I remember how intimidating it was when I was first getting into the outdoors. It’s so easy to feel clueless and unprepared, and to compare yourself to everyone else on the trail and feel like you don’t have the right gear or know-how.
The truth is, you don’t much (if any!) specialized gear to get started hiking. Just an excitement to get outside, a little bit of knowledge and preparation, and a willingness to dive into new experiences.
This is meant to cover all the basics that you need to know to get started hiking safely and confidently.
One of the most daunting things when you’re just getting into hiking is knowing where to start—literally. It’s not hard to find a good place to go hiking for beginners, if you know what resources to use and where to look.
Where to look for beginner hikes
One of the best resources for new and seasoned hikers alike is AllTrails. The app is a crowd-sourced compilation of tons of popular hikes, with maps, descriptions, user comments, and photos. You can filter hikes by distance, difficulty, popularity, and more, to hone in on exactly what’s in your skill and comfort level. Hiking Project is another great app, though it has less extensive trail coverage in most areas.
No matter where you’re located, chances are there’s a guidebook that covers hiking in your vicinity. Information may not always be the most up-to-date, but guide books are a great place to find useful information about some of the popular trails near you.
Blogs are another great resource. Especially if you live in an area that’s popular for hiking, chances are there are a number of blogs that have posts about local trails, with pictures and details about the trail, parking, and other useful information.
If you have a friend or coworker who’s outdoorsy, they’ll probably be happy to share their recommendations on where to go. Plus, they can directly answer any questions you have about the trail and local conditions.
Local gear shops
If you don’t know anyone knowledgeable about hiking in the area, stop in at some local outdoor gear shops. You’ll often find that staff there are happy to chat about their favorite trails and recommendations (as long as they’re not too busy)! Bonus: You can pick up some local trail maps and guide books while you’re there, too.
National parks, state parks, national or state forests, and established recreation areas are great places to find well-maintained hikes of all levels. Call or stop in at the visitors center—staff and rangers there can answer your questions and recommend hikes that suit your skill and experience level.
Outdoor clubs and meetups
You can also use local hiking and outdoor groups as a resource to find the best places to hike for beginners (more on that below).
What to look for in a good beginner hike
Alright, we’ve covered where to look, so let’s get into what to look for. Here are the most important things to consider to figure out how suitable a hike is for you:
Overall difficulty rating
The apps listed above, as well as most guidebooks, blogs, and some trail maps, have different rating systems to indicate difficulty. Looking for hikes marked “easy” or “beginner” is a good place to start. Make sure you also look at the hike in more detail, too, so you know it’s what you’re looking for.
If you’re already somewhat active, a hike between 1 and 3 miles is a good place to start. If you’re just starting to be more active, a 1 mile or less hike is a good start to see how you feel.
Remember that, as long as you pick an out-and-back hike (a hike that comes back on the same trail you hike in on, as opposed to a hike that makes a loop), you can turn around whenever you need to.
Elevation gain is the total, cumulative amount of uphill that you do throughout a hike. Even if the hike starts and ends at the same elevation, you could be going up and down quite a bit throughout the hike, meaning a lot of elevation gain.
Here’s a quick breakdown of how I gauge a hike’s difficulty based on elevation gain:
- 100-300’ per mile – fairly easy, likely a gradual incline or a handful of small hills
- 300’-500’ per mile – moderate, a slightly steeper incline and/or some larger hills
- 500-800’ per mile – noticeably steep overall, likely with some more challenging steep sections
- 800’ or more per mile – a very steep, strenuous hike
For example, if a hike is 1.5 miles one way (3 miles round trip) and 500 feet of elevation gain, I’d consider it an easy to moderate hike.
Depending on where you live and where you’re traveling to, the overall elevation of a hike could make a difference to. If, for example, you live at 4,000 feet above sea level, and drive to a trailhead at 8,000 feet, there’s a good chance you’ll feel the effects of elevation. You’ll have a harder time catching your breath and might even feel weak or lightheaded. Plan on hikes at higher elevations being more difficult than the equivalent hike at a low elevation.
Parking and Access
Before you head out, find out if there are any challenges getting to the trailhead, or with parking once you’re there.
For example, popular trailheads fill up early; hikes that start in or near a residential area may have restrictions on street parking near the trailhead; some trailheads may only be accessible with 4WD and high clearance, or the roads to them may have seasonal closures.
You can usually find that information covered in blog posts, guide books, and AllTrails comments on the trail.
Type of terrain
Some beginner-friendly hikes are mostly on paved trails, which can be a good place to start if you’re not sure of your abilities. Others may follow 4WD roads and tracks, or natural surfaces which can range from a well-packed smooth dirt path to uneven and rocky, forested or exposed. You can look at Google Earth or Google Maps or pictures on blogs and hiking apps to get an idea of what the trail is like.
