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Hiking for beginners: A guide to hitting the trail

Tips to make your first trip one of many more to come

The silhouette of a hiker watching the sunrise.
Aaron P. Thomas / Shutterstock

That first hike is a gateway drug and a dangerous one at that. One moment, you’re pulling on your first pair of proper hiking socks and lacing up your lacing up your hiking boots, and the next, you’re dedicating an entire room in your house to storing outdoor gear and planning multi-day trips across the country. We don’t typically advocate for vices that empty wallets, push our bodies to their limits, and find us waking up in strange places, but for outdoors junkies, we make an enthusiastic exception.

There’s really no better way to experience a place than by exploring it one step at a time. If you’re ready to take that first step but aren’t sure where to begin your journey, you’re in the right place. In this hiking for beginners guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know on how to prepare for hiking and make it a serious habit. We’ll cover what to wear and what gear you’ll want to bring along. We’ll even help you find some of the best hikes to take in your area. Ready? Let’s chase this dragon …

Man walking with hiking poles
Jan Niclas Aberle / Unsplash

What to wear on your hike

If you’re not sure what to wear on your first hike, we’ve got good news for you: You most likely don’t need to rush out and buy a whole new wardrobe. As we take a look at what you need, chances are you will own most, if not all, of the necessary gear to get started.

Altra lone peak trail runners.

Hiking footwear

Generally speaking, beginner hikers have two main choices for hiking footwear: Hiking boots and trail runners.

Hiking boots

Hiking boots are a tried-and-true companion out on the trail and a good pair will serve you well through just about any season or terrain. Over-the-kle boots offer maximum support and protection and often have some water resistance baked in as well. We recommend wearing boots on gnarlier trails with serious obstacles like rocks, roots, and steep inclines, but they’re probably overkill for your average day hike.

That’s because although hiking boots are built to take a beating on any terrain, for your typical hiker they provide way more support than you need — unless you’re carrying some serious weight on your back — and also don’t provide as much ventilation for your feet as lighter-duty footwear.

Trail runners

Trail runners feature supportive footbeds and aggressive tread patterns for traction and won’t weigh you down or run as hot as a traditional hiking boot. If you’re carrying less than 20 pounds in your pack  — which should be the case for just about any day hike —  and aren’t hiking in cold weather or heavy rain, chances are you’ll be happier in trail runners.

Whatever you choose, we recommend popping into your local outfitter to ensure you get the correct fit for your feet, no matter how long your beginner hike is. The footwear used for hiking often requires different sizing than your favorite casual footwear, and you don’t want to be two miles down the trail before your feet start to blister because your shoes are the wrong fit.

A two-tone gray Darn Tough sock on a white backgro
Darn Tough

Hiking socks

We can’t stress the importance of this one enough: Do not go out hiking in casual cotton socks.

Keeping your feet happy over the course of a hike depends on keeping them dry and warm. Cotton fibers absorb and hold moisture, which prevents your feet from regulating their temperature or shedding moisture through your footwear.

You’ll want to pick up a pair of dedicated hiking socks made from either wool, synthetic fibers, or a blend of the two. There are a lot of options out there for hiking footwear, but we pretty much always recommend new hikers start with a pair of Darn Tough’s merino wool hikers, which offer excellent breathability, insulation, and cushioning and come with a lifetime warranty to boot.

Hiker jumping rocks on a warm day
stokpic / Pixabay

Hiking clothes for warm weather

Similar to socks, hiking clothing largely depends on the climate you’ll be hiking in. Regardless of where you’re hiking, we recommend avoiding cotton fibers from head to toe.

If you’re hiking in warmer climates, you can typically get away with any moisture-wicking athletic shirt and a pair of running shorts and be comfortable all day. Most hikers want some extra pockets for storing quick access essentials like their phone, snacks, and a pocket knife, though, so we generally recommend picking up a pair of dedicated hiking shorts like Columbia’s Silver Ridge cargo shorts, which are made from rugged and lightweight ripstop nylon that wicks moisture, dries quickly, and provides solid protection from harmful UV rays.

A hiker in a yellow waterproof sits on a rock and looks uphill on an overcast day
ImageQuirk50 / Shutterstock

Hiking clothing for cold weather

In colder weather, your layering becomes a little more complex, but the concepts are still similar. Layer up with breathable layers that wick moisture, rather than relying on one thick layer to keep you warm. Not only are layers more effective for temperature and sweat management, but you can add and remove them as you need to along the hike.

Base layers

Start by picking out a set of full-length base layers, both top, and bottom. Base layers help you regulate your body heat while also wicking away sweat as you hike. Again, you’ve got the choice of either synthetic fibers or merino wool here, and both come with some tradeoffs.

Synthetic base layers: Synthetic base layers are typically more affordable, longer-lasting, and easier to maintain than merino wool. They also have the unfortunate reputation of absorbing and hanging on to bodily odors, though, and can get particularly ripe after a long day in the woods. Many synthetic base layers come with anti-microbial treatments nowadays, which helps with the “funk” problem, but they still don’t perform as well as merino in that regard.

Merino base layers: Merino base layers offer all of the same benefits as synthetic fibers — comfortable, insulating, moisture-wicking — but are naturally bacteria and odor resistant as well. There’s really nothing quite like a pair of merino leggings to turn any pair of pants into a cozy winter garment, but they’ve got some drawbacks as well. Merino layers generally come with a higher price tag and shorter shelf life than synthetic layers. You have to be careful when you wash them and should avoid putting them in a hot dryer, as this can degrade or shrink merino layers.

A blue Patagonia primaloft mid layer on a white background.

