Hiking for Beginners: How to Get Started
Hiking can seem overwhelming. Where do you go and what do you bring? How do you find those gorgeous views? Here is my hiking for beginners guide with all you need on how to get started.
I would see gorgeous travel or trip pictures and wish that I was fit enough or adventurous enough to do a hiking trip. I learned that with some planning and a can-do spirit, it is absolutely possible to follow the road less travelled!
Join me as I share my hiking for beginners guide based on my real life experiences.
For YEARS, I would often choose pictures of women on mountain tops or hiking for vision boards or for inspiration. The mountains were calling but I didn’t believe it was possible for ME to actually do it.
Not only did I begin hiking, but I began in my fifties and I absolutely love it! I did it with average fitness and almost zero experience.
Hiking for Beginners: My Experience
When I was finally ready to try it, I agonized over what to wear, what to bring, how much water, and pretty much everything else connected with hiking.
Because I’ve discovered that hiking is doable and relatively safe if you stick to maintained trails, I want to share my beginner hiking tips. They’ll help you not only give hiking a try but look forward to it and enjoy it!
Why Try Hiking?
Hiking isn’t just hard work! It’s getting yourself to the kinds of places that most people never see because most people just want to drive to one view, take a picture, and call it a day. Hiking allows you to see a world that is off-limits to most people. Not because most of them can’t do it but because most of them aren’t willing to do it.
Those vistas that hiking have allowed me to see still make me happy when I think about them or look at pictures. It’s not just one picture after getting out of the car—it’s a multi-sensory experience that will lift your spirit and fill your soul with delight.
When you get some hiking time behind you, you will also enjoy the challenges that hiking brings. Getting over fallen trees and rocks can be fun. Watching your footing, keeps your mind busy. Moderating your speed and breath to make sure you make it to the top will make you feel like a total bad-ass.
The best way I can describe it, is that hiking is an amazing experience, that few will take advantage of, that takes you out of the regular world into places more beautiful than you’ve ever imagined and leaves your soul full but also wanting more.
So, let’s get started on your next adventure! I’m going to walk you through the basics so you can get to some amazing places too.
How to Pick Your Location
This is your first step. The internet will help you find great trails that are either near where you live or are in the vicinity of your next trip.
National and state parks are a great place to start looking for the perfect trail.
There have been and still are people in the world that want these beautiful natural places to be accessible. These places have places to park, bathrooms, maps, and mostly well-maintained trails. Plus, there are always other people, so I always feel a little safer.
I advise always using a known trail, that is mapped and maintained. While in Colorado last year, we discovered that the REI in Denver had information on hundreds of trails around the area that varied in length and difficulty.
You can also look online by searching for hikes in the area you will be visiting. No matter where you are traveling to, you can probably find some hikes to do. If you are new to hiking, stick with short ones. My very first hike, and the one that kicked off my recent love of hiking was only a couple of miles long. Yet it took a couple of hours and really kicked my butt!
Two miles in the woods or mountains is not like two miles in your neighborhood. I’ll talk more about that later in discussing how to pick the right length of your hike.
Hike in National and State Parks
National and other parks are amazing. Parks provide maintained trails and maps and descriptions of what the trail is like. I cannot over emphasize the importance of this, especially for a beginner. While, I don’t want to walk and hike with crowds (and I’ll share my strategy to avoid this even in popular parks) I do like to be on trails that are well marked, and that other people are hiking. If something bad happens, I want to be able to get help.
The other thing I like about parks is that the trails are thought out to give you a great hike. They are designed to take you along ways that provide great views and experiences. Even though a hike up a mountain can be tough, there IS a certain fun to climbing, going over rocks or roots, and figuring out where to place your feet.
National Parks can be amazing. And they can be overwhelming. Fortunately, most have comprehensive websites and you can do a lot of pre-planning. Most have some type of lodging in or near the park. There are always options for all budgets.
If you can afford it, try to stay in the park at least one night. I love being inside the park and the ability to get out on the trail really early.
How to Interpret a Trail Description
If you are going to be hiking in a mountain setting (and that’s my favorite kind!) you’ll need to learn to interpret hiking descriptions. A mile going uphill is very different than a street mile. You are dealing with the uphill part concurrently with obstacles such as rocks, trees, roots, creeks, narrowing paths, and drop-offs.
Park websites will often describe hikes as easy, moderate, and strenuous. For the most part, the easy ones are very short and have an easier surface to walk on. If that’s your speed, you can probably do more than one a day.
Moderate and strenuous hikes can be done with moderate fitness if you plan for it.
I now know, that I don’t want to hike more than 7 or 8 miles a day. That length of hike can easily take me 6 to 8 hours depending on the elevation and climb. While, that is my upper limit, it’s often what is necessary to get to the spectacular views.
If you are younger and fitter, you can probably do it quicker. When I hike, younger people seem to breeze past me almost without effort.
