Get outside and enjoy one of the simplest, most reinvigorating hobbies there is: hiking.
If you’re new to hiking, read on to learn what you need to know before you hit the trails, whether you’re planning a stroll through the woods or a multi-day backpacking trip.
The wind stung and burned our faces. Step by step, we made our way upwards, and then we were there, on top of a snow-covered ridge in western Wyoming, on top of the Continental Divide in the Wind River Mountains.
Though it was late June, the temperature was barely over freezing up on the pass, just under 13,000 feet above sea level.
Above us, a bright blue sky. The view was spectacular, valleys spreading out before us, forests and rivers and glaciers, all of it so tiny and yet so vast.
We snapped some pictures and began our descent from the ridge, eager to escape the biting cold.
That night we made camp beside a long lake, where it dropped well below zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Today was day seventeen of a thirty-day expedition, and to this day, that unnamed pass over the Divide remains special to me.
The amazing beauty of the wilderness, land so wild that even the loggers and miners of the 19th century had been forced back by the cold and the snow.
Land so wild that even before people came to the Americas on wooden ships, the natives of the land only passed through as hunters, as the vicious weather forced them to stay in more hospitable lands for the winters.
How had we arrived here? What drew fifteen people to this wonderful yet desolate place?
For some adventure was the call; for others the wilderness was the place they could go to leave their pasts behind. Whatever the cause, we travelled together.
Several of us had spent months in the field before, while for one of our group, this was the first time outside of a city or suburb.
Some people view the wilderness with fear or even distaste. Some live in big cities and don’t have the chance to venture into the great outdoors as often as they would like. Some would like to start hiking but aren’t sure where to start—what gear to buy, where to go, how to navigate, and so on.
And of course there are many like me, wilderness fanatics who need at least a hike or two every week.
If you’re reading this, you might want similar experiences, but how? Isn’t it expensive? Isn’t is difficult or dangerous?
These questions don’t have simple one-word answers, but I’ll do my best to give you solid advice for starting off in hiking.
It changed the way I see the world around me, and I hope it will do the same for you.
The Health Benefits of Hiking
What gear do I need?
One of the most common misconceptions about spending time outdoors is that it will cost you a lot of money.
While this can be true, it doesn’t have to be. So here are some tips for choosing gear that will serve you well and not require you to sell a kidney.
First off, the most important gear out there is not actually equipment. It’s your skills and mindset. All the greatest gear will do absolutely nothing for you if you cannot safely and effectively use it.
Just got a new pair of boots? Break them in at the park, not in the wilderness. Also, stay positive. A bad mindset will make you miserable, so keep positive. Being able to laugh at adversity will make hiking a whole lot easier for you.
Next up, use what you already have. You do not need all the newest stuff available.
If you’re brand new to hiking, your first purchases will probably be a good pair of boots and some activewear.
Beyond that, take you time to see how you like hiking, build your skill sets, and gradually acquire or upgrade equipment. Once you have more experience, then maybe consider putting money into stuff.
That said, there is some equipment that is highly recommended for hiking and backcountry travel. I’ll start with clothes:
- Hiking boots or shoes
- Hiking sandals
- Dry-fit clothes
- Merino wool shirt
I have seen people going on quick day hikes in full-on heavy mountaineering boots and I can say without any doubt that that is a mistake. Lightweight is your friend.
There are a number of high-quality and relatively lightweight hiking boots on the market. I’ve had luck with brands like Asolo and Vasque.
They’re extremely durable, comfortable over long distances, and provide some ankle support over rocky terrain. Some boots come with Gore-Tex coating that will even keep out water.
A solid pair of hiking boots will likely be one of your biggest investments when you start out hiking. Expect to pay $150 to $300 for a quality pair.
If you balk at the price of hiking foot wear, you can consider going hiking in sneakers.
After all, the Lewis and Clark expedition crossed North America from 1804 to 1806 in moccasins. Yes, just plain leather moccasins.
