OUTDOOR BASICS

Hiking 101: Tips to Ensure a Fun and Safe Hiking Trip

Hiking 101
Daniel Carraway
Written by Daniel Carraway

You’ve heard all your friends talking about their hiking and camping trips with their family, and you’re intrigued by their tales. It sounds easy enough, right? Just pack your bags and gear, head out to a remote location, and be away from the busy life of the city. But if you’re not wholly prepared, you could end up needing to be rescued from the local park rangers. That’s why we’re here to show you a little Hiking 101 to make sure you’re on the right road to getting the most out of your experience.

Hiking for beginners takes a lot of preparation and research into finding the right gear for you. It also takes a lot of dedication to maintaining your gear and ensuring that everything is in working order before every single trip. To make this easier for you, we’re going to provide you with some great tips for hiking, in everything from how to pick out your gear to being comfortable in your tent when you turn in for the night.

Person is Hiking

So instead of learning how to get into hiking by making everything up as you go along, take a few minutes to take notes on all this juicy intel we’re going to provide for you.

Picking a Destination

You’ve probably seen a list of the best hiking locations to add to your destination vacation, but going at any of them unprepared is not the best idea. Many of these locations are for non-beginner hikers, and could prove to be more challenging than you’re ready for. Instead, you should do some research into hiking trails for beginners so that you can start off small and work your way up to the more famous trails you’ve heard so much about.

Looking online and using guidebooks are a great way to start. They provide a lot of information that will help you to gauge which ones are manageable and which ones are above your skill level. They’ll give you information such as the difficulty of the trail, how long the trail is, elevation gain, whether there are sources of water, and trail features.

Hiking Trails

You can also choose to go with word of mouth, whether it’s from friends or park rangers. Calling a ranger station is easy, and they’ll have first-hand and up-to-date knowledge on the conditions of trails, as well as which ones are suitable for varying skill levels.

Once you’ve compiled all of the information that you’ll need, there are some important things to consider before you choose which one to go with.

Time

How long do you want to spend hiking? Are you interested in just an hour-long hike, or do you want a full-day adventure? Knowing how much time you want to spend on the trail will help you choose the right trail. It’s good to keep in mind that elevation gain will add to your time, since working up an incline will add to your time.

Level of fitness

If you want to be able to enjoy the full extent of your hike, you need to ensure you’re in the proper shape. You may want to start off with a flat trail on your first go to see what your endurance level is like.

Hiking on a Flat Trail

In order to take on the more challenging trails, you’ll have to build up your endurance over time, and that means staying in shape even when you’re not on the trail.

Season and weather

Since you’re a beginner hiker, you’ll want to stay away from winter hiking. Spring, summer and fall are the best seasons to go with, as they require a bit less planning and gear to take with you. Some trails are even closed in winter and early spring, so that already rules out some locations for you. And in the fall when the sun starts to set early, you should plan to get back to your campsite or car before it gets too dark.

Summer Hiking

Always check the weather forecast in the area you’re going to be hiking in. Accounting for rain means that you’re going to have to invest in more waterproof gear, including clothing and tents, and that’s not a great experience for any first-time hiker. Getting wet in a rainstorm, no matter the temperature, is a fast track to hypothermia, and if you’re not adequately prepared, you’ll be jeopardizing he state of your health.

Distance

This correlates to how much time you want to spend hiking. The average hiker can go roughly 3 miles per hour, depending on terrain and elevation, as well as how much gear you’re carrying on your back. As mentioned above with endurance, picking short, flat trails will help you to see what you’re capable of before you take on more challenging routes. Also keep in mind that unless you’re doing a loop trail, you need to double whatever distance it is to the trailhead, as you’re going to have to walk back.

Hiking Distance

Patience for planning

Is your finishing point going to be different from your starting point? Will you be hiking on a loop? Are you going to camp for a day or two during your hike? Asking these questions will adequately prepare you for the kind of gear you’ll have to bring with you, as well as other plans you’ll need to make if your hike ends at a different location.

Hiking with Friends

For your very first hike, it’s a good idea to go with someone else. Not only will you have someone to help you carry some of your gear, but you’ll also have someone else to talk to so you won’t feel so lonely. It’s also motivating to have someone else to keep going instead of giving up and heading back to your car.

Traveling with someone else also means that you have another pair of hands if something goes wrong.  If you’ve sprained your ankle, for example, having someone else to wrap your ankle and get you pain medication is a lot more comforting than having to do everything all by yourself.

Hiking With Friends

You can choose to go with your hiking friends, or you can look at local hiking clubs to see when people will be hiking on your trail of choice. These clubs are great sources of information in preparing what to take on your trail, as well as which gear they recommend the most.

Building Your Endurance

As we mentioned before, it’s a good idea to build up your endurance and leg strength before you go on your first hike. You can do this by hiking once a week in your local park, and increasing the distance of each hike as you see fit. After all, day hiking does take a lot out of you, and you don’t want to be far from civilization without the energy to get back.

Hiking Near the Civilization

Start off simple, with a backpack on your back containing a few of your basic supplies: a supply of water, a few snacks, and a waterproof jacket with a hood, for example. As you increase the distance of your hikes, increase the weight in your backpack. This prepares you for how long you can go with a weight on your back.

