Hiking for Beginners: Your Essential Guide

Last updated January 17, 2024

Hiking is simple, but if you’re just starting out it can be intimidating. Here is our definitive guide to hiking for beginners. 

There’s nothing like experiencing your first hike. From the crisp fresh air and bright green scenery to listening to the harmonious chirping of birds—the freedom of hiking is addicting.  

As your feet pound the dirt trail to epic lookout points, it’s nearly impossible not to feel intense bliss and boundless potential. Finding this sacred outdoor (and mental) space encourages you to trek further and push your boundaries.

But what if you don’t know what those boundaries are? What if you’re new to braving the outdoors? If you find yourself nodding “that’s me,” don’t worry. I get it. 

Growing up in a suburban city in Southern California, hiking wasn’t a thing, no matter how captivating nature was. Yet, at the same time the outdoors always beckoned. 

Can anyone else relate to this call of the wild? In fact, you may even recall actress Reese Witherspoon answering this call in the 2014 movie Wild, as Witherspoon (who portrayed Cheryl Strayed) hiked the Pacific Crest Trail to find herself, encountering various challenges both physically and mentally.

Believe it or not, the intimidation factor of the outdoors is real. It can happen to beginner hikers, especially those who are women and members of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community. 

I can honestly say this was the biggest hurdle in overcoming my fear of the outdoors, but now I’ve visited over 15 national and state parks and became an adventure travel coach who helps others brave the outdoors. 

Seven Hiking Tips for Beginners

The outdoors are for everyone and hiking is one of the best ways to explore it. With any new endeavor, it’s important to build your knowledge (we’re talking about you, hiking) so you can feel confident and well prepared. 

Let’s talk about the best ways to prepare for your first hiking trip. Here is my definitive guide to hiking for beginners. 

1. Understand there are different types of hike

When it comes to hiking, it’s important to understand that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Hiking is a catch all term as there are many different types of hikes that people can engage in. 

Probably the most well-known are day hiking, backpacking and thru-hiking. Day hiking refers to completing a hike during the day, hence the name. It’s an excellent way to explore the vast wilderness by day and relax in your comfy bed by night. 

Backpacking is when a hiking excursion involves overnight camping in nature. People may sleep in a tent, hammock or right beneath the stars on a semi-cushy sleep pad for camping. This typically lasts a day or even months. Backpackers often return the same way (or similar) they came. 

Thru-hiking follows the same principles as backpacking with overnight stays and camping. There is one caveat, though. You hike in one direction. This means that you’ll be hiking massive distances from the start of the trail to the end of trail (or something in the middle). 

Rewind back to Witherspoon’s hiking venture and this is exactly what she did as the Pacific Crest Trail is famous for thru-hiking. The Appalachian Trail is another famous end-to-end trail.

Other forms of hiking include:

  • Night hiking: hiking during the night hours
  • Rock scrambling: the middle ground between hiking and rock climbing
  • Base camping: hiking from a camping headquarters
  • Long distance hiking: hiking roughly 30 miles or longer

For those who love to chase scenic views, there’s also waterfall hiking, which involves chasing waterfalls, and summit hiking that puts you right at the top of a mountain’s highest peak.

2. Always tell a friend or family member where you’re going 

After you’ve decided what type of hike you’ll want to do (E.g. day hiking, backpacking, etc.), the next item on your hiking to-do list is to pick a location. Do you want to hike near your hometown? Are you traveling to a new city and hiking there? 

Regardless of where you’re hiking, the next step is important for safety. Always tell someone where you’re going. Whether you’re hiking solo, in a group or having a bae-hike, this rule applies to anyone. 

While the feelings of freedom that come from hiking are invigorating, hiking, in very rare situations, can be unsafe. This can be due to severe weather conditions, feeling ill while hiking, getting lost or having an encounter with animals. 

One of the best ways to safeguard yourself is to tell someone where and when you’re hiking. Once you’re back home, send a quick text to let them know you’re safe. 

3. Choose proper footwear

Wearing the correct footwork is essential for a great hiking experience. You’ll want to make sure your shoes aren’t too tight or too loose and that they have good tread. Some hikers swear by hiking boots with a low cut, while others prefer boots with a mid cut or high ankle.  

Low cut hiking boots offer the best range of motion, whereas high cut boots are super sturdy and offer ankle protection. Mid cut boots fall somewhere in-between. Some hikers prefer hiking in trailblazing shoes that look more like running shoes. A couple popular brands are Hokas, Salomon, Altra and On.

4. Wear breathable clothing 

Whether you are day hiking or backpacking through Yosemite National Park, wearing breathable clothing is an absolute must. This will help circulate the moisture as breathable fabrics help reduce sweat and are quick drying. 

When shopping for breathable clothing, REI suggests  hikers choose clothing based on the fabric construction (E.g. cotton, nylon, etc), moisture management (aka does it say quick-dry), fit, and if it has air vents or mesh panels. 

5. Pack layers

Sometimes the weather fluctuates on the trail, regardless of the season. There can be frigid mornings followed by hot afternoons and chilly evenings. While the temperature is highly dependent on the city, state and country you are hiking, the best advice to cope with the changing temperatures is to pack layers. 

No matter what time of year you’re hiking, packing layers can help you stay prepared during your hike. Take layers off to help cool you down when it’s hot or add on layers when the sun is setting to help warm you up. 

6. Overpack water and snacks

Yup, read that again. Pack lots of water and snacks when hiking. Each of these will help refuel you during your hike as well as after the hike. But how much water should you pack? 

In short, this depends on a variety of factors such as how much you’re hiking, the altitude, your age, temperature and so on. As a guideline, It is recommended to drink a half a liter of water every hour during moderate exercise in average temperatures.

7. Invest in hiking equipment 

When it comes to hiking gadgets, it’s easy to get both excited and overwhelmed around what to buy as a beginner.

Luckily, if you’re day hiking, you won’t need too much equipment. For starters, you’ll want a backpack to carry your reusable water bottle, snacks and other items (E.g. camera and chapstick). Make sure to grab some sun protection gear like sunblock, a hat and sunglasses to protect yourself from the sun. 

In addition, if you’re looking for more stability when hiking, trekking poles may be calling your name. Don’t forget to grab any gear you’ll need if you’re planning to stay overnight such as a camping mat, tent, headlight,and more. 

And if you’re unsure of what you may need, I highly recommend talking to a store clerk at a recreational store as they have great suggestions on what to pack. 

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