There is a lot to think about when planning or training for a big hike. Especially when hiking is a new experience.
In this post, we share our top tips to help you learn how to start hiking and be safe and comfortable out on the trails.
You will find everything you need to know in this complete guide to hiking for beginners.
Going hiking is not as simple and straightforward as you might think.
Sure, in some cases, beginner hiking trails may not require a lot of preparation if they are close to civilization or short in length.
However, as you progress and head deeper into the backcountry and wilderness preparation is critical to your health and safety.
1. Get physically prepared and train for hiking
Hiking isn’t a simple walk through the park. It is a demanding and physical activity. Power hikers move uphill as quickly as trail runners, so many seasoned hikers consider hiking a sport.
Doing hikes with significant elevation change or hiking at high altitudes is even more challenging.
Take your time to get fully prepared for the hikes that you choose to do.
If you are not in shape, get in shape. The less weight you carry on your body or in your backpack will make your hike much easier. Do sports, walk, hit the gym equipment, or do weight training to get your muscles toned.
Or, get in shape by hiking. Start by doing easier hikes that are shorter, have fewer obstacles on the trail, and have less elevation gain. Then, work your way up to more challenging hikes when you feel ready.
When your muscles are strong, hiking is way more fun.
2. Get proper hiking clothes: What makes a complete outfit?
Hiking is like sports. You should not wear regular clothes. First, most regular clothes are made of cotton, which soaks up moisture and can cause hypothermia. Avoid wearing cotton fabrics. Plus, regular clothes are pretty much designed to look good standing still.
Hiking clothing is designed with athletics and comfort in mind. The fabrics allow for easy movement, are breathable, wick sweat away from your skin, and dry quickly.
Get some proper hiking clothes, and you will be happy and comfortable on the trails. These are the key items you should have in your closet.
Yes, hiking socks are a thing.
Pro tip: Hiking socks are the best socks money can buy. They offer a combination of comfort and durability that is magical. They are more expensive but worth it.
Darn Tough makes the best hiking socks. A pair costs about $20. They have a lifetime warranty, so they will be replaced for free if you have any issues. I have about ten pairs of Darn Tough socks in various weights and styles.
True hiking socks will help prevent blisters because the merino wool wicks moisture away from your skin.
Hats are one of the most important things to take on your hikes. A hiking hat will help you avoid sunburn, sunstroke, and dehydration. Always take a hat.
Hiking hats come in various shapes and sizes and are made of breathable materials, wick sweat away from your skin, and dry quickly.
When hiking in hot climates, get a hat with a decent-sized brim or neck cape to provide extra shade.
In winter and cold climates, take one lightweight fleece hat and one heavier wool hat for extra warmth and insulation.
Base layers are very lightweight shirts and bottoms that wick sweat away from your skin and keep you warm. You can get T-shirts for the Summer and warm weather, and long sleeves for cooler seasons.
Hiking shirts are made of synthetic fabric or bamboo. They can be collared, crew neck, short-sleeved, or long-sleeved.
The best hiking shirts are athletic in style, keep you dry, wick sweat, and offer sun protection.
Hiking pants offer features that regular pants do not. First, they dry quickly, offer freedom of movement, and have many pockets and built-in belt systems. Some convert into shorts.
The best hiking pants are Kuhl hiking pants.
The Renegade Rock pants are my favorite for hiking in various weather conditions from Spring to Fall.
The features of hiking shorts are the same as hiking pants.
I have tested many shorts out, and my current favorites are the Vuori Trail Shorts.
Fleece jacket or merino wool sweater
If you are hiking early in the morning before sunrise or during cooler months, fleece jackets and merino wool sweaters are important items for your hiking outfit.
These items are fantastic insulating layers to wear over your base layer or underneath a protective shell.
You can get very lightweight merino sweaters.
Fleece jackets are available in different weights and fabric thicknesses.
Sweaters and fleece jackets both offer incredible insulation for their weight.
Hardshell jacket or rain jacket
When you encounter sudden severe weather, you need protection to stay warm and dry.
Take your time to pick out the highest quality hardshell jacket or rain jacket that you can afford.
