What Every Beginner Hiker Should Know
Beginner Hiking Tips and Outdoor Etiquette for Responsible Recreation
Words and Photos by Renee Hahnel
Beginner Hiking Tips
The most common questions new hikers have are: “How do I choose a hike?”, “What do I wear/pack?” and “How do I stay safe?” Keep reading, you will find all the answers below!
How to Plan a Hiking Trip
Planning a day hike can be a little intimidating when first starting out. These are the top things you need to factor into your planning:
Choose a trail
As a beginner hiker it’s best to start easy and gradually work your way up to longer and more challenging trails. Factor in overall distance, elevation gain, how much time you have, current conditions, and your fitness level when selecting a trail. Starting with something under 5 miles roundtrip is probably best for your first time.
Websites like AllTrails are a great place to start when choosing hikes, as you can quickly get trail stats as well as read recent trip reports. Another factor to keep in mind when starting out is selecting well-maintained, easy to navigate, and regularly hiked trails. Usually a simple Google Search of “beginner hikes near [insert city]” will pull up a range of suitable options.
Find a hiking buddy
It’s totally possible to go hiking solo, but most beginners initially enjoy hiking with others for company and safety. Find a friend or family member who is interested in joining you or consider signing-up to local hiking groups (e.g. Facebook, MeetUp). Even when hiking with others you should always tell someone back home where you are going and when you will be back. This is even more important when hiking solo.
Print or purchase a physical map of your hike and learn the basics of compass navigation. Downloading offline maps can be really handy (e.g. via apps like Gaia GPS or AllTrails) but in this instance you should pack a charging bank for your phone. Another option is investing in a GPS + Emergency device such as the Garmin InReach Explorer+. Having both a tech-free and a tech based navigation option is best practice, if possible (e.g. printed map + downloaded phone map).
Wearing and packing the appropriate gear will not only make your hike more enjoyable, but it will help ensure you stay safe. Keep reading for in-depth packing information further down this guide.
Safety Tips for Hikers
Another must-know consideration for beginner hikers is how to stay safe out on the trail. Below are some general guidelines to consider:
- Stay within your abilities and know your physical limits. Calling search and rescue shouldn’t be something you rely on when in the backcountry.
- Always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back.
- Follow wildlife safety precautions specific to the area you are hiking in. This is a handy article on hiking in bear country.
- Pack the 10 Essentials: map + compass / GPS device, headlamp, sun protection, first aid kit, knife + gear repair items, lighter/fire starter, shelter/emergency blanket, extra food, extra water, extra clothes.
- Research water sources along the trail and be prepared to filter water on longer hikes.
- Consider hiking with a personal locator beacon as a ‘just-in-case’ emergency item.
- Remember that there is absolutely no shame in turning around if you feel unsafe or unprepared. Safety first, always.
What to Wear Hiking
What you wear hiking will depend on a few factors:
- What will the conditions/weather be?
- How long will you be gone for?
- Will it be a day hike or are you backpacking?
For example, if you are hiking in a hot climate you may choose to wear shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, whereas in a high altitude mountain climate you may opt for long pants and a long sleeved shirt. For rocky trails you may be better wearing sturdier boots versus trail runners. If you are planning to be gone for an overnight trip then you will want to pack more insulated layers. Use the list below as a general guide:
Essential Items to Pack
What you pack in your day bag for hiking will depend on the same factors mentioned above, plus whether or not you will be with someone else. This is because you may choose to share a couple of items with your hiking buddy.
As a general rule, this is what you should pack in your hiking day bag:
- Warm layers suitable to the climate and conditions (mid-layer fleece, insulated synthetic or down jacket, beanie, gloves)
- Rain and wind protection if the forecast calls for it
- Navigation (map + compass / GPS device)
- Snacks / meals (+ somewhere to store your trash)
- Reusable water bottle or bladder
- Water (+/- water filtration)
- First aid kit
- Knife + gear repair items
- Lighter/fire starter
- Shelter/emergency blanket
- Sunscreen / insect repellent
- Emergency toilet kit (trowel, tissue/wipes)
- Phone / camera
Must Know Trail Etiquette
As a beginner hiker it can be confusing to know who gets right of way on the trail. The general rules are:
- Hikers coming downhill give way to hikers coming uphill.