The key to wearing minimalist footwear in the field is having strong ankles. I trail run to build ankle strength, and have never had an issue wearing light shoes in the wilderness.
Add some low leg gaiters to the mix to keep out rocks and dust, and you’re set in the footwear department.
Sneakers might lack the ankle support and traction of hiking boots, but they are generally fine for shorter hikes of mild to moderate difficulty.
So let’s say you want to try out hiking, or go on the occasional day hike, but aren’t sure you want to splash out on expensive shoes just yet.
If you already own a decent pair of sneakers, try hiking in them. Are they comfortable? Are you able to handle the terrain? And if, over time, you decide to pursue hiking more seriously, you can always buy some hiking boots then.
Now let’s consider socks. A good pair of socks is absolutely indispensable when you’re hiking.
Don’t wear cotton socks. You’ll soon regret it when your sweaty feet start sprouting blisters. Stick to wool socks by brands like Smartwool, REI, or Thorlos.
If you are planning to hike in heavy rain or through any river crossings, consider bringing a spare pair of socks with you. Hiking with wet feet is pretty uncomfortable.
A final footwear option to consider is hiking sandals. These cost around $50 to $100, so they’re a more modest investment than most hiking boots.
I’ve had a pair of Keen hiking sandals for about five years now, and they’ve taken me on some light- to moderate-level hikes.
Sandals are not the best idea if you’re going bushwhacking (your feet will get cut up), but if you stick to trails, they can be a great option.
They’re also fantastic if you’ll be hiking through water or getting your feet wet. Sandals are lightweight, let your feet breathe, and tend to dry out more quickly than traditional hiking boots.
Plus, if you go camping, they make perfect camp shoes, allowing your feet to air out at the end of the day.
Things to consider: do they provide toe protection? Personally, I like having a cap over my toes since otherwise I have a real knack for scraping them.
How good is the traction? Are they adjustable? My Keens have adjustable straps, which is awesome—sometimes your feet swell a bit by the end of a long day of walking.
What should you wear on a hike? You certainly could spend a fortune on the latest, greatest activewear styles, but there’s no need to remortgage your house.
Here are some general guidelines to start with:
You’ll want a couple good shirts and at least one pair of pants, shorts, or leggings. A sports bra may be necessary ladies.
If you’re planning to hike in cooler weather, you need at least one warmer, long-sleeve top, along with a coat or rain jacket. And, as discussed above, some good wool socks.
Let’s talk clothing material. As a general rule of thumb, avoid cotton. Why? Because when cotton gets wet, it stays wet for a very long time, and once wet, it has almost no heat retention.
Also, once cotton is wet, it chafes like nothing else. So leave the cotton and denim at home.
Instead, wear a simple pair of thin nylon pants and a dry-fit shirt made of a synthetic fabric. These fabrics dry quickly and won’t cause you discomfort. They’ll wick sweat away from your body instead of getting clammy and keeping it against your skin.
Now what about hiking in the cold? Wool is your friend.
You can bring grandma’s Christmas sweater (seriously, I will respect you forever if you wear a Christmas sweater on a hike without shame).
However, typical wool clothes are heavy and bulky, so consider something like merino wool instead.
This stuff is amazing, but yes it costs quite a bit. Look for it on sale or used. Merino wool shirt is light and warm, and it compresses down into nothing if you’re carrying it in a backpack.
I’ve been in sub-zero temperatures Fahrenheit in nothing but a few layers of merino wool and not been overly cold.
What about clothing for bad weather? A nice, top-of-the-line raincoat is prohibitively expensive for many people.
Arcteryx, my personal favorite, sells coats for around $300 to $500. Yeah. That’s a lot. Again, try buying used, but also be careful not to buy junk.
A cheap rubber raincoat from a garage sale may be waterproof, but remember that waterproofing works both ways. It will keep rain out…and it will keep sweat in.
So it is wise to invest in a triple-membrane fabric raincoat. Don’t bother with the technical details, but these coats breathe decently, meaning that you won’t end up drenched and cold in your own sweat.