Packing the Right Gear

When it comes to finding the right gear, you first have to know what kind of trip you’ll be taking. Hopefully, we’ve helped you to figure out what that is from the questions and suggestions we’ve posed above. With those in place, you can easily make a checklist of what you’ll really need on your trip. But here’s an easy list to start off with.

  • Local map and compass
  • Sun protection (sunscreen, hat, sunglasses)
  • Outerwear (fleece jacket, rain jacket, waterproof/resistant pants)
  • Illumination (flashlight, headlamp)
  • First Aid Kit
  • Swiss Army knife
  • Duct tape
  • Food
  • Proper clothing
  • Water/hydration
  • Emergency whistle

Hiking Gear

You may think is a lot to take into account, but it’s better to have too much than not enough. If ultralight hiking is your thing, then it’s something you have to work towards instead of going at it on your first try. Experience will show you how to adapt and minimize your needs so that you can carry less and lighter gear with you.

So let’s delve deeper into a few of these pieces of hiking gear.

Clothing

What you wear can really make all the difference in whether you enjoy your hike or not. They’ll be on you throughout the entirety of your day, so it wouldn’t hurt to pay better attention to what you’ll be wearing.

Layering

Layering is important for keeping the moisture away from your skin and helping you maintain your body heat. Everyone’s body works differently, so experimenting will help you to figure out what works best for you. And having too many layers is better than not having enough, as if you get too warm, you can simply remove the layers you don’t need. Not having enough means that you can’t warm up when you get too cold.

Clothes Layering

  • Base layers: these are the layers that will be next to your skin. Look for articles of clothing that dry quickly but still retain a lot of body heat. Cotton is the worst choice you can make, as it gets heavy and takes a long time to dry when it gets wet. Look at wool and polyester as fabric choices.
  • Hiking layers: should help to isolate your body heat while still being breathable. They should also wick moisture away from the body to help you stay warm. Look at nylon and polyester as fabric choices. Forget about bringing denim pants with you, as this doesn’t breathe and takes a long time to dry.
  • Insulation layers: even in the summer, it can get a bit chilly when the sun goes down. Bringing along a puffy vest or a fleece can really make a big difference.
  • Rainwear: where there’s sun, there’s surely to be rain, so some waterproof/resistant outer garments will keep you protected against the wet chill.

Shoes

When it comes to shoes, forget your sneakers. They might be comfortable, but you want something that’s more durable and will protect your feet. Ankle boots are great for supporting your ankles and all the punishment they’ll be put through, and they’re usually made with water-resistant materials such as leather to prevent your feet from getting soaked. Hiking boots are also made with breathability in mind so that your feet aren’t sweating and getting stinky.

Hiking Shoes

Trail-running shoes are also another option, especially on well-maintained trails that don’t have a lot of obstacles. But they’re not very good for wet conditions, as your socks can get wet easily and become a breeding ground for bacteria and foot fungus.

Regardless of the kind of shoe you buy, you should always break them in well before your hiking trip. You want your shoes to be comfortable as you’re walking, not creating blisters on your heels and toes and ruining your hike.

Food and Water

Depending on the length of your hike, you’re going to need to bring plenty of water and high-energy foods with you. As a rule of thumb, you should plan for eating at least 200-300 calories every hour in order to keep your energy levels up. Choose foods that will stick with you like nuts, trail mix, and granola. If you plan on taking breaks, you can bring some canned foods like tuna and chicken and a few slices of bread and cheese to make a quick sandwich.

Granola Bars

Water is also essential, and it would be a mistake not to bring some with you. You can choose to pack some filled water bottles at home, or you can bring water treatment options with you. Some hiking water bottles come with added filters that remove bacteria and protozoa from bodies of drinking water.

Alternatively, you could bring iodine or chlorinating tablets to do the same job. However, they do leave a bit of an aftertaste in your water, so it’s not for everyone. To be safe, you should have, on hand, at least 1 liter of water for every hour of hiking.

Backpack

You’re going to need to carry your gear in something, and that means having a backpack that is big enough. For shorter hikes, a bag with a capacity of roughly 15 to 20 liters should be good enough; for longer hikes, anything with a capacity of 30 liters or over works best. This is to take into account the extra layers of clothing you’ll be bringing with you as well.

Hiking Backpack

Look for backpacks that have padded shoulder straps and a waist belt. These make it easier for you to carry all of that weight around without placing too much pressure on your back.

First Aid Kit

Accidents do happen, and it’s essential that you be adequately prepared for them. It wouldn’t hurt to take a basic first aid course before your trip so that you know what to do when the unexpected arises. However, you also shouldn’t carry around an entire pharmacy of stuff with you, as you’re only increasing the weight in your backpack. The basic essentials you definitely shouldn’t do without are:

  • Various sizes of adhesive bandages
  • Medical tape
  • Sterile gauze pads
  • Antiseptic
  • Pain medication
  • Allergy medication
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Alcohol wipes
  • A pair of tweezers

First Aid Kit

You can add to this list to accommodate your specific medical needs, as well as those of anyone traveling with you.