To me, it’s more important to commit to getting to the end, even if I am slower, than to treat it like a race.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you will be carrying water and snacks on a hike and that makes it a little more difficult. What you need to carry for a 2-mile hike is quite different than what you need for an 8-mile hike.
I have carried a pack with overnight supplies and lived to tell you about it. For me, I find I can go further and see more during a day hike with a lighter pack than I can in a 2-day overnight hike. Yet, I haven’t ruled out more camping, I just don’t like lugging that much equipment and for now, I’m concentrating on quality day hikes.
Go With a Buddy
I’m a believer that there is safety in numbers and I would never want to hike alone. A friend or partner can help you navigate difficult parts of the trail and they can encourage you when the going gets tough.
A partner can help you make good choices when reading a map and will remind you to drink your water and reapply your sunscreen. But best of all, it’s fun to share this experience with another person.
How to Choose The Right Equipment for Hiking
Having good equipment can make all the difference in your enjoyment of your hike. Hiking equipment will appear expensive at first. And it is. Yet, you can use it over and over. You don’t need 10 pairs of hiking pants, just a pair or two. Your backpack will last forever. As my boyfriend and I prepared for our first hikes we used our trips to REI as our date nights. Forget dinner and a movie—think backpack and freeze-dried food!
I’ve included links to Amazon in this post so you can see what the equipment looks like. However, as much as I’d love if you purchased through my affiliate, I really do recommend you go into a store and try things on!
How to Buy Hiking Shoes
Shoes are your first and probably most important purchase. I highly recommend REI for this purchase. Most quality hiking shoes are going to be over $100. REI allows you to return shoes even after you have used them. I haven’t had to do that because they also have knowledgeable sales people that can help you get fitted correctly. They even have fake rocks you can climb up and down to see how the shoe feels on uneven surfaces.
For my hiking purposes, I bought one pair of shoes and I’ve used them on several hikes successfully. Mine cost about $120. While you could spend more, I wouldn’t recommend spending a lot less. (Though, I swear some of those young people skipping past me on the trails often were in regular tennis shoes or even flip-flops.)
My shoes keep me steady on the trail and while most trails are relatively safe, there are parts where you could get hurt if you slipped or fell.
The other part about good shoes is that they protect your feet while you are hiking. When you are hiking for several hours, you don’t want blisters or sore toes from your feet slipping in your shoes on the downhill.
How to Choose a Backpack
Backpacks made specifically for hiking are amazing. Getting up a mountain or going the distance on a hike can be tough. Having a backpack that is engineered to be comfortable even with several pounds of water and supplies in it is essential.
I never hike that I don’t marvel at how comfortable my pack is! I have an Osprey pack, much like this one and it holds everything I need. But just as important as capacity is that it fits you well and distributes the weight correctly. You don’t want to feel like a pack mule!
How to Choose Your Hat
I suggest a brimmed hat to get more sun protection. It’s surprising how often you are exposed to the sun while hiking and a good hat is essential. A lot of people use ball caps, but if I’ve got my long hair in a pony tail then my neck is exposed.
Here’s me in my Tilly hat. It’s the real deal but there are a lot of affordable hats that are similar.
Hiking Pants Versus Shorts
I love the look of shorts with hiking boots, but I don’t find shorts practical. When you are hiking, you are constantly going up against rocks, branches, or brush. Occasionally you will have to climb over a fallen tree. That is not fun in shorts!
I recently found a light weight pair of hiking pants that I love. I wore them two days in a row on my last trip. On the first day we went up and down a mountain. On day two we spent of good portion of the day in the water. They were great on both days!
My advice–go to an outdoors store and try on pants until you find a pair that fits perfect, is lightweight, has lots of pockets, and can dry fast.
Layers are your best friend. Get a synthetic t-shirt and pullover to get started. If you don’t hike a lot, one of each will be enough. If you are doing a couple of hikes on a trip, have a couple of t-shirts. Any sports bra that is comfortable will be fine.
100% wool is the usual recommendation. I found these on Amazon and they have fantastic reviews and are VERY reasonable.
Water for Hiking
This is one of the trickiest things to figure out. You want to bring plenty but water is also heavy. So, you are always weighing the advantages of having lots of water with the disadvantage of lugging it along.
I love a backpack, like this Osprey one (I am a huge Osprey fan!) that holds quite a bit of water in a way the is comfortable. Even better it is super easy to access through an easy to use tube.
On longer hikes we have brought [water purifying pills]. I used them with gorgeous Colorado spring water that looked clean enough to drink without the pills. I own but haven’t tried a water-purifying gadget. Next overnight though, I’ll be ready!
Food for Hiking
Since this is a beginner post, I’m going to talk about snacks. Overnights have different needs.
I’m not a big breakfast eater, especially early in the morning when it’s time to get to the trailhead. I do always have coffee and I put some Vital Proteins into that. If you are going to be on the trail for hours, you will definitely need some food to keep you going.