This hardshell jacket should be windproof and waterproof. Otherwise, you risk exposing yourself to hypothermia.
Lightweight hardshell pants
It is also a good idea to get some lightweight hardshell pants that are windproof and waterproof.
I own the REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Pants for emergency use. They are super packable. You can stash them in a coat pocket or your backpack. These pants will keep me dry and warm if a sudden storm arrives.
Now you know the key components to assembling a hiking outfit.
For more ideas, check out our guide on what to wear hiking.
3. Get must-have essential hiking gear for beginners
Before you hit the trails, you need to acquire some essential hiking gear.
The objective is to ensure you will be safe and comfortable on your hikes.
You can often get out there with minimal gear for easy, short, close-to-home hikes. I’ll toss some basic items in my fanny pack or my daypack and go when I do a local hike.
If you are heading into the rougher backcountry further away from civilization, become familiar with and acquire the ten essentials.
Let’s start with the must-have items.
Hiking shoes or hiking boots for beginners
Hiking trails can be rough. Rocks, tree roots, slippery dirt, water, snow, ice.
Don’t wear your flip-flops! This may sound like a joke, but I have seen it many times.
Hiking shoes, hiking boots, and modern trail running shoes provide exceptional support, foot protection, and traction.
I wear the Salomon X Ultra 4 and Salomon X Ultra 4 GTX hiking shoes for long days in rocky mountain terrain. They are lightweight but provide the foot protection and support I need to keep my feet happy.
If I want to go lighter and faster, I wear my Brooks Catamount trail running shoes.
For more footwear ideas, check out our complete guides:
- Best hiking shoes for men
- Best hiking shoes for women
- Best hiking boots for men
- Best hiking boots for women
- Best trail running shoes
- Best hiking shoes for kids
Pro tip: Avoid cheap (under $100) footwear. Cheap footwear won’t last as long as top-quality footwear, so you will pay more in the long run by going cheap.
Daypack or hiking backpack
As we are discussing, you must carry supplies while on the trails.
Every hiker should get a daypack or a more substantial backpack.
Sizing will depend on how long you are hiking or your particular needs.
I like to hike lightweight and only take what I need in my pack.
On most hikes, I carry my Osprey Duro 15 Hydration Pack or my Deuter Speed Lite 13 Pack.
I will use my Osprey Stratos 24 backpack if I need more space.
Pro skill: Learn how to pack a backpack properly.
Water bottle or hydration reservoir
Always take more water than you think you need. I always take a liter more than I think I need, and most often, I drink it. Dehydration is a real danger.
You can carry your liquids in a water bottle, a hydration reservoir, or both.
I carry both. I take bottles of extra water, which are stored in my backpack.
And I use the hydration reservoir to allow me to drink whenever I wish while moving.
I own three different Osprey Hydraulics hydration reservoirs. The 2.5 liter Osprey Hydraulics reservoir is the one I use most often.
First aid kit
You can either build your own first-aid hit for hiking and backpacking or buy a pre-assembled kit.
Learn more about first aid supplies in our guide to first aid kits.
When it comes to navigation, you have several options to consider. These include a mobile phone with downloaded maps, GPS hiking watches, handheld GPS devices, or a compass and paper map of where you hike.
Many people rely heavily on technology. Be careful. If your batteries run out (take a solar charger), or the device stops working or is broken, you can get into trouble quickly.
I always take a compass and a paper map, and I recommend you do too. These simple, lightweight devices can save your life.
Satellite communicator device
At a certain point, your mobile phone will stop working.
Get a satellite communicator device like the Garmin inReach Mini to stay connected.
This handy little device allows you to send an SOS for help and your coordinates. Or, communicate via satellite by sending text messages to friends, family, or someone that can help you.
Carry waterproof matches and a lighter in your backpack. They are light and don’t take up much space.
A fire will keep you warm and safe if you get caught outdoors. Or, if you plan to be out on the trails for days, you will need a fire to cook food.
We recommend taking a small, lightweight stove if you are hiking or backpacking above the treeline or in the snow. You can use it for cooking or staying warm.
Get a hiking knife and store it in your pack. I knife can be used for many tasks or your protection.