You can get a decent raincoat for around $200 from a company like REI, though try looking at sales to get one for less. I recently picked up a great waterproof coat from L.L. Bean for $90, marked down from $300.
Additional clothing items
Don’t forget to bring sunglasses! As long as you’re okay scratching them up or getting them dirty, they’ll work out fine in the field.
Protecting your eyes is important, especially in higher or snowy areas, as the sun can do serious damage to you. And while you’re at it, never forget the sunscreen!
Gloves can also be a sensible purchase for the avid hiker. They protect your hands while you scramble over rocks and keep your fingers warm in colder weather.
I usually bring my Buff along on hikes too. This circular band of material has many uses. Typically, I use mine to shield my neck from the sun or to mop sweat off my face.
There are a few pieces of hiking equipment you may need, especially if you decide to tackle more strenuous hikes or go on backpacking trips. These include:
- Water bottle or hydration pack
- Trekking poles
- First aid kit
- Bug repellant
If you decide you like hiking enough to start going on multi-day backpacking trips, it’s time to get a backpack.
A good backpack, specifically one with a good hip-belt and suspension system, is a worthwhile investment.
I like my Osprey packs, but other companies make high-quality ones too. Try borrowing one from a friend to learn what does and does not work for your body.
I do not recommend going around the field in a traditional school backpack, as those things place all the weight on your shoulders and will cause pain over time.
If possible, go to an outdoors shop in your area to try packs on. The staff there should be able to tell you if it fits properly.
A poorly fitted pack is a recipe for pain in a lot of different places, so a good pack is one of the things I really do think is worth the steep cost.
Like with many other things, consider buying used; just be aware that older hiking gear will typically be heavier than modern gear.
If you’re on an extremely tight budget, there is always military surplus gear, but most of that was built to withstand the next world war, so you will save in money and pay in weight.
Now if you plan to stick to day hikes, purchasing a daypack is a good idea.
These also have hip belts to take the stress off your back and shoulders, but they are smaller than a full pack, typically ranging from 20 to 35 liters. I like the 25-30-liter range, which I find big enough to accommodate water, snacks, and other necessities for pretty much any day hike.
Staying hydrated is an incredibly important part of actually enjoying your hike. Always bring more water than you think you’ll need. I usually bring a couple of water bottles along in my daypack.
Some people prefer the convenience of a system like CamelBak, which comes in sizes from around 1.5 to 3 liters. CamelBaks let you drink without removing your pack.
If you find yourself hiking up and down a lot of steep inclines, definitely consider using trekking poles to save your knees.
My Black Diamond trekking poles have served me well for years. Whenever I know I’ll be on steep, rough terrain, I make sure to pack them.
Bring a simple first aid kit, especially if you plan to be hiking alone. If you end up needing it, you’ll be really glad you have it.
Your kit should contain things like: antiseptic wipes and antibacterial ointment (in case of cuts and scrapes), bandages and gauze pads, medical adhesive tape, ibuprofen or other pain relief medication, Moleskine (or similar, for blisters).
Finally, don’t forget the sunscreen on sunny days or the bug spray if you’re hiking through a mosquito or tick habitat!
Additional notes on gear
Now that we’ve gone over some of the basic things that you may need out there, let’s go over some things you most certainly do not need.
Remember, weight becomes pain very fast, so keep things light and streamlined.
A ten-mile day hike carrying a couple pounds of water is pleasant. A ten-mile day hike carting around twenty pounds of unnecessary equipment on your back is not.
You do not need a GPS. Batteries die, they are expensive, and, believe it or not, GPS’s lie!
I have seen them give ridiculous results, mostly coming from the fact that the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) system of navigation that most of them use fails to factor in the fact that the Earth is round. Oops.
GPS machines are not magic; if anything, they will enhance confusion and create dependence on an unreliable device.
A paper map may seem outdated, but it is by far the best means of navigation. Batteries fail, and a GPS does not give you a view of your big picture surroundings.
Learn to read a proper map, and your time out there will be far more fun and less stressful.
