Hiking can seem like an intimidating activity at first. From daypacks to walking sticks to Swiss Army knives, it can feel like you need lots of stuff to enjoy the trails. But if you’re just heading out for the day, you can keep it simple. All you really need is a good pair of shoes, some protective gear, and a buddy to bring along for the scenic route.
The sun is shining and nature is calling. But before you lace up and hit the trails, there are a few things you should know to stay safe and enjoy your hike.
1. Wear comfortable footwear
Like running shoes, hiking shoes are a personalized purchase and come in countless styles and materials. If you go to any specialty outdoor store like REI or L.L. Bean someone can help you find a pair of boots in person. But if you’re buying online or on your own, there are a few things to know before you shop.
There are three main categories of hiking shoes, according to the American Hiking Society: Hiking shoes, day hiking boots, and backpacking boots.
Hiking shoes have low-cut uppers (that is, intended to hit below the ankle bone) and flexible midsoles. Many find this style more comfortable and less constricting, especially for short day hikes. But more flexibility means less stability in these shoes, and they're better suited for flatter treks.
Day hiking boots include mid-cut and high-cut shoes and are a great option for day hikes or short, lightweight backpacking trips. Day hiking boots don’t take much time to break in, and offer a good medium between flexibility and support.
Backpacking boots offer the most support. They are high-cut and hit above the ankle to provide the most ankle support and are often stiffer boots all around. Because they're the most supportive, they’re also the least flexible and will take the longest to break in.
Hiking boots also come in many different materials. Some waterproof materials are made to keep feet dry in wet conditions, whereas others, like split-grain leather, offer better breathability for sweaty feet. If you know you’ll be using your boots in a hot or wet climate, you may want to take the shoe’s material into consideration.
When finding the right-sized boot, the American Hiking Society recommends trying shoes on with hiking socks (which are typically thicker than everyday socks) and trying shoes on at the end of the day when your feet are slightly swollen. When in doubt, size up, as you want enough room in the toe area to avoid blackening your nails when hiking downhill. Picking a pair of hiking boots comes down to individual preference. Though hiking shoes may be more comfortable, some day hikers may still prefer the support of a backpacking boot. So shop around and find what you feel most comfortable in.
That said, you don’t always need hiking boots, especially if you aren’t sure how often you’ll be hitting the trail. For casual hikes, any sturdy pair of sneakers with proper traction and decent ankle support will do the trick. If your running shoes have slick, worn-out soles, you should upgrade, but you don’t have to replace them with a pair of boots. Instead, consider trail running shoes, or sneakers with extra-rugged soles intended for running in the woods. These can serve as a good middle ground between hiking boots and lightweight sneakers.
2. Keep your sock game on point
Whether you’re wearing the sturdiest of backpacking boots or ultra-comfy trail running shoes, having the right socks is key. Hiking socks are most commonly made of wool, which regulates temperature, provides cushioning, and is naturally antimicrobial (that is, resistant to mold and bacteria) so your socks won’t get smelly quickly.
Hiking socks can have varying levels of cushioning and fall anywhere from no-show to knee height. Socks with less cushioning are lighter, cooler, and better for hot hikes. Socks with more cushioning are warmer, which makes them better for cold climates. Hiking socks should come up above your shoes to prevent any rubbing or blistering from the tops of your boots.
3. Break in your shoes
One way to spot a hiking newbie on the trail? Their brand-new boots—and, depending on when you catch them, a grimace from the friction these new shoes cause. To reduce the risk of getting blisters from your new boots, spend some time breaking them in before going on your hike. Like other athletic shoes, your hiking boots should feel snug, but not uncomfortably tight. Once you have them laced up properly (don’t forget your hiking socks), start breaking them in by wearing them for an hour or so on a flat surface around your house or neighborhood. The National Park Foundation recommends breaking in boots by taking “preparatory” hikes, which may involve walking up and down stairs, hills, and uneven surfaces. You can even bring your backpack with you to practice hiking while carrying some weight.
How long it will take to break in your shoes varies depending on how stiff your boots originally were, but could take any time between a few days and a few weeks. However, if you purchased very flexible shoes, you may only need a day to two to get your shoes ready to hit the mountains.
4. Get a durable bag
No matter what size bag you bring, you need to get something that will hold up against Mother Nature and keep your belongings dry. For shorter afternoon hikes, you only need a backpack to carry the essentials: water, some snacks, a small first-aid kit, and any other items you may need. If one person in your group can fit a few bottles in their bag (and is willing to carry them), you may be able to get away with a fanny pack.