Check out our guide to the best hiking knives for more information.
Headlamp or flashlight
Part of the thrill of exploring the backcountry is not knowing what will happen or what you will encounter on your adventures. Of course, this excitement comes with risk.
You must be prepared to hike (and see) in the dark when your day does not go as planned. Or, if you are backpacking for days or weeks at a time, you will need a light source to do tasks around your campsite.
I recommend getting a headlamp and a flashlight. They work very differently and have distinct advantages. These days headlamps and flashlights are small yet extremely powerful. Get one, stash it in your pack, and use it when required. Easy.
I carry the Fenix PD36R rechargeable flashlight. I like it because it is super bright, and I can scan ahead, behind, and side to side without turning my head.
I also have a Petzl Actik Core headlamp. But, as mentioned, it requires pointing your head where you want a bright view, which I find annoying while hiking. Headlamps are not as effective as a flashlight. However, a headlamp can be useful around the campsite if you want to have both hands free.
If you are backpacking, take a tent.
Otherwise, take a space blanket, ultralight tarp, or a large, durable plastic trash bag in your backpack that you can use in an emergency.
We mentioned hats but look for other ways to protect yourself from the sun.
Some clothing provides sun-blocking protection and will be marked with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating.
Do take enough sunscreen. And, take your sunglasses to protect your eyes.
I like to wear a simple bandana to protect my neck area from the harsh sun rays, especially when hiking at high altitudes.
Take extra food and water
Finally, take extra hiking food, hiking snacks, water, and clothing (socks, base layers) with you.
Extra food and water can save your life if you get lost or stuck on the trails.
For more ideas on what hiking gear can be handy, check our complete guide to the best hiking gear.
4. Find a hiking buddy (or group, or go solo if you choose)
Over the years, I have done most of my hiking solo. I like to hike on weekdays when the trails are less crowded. Most people that I know are not available. Hiking alone adds some adventurous excitement and a sense of freedom. Solitude allows you to better tune into the wilderness that surrounds you. And you can move at your own pace. At the same time, hiking solo requires extra attention for your safety and well-being. It is important to have a plan, stick to the plan, and let someone know about your plan. More on that later.
Although solo hiking can be very satisfying, I enjoy having a hiking buddy when friends or family are available. It is fun and exciting to share an incredible experience. A clear benefit of hiking with people is safety. When you have a hiking buddy, you will have someone to help you, administer first aid, or go for help if necessary. Ask your hiker friends to take you along on their next adventure. If you do not know any hikers, check out REI Conversations, REI Experiences, or Meetup. Or, find hikers on Instagram in your area that seem like-minded and connect.
5. How to choose a hike or hiking trail for beginners
Okay, time to do some research and find some amazing hikes.
So, where can you find more information on the best hiking trails?
- Books – check Amazon, your local bookstores, or local thrift shops
- Apps – AllTrails or Hiking Project
- Talk to family and friends that hike
- Ask locals (where you hike)
Also, check out our guide to the best hiking apps.
Before you pick a trail and head out, several factors must be considered.
Your fitness level
The first thing you should think about is your current fitness level. Are you in good shape? Have you been working out consistently? Or, has it been a while since you have done some demanding exercise?
Be brutally honest with yourself so that you pick a suitable hike. Tackling a hike that is too difficult won’t be fun. Ease in and work your way up in difficulty level. There will be many more hikes in your future. Start with a manageable hike.
Next, will you have a few hours, a half-day, or a full day of time for your hike?
When looking at potential hikes, match up the estimated time for completion to the amount of time you have available. Your first few hikes will probably take longer than you think.
Pay close attention to how long each hike is that you are considering. It takes approximately 20 minutes to cover one mile. Depending on the hike you choose and your fitness level, it may take more or less time to cover a mile.
The local elevation and the total gain on the trails play an important role in choosing a hike.
Hikes located at higher elevations are generally more difficult due to less oxygen in the air you breathe.
Hiking trails with significant ups and downs, and thus elevation gain, will slow you down and work you harder.
Flat hikes at lower elevations closer to sea level are much easier. However, excess humidity and heat can slow you down.