And keep in mind that if you’re hiking in a well-established park, the trails will typically be clearly marked, and there will be maps at the trailheads.
When it comes to day hikes, I typically set off with the following in my daypack: water, snacks, phone (which doubles as a camera), Chapstick, extra sunscreen, a light jacket in case of weather changes, and a basic first aid kit. That’s about it.
Where to hike
Now that we’ve covered the basics of hiking clothes and gear, it’s time to get to the fun part: where to hike.
This obviously depends on where you are! But chances are there are at least a few good hiking trails near to you.
I love to roadtrip, and whenever I reach a new city I like to try out a local hike in addition to the usual city sightseeing activities.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the trails I’ve come across in virtually every location. Places such as:
- Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Oklahoma
- Radnor Lake, Nashville, Tennessee
- East Rock Park, New Haven, Connecticut
- Russell Cave National Monument, near Bridgeport, Alabama
- Barataria Preserve Trails, near New Orleans, Louisiana
The list goes on and on. All of these areas are in or near urban areas. Yet a short walk or drive will take you into pristine nature.
While my ideal is living in a stunning wilderness area like Montana or Alaska, there are plenty of trails found elsewhere, even the most urban environments.
So do a quick search of your city or town and see what comes up.
National Parks offer spectacular views and wildlife that make the experience truly unforgettable.
Some of them are also incredibly popular places to hike, and you may find yourself tripping over the feet of countless likeminded hikers.
Parks like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
To avoid crowds and traffic, try going in the off- or shoulder-season (such as in April, May, October, or November, instead of from June to September). Get up and out to the park early before the afternoon crowds arrive.
Also bear in mind that these parks are big, so consider heading to a less crowded corner.
For example, Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite provides all sorts of glorious nature, minus the crowds. Going for a backcountry hike will also give you some space (and you can camp in the backcountry too!).
One major benefit to visiting many National Parks is that they offer accessible ways to get outside and enjoy nature.
For example, wheelchair users are welcome to explore Yellowstone on a series of boardwalks.
Some other ideas for accessible parks? Congaree, Denali, and Rocky Mountain National Parks all have wheelchair-accessible trails.
You can find out accessibility information online for most National Parks; for instance, information for Yellowstone.
Finally, here are a few of my personal favorite parks and hikes in the United States:
- Craters of the Moon, Idaho: an otherworldly landscape of lava that truly lives up to its name.
- Kesugi Ridge, Alaska: hike the entire ridge in a week or just do a section for stunning views of Mount Denali.
- Flume Gorge, New Hampshire: the ideal hike for “leaf-peeping” during the New England fall.
- Lembert Dome, Yosemite National Park, California: 360o panoramic views and way fewer people than the more famous Half Dome.
You can always go hiking on a trip abroad too!
Some of my favorite travel memories include hiking, whether it’s strolling the boardwalks at Plitvice National Park in Croatia or trekking through the jungle in Colombia to the Ciudad Perdida.
Once you begin hiking, you might just find that you plan all of your weekends and vacations around it!
How to navigate
In general, if you are hiking on established trails in well-maintained parks, navigation is as simple as staying on the trail!
Ideally, pick up a park map if one is available, or Google it in advance and print it out.
These maps should indicate the approximate distance that a trail covers, along with its rough difficulty level and sometimes its changes in elevation. These are good things to be aware of before setting off!
Maps will also mark various landmarks (peaks, streams, and so on), which can help orient you if you get turned around.
Hiking navigation is a pretty complex subject though, and it deserves a fuller consideration than it can get here.
For our purposes, the most important navigational tool at your disposal is the park map.
Many people find that they can read maps better if they orient them to their surroundings: turn the map so it lines up with the direction you’re facing. Again, if you stay on trails, you should be just fine.
If you hit a trail intersection and aren’t sure which way to turn, your map will come in handy.
If you lose your place on the map, keep an eye out for obvious landmarks like lakes, peaks, trail intersections, and so on which can help reorient you.