For a comfortable and stylish pack, try The North Face Jester. Reviewers say it’s ultra-lightweight and great for day hikes. It also comes in a variety of colors to suit your style. And if you’re packing even lighter (or hiking with someone who’ll be carrying the big bag) the Patagonia Black Hole Waist Pack 5L is an ideal way to stash what you need. This fanny pack is on the larger side and reviewers love how much they can fit in it. However, reviewers also note that larger water bottles may not fit securely in the designated pockets, as they're not quite deep enough.
If you level up to backpacking, you’re going to need a larger frame pack to bring extra clothes, food, and supplies. For a comfortable, adjustable pack, try the Osprey Kestrel 38 Pack. It comes in two sizes, and the lightweight internal aluminum frame makes it easy to carry. Reviewers love how much they can fit in this bag without sacrificing comfort.
5. Bring plenty of food and water
To make up for all the energy used hiking, you’ll need to make sure you’re properly fueled up. Even if you’re taking a shorter day hike, you should still make time for a few snack breaks to keep your energy up. Snacks like trail mix, granola, and individual-sized nut butter that can be stored at a variety of temperatures are great for hiking because they’re easy to munch on and you don’t have to worry about them going bad.
And of course, hydration is essential. Not only are you losing water while sweating, but the elevation can further dehydrate you. Make sure to hydrate before you hit the trails, and aim for drinking 6 to 12 ounces of water or sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes while hiking.
We’ve tested plenty of water bottles and our favorite is the Brita Stainless Steel Premium Filtering Water Bottle. It comes in two sizes, 20 ounces and 32 ounces, and its stainless steel design keeps water cold for a full 24 hours. It also has a small loop on the top, great for carrying the bottle or hooking it to the outside of a backpack.
And for more convenience while you drink, try the Camelbak Rim Runner 22 85 oz Hydration Pack. Designed for lightweight day hikes, this backpack holds a whopping 80 ounces of water, perfect for anyone who doesn’t want to worry about refilling a water bottle mid-hike. It also has a hip belt to help distribute weight evenly and mesh ventilation to keep hikers cool and comfy.
6. Research your hiking route ahead of time
While you’re breaking in your new equipment, you’ll want to start researching some trails. The National Park Service provides information on what you need to know if you’re heading to a specific national park (or just want to learn about the ones in your area), and hiking websites like AllTrails can help you find other good options. On AllTrails, you can filter by difficulty level, trail length, elevation gain, and more. A Google search for “beginner hikes near me” can also point you to some local blogs that can help you find scenic routes.
As a newbie, you may not be as familiar with the terrain. Researching the trail before your departure can help you better prepare for your trip. For example, hiking in spring weather may seem like the perfect, carefree way to spend your weekend, but trails that loop up a mountain—which is the case with a lot of trails—can be surprisingly wet and icy, even if it feels warm at the base. Reading up before heading out can help you avoid unexpected weather and come prepared with the right gear.
7. Take a few safety precautions
One of the most important things you can do on a hike is let someone know your itinerary. If something goes wrong on your hike and you can’t get in touch with anyone, it’s important to have someone at home who knows you’re running late and can get you help. Additionally, you should always be willing to turn around and cut your hike short. If it’s too hot, too cold, too rainy, or your trip is taking twice as long as expected, turning around early can keep you from injuring yourself.
As a novice, don’t bite off more than you can chew. An eight-mile hike may sound easy enough to do in a day, but between elevation, carrying weight on your back, and taking enough rest breaks, hiking those eight miles will probably take you longer than expected. Beginner hikers may want to look for hikes under five miles and 250 feet of elevation gain to get an idea of their pace before attempting longer hikes. Once you start hiking a little faster and those short hikes become easier, you can work your way up to longer, more elevated treks. And whether you’re a beginner or an experienced hiker, always give yourself more time than you think you’ll need.
Hiking with a partner can be fun and help you stay safe. If you have friends who enjoy hiking or are interested in starting, plan a trip together. But if you don’t have any buddies to go with, you can use online groups like REI Conversations or Meetup to find a partner. (And, of course, if you’re meeting a stranger for the first time before heading off into the woods together, make sure to let a friend know and aim for a trail where you’ll be more likely to encounter other people.)
If you end up hiking solo, it’s also a must to let someone know where you’re going and when they can expect you back. This is another good time to pick a well-populated trail and have a way to contact friends, family, or EMS in case of an emergency.
