Hiking for Beginners: Essential Tips From an Outdoor Pro
As a professional guide with a passion for nature, I enjoy helping others become confident in the backcountry. If you’re wondering how to get started, check out my hiking tips for beginners.
On our very first long-distance hiking trip, my mom and I chose to do an 80-mile section on the Tahoe Rim Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Meandering along ridges at 9,000 feet, the trail follows sharp drops into valleys and steep climbs up rugged mountainsides. It’s a bit of a bigger beast than hiking in San Diego — the relentless elevation change and unexpected snow made the trip much more challenging than we’d anticipated. It felt like it was never going to end. Reflecting back on all the snafus we encountered, we could have done things differently. However, this experience taught me a lot about hiking and fueled the direction of my professional career. Today, I enjoy helping hikers develop the skills needed to hit the trails with confidence. My aim is to prepare you to feel capable of confronting any backcountry challenge that comes your way. Whether you’ve dipped your toes into the sport by hiking the trails of Cinque Terre or you’ve started getting your boots dirty for real, these beginner hiking tips are for you.
Returning to My RootsMy passion for nature started at a young age, thanks to my adventurous and outdoorsy mom. Growing up, she was a role model and supported getting me outdoors—long before our memorable hiking trip on one of the best trails in Northern California. Despite my enthusiasm for nature, it somehow got placed on the back burner as I got older. My wake-up call was when I realized I was spending very little time outdoors anymore. I needed to make a change. Out of curiosity, I typed the phrases “abroad,” “outdoors,” and “master’s program,” into Google and…voilà! An outdoor education graduate program in Scotland popped up and I jumped at the opportunity. Everything fell into place from there.
Coming full circleAfter graduating, I accepted a guiding job in Bozeman, Montana, and… I’m still here working for Good Trip Adventures! Following in my mom’s footsteps, now I have the opportunity to encourage other people to get outside too. One of the best aspects of my job is working with folks from diverse backgrounds—namely, types of people we may not typically see outdoors.
How to Prepare for Hiking (And You Can Too!)
A guide’s approach to new hikersWhen I start working with beginner hikers, the first step is ensuring you have the basics (food, water, and proper clothing). Then, I learn as much as I can about your experience and objectives. This allows me to meet you where you are, set reasonable trip expectations, and break down intimidating aspects of the hike. For instance, gaining 1,500 feet of elevation may sound quite challenging to someone who’s never done it before. Yet, when I describe that it will be a steady gain over six miles—250 feet of elevation per mile—the incline is a lot more manageable.
Establish your baseline fitnessBefore you start hiking, you should understand your current fitness level (and be honest with yourself)! One strategy is to take a “test drive”: go on a low-risk hike with some elevation change and see how you perform. It can also help you pinpoint hiking-specific weaknesses that you can then work on. If you find yourself gasping for air, slow your pace or take a break. You’ll need to build up your cardio over time to tackle longer distances. Pay attention to where you’re struggling and focus on improving those aspects. You can build up your endurance and strength at home or in the gym as well. Here are some tips to train for hiking before setting foot out on the trail:
- Watch online videos on how to strengthen the muscles in your legs, shoulders, and back.
- To improve your cardio, add a treadmill session to your gym workouts, or even run in place or do jumping jacks throughout the work day—anything that gets your heart rate up.
- Incorporate yoga to improve core muscles and stability for moving across uneven terrain.
Choose a suitable hiking trailWhether you dream of long day hikes or something as ambitious as thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, it’s best to select hikes that match your current fitness level. When you’re choosing a hiking trail, pay attention to the distance, elevation, terrain, and note potential places you can rest along the way. To find a hike, guidebooks are great, as are free online resources like AllTrails or Hiking Project (both of which are available as apps). These are useful for finding hiking trails for beginners because they indicate the level of difficulty based on user reviews (and you can go through a user’s history to see if their experience matches your own). You can also ask a trusted friend for trail recommendations or, better yet, have them join you. There are hiking groups on Facebook and local hiking Meetups as well. For beginners, hiking with others is a great way to gain confidence because you’ll have someone to answer questions and address concerns along the way. Another thing to consider is the type of trail you’re hiking, whether it’s a loop or out-and-back. A loop allows you to experience new surroundings the entire way. In contrast, an out-and-back trail gives a greater sense of familiarity. I recommend popular, well-marked trails for beginners. Highly trafficked hikes offer security (in the form of fellow hikers if you need help), and if by chance there aren’t others around, a well-marked trail will keep you on the right track.
Carry a guidebookRegardless of your experience, it’s recommended to carry a physical guidebook of the area where you’re hiking. Before my mom and I ventured out on the Tahoe Rim Trail, we collected a lot of beta from online sources. While all that information was useful, it was reassuring to have a hardcopy resource on hand—especially if cell phone coverage is likely to be spotty, or you run out of battery. If a guidebook is too much to carry, I recommend printing out the details of your individual hike ahead of time, storing them in a waterproof bag, and keeping that with you.
