So you want to go for a hike, but you don’t know where to start. Lots of information out there. Here’s my quick start guide. This is only a beginner guide, and is not meant to be an “everything you need to know for any hike anywhere”. And sure, this is probably overkill, but I hope this will make your first hikes comfortable and fun. Sure, you could hike in jeans with no water on a short hike and probably live, but would you have enjoyed it? Would you do it again? Probably not.
I’ll cover where to go, when to go, what to do before you leave, what to bring, what to wear, what to eat, and leaving no trace. Read this, then go hike!
Where to go:
Start small. Both in distance and in elevation gain. You may think to yourself, “hey I go on walks, I can easily walk 6 miles”. Keep in mind, 6 miles around your flat neighborhood is totally different than 6 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Could you possibly do it? Maybe, but would it be fun or enjoyable? Maybe not.
AllTrails is a great site and app for finding trails near you that fit your criteria. You can filter for distance and elevation, as well as see “reviews”, and other useful information (like how to get to the trailhead!). Be aware that some hiker’s “easy” is another person’s “moderate” so take all comments with a grain of salt. However, the comments are a great place to find helpful tips like “go clockwise” on a loop.
Pick something short and sweet, and preferably with a good view, as that’s a great motivator.
When to go:
For your first hikes, pick a day with a nice weather forecast. When you’re more experienced, you can tough it out in rain and cold and wind, but for now, pick a day that will make your experience an enjoyable one.
Once you’ve picked your perfect day, LEAVE EARLY. Plan to get to the trailhead early. Popular trailhead parking areas (depending on where you live) can fill up, getting there early helps you get a spot. Getting started early also means plenty of daylight. If you’ve just started hiking, you don’t yet know your pace, and you want to leave plenty of time to finish your hike before the sun goes down.
What to do before you leave:
Besides packing your ten essentials (we’ll get to that in a minute), there are some other things to do before you go. I wrote “How I Prep for a Hike“. It may be a bit of overkill for your first short hike, but it’s worth a read, and they’re good habits to start.
In addition, you should tell someone your planned hike (trails, trailhead, etc), estimated start time, estimated finish time, and any pertinent details like your car make/model, in case something bad should happen and rescue teams need to know where to look for you. (Follow up to this is when you’re done, be sure and tell the person you are safe!).
What to bring:
OK, so those ten essentials I mentioned. This used to be a list of the ten items that you should bring on a hike, over time, it’s turned into ten categories that will depend on the type of hike you’re taking. I wrote a post, “What Do I Bring When I Hike“. If you’re just starting out, you can check out my Day Hike Checklist.
Don’t overdo it! You probably do not need to bring a five pound first aid kit or 10 liters of water. The lighter you keep your pack, the more comfortable you will be. You’re bringing just the essentials, what you need to be comfortable on the trail, or what you need to deal with common issues that may arise. Of course, if you’re hiking 5 days in the desert, it’s a different story, but you probably aren’t using this post as a guide. 🙂
Check out the car checklist on my post as well. Some nice to haves on the list, for post hike comfort.
Also a great (and brief) article from REI on the ten essentials, https://www.rei.com/blog/hike/10-essentials-every-hiker-always-carry
Beware, buying hiking gear is highly addictive. The more you hike, the more you’ll NEED to buy more and better gear.
What to wear:
This is highly subjective based on personal preference, time of year, weather, terrain, temperature, etc. There is no one answer that is “right”. There are two answers that are definitely wrong, though. 1) NO COTTON. “Cotton kills” as they say. It absorbs water, including your sweat, becomes heavy, doesn’t dry quickly, and will make you cold. Wear synthetic materials like in workout clothes. 2) NO FLIP FLOPS. I love my flip flops. I do. I wear them in winter in New Hampshire. But I never ever wear them on a hike. Sadly, some people think that flip flops are appropriate hiking footwear. They aren’t. They won’t grip, they won’t protect your feet, and worse, your feet could slide right out of them.
Footwear – If this is your first hike, and you listened to my advice above for a short hike with not too much elevation gain, you don’t need to run out and buy hiking boots. Sneakers are probably fine. You want some grip and foot protection. After some small hikes, you can figure out what type of hiking footwear you need/want. I personally hike in trail runners most of the year. I find boots too heavy and cumbersome. However, in winter, I need the protection and waterproof-ness of boots (as well as being able to use them with snowshoes).
Clothing – I hike in the White Mountains, year round. In summer, I typically wear a hiking skirt either with built-in ‘shorts’ or biking shorts (gotta avoid lady chub-rub). A wool jog bra (yes, merino wool in summer! It never feels clammy like some sports bras do once I get all sweaty) and a sleeveless tank. Again, no cotton. I bring along a fleece and/or rain jacket (it can be cold on summits, plus if I have to stay overnight in an emergency). In winter, I wear a lot more, leggings, puffy skirt, long sleeve wool merino, fleece, hat, mittens, etc.
The key thing is layers. As you hike, you’ll warm up and being able to remove layers is important. If clouds move in, or it’s a windy day, when you hit the summit, you may want to put layers back on, or add new ones.
What to eat:
Assuming you listened to the above advice and are taking a short and easy hike, you don’t need a lot of food. You need enough food. But not too much, especially since food is heavy. As I said above, you want what you need for your hike, plus a little extra in case.
So how much do you need? Lots of guidelines abound, mostly for multi-day hikes and meal planning. On short hikes, I plan roughly 100 calories per mile, plus some extras in case I don’t feel like something. But again, no need to bring 10 powerbars for a 3-mile hike. Bring something salty, and something sweet. Here is my post on what I eat when I hike.
Last but definitely not least, Leave No Trace:
We’ve only got one planet. We need to take care of it. And while you may think you know how to preserve our natural resources, please take a look at my post on Leave No Trace and do your part to preserve the wonderful trails, mountains, forests, beaches, etc that we currently have for ourselves, for others, for future generations.