The sense of achievement when you reach your hiking goal is what keeps many people coming back for more. The feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction and just the right amount of exhaustion is hard to beat.
Whether you’ve climbed to the peak of a far-flung mountain that’s been calling your name for years, or simply hiked to a wooded glen that you never thought you’d be able to find on your own, hiking is a very popular pastime for good reason. If you’ve never hiked before, you might worry that learning how to hike could be difficult, but it’s really not.
With a little bit of forward planning and some training, you too can soon be hitting those trails and getting off the beaten track. One great advantage of hiking is its accessibility. Most people live near somewhere with a range of walking trails, and the lack of expensive equipment required means you can start off with a pretty basic, streamlined kit and work your way up from there, depending on where you want to go on your hikes.
If you’re keen to learn how to go hiking but aren’t sure where to begin, carry on reading as we guide you through some important things to consider before you hit the trails.
I’ve never hiked before, where should I start?
First of all, take a moment to consider your own base fitness levels. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that once your backpack is packed, you’re good to go! Remember that you need to train yourself too, so that you don’t end up with sore muscles, blisters or a sprained ankle.
If you work in an office and don’t have a great level of residual fitness, don’t worry. By starting small and training frequently, you can soon build up your ability and before you know it you’ll be ready to head out on your first proper hike.
For an adult in average health, it’s recommended to start with a gentle half mile and aim to complete it in 15 minutes. Then work your way up from there, allowing for around two weeks to build up to a three mile hike, aiming to complete this in around one hour.
As your fitness and experience increase, you can vary the level of challenge, so start hiking steeper trails, or those with more challenging rocky sections. There are many fitness apps that you can get for your phone which will both track your route and how long it took you to complete, making it extremely easy to keep an eye on your progress.
Hiking puts a strain on both your muscles and your cardiopulmonary system, so be prepared to take some time to build up to a level where you’re ready to hike all day. It’s also important to warm up and down after each hike, with a few muscle stretches. Stretches that work your calf muscles, hamstrings and back will be most beneficial.
Aim for ten minutes before and after each hike and it will soon become second nature plus you will really feel the benefit. If you’re a beginner hiker, you might enjoy joining a hiking group. That way you can learn some trails, whilst also watching others with more experience.
Many people find hiking in a group to be very enjoyable, and you also get motivation from others in the group if you’re finding a particular stretch of the trail to be difficult or challenging. That said, many people do enjoy the solitude of solo hiking. Once you’re confident, give both a go and find out which one you enjoy the most!
What trails should I go for?
It’s a good idea to do a little bit of research before you head off. Once you have started getting fit, it’s time to hit some trails! Decide what sort of hiking you’re interested in and go from there. If you love birds you might like to plan your hike around visiting some local wetlands which often combine walking trails with informational boards about the species of birds you’re likely to see.
Your local tourist information office will likely have a range of maps of trails in your area and you never know, you might find some amazing trails right on your doorstep that you never knew existed.
What should I wear?
Arguably, one of the most important parts of your clothing will be your footwear. Without proper footwear your hikes will probably leave you with blisters and sore feet, which is not an encouragement to continue. So before you start, set aside some time to choose a pair of hiking boots or trail shoes.
If you head into your local outdoor shop you will probably find a helpful member of staff who can recommend some possibilities based on your experience and intended trails. Most hikers either wear boots that cover and protect their ankles, or trail shoes which look more like a conventional trainer.
Which one to pick will depend on the ground you intend on covering and your own personal preference. Many hikers like the feeling of ankle stability provided by boots, along with the fact that they offer far superior protection on rough and rocky terrain.
Others prefer the comfort of trail shoes, including the fact they generally take a lot less time to break in. They don’t tend to offer as much grip as boots though. Once you’ve decided on your new hiking boots or trail shoes and unpacked them from the box, don’t be tempted to go straight out and tackle that 15 mile hike that’s been on your to-do list for years.
Take the time to break those new shoes in slowly and your feet will thank you for it. Start off by trying your new footwear at home indoors first, just in case you do decide that they’re really not right for you once you’re home. Most stores won’t accept a return or even allow an exchange of the shoes show any signs of wear. If you’re taking your children with you, see our must-read article review of the top toddler hiking shoes for more information.
Once you’re happy, start off with wearing them in and around the house, for short errands to town, and gradually extend the time you wear them until you think you’re feeling comfortable enough to go on a short hike. Take note of any hotspots, which may develop into blisters.
Try a different pair of socks and remember that it will take time for your boots or trail shoes to mould to your feet. Trail shoes will take less time to break in than taller rigid boots so bear that in mind. Once you have your footwear sorted, it’s time to think about your clothing. Check out our piece on how to break in your hiking shoes for a more comfortable trek.
Ideally, you want layers that you can take off as you get warm, or put on as you get cold. When you stop for a rest you will probably feel like you need another layer, and then when you start off again you will soon warm up. Synthetic materials such as fleece and microfiber are a good choice because they wick moisture away from your body to keep you warm and dry.
Cotton clothing is not recommended as it takes a long time to dry and doesn’t keep you warm if it does get wet. This extends to socks too! Choose wool or synthetic socks to reduce the chance of moisture build up, which usually leads to blisters.
Depending on the time of year, length of hike and weather forecast, you may want to bring a full waterproof kit including jacket and trousers too. If you’re not sure how much to bring, it’s always safer to have one layer too many than one too few. As your confidence increases, you will soon know what clothing is best for you and the conditions.