So, take elevation gain into account when picking your hikes. If you are hiking at higher elevations with more elevation gain, you might want to give yourself some extra time.
Weather, climate, time of year
The weather, climate, and time of year will all impact your hiking experience.
- Hot temperatures make hikes slow going in the Summer, and hot climates (stay hydrated, deploy sun protection)
- Rain and snow can slow you down in the Winter and Spring (slippery, you may have to take shelter, get microspikes, and trekking poles)
- Days are shorter in Fall and Winter (start early to avoid being caught out in the dark)
6. Choose the best time to go hiking (early in the day)
I highly recommend that you hit the trails as early as you possibly can. The earlier, the better. Once you start doing sunrise hikes, you will see that you love it. Trails are less crowded in the morning. If you like wildlife, this will increase your odds of seeing some. And there is something special and exciting about arriving in the dark and hiking as the sun rises around you. Such a cool experience.
If you are hitting the trails solo, but enjoy some people around you, then time your arrival at the trailhead just before things get really busy. Then you can find a parking spot, prepare for your hike, have a snack, and hit the trails and not feel alone.
Hike when the weather is good! Before you head out, be sure to check the weather report for where you are hiking.
I use the National Weather Service to get an accurate idea of what will happen in the area I will hike. The expected temperature, wind, and precipitation forecasts can be reviewed by the hour.
If you are going to a park, or wilderness area, check their websites and Twitter profile for current information.
If you are thinking about winter hiking, check out our guide to hiking in the snow.
7. Drinking water: How to hydrate yourself adequately
Water is an essential item to have an abundance of while hiking.
Dehydration is a serious health issue and can lead to death. Dehydration can accelerate altitude sickness. Always take more water than you think you need.
A good general recommendation is to take at least a half liter per hour on the trails.
I typically take one liter of water per hour on the trails because I usually hike aggressively on strenuous hikes. I get thirsty.
I also take my Platypus Quickdraw Microfilter to draw from a local water source.
As previously mentioned, taking both water bottles (storage) and a hydration reservoir (easy access) to stay hydrated on the go is a good setup.
Pro tip: Take extra water and sports drinks (more than you need on your hike) and leave them in your car for your return. More often than not, you will be thankful to have it. Leave them in a waterproof cooler with ice packs if you want a cold drink after your hike.
8. Take the best hiking food and snacks
Like water, take more food and snacks than you think you want or need. You will need the fuel if you are doing strenuous hikes. Hiking burns a lot of calories quickly. A good general recommendation is to take 200-300 calories of food and snacks per hour of hiking. Taking more than this won’t hurt!
For more information, check out our complete guides to the best food for hiking and the best hiking snacks.
9. Adopt the layering system (your clothing)
We discussed all the different items of clothing that you should have available in your hiking and backpacking closet. At first thought, it seems like a lot. However, you need to own all these items to wear in different weather and climates. This is the layering system.
Layering your clothes allows you to regulate your body temperature and avoid excessive sweating or getting too cold.
You want to wear a base layer (underwear to stay comfy), a mid-layer (or two) for insulation, and an outer layer to protect you from severe weather. Your base layer and mid-layer will help to wick sweat away from your skin and keep you dry, warm, and comfortable. The outer layer will block wind and precipitation from penetrating your mid-layer. The layers work together with purpose.
If you get too hot, open some zippers or completely remove your outer layer. You can unzip or remove a mid-layer for further cooling. If you start to get cold, add layers on again. Super easy.
Avoiding excessive sweating is key. You do not want to wear wet clothing because that can lead to hypothermia, quickly becoming dangerous to your health and well-being.
10. Understand maps and navigation
It wasn’t too long ago that using paper maps and a compass was the only way to navigate and avoid getting lost. Today, it should still be considered your primary means of navigation.
Even though technology and battery power are much improved, a handheld GPS device, mobile phone, or GPS watch will likely fail you if caught on the trails longer than anticipated. This is even more true when the temperatures fall below 0C/32F. Most batteries die quickly in very cold temperatures.
Buy a compass and learn how to use it with paper topographical maps. You can download and print various maps using AllTrails or Gaia GPS.