I’ve gotten lost a couple of times, and in each case I managed to use landmarks to find my way back to familiar territory.
In general, this was more of an annoyance than a major concern, but it did add a couple of hours to my intended hiking time. I was very glad that I’d packed more water than I had expected to need!
Staying safe while hiking
Another aspect of hiking that people fret about is safety.
People run themselves through various nightmare scenarios. Bears! Avalanches! Getting lost!
First, breathe; don’t worry. Panic never helped anyone.
The dangers you will encounter out in the field are not particular complex or hard to deal with (other than glacier travel; that is a different beast entirely).
The most dangerous part of your outing is probably the drive to the trailhead. So wear your seat belt and drive carefully.
Here are a few of the risks you may face out on the trail:
- River crossings
Black bears have a very wide range. They live in the eastern US (in the mountains of North Carolina, for example), up in New England, along the west coast, and across much of Canada too.
If they encounter human food, they tend to develop a taste for it; they’ve even been known to break into people’s houses.
Grizzly bears live out west, primarily in Alaska, Canada, and parts of Montana.
So what to do if you’re hiking in an area known to have bears? First, know that the odds of a bear attack are incredibly low. All the more so if you take some simple precautions.
Hiking in a group is always a good idea for safety. Groups are bigger and usually louder than just one person walking alone. The sounds of your group walking along and talking will warn bears of your presence.
In general, bears really want nothing to do with you, so if they know you’re coming, they’ll make themselves scarce. You can also make bear calls—yell out every minute or so—to announce your presence, or wear noisy bear bells on your pack.
When I’m hiking in Alaska, I almost always have bear spray strapped to my hip in case of a grizzly encounter.
This can be used as defense against a bear that charges or becomes aggressive with you. Here is a useful video demonstrating how to use bear spray. Make sure you know how it works before you take it on a hike.
Knock on wood, I’ve never yet had to use bear spray, and hopefully you won’t have to either.
If you do see a bear while hiking, you may be able to deescalate the situation without resorting to bear spray.
First, do not run. Stand your ground calmly, talk to the bear, and wave your arms slowly. If the bear remains where it is, you can begin slowly moving away sideways.
Be careful not to trip, and stop again if the bear begins to follow you. The last thing you want to do is encourage a chase. In most cases, the bear’s curiosity about you will eventually be sated, and you two can part ways.
If the bear does attack, it’s time to use your bear spray once the bear is within range.
What if you don’t have bear spray? If you’re attacked by a grizzly bear, you’re best off dropping to the ground and playing dead.
Lie on your stomach and leave your pack on to protect your back. With any luck, the bear will eventually leave.
If the attack grows intense, however, be ready to fight back. If you’re attacked by a black bear, fight back immediately; do not play dead.
Next, a note on moose, which often pose a greater threat than bears.
You may encounter moose if you’re hiking in the northern United States or Canada.
Sometimes people even deliberately approach moose, mistakenly thinking that they’re not so dangerous.
Moose are enormous though, and they will defend themselves if they feel that they or their young are threatened. So make sure to give moose plenty of space, especially if you see calves.
If you do end up surprising a moose at close range, speak quietly and calmly. If you think it is about to charge you, run away or duck behind a large tree.
Unlike bears, moose will typically not chase after you.
Do a little research beforehand to see if there are any poisonous snakes in your area. For instance, copperheads are quite common in the southeastern United States.
Snakes make many people squeamish, but rest assured that very, very few people die of poisonous snake bites.
According to the CDC, about 7000-8000 people in the United States are bitten by a venomous snake, and of those people, around 5 die per year.
How can you prevent snakebites? First, simply pay attention while you’re walking, especially on warm, bright days when snakes are likely to be out sunning themselves.
If you see a snake, keep your distance. Chances are, the snake wants nothing to do with you either.
If you have a dog, keep it on the leash in areas with a lot of snakes.
If you are bitten, it’s very important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Don’t sit around waiting for symptoms to appear. Seek help right away.
If you can, take note of the appearance of the snake that bit you so you can tell healthcare providers.
