Hiking is the perfect way of exploring your surroundings. Whether you are on faraway travels or planning a day-trip in your own country: immersing yourself in nature at your own pace means discovering nature in a whole new way. That’s why we wanted to get you started with some tips and tricks and share our own experiences. Because we all start hiking as a newbie, and even the most seasoned hikers never stop learning. So here’s some hiking tips for beginners!
Other than the usual walk to take you from A to B, hiking is considered a sport. And for good reasons! People like hiking both as a recreational activity and as exercise, and although it lacks a competitive element, hiking is about pushing your limits just as any other sport.
Moreover, hiking comes with a whole set of physical and mental health benefits. Some time away from technology is known to improve your creative thought processes and reduce anxiety. Besides other health benefits, a frequent hike is a strong remedy against stress: it can help you sleep better and release natural endorphins. Last but not least, hiking is a perfect social or group activity. It allows you to spend some quality time with each other or to meet new people.
How to start hiking?
Before and while picking a route and packing accordingly, ask yourself a couple of questions. For example, do you want company? Is it safe to hike the area of your choice alone or could you better join other people? For your first trek, it might be a good idea to join more experienced group of hikers to get you going. Trekking enthusiasts are often more than happy to share their knowledge, favourite trails and lend you their gear.
You could also consider checking out local hiking clubs or classes, or online forums. MeetUp.com for example, or maybe even Couchsurfing.com. But, if you do prefer going on a trail by yourself, take into serious account your fitness level, your navigational skills and possible wildlife in the area. Hiking alone can be a truly relaxing experience, but it also means having no-one around when you get injured or lost. Also, don’t underestimate how lonely it can get going on a solo multiple day trek.
Big tip: whatever you are up to, always make sure people at home know where you are!
Picking your trails
The easiest way to start hiking is by exploring your own neighbourhood. Any woods, lakes, mountains or national parks around? Leave your car or bike at home and set out a trail. When on holiday, you might need a little more guidance finding a trail. Depending on your destination, see if you can get your hands on a local hikers guidebook. Or even better, talk to local hiking enthusiasts for tips and advice. They can get you up to speed on the latest trail conditions and advise you on hikes that fit your skill level.
As always, it never hurts to do some research beforehand. And Google is your best friend! If there’s a trail, there are online stats. Find out what websites feature recent trip reports, and oftentimes you can easily look up routes, trail difficulties, distances and elevation gain. Oh, and before you take your four-legged friend along, look up if dogs are allowed on your trail.
- Where’s the trailhead and finish of your route? Make sure beforehand, so that you can plan your transportation accordingly.
- Is it hiker’s season or off season? You’ll want to know how crowded a trail is going to get.
- How’s the weather forecast, and what time will the sun rise and set?
- How much time do you have and how long will the trail take on average?
- What is your fitness level? You need to be very honest about the shape you’re in, to prevent getting into trouble.
- What distance are you comfortable with hiking in one day? Note that your pace might vary depending on the terrain and your packings.
- What elevation gain can you handle?
- Do you want to spend the night in a cabin along the trail, a B&B or will you bring a small tent?
We would advise to start with a trail that is shorter than distances you usually walk. Stick to an estimated 3 to 4 kilometres an hour, and you should be safe. Just note that if your trail features elevation changes, you’ll have to add 20 minutes extra for every 100 metres of gain.
Got all these things covered? Time to get packing!
What to pack?
Whatever you’re planning to bring on your trip: a good backpack will save your life. A backpack that does not fit or is not built for the weight you are packing can cause discomfort, pain and even physical damage. For short hikes close to home, a daypack with enough space for water, food and some extra clothing should do it. You would need a daypack with about 20 litres space tops. For bigger treks, make sure you have enough space for more clothes, food and water, and gear. A capacity of 35 litres is advisable in this case. For both daypacks as multiple day trekking full packs goes: a waist belt is key.
- Hiking shoes/ boots or sneakers (for a day hike)
- Enough water (on day hikes we like to carry a small runners backpack with a water bag in it)
- Enough food and energy/protein snacks
- Bug spray
- A map and a compass (way more useful than GPS, with batteries that die)
- A small first aid kit (preferably with an emergency blanket in it)
- Definitely do not forget the special blister band aids
- Extra clothing for isolation
- Rain jacket
- An extra set of socks (to prevent blisters when your feet get wet)
- Walking stick(s)/ trekking poles
- Hiking a bear country like Canada? Bring bear spray
- A small lightweight tent (like our Vaude Lizard)
- Lightweight sleeping supplies
- A multi-tool
- A headlight
- A ‘LifeStraw’ (in case you run out of water)
- Fire starters to get a campfire going
- Hiking a bear county like Canada? Bring a bear safe food container
Tip: waterproof your pack or take a rain cover to prevent your packings from getting wet in the rain!