- Bikers should yield to hikers. In saying that, hikers will often move off the trail for bikers because it’s generally harder to maneuver a large bike versus quickly stepping to the side.
- Both hikers and bikers should yield to horses and other pack stock. If possible, step off the trail on the downhill side because a frightened horse is more likely to bolt uphill.
- Single hikers generally yield to larger hiking groups to prevent traffic building up on the trail.
Some other general trail etiquette tips are:
- Say a friendly “hello” to other hikers so that they know you are approaching, especially when approaching from behind.This also helps to create a welcoming atmosphere on the trail.
- Hike single file when in a group and be mindful to never take up more than half the trail space. Don’t walk off trail so that you can hike next to your buddy, this will erode the area over time.
- Don’t speak loudly on the phone, repeatedly shout to your friends, or play music out loud on the trail (no speakers please!) Be respectful of other hikers and wildlife by keeping noise to a minimum. Many wildlife species rely on natural sounds for communication purposes, and disrupting those sounds can hurt their chances of survival.
- Be sure to research and follow all regulations when choosing to hike with your dog. Always clean up after them and do not let them disturb other hikers.
- Always treat other hikers, bikers, pack stock, and the trail itself with respect. Make everyone feel welcome and safe when recreating outdoors.
When getting outdoors it’s important that you respect your surroundings and do your best to protect nature for future generations. The best way to do this is to follow the Leave No Trace 7 Principles:
- Identify and record the goals (expectations) of your trip.
- Identify the skill and ability of trip participants.
- Gain knowledge of the area you plan to visit from land managers, maps, and literature.
- Factor in weather, terrain, regulations, private land boundaries, group size, average hiking speed of the group, and anticipated food consumption.
- Choose equipment and clothing for comfort, safety, and Leave No Trace qualities.
- Plan trip activities to match your goals, skills, and abilities.
- Evaluate your trip upon return note changes you will make next time.
- Stay on trail whenever possible.
- When going off-trail aim to stay on more durable surfaces (rocks, sand, gravel) and avoid stepping on fragile terrain (vegetation, living soil, desert puddles).
- Choose a campsite in high-use areas and on durable surfaces.
- Pack out all your own trash and pick up any you see along the trail.
- Bury human waste in cat holes at least 200 feet (about 70 adult paces) from water, trails and camp. In some instances this isn’t allowed and you will need to pack out human waste.
- Leave areas as you found them.
- Avoid damaging trees and plants (carving initials into trees is unacceptable).
- Always leave natural objects and cultural artifacts.
- Do not build cairns.
- Consider the damage campfires cause over time and opt for camp stoves when possible.
- When you do have a campfire try to lessen its impact as much as possible (click here to find out how).
- Always use existing fire rings when it’s an option.
- Never leave a fire unattended and thoroughly extinguish when finished.
- Always observe wildlife from afar, be mindful of quick movements and loud noises, and do not pick up animals no matter how cute they may look.
- Do not feed wild animals. This can cause them to get sick and it may also not be safe for you.
- Be courteous towards other people when enjoying the outdoors. This includes keeping your pets under control, keeping noise to a minimum, being respectful to others, not littering the area or damaging it in any other way, and keeping music to a minimum.
- Consider the noise impact you have on others when choosing to use devices such as drones or speakers.
© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.
Another factor to consider is the consideration of geotagging trails on social media. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has an article discussing social media guidance when recreating outdoors.
For those looking into backpacking, this article on low impact camping is a handy resource.
Renee Hahnel is an Australian photographer, storyteller, and blogger based in Seattle, WA. She is passionate about inspiring travelers and adventure seekers to live intentionally, place value on experiences instead of possessions, and most of all, to encourage others to find joy exploring this beautiful world. You can check out more of Renee’s tips and tricks at www.reneeroaming.com.