When hiking, print a map, take it with you, and practice using it in the backcountry. Make sure one of the maps you print is a topographical map. This is what you want to use with your compass.
Pro tip: Keep your map in a waterproof map case. You can buy them at REI, Backcountry, and Amazon. Alternatively, if you want to save money, use a heavy-duty Ziploc bag. They work. Double bag your map if you want to be sure it stays dry and to add durability. To make reading maps easy on the go, add a thin piece of cardboard in the case or bag so that your printed map stays flat.
If you are also using your mobile phone and apps to navigate, download your required maps to your phone in advance. Then you can use the maps without a mobile connection. Put your phone in airplane mode while you hike to save hours of battery life.
Other means of navigation are handheld GPS devices. Their primary benefit is durability. It is hard to justify these devices nowadays since mobile phone screens have way better resolution and bigger screen sizes. I prefer to pair my iPhone 13 Pro with my Garmin inReach Mini as my go-to digital system. I also pair my Garmin Fenix 7 to my phone. For more information on watches, check out our guide to the best GPS watches for hiking.
11. Know your hiking safety and emergency plan
The mountains are unforgiving. When traveling in the backcountry, your day can go from glorious to super scary in the blink of an eye.
For this reason, it is highly recommended to take a first aid course or do some research at home to better understand first aid. Also, do get or make a first aid kit and keep it in your backpack.
The other task you should do in advance of each hike is to create a detailed itinerary of your plans. Give this to family and friends before you leave. Also, print a copy and leave it in your car (not in plain view) so that any search and rescue personnel could potentially find it.
If you are heading out to remote locations, take a personal locator beacon (PLB). Or, get a satellite messenger such as the inReach Mini (shop at Backcountry or REI). Both allow you to send an SOS if you get into trouble.
If you are winter hiking, you need to be aware of avalanche danger. Take a course and know your terrain before you go anywhere.
For more information on safety in the backcountry, check out our guide to creating a solid hiking emergency plan.
12. Understand the hazards of hiking
Being aware of your surroundings is an important skill to practice. Of course, have fun, enjoy the scenery, and keep a pulse on potential hazards around you. These are the most obvious. Depending on your location, these hazards may or may not be present.
Water and flooding
In Spring, snow melts and causes streams and rivers to become powerful forces of nature. Never underestimate the power of moving water. Running water can break your body into pieces. Its force can trap you underwater, causing you to drown. If you can, avoid crossing streams and rivers.
Lightning can quickly become a threat when you are hiking above the treeline. If you hear thunder or see dark clouds forming, quickly descend below the tree line. In Colorado, it is recommended to start hiking before sunrise and descend your summit before noon to avoid Summer thunderstorms and lightning.
To some, snowfields seem like a fun slide in hot summer weather. However, if you do not have an ice axe stay away from large snowfields. If you get moving fast, you may not be able to stop until you crash into rocks. Every year in Colorado, hikers get badly injured or die from sliding on snowfields.
If you encounter steep rocky terrain on a hike, only climb up what you know you can climb down. Because it is easier to climb up than down, less experienced hikers often find themselves stuck. Keep a pulse on your ability to turn around and descend as you go. If you turn around and look downwards and it feels sketchy, go no further.
If you plan to tackle more advanced hikes with degrees of climbing and very rocky terrain, do get a climbing helmet. And, as you climb, be conscious of who else is around you. Be careful not to dislodge rocks on others that may be below you.
If you are hiking in Fall, Winter, or Spring, you should be aware of avalanche danger. Do your research, and check your local conditions.
If you get wet and cold, hypothermia can quickly become a serious health problem. It is typically caused by exertion (sweating), wet precipitation (rain, sleet, freezing rain, snow), and wind. If your body temperature falls too low, this can lead to uncontrollable shivering, cold extremities, and confusion.
You can decrease the odds of hypothermia in several ways.
- Do not wear cotton clothing
- Wear moisture-wicking synthetic fabric clothing
- Layer your clothes
- Always take a windproof and waterproof shell in your backpack
The best treatment for hypothermia is warm, dry clothing, consumption of warm fluids, get into a sleeping bag (even better with someone else).