Insulating middle layers

Cold-weather hiking also means bringing along an insulating middle layer to help you trap and retain your body heat. Most hikers either opt for a packable puffy jacket filled with down feathers or synthetic insulation or pack a cozy layer of performance fleece to deliver the warmth instead.

Puffy jackets are lighter weight and pack down much smaller than fleece, which helps keep your overall pack size and weight to a minimum. Performance fleece mid-layers are typically a little more rugged, affordable, and easier to maintain, but are bulky and harder to stow when you’re not wearing them. As with all your layers, remember to avoid cotton.

Person in a rain jacket in the rain
Alaric Hartsock / Unsplash

Rain gear

It might seem a bit excessive, but we recommend throwing some basic rain gear into your pack every time you go for a hike. Getting caught out in the rain sucks, but getting caught unprepared sucks a lot more.

At a minimum, you should throw a simple, packable, waterproof jacket into your pack to help keep your core warm and dry if the weather takes a turn. If there’s a good chance of rain in the forecast, or you’re expecting to get wet outright, we also recommend bringing along a set of rain pants to minimize the misery that comes with being cold and wet from the waist down.

Two hikers in summer clothing cross a small creek in the red bedrock
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What to carry on your hike

Whether it’s a short and sweet four-mile loop on your local trail or a 15-mile excursion through parts unknown, there are a few essentials that you should bring along for every hike. This is the quick-and-dirty version on how to get you into hiking, but keep in mind you can always add whatever creature comforts you want — like a camera or a hammock — if you’ve got extra room in your pack.

Choosing a daypack

No doubt you’ve seen pictures or videos of hikers lumbering around with giant backpacks loaded down with bedrolls, pots and pans, tents, hunting gear, etc. That’s not the kind of pack we’re after here.

Instead, single-day hikers pretty much always stick to the humble daypack, which is typically little more than a compact backpack with some extra support and room for one day’s worth of gear.

We recommend looking for a pack size around the 20L mark for shorter trips that will only last a few hours. This gives you plenty of room for the ten essentials — more on that below — as well as a few extra snacks or electronics.

If you’re heading for a particularly long or challenging day, the amount of gear, food, and water you need will increase, and your pack size will grow accordingly. Even the most obsessive over-packers should be able to get away with a day pack around the 30L mark, though, as anything over that is overkill and starts creeping into multi-day backpacking territory.

A traditional lensatic compass on a topographical map
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The essentials

We could give you a laundry list of specific items to throw into your day pack, but the truth is every hiker will differ slightly according to their personal preferences, and that’s just fine by us. Honestly, the authoritative checklist on hiking gear was published almost fifty years ago and is still widely accepted and used throughout the outdoors community. We’re talking, of course, about the 10 essentials.

The 10 essentials are the classic checklist of everything you need for outdoor endeavors, but technology has come a long way, and we’ve added one of our own “essentials” to the list. We have a whole article dedicated to these hiking essentials — they’re that important — but for now, here’s our quick rundown of what you should never go without.

  1. Navigation: Map and compass and the skills to use them.
  2. Sun protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a sun cap.
  3. Illumination: Headlamp with spare batteries.
  4. First-aid kit: Even a basic kit can solve a load of problems.
  5. Fire: Waterproof matches or a lighter.
  6. Nutrition: Extra food on top of what you plan to eat on the trail.
  7. Hydration: A water filter can be a better option than carrying extra water.
  8. Insulation: Extra layers, either insulated or fleece.
  9. Tools: A multi-tool with pliers, a knife, and basic screwdrivers.
  10. Emergency shelter: A lightweight bivvy or a group shelter to stay warm and dry in an emergency.
  11. Communication device: A cellphone or satellite phone.
A hiking couple sit and watch the sunset over rocky outcrops

How to find hiking trails

Now that your beginner hiking checklist is taken care of, there’s nothing left to do now but find your next hike. Here are a few good ways to hunt down hiking trails in any area:

Trail apps

There are several reliable apps for smartphones nowadays that are constantly being updated and expanded by the hiking community at large. Apps like Trailforks, Gaia GPS, and AllTrails are all free to download and help you locate trails around the world while also providing information about their length, difficulty, and conditions before you ever step foot out the door.

Local outfitters

When in doubt, ask a local. Any outdoor outfitter in the area you’re hiking will be staffed with like-minded people who know the area and can recommend a few routes that meet your fitness/comfort level. We’ve stumbled upon more than a few local “off the map” gems by simply striking up a conversation with an outfitter while buying hiking supplies.

Ask a friend

Got a friend that likes to hike? Start there. Not only can an enthusiast friend point you in the right direction, but they’ll also probably volunteer to come with you as well. Hiking in groups is always safer than going alone, and also gives hikers a chance to split the burden of extra gear/food/water between multiple packs.

Couple hiking and drinking water
Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

More tips for your first hike (while on the trail)

In addition to the above guidance, here are more tips while you’re on your first of many hikes (to help you stay safe, always).

  • Hike with a buddy, especially for your first hike, as it’s safer and more enjoyable to go with a friend or group.
  • Respect the trail and stay on the designated path to avoid getting lost and minimize your impact on the environment.
  • Leave no trace by packing out all your trash and avoiding disturbing wildlife or vegetation.
  • Be mindful of your pace, so start slow and take breaks often, especially when going uphill. Listen to your body and don’t push yourself too hard.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout your hike, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
  • Be aware of your surroundings by paying attention to the trail markers and watch out for potential hazards like loose rocks, uneven terrain, and wildlife.
  • Enjoy the scenery, and be sure to take time to appreciate the beauty of nature and disconnect from your daily routine.

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Kurt Spurlock
Kurt Spurlock is a writer for the outdoors and motorcycle industries. When he's not busy writing you can find him hoarding…
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