What works best for me are little snacks that I can easily access along the way if needed. I will try to get something in me before the hike, but usually all I can tolerate is coffee. However, I will have it with cream, coconut sugar, and some collagen/protein.
Other things that work for me are dried fruit, dried meat, and nuts. I also bring a protein bar or two along with me. These are all small and light and give me energy to keep going.
One other thing that is essential to me—a great meal after the hike! I might be minimalist while hiking but I love going out for a nice dinner after getting back, resting, and cleaning up. Sometimes the thought of that blissful reward is what keeps me going.
Until I did my first hike, I had no idea how these could help. Well, let me tell you, they help a lot! They help you over rough patches, crossing water on rocks, and are a huge help going downhill. I can’t even imagine hiking without poles.
First Aid and Sunscreen for Hiking
In a perfect world, you would bring sunscreen, bug spray, band aids, and antibiotic cream. And sometimes I do! Band aids and sunscreen are non-negotiable. Bring them every time.
How to Use the Bathroom in the Woods
Since this post is only talking about day hikes—my best advice is do as much of your bathroom business as you can before you get on the trail. Many trailheads have some type of toilet and I recommend that you take advantage of that.
However, it’s very likely you will need to pee on the trail. It’s a given that you aren’t going to leave paper laying around. If you bring toilet paper along, you will also need to bring a baggie to bag it up and carry it out.
My suggestion is to bring a bandana along. Hiking pants have many pockets and I keep it in there. It’s perfect for a quick wipe. Honestly you don’t get it was wet as you would think. At the end of day—launder it with your clothes.
It might seem gross, but people have not always had the luxury of paper products. It works very well and to me is way less gross than dealing with toilet paper in the woods. Trust me ladies—you WANT to be quick and efficient, not fumbling around with toilet paper and bags.
How to Get Ready for Your First Hike
Start with a shorter hike than you think you are ready for. Hiking is not at all like walking and one mile on a rugged mountain will feel like five miles in your neighborhood. Underestimate your ability! Trust me here—especially if you are going up in elevation.
Spend money on your shoes and economize other places. Your feet and legs are your vehicle and will determine whether you enjoy you hike or not. If your feet get sore after a mile or two, you will miss out on the amazing views.
Get a good hat. Not a cap but a brimmed hat that will protect your neck. Ladies, your neck and face need protected. Take care of your beautiful skin.
Wear long pants no matter how hot it is. Hiking takes you past brush, over rocks and fallen trees, and at times in the sun for long periods of time. Protect your legs from everything. There are many lightweight hiking pants available.
Stick to mapped and maintained trails. At times these trails can feel remote and primitive. However, at the minimum you will have a marked trail head, a map, a maintained trail, and markers along the way.
Hiking for Beginners: Products Mentioned in this Post
Parks Featured in the Post
I loved my time in Zion National Park. The hike I featured in one of the pictures was Observation Trail. My favorite hike to-date!
This is only a few miles outside of Las Vegas! Well worth visiting, even if you do the driving tour.
We barely scratched the surface of this park. However, we did the most difficult hike and the highest peak. It’s not even easy to get to the park! But it’s so worth it.
We found this through the Denver, CO REI–the most amazing REI ever! They have a place in the store with a knowledgeable person who will help you find the perfect hike! We way overestimated what we could do. But we still had an amazing time and hope to go back someday.
Keep showing up my friends,
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Hi, I'm Sara Garska and I'm so happy you're here! My Think Big Life began shortly after I turned 50. Big changes can happen with a small start, an adjustment of thought, or a simple process. Over time, you transform your life into the one you always dreamed of having. As a certified life and weight loss coach, I can help you create a life you love. Click here to schedule a free 50-minute coaching session.
Sara I love this! My husband and I did our first hike a few years ago in New Zealand’s Abel Tasman park. We also (after much research) bought Osprey packs. They are the best. We were just saying how we need to go for another one. I love how you are learning and growing all the time – very inspiring.
It’s amazing what a difference a pack can make! I really hope to visit NZ one day. It’s been popping up among some of our cycling group as somewhere to explore.
What a great article! So thorough and comprehensive– and encouraging. And so many references and helpful hyperlinks…
The best part was:
“…most people just want to drive to one view, take a picture, and call it a day. Hiking allows you to see a world that is off-limits to most people. Not because most of them can’t do it but because most of them aren’t willing to do it.”
That made me think… The other great advantage of nature hiking is that one isn’t part of the herd. When my son and I went to the Great Wall (China, not Trumpian) it was a lot of work (and hot, in the summer) and not as satisfying as I imagined looking out at such an incredible historical icon, because of the crowds– everyone has to constantly carefully walk up and down (across mountains, after all) like cattle on the old misshapen steps, avoiding the people in front and behind.
The picture you painted of hiking is so much more rewarding. This is your best story.
Thanks! There are many places to see that are like that now. So many people want to experience them that you can only see an iconic place if you do it as one of the crowd–Niagara Falls was like that. To me, China is an advanced form of travel! I’m just starting to scratch the surface of the US.