Hypoxia, aka altitude sickness
If you are coming from a lower to a higher altitude (over 8000 feet), take time (at least a day) to acclimate to your new location. Start with lower elevation hikes, and work your way up.
When you are hiking at a high altitude, stay well hydrated at all times and eat enough food and snacks. Drink more water and eat more food than you normally would. This is key. Take breaks often and avoid overexertion.
If you are feeling a bad headache, weak, dizzy, have no appetite, are disoriented, or impaired, descend immediately to relieve symptoms.
Keep a close eye on each person in your hiking group and periodically ask how everyone is feeling.
Hiking is a strenuous activity; if you are out of shape, you are more at risk of heart failure.
If you feel unusual discomfort, pain, numbness, or tingling in your chest, neck, or arms, descend immediately and seek medical attention.
Sun protection is super important. The sun will drain your energy and can make you sick.
Always wear a hiking hat, and apply (and re-apply) sunscreen to your face and exposed skin.
Contaminated drinking water (bacteria + viruses)
Do not drink unfiltered water in the backcountry. You could get sick from bacteria or viruses in the water source. In some countries, you will need to filter and purify your water.
Check out our guide to the best water filters and purifiers for more information.
Observe and appreciate animals from a distance. Do not feed wild animals.
If you are hiking in bear territory, it is recommended to carry bear spray. Never approach bear cubs; the mother is always nearby. Bear spray should also work against other large predators.
For more information on how to deal with animals, check out our complete guide to animal safety.
If you stay on the trail, you are unlikely to become lost. It is good practice to periodically verify your location on your map or GPS device.
However, if you get off the trail and suddenly feel lost, stop, stay calm, think for a moment, study your maps, observe any landmarks, and listen (streams, roads, people) for clues to where you may be. Attempt to use the sun or moon (both rise in the East and set in the West) and the time of day to get an idea of direction.
Always carry the emergency gear you would want if you had to spend an unexpected night in the backcountry. Emergency gear will depend on the time of year and expected weather. An extra warm layer and a windproof and waterproof hardshell jacket or rain jacket are must-take items. An emergency blanket is a good idea because it is light and takes up little space.
13. Follow trail etiquette and hiking rules
Just like there are rules to the road, there are rules to the trails. Learn them, respect them, and follow them.
Right of way
Uphill hikers have the right of way. Step aside to allow the uphill hiker to pass if you are hiking downhill.
If mountain bikers and hikers share the trails, it is generally expected that the biker yields to the hiker. It is probably easier for hikers to step aside and let the biker pass by quickly.
If you encounter horses on the trail, the horse has the right of way. Give it and its master plenty of room so you do not startle the horse. Super straightforward, do not tangle with a large animal.
Leave no trace
This is mandatory. Do not ruin or destroy your surroundings. Show respect. Think about how you can be careful to preserve the outdoors in its current state. This may be difficult for beginner hikers to understand, especially if they are used to city life.
Each day, fewer places in the world are still in their original state and form. For those that are, it is important to preserve this state so that future generations can enjoy the natural outdoors.
Here are some basic guidelines to “Leave No Trace” that you can follow:
- Plan ahead and be fully prepared
- Hike and camp on durable surfaces
- Do not step off the trail
- Camp in designated spots
- Dispose of waste properly
- Bury (deep) or carry out your poop
- Observe and follow local regulations
- Leave what you discover while hiking (rocks, sticks, flowers, plants, etc.)
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Use a stove if you can
- Or, use designated fire pits
- Never leave a fire unattended
- Respect wildlife
- Do not approach wild animals
- And, never feed wild animals
- Be considerate of other hikers and backpackers
- Don’t play loud music (most hikers hike to find peace and quiet)
- Take care of your dog
14. Travel to new hiking and backpacking destinations
After gaining experience hiking near your home, consider expanding your horizons. There are so many cool places that you can hike. Each country presents a new landscape and culture to explore.
15. Have fun!
The most important tip of them all.
Hiking can sometimes feel tough. If you are having a difficult time, slow things down, take in the hiking views, and focus on having fun.
This concludes our ultimate guide to hiking for beginners. If you found this information helpful, please share it with your friends. Have a great time out on the trails!