8. Remember to pack the “10 essentials”
The “10 essentials” are the items you should bring to stay safe in emergency situations. If you are backpacking and hiking overnight, the 10 essentials are a must in case of emergency situations. But if you’re going on a short day hike, you’ll be able to sacrifice a few categories to lighten your load. The National Parks Service breaks down the 10 essentials into categories.
Navigation: Navigation tools like a map, compass, or GPS system are used to plan your trip before your departure, and can keep you from getting lost along the way. The National Parks Service recommends knowing how to use a map, compass, GPS system, and any other navigational tools before leaving for your trip.
Sun protection: Even if you’re hiking in cloudy weather, sun protection is vital to protect your skin and eyes against the sun’s UV rays. For a lightweight, non-greasy sunscreen that works for the face and body, try Sun Bum's Hypoallergenic Mineral Lotion SPF 50. You may also want to consider wearing long sleeves or long pants if you burn particularly easily, along with a wide-brimmed hat (with a chin strap so you can hang on to it hands-free) and sunglasses to protect your face.
Insulation: Staying warm and dry on the trail is important for your health and safety while hiking. You should always bring an extra change of clothes (especially extra socks and underwear) as well as a warm jacket, a hat and gloves, a waterproof shell, and long underwear.
Illumination: Bring a flashlight, lantern, or headlamp with you on your hike (or better yet, more than one). And make sure to bring extra batteries so you don't find yourself fumbling in the dark with an unexpectedly dead torch. We’ve tested a bunch of flashlights and love the Olight Baton 3 Premium Edition for its long battery life (95 minutes at 300 lumens, 7.5 hours at 60 lumens, and 33 hours at 12 lumens) and the wireless charger you can purchase with it. Its small size of 2.5 inches also makes it easy to stash in or clip to a backpack, so it’s easy to bring with you on the trails.
A first-aid kit: A well-stocked first-aid kit is a must in an emergency. There are many recommendations on what to keep in your first-aid kit, including an emergency first-aid guide to help in a medical emergency, an assortment of bandages, tweezers, and antibiotic ointment packets.
Fire: When hiking and camping, fire can be a source of heat as well as an emergency signal. The National Park Service recommends bringing waterproof pack matches and fire starters like a lighter.
Repair tools: The National Park Service recommends bringing duct tape, a knife, a screwdriver, and scissors in case you need to repair any equipment on your hike.
Food: It’s never a bad thing to have extra food on a hiking trip. In case of an emergency, an extra day’s food supply can help keep your energy up. Try to bring mostly dry goods that don’t need to be cooked (think snacks like granola, nuts, or protein bars) that are easy to store and won’t go bad over the course of your trip.
Hydration: Staying hydrated is one of the most important things you can do while hiking. For a day trip, you can bring multiple water bottles in a backpack so you don’t have to worry about refilling. If you’re going on a multi-day trip, bring two water bottles and water treatment like water purifier or a water filter.
Emergency shelter: In an emergency survival situation, shelter is needed to protect you from the elements. The National Park Service says a tent, tarp, bivy sack (a sleeping bag with an attached covering to protect from bugs or the elements, like a tiny tent for one), and emergency space blanket are great options because they are lightweight and easy to carry.
9. Leave only footprints, take only memories
Part of enjoying nature includes respecting nature. That means being considerate of wildlife, not littering, and paying attention to any rules or regulations the trail or campground may have. The “leave no trace” principles are recommended to protect the ecosystems we come in contact with. The seven principles of leave no trace are:
Plan ahead and prepare: This means knowing the area’s regulations and concerns regarding wildlife. The National Park Service recommends traveling in small groups if possible and minimizing waste by repackaging food.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Camping on designated campgrounds can help reduce your impact on local wildlife and protect waterways from waste, so make sure to plan ahead and find designated campgrounds along your route.
Dispose of waste properly: Don’t litter or leave food on the trails. Wash dishes at least 200 feet away from streams and rivers, and use only a small amount of biodegradable soap such as Dr. Bronner’s.
Leave what you find: Don’t take any natural objects with you, and don’t introduce or transport any non-native species.
Minimize campfire impacts: Keep any campfires small, and use established fire rings. Burn all fires to ash, and when you’re done, scatter the cool ashes.
Respect wildlife: Don’t follow or approach any animals, let them be. Never feed wildlife and make sure to store your food and trash securely out of reach of animals. You also may need to avoid certain trails or areas during times of the year when animals are mating or nesting.
Be considerate of others: Be courteous to your fellow hikers. Don’t scream or shout on the trails, yield to others on the trail, and be polite.
You probably have some preparing to do before your first hike. But remember to have fun and enjoy the escape.
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