This is seasonal, too. Trails in spring tend to be muddy because of snow melt, and might still have slick patches of snow on them. Also consider if the terrain is wooded and shaded (great for hot sunny days), or totally exposed to the sun (better for cool, overcast days).
Look for a trail that’s moderately traveled, or try to hit a popular trail at off-peak times.
For your first hikes, avoid trails that are only lightly trafficked. Not only are you unlikely to have anyone around to help out if anything goes wrong, but less-popular trails also tend to be less well-maintained and marked. If a trail only has one comment in the last 3 years on All Trails—or doesn’t appear there at all—it’s probably not the best beginner hiking trial.
On the flip side, avoid hitting a super popular trail at a peak time (generally, most trails hit their peak on holiday weekends, most weekend afternoons, or if they’re close to where people work, on weekday evenings). You could end up spending your hike fighting for trail space with bikers, runners, pets—and you want your first hikes to be a better experience than that!
A few more things to think about when you’re picking a beginner-friendly hike:
- Pushing yourself to the end of a hike can be hard work, and it’s nice to have a great view or interesting landmark to enjoy as a reward.
- Read user comments on whatever app you’re using, or cross-reference hikes you find on the app with blog posts to make sure you’ve got all the details.
- Avoid hikes that go downhill first and then require you to come back uphill. Inexperienced hikers get into trouble all the time because they don’t realize how hard it will be to climb back up what they just descended.
- If you’re doing a loop, stick to a short, easy one—or pick out and back trails that allow you to turn around any time you need. Committing to a large loop trail can easily wear you out and get you in over your head.
Don’t go it alone! How to find people to hike with
Whether you’re jumping into hiking on your own or have a friend or partner to go with, it’s still a good idea to find a network of friends and groups to hike with.
While hiking by yourself is an option, it’s best to get familiar with the basics of gear, navigation, and hiking safety before you set out on your own.
Here are some of the best places to look to find people to hike with:
Organized meetup groups can be a great way to meet new people and discover some great trails. Whether it’s through meetup.com or facebook groups, I recommend beginner hikers check out groups in their area.
As with any informal, social-media-organized group, be mindful of your safety first and foremost—I’ll usually only join hikes with well-established groups that have at least 6 or 7 other people signed up.
Another caveat: these aren’t guided hikes. Anyone can create a meetup group and post hikes, and what one organizer considers easy might not be right for you. Contact the organizer if you’re in doubt and remember that ultimately, no one in these meetup groups is in any way responsible for your safety except you.
As long as you exercise a little caution and judgment, these groups are a great place to start. I’ve met many wonderful people through online hiking meetups.
Hiking and outdoor clubs
Look for established outdoor clubs and organizations in your area. For a nominal membership fee, you can access a range of organized hikes, as well as workshops to develop various skills and knowledge. Joining these clubs is a fantastic way to get out, meet people, and learn from highly experienced club members.
You’ll have an established organizer for hikes and events—they’re still not an official guide, but clubs generally take more responsibility to keep their members safe and accounted for on hikes than meetup groups do.
Joining a guided trip certainly isn’t necessary to get started, but it can be a great experience.
As long as you do a little vetting on the guide service you’re going through, guided trips can be a fantastic experience. The company will organize everything, may even provide some essential gear, and likely even arrange transportation to the trailhead.
They’ll also be fully committed to your safety and ensuring that you enjoy the trip. Joining a guided trip is a great way to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, too, as guides can help you explore new areas that you might not feel safe visiting without a professional to show the way.
What to bring on a hike?
For short dayhikes, any backpack you have lying around will do. Just make sure it’s comfortable to wear and big enough to fit everything you need.
Bring more than you think you need, especially on hot days. 1 liter for every 2 hours is a good benchmark..
Have a mix of salty and sweet snacks. Sweeter snacks are good for a quick boost of energy, while salty snacks help replace electrolytes and salt that you lose through sweat. On hot days, or more strenuous hikes, an electrolyte drink is a good idea. As with water, bring more snacks than you think you need.
Even on hot summer days, you can find yourself in a shaded creekside area that’s chilly, or on a windy hilltop. Bring at least one long-sleeve layer. In colder weather, you’ll want multiple layers, including gloves and a warm hat.
Bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. I’ll usually put on sunscreen before I start hiking, and bring a small bottle in my pack to reapply if I’ll be out more than a couple hours. You can still get sunburned on a cloudy day, so make sun protection a habit any time you go out.
Even if rain isn’t in the forecast, it’s a good idea to throw a lightweight rain jacket (or even a cheap plastic poncho) into your pack. Most of the time you won’t need it, but that one time that you do, it could save you from a lot of discomfort or even hypothermia.
Always research the trail, know where you’re going, and have a map with you. Hiking and navigation apps on your phone are a great tool to have, but don’t rely entirely on technology. You should always have a paper map with you, too (AllTrails lets you print pdf trail maps), and pay attention to trail markers, signs, and landmarks as you go.
