful not to disturb the area around you.
Mind the Right-of-Way: Most of the time, trail traffic will consist of other hikers. Sometimes, though, you might cross paths with mountain bikers and people on horseback. Whenever you can, it’s simplest to let them pass by.
Take it Easy: Walk slower than normal when hiking so you can conserve energy and absorb more of the nature around you. Take regular rest breaks so that you don’t exhaust yourself too quickly. Hiking is more taxing than you might think, so treat it like a journey, not a race.
Be an Early Bird: The earlier you start your hike, the better. As the day wears on, more and more people will be out on the same trail, which can be pretty annoying. On top of that, the early morning is usually the most comfortable time to hike, weather-wise. So, wake up early and enjoy the serenity of nature.
Don’t Be Stubborn: If the weather changes drastically or you realize that the trail you picked is way more than you can handle, resist the temptation to soldier on. It’s better to change your plans or turn back early than it is to wind up in the hospital, or worse, because you didn’t respect your own limits.
Hiking for beginners can be as easy or as difficult as you would like. As long as you go with friends, pick your trail wisely, and make sure you have the proper gear and clothing, your first hiking adventures are sure to be a blast. We hope you enjoyed reading and feel ready to crush the trail! Where do you plan on hiking next? Have any questions about hiking gear for beginners or need more advice? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!
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