While you await treatment, the CDC advises not to suck out venom, apply a tourniquet, apply ice, or drink caffeine or alcohol.
Instead, wash the bite out with soap and water, put on a bandage, and get medical attention.
One of the bigger dangers out in the field is river crossings. Water is actually quite a big risk, so avoid crossings if possible. If necessary, cross slowly, facing upstream.
Look for a wider area of the river to cross (where the water is shallow and slower), rather than a narrow slice of the river (where water tends to run deeper and faster).
If you have sandals, wear them so you can keep your socks and hiking boots dry.
It’s also a good idea to roll up your pant legs, especially in colder weather when wet clothes are unpleasant or even hazardous.
River crossings are safer in a group. Your group should be in a line, either holding hands in a line-abreast formation or holding hips in a straight line.
Unbuckle your backpack before making your crossing so that if you fall, you can get out from under your pack. Move slowly and be careful.
If you start your crossing only to find that the water is deep and moving fast, turn back and look for an alternate route. Rivers kill many more people than bears do.
Probably the most common hiking injury is a sprained ankle. Walking over rocky, uneven terrain can be challenging even for the most experienced of hikers.
As a new hiker, you also might need some time to build up your ankle strength. You might consider doing some preemptive ankle strengthening exercises such as those demonstrated in this video.
While out on the trail, pay attention to the terrain. Stay mindful of your steps, especially if you’re going over rocks, boulders, tree roots, or anything slippery.
If you want to enjoy the view or take pictures, stop.
A lot of falls and twisted ankles happen because people try to multitask and snap photos while moving. You’re also more likely to trip or injure yourself when you’re tired. Try to stay alert, well-hydrated, and satiated.
Make sure the hike you’re planning is suitable for your fitness level, and consider improving your physical conditioning before attempting a longer, more ambitious backpacking trip or hike.
But sometimes, despite precautions, injuries happen. Let’s say you’ve sprained your ankle several miles into a hike.
First, take a moment to sit down and elevate your foot. If there’s any cold water around, apply it to your ankle (sort of like a makeshift ice pack).
If you’ve packed a first aid kit, you should have some bandages to wrap your ankle, as well as some painkillers. If not, you can wrap it with your shirt instead.
Rest for around half an hour and gradually warm your ankle back up.
Finally, see if you are able to walk back out. This is a scenario in which trekking poles will come in handy to take some weight off your injured leg. You can also grab a sturdy stick from the woods for support.
In case of severe injuries that leave you trapped in the woods, it’s always a good idea to let someone know where you’re going and roughly when you plan to be back.
Depending on where you are, you may have a phone signal and be able to call for help. If you plan to hike somewhere very remote, invest in a satellite phone (such as the DeLorme InReach).
There are other safety risks out there: lightning storms, fire, inclement weather, cooking out in the field (most wilderness air evacuations are called in for scalding burns), and even other people.
Do your research beforehand. The wilderness really isn’t all that dangerous of a place, and just by taking a few precautions you can make it a whole lot safer for yourself and others. So stay safe and have fun out there!
I hope that hiking proves as fulfilling to you as it has to me.
There’s nothing as reinvigorating as a morning spent outdoors surrounded only by rocks, trees, and wildlife.
The great thing about hiking is that it can be exactly as relaxing or as challenging as you make it.
You can simply decide to wear your old sneakers and wander around a local forest, or you can go all-out and spend months at a time in the wilderness—or anywhere in between.
Hiking can be a major adventure, or just a short moment of peace, a defining period of calm.
That doesn’t make each individual moment calm. That cold wind I mentioned in the beginning of the piece? That was cold. Ten below in June is crazy, but it all came together in a wonderful experience, a truly perfect moment, almost as if in a painting.
Wherever or however you choose to go outside, I hope that it brings you the same peace it brings me, a deeper feeling of contentment.
This is not happiness but rather something quite deeper.
Though sometimes I struggle for words to express my love of the wilderness, what I know for certain is that I live to be outside, and that makes it all worth it.