Ready to make your entry into the world of outdoor sports? Good news: the most quintessential outdoor activity is also one of the easiest to break into. We’ll let you in on a secret. No matter what you see on Instagram—fancy #vanlife setups, expensive-looking outfits, and so forth—hiking is really simple. If you can walk, you can hike!
Of course, there are a few key differences between hiking and walking the dog around the block or taking a stroll along the greenbelt. You’ll often be farther from urban comforts, which means you’ll need to be a little more self-reliant (more on that in a moment). Here’s what you need to know to be a happy hiker.
Where to start
One of the beautiful things about the internet is that there are now tons of crowd-sourced resources to help you find hikes in your area. A caveat of that, though, is that there’s often no one vetting those trip reports—and one person’s “easy” hike might be someone else’s “strenuous.” Consider checking out a few guidebooks for the area where you live, which have gone through a thorough editorial process to make sure hike ratings and information are accurate. Your local library will likely have a few options; you can also purchase from reliable outdoor publishers like the Mountaineers or Falcon Guides. (These are typically available online, at local bookstores, and at your nearest outdoor retailer.) The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is another great resource for new hikers who aren’t sure what to bring or how to prepare for a hike.
What to wear
Once you’ve been at it for a while, you’ll find yourself comparing the merits of all kinds of gear and clothing. To begin with, though, you can keep it simple. If you’ll be hiking somewhere especially rocky or with uneven terrain, a pair of sturdy hiking boots will provide stability for your ankles. (Rolled or sprained ankles are a common hiking injury, so if you’ve experienced that before, best to err on the side of ankle-height boots.) Otherwise, a pair of trail running shoes will probably have enough traction and stability, and many hikers find them more comfortable.
To keep your body temperature right where you want it, dress in layers for your hike. This might mean a wool or synthetic base layer next to your skin. Over that, a mid-weight fleece jacket will insulate you from the cold. Bring along a water-resistant windbreaker or rain jacket to keep moisture out, too.
A general rule about hiking is to avoid cotton, which loses all its insulation properties when it gets wet. Fabrics that wick moisture from sweat are a better bet. If you could comfortably go for a jog in it, you’ll likely be comfortable hiking in it.
What to bring
Don’t be intimidated: if you’re heading out hiking for the day, you won’t need a gigantic backpack. A daypack with capacity between 12 to 25 liters should have plenty of room for everything you need to bring with you.
To hike for a few hours, you won’t need to bring the kitchen sink, but there are a few things you should always plan to carry. Often called the “ten essentials,” these items are your must-haves for heading out on the trail: navigation (map and compass, GPS, or both), sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen), extra clothing, a headlamp or flashlight, a first-aid kit, a way to start a fire in case of an emergency, a knife (a pocket or Swiss army-style knife will do the trick), and extra food and water.
This one is common sense, and you probably often do it in other areas of your life: before you take off, be sure to let someone know what your plans are. It’s best practice to tell a trusted friend or family member the trail you’ll be hiking on and how long you expect to be gone. That way, if you get lost or hurt, they’ll be able to send someone to find you and treat your injuries.
Once you’re on the trail, you’ll want to follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace (LNT). They are:
- Plan ahead and prepare. If you’ve got your pack full of the ten essentials and have left word of your plans, you can already check this one off your list.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces. When you’re day hiking, this means to stay on the trail.
- Dispose of waste properly. Make sure you’re packing everything out with you—those pesky granola bar wrappers littering the trail can ruin the experience for everyone.
- Leave what you find. Don’t pick flowers; leave them for the next hikers to enjoy.
- Minimize campfire impacts. This likely won’t apply on a day hike. If you find yourself in an emergency, keep fires small.
- Respect wildlife. Keep your distance—you don’t want to wind up getting hurt or hurting wildlife because you inched too close to get a better photo.
- Be considerate of other visitors. In addition to the obvious—saying hello when you pass someone, for example—this means keeping noise to a minimum (best to avoid carrying portable speakers to play music) and adhering to right-of-way rules.
On most trails, if it’s too narrow for two users to pass one another, the uphill hiker has the right of way. Mountain bikers must yield to hikers, though if they’re headed uphill and you have room to step off, those pedaling uphill will appreciate being allowed to continue. Always yield to folks on horseback, and never approach a horse from behind or without asking first.
Now, it’s time to pick a hike and hit the trail!
Looking for a group to hike with? Check out these resources below to find local hikers in your area: