Hiking For Dummies
Are you looking for a great new hobby that brings you outside, keeps you active, and can bring you to some pretty neat places? My top suggestion would be hiking! But hiking can be intimidating, so I’ve created Hiking For Dummies in a blog post form. In 3 short(ish) points, I’ll have you feeling confident for your first, or next, big hiking trip! This post is all about hiking for beginners.
Why Write About Hiking for Dummies?
A friend of mine recently asked me if I could suggest any ‘Hiking for Dummies’ style books… I was shocked when nothing really came to mind. I was lucky enough to learn the ins and outs of outdoor recreation through a college class – I keep up with the ever-changing information and requirements by joining e-mail lists and following the social media pages of great outdoor organizations in my area. Honestly, I never really thought of what people without my same experience might have to do in order to feel comfortable getting outside. And so, this hiking for dummies post was born! If you’re looking for advice on how to get started, I have you covered.
Hiking 101: Hiking for Beginners
Here we’re going to highlight the three main things you need to figure out before you head out on your first hike. The final tidbit will be hiking tips that will definitely set you up for success on the trail!
Who are you Hiking with? Where are you hiking? What are you bringing?
Clicking the above links will take you DIRECTLY to that section…
Find a Hiking Partner
One of the main things that keep people from starting anything is not having anyone to do it with. And that my friends, is a huge bummer. If you know me personally and would like to start hiking – hit me up! I’d love to join you. If you’re looking for pals to enjoy the outdoors with you can try local Facebook groups as well. This popular organization has chapters all over the U.S. where women host local hikes for you to join in on!
Hike in A Party
Maybe you have a few friends or a couple who want to come along with you on your hike, sweet! Friends are fun. Keep in mind 1. Some places have limits on the number of people in a hiking/camping party 2. Everyone moves at different paces so be prepared to wait for your friends or be prepared to have to catch up to them 3. Like all things, the more people involved can make things more difficult to plan and execute.
Hike With A Friend
Everyone has a hiking buddy! I know I’m either out there with my boyfriend or my best friend if I’m not alone. It’s nice to have a hiking partner; you tend to have similar hiking goals and learn to work well with one another. If you ever do any overnight trips, it’s nice to have a buddy to share the load with as well.
Although this can be intimidating, I love to hike by myself. It’s really special to walk through the woods and feel confident and competent on your own! With that being said, it took me a few solid hikes before I felt comfortable enough to solo hike. I started with small, local hike sI was familiar with and worked my way up to 12 and 22 mile days by myself. I love the freedom to move at whatever pace I want, stop wherever and whenever I want, and to change plans mid-hike if I want/need to. It’s a wonderful kind of freedom!
Hiking With an Organization.
There are tons of organizations that you can hike with to get started as well! From your basic Facebook group (ie. Women Who Hike) to legitimate outdoor adventure companies with trained guides… you can find all the company you nee if you know where to look! Organizations such as REI, EMS, and local gear shops often lead local hiking trips for a price.
Choose Your Hike
Through the help of Google, social media, AND A MAP (please for the love of all things holy, buy a map) you must choose and plan your hike! For your first, or first couple of, hike(s) be sure to pick something that isn’t too tough but that you’re excited for. You need the external motivation to make it through tough hikes so make sure it’s a place you really want to see (a pretty lake, summit, cliff, waterfall, etc.). Google and All Trails are great places to start your search. All Trails will also have reviews where people can share information about the trail: it’s muddy, it’s well-marked, it’s not easy to follow, etc.
No matter what you do.. please buy a map and learn how to read it. Quite frankly, compass skills are an added bonus, but if you’re able to properly read your map and orient yourself you shouldn’t really need your compass anywho (P.S. a cell phone compass does not count).
Things to Consider:
How much time you have:
Do you have a couple of hours or a full day? The amount of time you have can determine where you go. Don’t forget to factor in how long it takes to get to and from the trailhead.
Your fitness level:
You have to be honest with yourself and assess what kind of shape you’re in. You’re looking to have an enjoyable first couple of experiences at least before you might start to take on more strenuous and challenging adventures. You certainly don’t want to suffer through a long, strenuous hike that you’re not prepared for. If you’re not in the best shape of your life, no need to fret: There are hikes for everyone. Read more fitness tips in our article on
Think about how many miles and hours you and your party/partner are comfortable hiking. An average walking pace is about 3 mph, but your hiking pace will change depending on terrain, elevation gain, and how much weight you’re carrying on your back.
The amount of elevation gain on a hike is one of a few factors that determine the difficulty. With experience, you’ll come to know how much is comfortable and/or considered easy for you. The more experience you gain, the more you’ll be comfortable with additional elevation gain. As a point of reference, if a trail gains 1,000 feet in one mile, that is considered quite steep. Also, a general recommendation is that with added elevation comes added hours to your trip. The experts say you should add an additional hour to your hike for every 1,000 ft. of elevation gained; for example, you may travel 3mph on flat terrain, however, once you start to ascend that often becomes 1 to 1.5 mph unless you are quite conditioned.
Time of year and weather:
Always consider what the elements might bring to the natural environment you’re trying to experience. Some trails won’t be accessible in early spring because they’re covered in snow. In summer months you might need to carry additional water (1L per person per 2 hours of hiking generally). If it’s fall, the sun is setting earlier, and mountain summits might be quite chilly, plan accordingly so you’re not caught out after dark unexpectedly. Always check the weather forecast before heading out so you can dress and pack appropriately.
Certain hikes require a bit more planning. Here are some examples: if you end up doing a hike that starts and finishes at different places, you’ll need to shuttle cars to your start and endpoints; are you hiking somewhere that requires a permit?; is there limited parking?; Are you driving a long way to complete this hike? The list goes on and on…
How Do Beginner Hikers Gear Up?
Don’t be concerned about the brand, or having the very best gear; you need items that will function properly, provide you with comfort on the trail, and keep you safe. You can find these things in most any store – however – my favorite places to shop for everything from my camping gear to my hiking clothes include REI, Columbia, and Amazon.
The 10 Essentials all Hikers Need to Carry
You must not hike without the 10 essentials. I can head out for a mile or 25 and I’m always going to carry the 10 following items:
- Navigation: Map at a minimum; a compass if you know how to use it; and a GPS device is great if it’s not the only thing you’re relying on (bring batteries…)
- Headlamp: Plus extra batteries
- Sun protection: Sunglasses, a bucket hat, sun-protective clothes, and sunscreen
- First aid: Including foot care and insect repellent if needed
- Knife: Because you never know when you’ll need it.
- Fire: Matches, lighter and tinder, lighter, or stove as appropriate
- Shelter: If I’m on a day hike, I don’t bring my whole tent or hammock set up – no. But I do bring an emergency blanket, and often my hammock and straps for just in case.
- Extra food: Beyond minimum expectation. Not only will you need to replace your burned energy for your hike but if something went wrong and you were left out there for a bit, what would you eat?
- Extra water: I always carry 2L and my water purification system. If you don’t have water purification (I’d suggest investing) be sure to carry more liquids than you thought you would need.
- Extra clothes: SOCKS FOR SURE, bring extra socks because if your feet get wet/sweaty you’ll be so glad to put on dry socks hah. But realistically, lots of layers for cold weather which is explained in better depth here. Also, be prepared in the summer to be drenched in sweat and maybe wanting a new shirt/hat/socks situation.
You also have to carry these 10 essentials in a backpack. I suggest buying a hiking bag specifically because they’re so much more comfortable. My personal favorite brand is Gregory Packs and this article tells you a little bit about why they’re just so dang great! If you’re only going on a few light treks, a capacity of about 15–20 liters provides enough space for water, a few snacks, and a lightweight clothing layer. IF you plan on venturing further into the wilderness, I’d maybe try for a 30L Day Pack.
Best Footwear for Hiking
Footwear is a place where I wouldn’t skimp too much on quality products. Your feet are carrying you the distance and it’s important that they’re comfortable and protected. What kind of footwear you’re looking for depends heavily on the terrain.
Chacos or Tevas tend to be the big sellers here. I work my Chacos for many of my sandy red rock Utah hikes and was very impressed. They’re super comfortable while also being aggressive enough to grip rock face and travel miles on end.
Hiking Sneakers/Trail Runners:
Salomon, Keen, and Merrill tend to be the hot brands for hiking boots and sneakers. New Balance, Altra, and Brooks are also popular trail running sneaker brands. If I’m hiking predominantly flat terrain or know that I may be climbing elevation that doesn’t put me on a lot of exposed rock, I’m wearing my Salomon Hiking Sneakers.
Vasque, Salomon, Merrill, and Columbia are some of the top brands. When I travel deep into the backcountry or know that I’ll be climbing over some serious rocky and muddy terrain, I make sure to wear my Salomon Quest Hiking Boots. They provide sole comfort, intense ankle protection, and they’re waterproof. Wearing my hiking boots allows me to hike through all the mud puddles and climb on all the rocks with confidence. No matter what company you’re looking at, do research on the sole and heel cup, material of the boot, and make sure the ankle height is right for you.
What to Wear When Hiking
Pros will tell you to choose clothing made of quick-drying, moisture-wicking fabrics, such as wool or polyester. They will tell you to avoid cotton, which takes a long time to dry when wet. I personally, don’t love polyester because I find it so dang uncomfortable – but depending on what you’re hiking and when… you will likely survive in a cotton shirt just fine (I do it all the time). You can think of clothing as separate systems:
- Base layers: Really important in winter weather and cold temperatures, usually made of wool or polyester (base layer = right next to skin). All I’m going to say for socks is… wear Darn Tough socks or you’ll regret it.
- Hiking layers: Again, these tend to include nylon and/or polyester pants, T-shirt, tank top, sun shirt, hat, you name it; again, I prefer to wear cotton on top and I just bring an extra shirt to change into if I’m soaked.
- Insulation: Depending on the weather, you may need a puffy vest or jacket, lightweight fleece pullover, warm hat and/or gloves. I have a post on winter hiking that dives a bit deeper into this topic if you’re interested.
- Rainwear: It’s wise to carry a waterproof jacket no matter the weather forecast. I also own rain pants and bring them along on backpacking trips or on days when I know they’re calling for wet weather.
Hiking Tips For Beginners
If you are brand new to hiking or in the early stages of picking up this amazing hobby, you might find these additional tips helpful!
Leave No Trace Principles
Familiarize yourself with the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. They will provide you with all you need to know about being an outdoor steward!
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
When you’re out on the trail, right of way can seem quite confusing. Follow these guidelines and you might feel less stressed about it:
- Hikers vs. Hikers: Hikers going uphill have the right of way. You may see uphill hikers let others come downhill while they take a breather, but remember that’s the uphill hiker’s decision. Also, especially during these times, hike with a buff of masks readily available so you can cover your mouth and nose as other hikers pass you on the trail.
- Hikers vs. Bikers: Mountain bikers are generally expected to yield to hikers. However, because mountain bikers are usually moving faster than hikers, it can be easier for hikers to step aside and yield the right of way.
- Hikers vs. Horses: Horses get the right of way. If you’re sharing the trail with equestrians, give them a wide berth when you’re passing each other and don’t make abrupt movements. It’s generally recommended to step off the trail to the downhill side while yielding to a horse.
The 7 Leave No Trace principles along with the above-stated points should make for a great trip for all parties involved! When on the trail be sure to leave nothing behind; this includes your noise pollution, toilet paper, food scraps, and trail/campsite destruction.
Hiking with Four-Legged Friends and Kiddos!
Four Legged Friends
If you have a four-legged friend that you’re comfortable hiking with, the first step is to condition your dog for a hike as you would yourself. Neither you nor your pup is going to go from the couch for a mountain summit without a little work.
The next step is to find out if dogs are allowed where you’re trying to explore. Most U.S. national parks, for example, do not allow even a leashed dog to share the trail. Many national forests, as well as state and local parks, do allow dogs, though rules vary. Leashes are mandatory almost everywhere and important for the safety of your dog and everyone else on the trail.
- Have your dog carry its own food and water in a doggie pack
- Stop often for snacks and water
- Waistband leashes tend to be the most comfortable
- Put a bell on your pup’s collar
- Always pack out filled poop bags. (Keep in mind it’s poor form to leave a poop bag on the side of the trail for later pickup.)
Hiking With Children
To be able to share the wonder and beauty of the outdoors with children is a special experience. Kids of almost any age can go hiking, from infants in baby carriers to grade-schoolers who hike on their own two feet. It’s an awesome way to get exercise and learn as a family!
- Keep kids dry, warm and fed
- Choose a short hike and stop often to look at plants, rocks, animals, etc.
- Hike to a destination (summit, lake, etc.) and plan to spend time there doing something (picnicking, photoshoot, swim, fish, etc.)
REI shares a little bit more about Hiking with Infants, Toddlers and Kids from the perspective of some people who have that experience. I
Stay Safe While Hiking
Always leave a detailed itinerary with a friend or family member. Leaving a note or detailed text including your route plans with a family member or friend. Give this individual a time that you plan to contact them by; if they don’t hear from you and can’t get in touch with you then they should call the DEC.
If you’re traveling solo or to very remote locations, you might consider carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB) that allows you to send an SOS if something serious happens. Although I do not have one of these -they pricey- my mom definitely wished I did.
How Do I Go to the Bathroom When Hiking?
The age old dilemma… but I’m going to be honest – there’s something so nice about going to the bathroom out of doors.
First, choose a place that’s well away from your trail or campsite. When choosing your specific spot, keep the following in mind depending on where you are:
- Small bodies of water: Never go directly into a small pond, stream or lake. Always move 200 feet (about 70 steps) away from a water source and/or your campsite.
- Large bodies of water: If you’re in a rafting group camping along a very large river, Leave No Trace recommends peeing directly in the water; the river volume will dilute it, and the camping area avoids getting over-saturated.
- Alpine areas: Up high in mountain goat territory, peeing on a rock surface is recommended. Goats are attracted to the salts in urine, and may dig up fragile vegetation to get the salt.
Tips for Peeing Outside
- If you’re squatting to pee, find a soft spot of earth that absorbs quickly to prevent splash. Getting low, low, low helps but be aware of the surrounding plants. Make sure your pants, boot laces, straps, etc. are well out of the way and pay attention to which way the ground slopes and make sure you’re uphill so any stream runs away from you.
- On a day hike, you can carry a couple wads of toilet paper or tissue and a small zip-top plastic bag. Put the used toilet paper in the bag and dump the paper in your toilet when you get home.
- While backpacking, some prefer to use a “pee rag.”; kula cloth is a popular brand. I still prefer actual toilet paper so I make sure to carry it in AND out.
- If you have to deal with menstruating while in the woods, a day hike shouldn’t be too tough. Be sure to carry in and carry out everything you might have to use during your hike to go to the bathroom and keep everything kosher. I suggest using duct tape to cover the ziplock baggie you might be storing your used sanitary items in.
Pooping While Hiking
Hopefully, you can make it through a day hike without needing to go number two, however, you have to be prepared in case you can’t make it back to the car. You’ll need to make sure you have the supplies you need with you and know the proper techniques to follow.
Supplies: In addition to the basics—toilet paper and hand sanitizer—you’ll want to bring along the following as needed:
- Sealable plastic bag: The only acceptable practice is to pack out your used toilet paper. If you want to disguise the contents, you can line the bag with aluminum foil, cover it with duct tape, or find a colored bag.
- Camp trowel: Many are very lightweight and can be helpful for digging a cat hole; mine clips right to my pack with a Caribbeaner.
- Solid waste bags or containers: Some high-elevation, water trips (think rafting), sensitive or heavily traveled areas require people to pack out solid human waste. There are a few different kinds for you to choose from: some are simple plastic bags known as “blue bags,” others are sealable, double-layer bags containing gel for absorption. Carry out the bags in your pack; they’re supposed to be leakproof, but place them in another plastic bag to be safe. In MOST places, you can just dig a hole and go…
But, Like, Where Can I Go?:
- Carry your supplies 200 feet (70 steps) from a trail, campsite, or water source. Just make sure you pay attention to your surroundings to make sure you can find your way back to your camp or trail.
- If possible, find loose, rich soil and a sunny site. Both of these conditions help decompose waste more quickly. Use a trowel, stick, rock, or boot heel to make a hole about 4 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches deep.
- If the ground is too hard or rocky to dig, try lifting a rock and dig there OR go there and replace the rock when you’re done. The only other option is to carry your waste out in a bag.
Let’s Get Hiking!
So if I haven’t scared you away yet and you’re not pooped out (haha) from reading this post, I hope you start to plan your next big adventure! As always, please reach out to me in the comments if you have any specific questions – I love helping people to get outside!