Hiking shoes and socks
For starters: shoes, shoes, shoes! Bad shoes can ruin your hike, so a good pair of hiking boots is the best investment you’ll make in your hiking life. There are plenty of comfortable lightweight hiking boots on the market, so no need to pack those super heavy mountaineering boots. Just make sure they are broken-in before you start walking and really make sure they’re comfortable for YOU (and not too small). Price is not an indicator for better, more comfortable shoes. If there’s any pain or pressure when fitting them at the store, don’t go for them. For long hikes, ankle support for bumpy trails and a decent degree of protections against water are most important.
But, if you do trust your ankles and you’re going for a day’s hike in sunny weather, a pair of quality sneakers will serve you just as well. And you know what else will serve you well? Thick merino wool socks. First of all for more comfort, en secondly because merino wool is self-cleaning and doesn’t hold smells or odours. Stay away from cotton, as this material will stay damp for a long time when you get sweaty, and blisters are a real mood killer. Our Dutch readers may want to check out this page about picking the right hiking shoes and socks at Bever.
Other comfy hiking clothes
This goes for everything you wear, by the way. Damp clothes prevent you from retaining heat. Wear a dry-fit shirt and comfortable light (hiking) pants: they will wick the sweat away instead of holding it. Need to stay isolated? Layers and merino wool is what you need on a cold day.
Now the practise of layering is paramount. Layers keep you warm when they need to, and can be shed easily when temperature rises. There is a technique to building up your layers though, and the Adventure Junkie will tell you everything you need to know.
- Comfortable hiking shoes/boots or sneakers (for a day hike)
- Merino wool socks, and an extra pair
- Dry-fit clothes
- Merino wool shirt
- Raincoat (a breathing, triple membrane one, preferably. Because plain rubber keeps the rain out, but it also keeps the sweat in)
- Sunglasses (don’t underestimate the irritation and damage direct sunlight can cause to the eyes)
On the trails
All set? Study your map one last time before you go. Knowing your route is half the work, and it might come in very handy to know your emergency exits and places to fill up water. You will need at least half a litre of water per hour, so make sure you won’t run out.
Tip: a water filter or purifier allows you to filter water from streams and lakes, so you can reduce your load.
While hiking, consider the importance of breaks. A 10 minute break each hour helps you to reload, and prevents too much metabolic waste to build up in your legs. This increases your endurance, but note that it is also important to pace yourself. You may want to start sturdy, but you won’t be able to maintain a high tempo all day. A tad slower will prolong your hike – you should at least be able to walk and talk without having to catch your breath.
During your break, use your time to check your body and clothes for ticks. They can be behind your ears, above your socks and in general they will hide in warm places like your groin. Or hover over your clothes to latch on later. You don’t want to catch anything nasty like Lyme Disease, so be prepared.
When you’re setting foot again after a break along the trail, make sure your have your navigation right. Are you still heading the right direction?
To the loo along the trail
Talking about breaks: at some point, you’re going to need a toilet. This might be a discomfort, but you’ll get used to it easily. Keep in mind to stay away at least 70 steps from water sources (and from the trail, if you don’t want to get caught) and to use as little toilet paper as you can. If needed, dig a hole about 20 centimetres deep and bury your waste there or bring it home in a trash bag to get rid of it after the trail. This goes for dog waste too! Don’t bury your menstrual supplies though, these are often not biodegradable. You can bring hand sanitizer to wash your hands afterwards!
Leave no trace hiking
Leave No Trace is a big part of your basic trail etiquette. Of course, nobody means to bring damage to our natural surroundings. Still it is important to educate yourself, as we tend to overlook our harmful behaviours. Leave No Trace is a philosophy that helps you to minimize your impact on the environment, based around 7 principles:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly and pick up trash you find along the trail
- Leave the pieces of nature you find – it’s part of the ecosystem
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
Basically, this comes down to leaving nature as you found it, and respecting others like you want to be respected. So stay on the trail, don’t take any natural souvenirs, take your rubbish with you and NEVER feed wildlife. Hiking etiquette also means giving uphill hikers the right of way, talking quietly and not playing loud music. Learn more about the Leave No Trace Principles here.
This seems like a lot to take in, but you’ll get the hang of it after a couple of hikes. We all learn by trial and error. Be ready now to experience nature as you’ve never seen it before. Don’t forget to bring your camera, cut your toenails, watch the trail, look around and have fun!