These are optional, so don’t feel like you need to go invest in good hiking poles right away. They can help you keep your balance on uneven terrain, and ease the stress on your knees of going downhill for long stretches.
Pack a small first aid kit, with some bandages, blister pads, ibuprofen, tweezers, antiseptic wipes, and any prescription medications that you might need.
Throw a small headlamp or flashlight in your pack, even if you’re starting out your hike early. Not only will it be crucial if you do get stuck out longer than expected, you can also use it to signal if needed. Don’t rely on your phone’s flashlight.
It’s a good idea to include some additional gear, such as a knife, fire starter, and an emergency blanket. A survival knife is overkill unless you have the skills and knowledge to use it, so grab a small pocket knife.
Prioritize good judgment and basic hiking safety first, and before you venture off well-traveled trails, make sure you know some basic skills to use this emergency gear.
What to wear hiking?
The right clothes can make or break your hike. In general, you want clothes that are lightweight, breathable, quick-drying, and comfortable. Your clothes should also keep you protected from the elements.
That means avoid cotton fabrics, jeans, heavy cargo pants and the like, and dress in versatile layers that let you adjust as you warm up or cool off.
Any non-cotton athletic shirt works fine. If you have a favorite polyester running shirt or nylon/spandex blend gym shirt, it’ll do just fine on the trail, too. Make sure your shirt protects you well from the sun (short sleeves are much better than a tank top).
As with your hiking shirt, avoid cotton. Quick drying, lightweight and breathable, durable enough, comfortable and loose fitting. Shorts are fine for some summer hikes, but watch out for sunburn on your legs, scratches from encroaching branches or insects (like ticks!).
You can get sunburned even on cloudy days, so think about sun protection every time you go out. In addition to sunscreen, consider a hat or long-sleeve shirt with UV protection.
What sort of shoes do you need for hiking?
Good footwear is crucial to a safe and successful hike. If you’re just getting started, you don’t need to invest in expensive hiking boots. Just make sure you have footwear that ticks a few boxes before you hit the trail.
The tread pattern and material on your shoes is the biggest factor in keeping you from slipping on the trail. Shoes designed for road running, or casual tennis shoes like Converse, just don’t have a deep enough tread pattern or a grippy enough material to keep you sure-footed on rough trails. As soon as you encounter any mud, loose dirt or gravel, or wet rocks, you’re a lot more likely to lose your footing. Look for shoes designed to be worn on trails, with a deep tread pattern.
Plan your footwear for the weather and trail conditions you’ll most likely encounter. For a dry summer hike, breathable tennis shoes with good tread are likely fine. Waterproof boots may be nice if you’re hiking in rainy conditions, and necessary if there’s any snow.
How much support your shoes need is really a matter of personal preference. Go with what feels best for you. I personally prefer hiking in trail running shoes, or low-top hiking boots. If you’re not used to walking on uneven terrain, it’s a good idea to at least get boots with some ankle support.
As long as you know and follow a few best practices, use your judgment, and take responsibility for your safety on the trail, hiking is extremely safe.
Plan ahead and be prepared
The most important things you can do to stay safe happen before you even get to the trailhead. Choose a trail that’s within your abilities, hike with a buddy (or 3 or 4), wear the right clothes and shoes for weather and trail conditions, bring enough water and food, and know where you’re going.
Always make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you expect to be back. It’s also a good idea to leave a note on your dashboard with the trail you’re hiking and when you’ll return.
Beyond those basics, here are a few other things to consider when it comes to safety on the trail.
Encountering animals while hiking
Wildlife shouldn’t scare you off from hiking. By far the most likely animal you’ll be dealing with is other hikers’ dogs.
In most areas, you’ll probably also see birds, rabbits, squirrels and other small animals. Deer are common, too. If you’re near lakes and water, you might see moose.
Encounters with large predators are much less common, especially if you’re hiking with a group or on a popular trail. They prefer to avoid humans.
The best rule to follow when it comes to wildlife is: just leave them alone!! Don’t get too close, don’t try to feed them, and only take pictures from a safe distance (that selfie with a moose isn’t worth being trampled).
I also recommend knowing what large animals are common in your area and reading a bit about what to do on the off chance you do encounter one.
Plan for the weather
Always check the weather forecast before you go out. Remember that weather can get much colder as you gain elevation, and mountain weather can be fickle and unpredictable. Think about recent weather your area has gotten too. Recent rain or snowfall can drastically alter a trail’s conditions.
Regardless of the forecast, be prepared for rain and a temperature drop, even if you start out on a hot, sunny day. If the forecast doesn’t look good, you might need to adjust your plans to choose a shorter hike, or one that you can easily cut short to quickly get back to the car if the weather gets drastically worse.