Do I need to carry a backpack?
The short answer is ‘yes’. Without a backpack, you’ll be severely limited as to what you can carry by hand or in your pockets. Even for short hikes it’s a good idea to get used to carrying a backpack, but remember it doesn’t have to be full! A basic small backpack is all you need to get started.
If you decide to get serious then you can always invest in a hiking-specific pack to meet all your needs. An average hiking backpack for a day hike would weight around 15 – 25 pounds. Don’t start off carrying everything you will need, start small with essentials such as water and a first aid kit, and add weight gradually from there, as the distance you hike increases.
Remember if you’re in a well populated area or a very popular trail, it’s likely you can get away with carrying less than if you’re hitting a remote spot where you might not expect to run into others. Some hikers like to carry things for every eventuality, others prefer to trim it down to the bare minimum.
This is great if you’re an experienced hiker but remember that the best way to reduce risk is to carry a few extras (such as warm clothing and some energy bars). There are certain things you shouldn’t leave home without, including:
It’s essential to carry enough water, but often hikers are caught without and end up dehydrated. Allow for 1 liter for every two hours, as a rough guide. Remember this will vary on the temperature, your pace and the difficulty of the hike. You can also read our tips on how to choose the best hydration bladder to keep you hydrated on the go.
As your length of hike increases along with your experience level, you may want to think about taking a water filter or water purifying tablets so you can use natural water sources rather than carrying all the water you might need.
This consists of a few different items, including sunscreen (as well as a lip balm with SPF), hat and sunglasses. Even if it looks cloudy out, the UV level may be high and if you’re out all day it’s essential to make sure you’re well protected from those harmful rays.
Always carry your cell phone, and check it’s fully charged before leaving. If you’re going to hike alone, it’s also a good idea to tell a friend or family member of your preferred route in case you run into problems where you might not have any cell phone reception.
Whether you rely on an old fashioned map and compass, or have a GPS, make sure you carry something to help you navigate, and that you know how to use it.
An extra layer of clothing
Dependent on the weather conditions, you will want to pack an extra layer of clothing. If the weather is cold, take a lightweight and packable fleece or down jacket to prevent chills when you stop for a rest on your hike. If the forecast suggests there might be rain, take waterproof jacket, trousers (if very wet) and an extra layer of insulation.
In sunny weather, a long-sleeved but lightweight shirt is a good idea in case you feel like you’ve had too much sun, the insects are bothering you or it’s chillier in the shade when you stop for a break.
First aid kit
A good first aid kit is essential, but doesn’t need to be overly bulky. A great starting point is to buy a good quality ready-made first aid kit with most things you’ll need including bandages, tape, gauze, antiseptic wipes and plasters.
Consider any specific health requirements you or your friends may have and supplement your basic kit with things that can be removed. This might include painkillers, moleskin (for blisters) and antibiotic ointment. If you have allergies then carry your medication with you at all times and make sure that if you’re hiking with friends, they know how to use it.
Consider things like snake bite kits and bear spray depending on the area you’re going to. Don’t make the mistake of taking too many first-aid items, especially those that you don’t know how to use. A suture kit is no use if you’re not confident enough to use it properly. The more outings you take, the easier it will be for you to realize what’s essential and what’s not.
Even if you have no intention of being caught out after sunset, it’s a great idea to carry a small flashlight or headlamp along with some extra batteries.
Pop a few energy bars or bags of trail mix into your backpack. Even if you’re not planning on going on a long hike it’s a good idea to carry a small amount of lightweight, calorie-dense food.
Swiss Army knife
This can be useful for opening food packages or adjusting the size of gauze or bandages when carrying out first aid. There are many others uses and the lightweight nature and small size means this is a great item to carry with you.
Before you head out on your hike, take some time to check the weather. If the forecast looks bad, consider changing your route or saving a hike for another day if the conditions don’t look right to you. For instance, if thunder storms are forecast, perhaps a hike up an exposed ridge wouldn’t be the best plan for that particular day.
Extreme weather can of course strike without warning as well, so it’s always worth taking a little bit of time to think about what actions you would take if you were caught in some unexpected weather. Try to leave for longer hikes on time, so you have a buffer in case of accidents or your hike takes longer than planned simply because you stopped to enjoy the view.
If you do happen to get held up and your departure time is delayed, it’s probably not a good idea to head out on that day hike if you’re leaving three hours later than you intended to. Generally, a reasonably fit adult hikes at around 3 mph.
That speed drops when you include rough terrain, increases in elevation and rest stops. Bear that in mind when thinking what you can accomplish in the time you have available to you. Outdoor skills are also a great asset to hikers, although not all of them are essential.
If you can read a map and use a compass, perform basic first aid, build a fire and know how to camp safely overnight, then you’re well set for most eventualities. In many areas, there are courses you can sign up to in order to learn some of these skills. You might find yourself enjoying hiking so much that you feel learning some of these skills would be really beneficial.
The world is your oyster – go hike it!
So now you know the basics of how to get started on your hiking journey, you’re ready to go and hit those trails. If you remember to address your fitness, footwear and clothing you’re partway there. Then take some time to pack your backpack and you’re good to go.
If you think we’ve missed out an essential piece of kit or you’ve got some post-hike muscle stretches to share with others, please feel free to leave a comment for us.