Preparing for Your Trip

Now that you have everything in order, there are some steps that you should take before you head out on your trip. They ensure your safety and comfort, and should put everyone’s mind at ease.

Tell Someone

Regardless of whether you’re traveling by yourself or with a group, it’s a good idea to tell someone exactly where you’re going and how long you plan to be gone for. The unexpected can happen, and having someone on the outside of your camping trip knowing where you are will make it easier for the authorities to know where to start looking.

Learn to Read a Map

There is more to reading maps than seeing the trail. Being able to make the association between the terrain and the features on a map will help you to identify landforms so you know you’re heading in the right direction or if you need to turn back.

How to Read a Map

If you prefer, you can pick up trail-specific maps at the park you’ll be hiking in so that you can see just how far you’ve traveled and how much you have left to go. These maps are smaller and more specific in terms of the landmarks you’ll come across, and some of them may even indicate if there are certain stops along the way you should check out.

However, if you plan on using backcountry maps, then you should learn the symbols in the legends so that you’re aware of what’s near you during your hike. Everything from elevation to rivers is marked on the map, so it may be a bit of an information overload for your very first hike.

Backcountry Map

In addition, you should also learn how to read a compass and how to use it in combination with a map. What’s great about a compass is that they don’t require batteries and require very little maintenance to continue working properly. It doesn’t hurt to invest in one that’s a little more expensive than the free ones you get with certain gear, as you’ll definitely get more accurate readings and you wouldn’t want your compass to fail on you.

Don’t Start Too Late in the Day

Plan your day accordingly so that you’re not stuck out in the woods past the time you intend to be back. Starting early gives you a lot more time to work with, especially if you want to take all the scenic routes and get a lot of pictures in. You get more wiggle room for enjoying your day before you need to head back.

Hiking Late in the Day

But if for some reason you can’t make it to your hiking trail on time, it’s a good idea to shorten your hike altogether, if you still intend to go. If push comes to shove, you can always come back the next day or whenever you have free time again. After all, it’s better to play it safe than risking your well-being on a hiking trip by getting lost in the dark.

Trying Out Your Gear

How do you know what works if you don’t try everything out? Do you know if your backpack can hold all your gear? Do you know if those hiking boots you got are going to be comfortable? You won’t know until you take them out of the packaging and give them a go.

You also won’t know if your gear is broken or not unless you try them out. Maybe the zipper on your backpack is broken. It would be better to find out before you’re already out in the woods and don’t have the means to call for a replacement.

Broken Backpack Zipper

So when you get home, take everything out of the box and see what works and what doesn’t. Try on any clothing to see if it fits well. Take your gear on a test run to see how well it holds up to the elements and being used.

Making it Fun for Everyone

If you do happen to travel with other people, you should take into account whether kids and dogs will be added to the mix. Not only does this mean that you’ll hike slightly slower, but you’ll also need to pack more gear to accommodate for their needs as well.

Children can learn a lot on their hiking trip, so it’s best to make it an educational experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Exercise more patience, as not all children are willing to walk those long distances without putting up a fuss. You’ll have to take more breaks in order because of their lack of endurance and their short legs, so it would be best to stick to much shorter trails so that you can get back to the car on time.

Hiking with Kids

Dogs are great to take on hiking trips, but you should check the rules of your park first to make sure they’re allowed. Many parks require that you have your dog on a leash at all times, so it’s a good idea to pack an extra one in case the one you have breaks.

Dogs can also carry their own gear if you acquire special pockets harnesses or doggy backpacks that they can wear. They will also have to make frequent stops for hydration and food, and be sure to pack a healthy supply of poop bags to pick up after your dog’s mess.

Protecting the Environment

The motto you should keep with you on any hiking trail is to leave it exactly as you found it, if not better. That means not leaving behind any garbage and picking up after yourself when you’ve stopped to take a break. Bring a designated bag for all of your garbage, and place a few silica packets inside to reduce the smell.

If you do have to build a fire, keep it small and clear the area around it to minimize the chances of debris catching on fire and causing a forest disaster. And if you do have to do a number two, bring a small hand shovel to bury it all, or carry it with you in its own bag to dump at home.

Tipi Fire

Image credit: themanual.com

The wilderness is not your home, and you should pay it as much respect as you’d want anyone else to pay yours.

Overview

Hiking should be a fun activity that allows you to get some cardio in, tune in with nature, and get away from the rigmarole of society and fast-paced living. But without being adequately prepared, you’ll only end up having a horrible trip that could ruin your taste for hiking altogether. We hope, however, that providing you with this information beforehand will set the pace for what’s to come so that you can enjoy every aspect of your hike.

Are you an experienced hiker and would like to contribute your two cents to this discussion? Do you feel that there’s a piece of advice we might have forgotten? Please feel free to share your advice with us and other readers in the comments section below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daniel Carraway

Daniel Carraway

Daniel Carraway joined our team last year. He is a gear freak when it comes to hiking, climbing and camping. He went to REI Outdoor School to meet new people and learn best practices. Don’t even try to argue with him about the latest backpack or ice axe, he tried most of them. Daniel’s dream is to climb Mount Everest.