Be aware of the terrain when you’re hiking
The terrain a trail goes through can be anything from a well-maintained boardwalk to a rocky and loose trail near cliffs and steep rock fields. While you can do some research beforehand to find out what the terrain is like, you often won’t really know until you’re actually on the trail.
Most easy, beginner-friendly hikes you’re choosing should pass through mild terrain, but not always. Stay safe by using your judgment and knowing your limits. If something on a trail looks sketchy—a steep snowfield that you have to cross, a scramble over large, loose boulders, or a place where the trail passes near steep drop-offs—be honest with yourself. If you don’t think your footwear or physical abilities are up to it, it’s better to turn around and come back another day when you’re better prepared.
Don’t get lost!
You should always bring multiple forms of navigation (at least a phone app and a paper map). But that’s just the first step in making sure you stay on the right track. You can still accidentally wander down a spur trail that goes nowhere, or take a wrong turn at a fork in the trail.
Check in with your map, surroundings, and GPS regularly. If something doesn’t seem right—maybe the trail suddenly seems harder or steeper than you expected, or abruptly narrows and gets overgrown—it’s a good sign you’re off track. Pay close attention to trail markers, too. When you come to a fork in the trail, always stop to double check your direction.
One trick to avoid getting lost: every 10 min or so, glance behind you and find a notable feature. Maybe it’s an oddly-shaped tree, or a distinctive rock formation next to the trail, or a mossy log. If you have to backtrack, knowing what the trail looks like from the other direction and creating landmarks for yourself along the way can literally be a lifesaver.
Take care of yourself
Make sure that you and everyone in your group are comfortable, having a good time, and taking care of your basic needs.
Hydrate, eat lots of snacks, take rests, and check in with yourself and the group regularly on how everyone is feeling. It’s not just key to having an enjoyable hike. It’s also the first line of defense against major issues like dehydration, heat exhaustion, or hypothermia. Injuries are also more likely to happen when someone is already tired, cold, or pushing themselves too hard to keep up.
Hiking rules and etiquette
You might be going to wild places to escape all of the rules and restrictions of daily life. But there are rules, best practices, and basic hiking etiquette that helps us all share the trail and keep the great outdoors a place that we can all enjoy.
Leave no Trace
No matter where you’re going, you should know Leave No Trace principles and follow them from the instant you step off of the pavement. You can learn more at the Leave No Trace website.
- 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 others
Local rules and regulations
Wherever you’re hiking, chances are there are some local rules put in place. These could include whether dogs are allowed, and whether they need to be on a leash; limits on group size; trail closures; and restrictions on travel off of established trails.
Rules will often be posted on a sign at the trailhead, or are readily available online for a given area. Pay attention to them, and follow them—they’re there to protect you, others, and the environment.
If you have a dog, follow the local leash laws. You might think your dog is fine off leash, but other hikers will likely disagree. Plus, a dog running around off-trail can cause massive damage to the plant life. They can also cause unnecessary stress to wildlife and even get into dangerous confrontations with larger animals like moose or bears.
Even if your dog is friendly, you never know when another hiker might have an allergy or fear of dogs, so keep your dog controlled and away from other hikers unless they ask to pet it.
Always pick up after your dog, and NEVER leave your poop bags sitting on the side of the trail. Even if you intend to pick them up later, it’s easy to forget, and to anyone passing by after you it just looks like litter.
People come to the outdoors for all sorts of reasons, but one of the biggest is to escape the constant sounds of civilization. So be respectful, and help keep trails a place to escape and enjoy the sounds of nature. Keep conversations to a reasonable level, and please, please, leave the speakers at home. If you must listen to music or a podcast, there are plenty of comfortable headphones that you can wear while hiking.
You’ll be sharing the trail with others, and that could include hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers, and horses. Especially when trails are crowded, knowing who has the right-of-way helps keep everyone hiking happily.
- Uphill hikers have the right of way. if you’re hiking downhill, step to the side to let uphill traffic pass.
- If you’re hiking in a group, the best practice is to always hike single file. You may end up hiking side-by-side for stretches where the trail isn’t busy. Just be aware of other hikers, especially hikers behind you who may want to pass, and be ready to move to single file to give them room.
- Mountain bikers should yield to hikers. In theory, hikers always have the right of way over mountain bikers. In practice, it is much more difficult for mountain bikers to stop, especially if they’re going uphill, so it’s courteous to give bikers space to pass without stopping where you can.
- Horses always have the right of way. Step to the side, and make sure you give the horse plenty of distance if you’re behind it or in its blind spots.
If you’re just getting into hiking, I hope this guide helps you know where to start hiking safely and responsibly. Once you get started and get comfortable with your abilities on the trail, there’s a world of incredible places you can explore. Remember, the most important things are to stay safe, stay within your limits, and just have fun!