Learn navigation skillsWhile advanced navigation skills aren’t necessary for hiking well-marked trails, you’ll feel more confident with a basic understanding of how to read a map and use a compass. Check out beginner navigation classes offered locally or online. For those who expect to start venturing into the backcountry, you’ll need to learn how to read a topo map.
Weather, the season, and trail conditionsThe time of season you go hiking matters, as conditions alter a trail’s difficulty level. When hiking in Tahoe during July, my mom and I hadn’t expected so much snow. It forced us to use alternative routes along the way. To help you prepare, start checking the weather forecast in the area every day for a week leading up to your trip (as well as historical)—and remember to check the day of. This will give you an idea of seasonal patterns, what to expect, and what gear you need to pack. For example, if you’re planning on tackling the best Joshua Tree hikes, summer is usually not a good idea since, you know, it’s the desert. Still, the weather forecast can be wrong and sometimes weather can change on a dime, so you need to remain flexible and plan for uncertainties. When you’re out there, you might encounter unexpected circumstances, such as heavy snow, high river crossings, and landslides, to name a few. Don’t be afraid to turn around if you don’t feel prepared for what you encounter—you can always come back another time!
Consider hiring a guideIf you’re still feeling trepidation about hiking, consider hiring a guide. Guided hikes are a great way to learn about the environment from a professional, meet other outdoorsy folks, and enjoy the activity without the logistical stress. As a guide, one of the most rewarding things for me is helping people overcome barriers to hiking—whether they’re physical, mental, financial, or something else entirely. Part of this is due to working with Good Trip Adventures, a company focused on making guiding accessible by trying to take cost out of the equation.
Hiking 101: The Gear
Stick to the basicsThere is often a sense of elitism in the outdoors, including the idea you need ultra-specific gear for different activities. While particular gear is required under certain circumstances (food storage while hiking through bear country, for example), you can usually start hiking with what you already own. For example, consider what you would normally wear to go for a walk or to the gym. If that’s been working for you, then try it out on a short hike. It’s good to be prepared, but try not to overthink it. Instead of investing in costly gear up front, get out there and start hiking—it’s easy to make changes as you gain experience along the way.
Essential hiking gear for beginnersUsing a gear checklist is a great way to ensure that nothing important gets left behind when you’re packing for a hiking trip. What to bring hiking varies from trip-to-trip depending on the trail length, terrain, and weather conditions, but there are essentials you should always carry. It’s easy to go overboard with packing. A good rule of thumb for when you’re starting out is to keep your pack under ten pounds. Your body needs time to adjust to carrying a load. While ultralight gear can help keep pack weight down, it can be pretty expensive. As a beginner, if you already have access to gear—great! Start with that. And if you find you need to get some items, focus on the basics for now. Here’s a list of items I recommend for a moderate-length day hike:
- First aid kit (an easy option is to buy a prepackaged one—it takes the hassle out of making your own. I like to add seasonally-specific medications, like antihistamines for spring and summer trips)
- Hiking clothes
- Hiking boots/shoes/sandals (whatever works for you)
- Trekking poles (optional)
- Water (Amount is hike-dependant. For example, some of the best Grand Canyon hikes have no access to water, so bringing lots of it is recommended)
- Luxury item (for my mom and I during the Tahoe Rim trip, this was wine. It made the end of a long day rewarding)
- Ten Essentials
Essential Hiking Clothes: What to WearHiking doesn’t require an extensive wardrobe. Your focus should be on safety and comfort. Here are some basic suggestions on what to wear for hiking.
Dressing for the trailStarting at the bottom, footwear is one of the most critical items to consider. Selecting the best hiking boot, shoe, or sandal depends on the season and terrain (sandals are not a great choice for winter conditions or rocky trails). Choose footwear with good traction, arch, and ankle support to reduce foot fatigue and mitigate sprains. To avoid blisters, make sure your footwear fits properly—not too loose and not too tight, or you’ll risk developing hot spots. When it comes to clothing, try to avoid cotton. And that includes socks. While I often wear cotton t-shirts in the summer if I know it will be hot, when wet, cotton tends to take a long time to dry which can be life-threatening in cold temperatures. For layering in cooler climates or winter months, you’ll need to do more research on how to stay warm while hiking. An example outfit for hiking in mild weather might look like this:
- Hiking shoes
- Wool blend socks
- Underwear garments (what you would wear while working out)
- Hiking shorts or pants—made of quick-drying fabrics like wool, nylon, or polyester. Yoga pants are an okay option too
- A t-shirt or tank-top, also made of moisture-wicking fabric
- A light windbreaker or jacket