So you want to start hiking? I endorse the idea!
A hiking hobby will open up exploration opportunities you didn’t even know were all around you, and give something interesting to do as often as you want.
A quick trip to a hiking shop, though, will leave you with the impression that the only way to hike is to spend a thousand dollars on the hobby. Not so! As a lifelong hiker and hiking author, let me give you an idea of what is “must have” and what is “nice to have” as you get in to hiking.
Essential Hiking Gear
Every beginner hiker should have these items to get the most out of their hobby and stay safe:
In my opinion, it all starts with the right hiking footwear. Hikers should invest in a sturdy pair of hiking boots or shoes suitable to the type of hiking they plan to do. The footwear needs to provide good ankle support and have a non-slip sole. It is also important to wear comfortable socks that wick away moisture and prevent blisters. I like my socks to have a rise to at least the mid-shin, so they can protect me from twigs and brush.
Break your footwear in on a few shorter walks before doing a day-long hike with them.
A good backpack is important to carry whatever you decide to bring in your hike. You’ll be surprised that, even on short hikes, it is nice to bring some gear along with you.
A backpack with a capacity of 20-30 liters is plenty for day hikes, while longer treks or backpacking trips may require a larger pack. Look for a backpack with comfortable shoulder straps and a padded back panel for added comfort. I also like packs with some frame structure, they sit better on my back.
Navigation tools are not as critical if you go on regular trails that you are highly-familiar with, but they become essential for those venturing into unfamiliar territory. You can’t always rely on your phone’s map when you are out in the wild. A map of your hike and compass are the most basic tools, but GPS devices and trail guides can also be helpful. It is important to know how to use these tools before heading out on a hike.
Yes, a fancy way of saying “water bottle.” Be sure you can hydrate yourself on the hike, and if it is a longer hike, know if you can refill somewhere during the day. Many trails have primitive refill spots but you can’t always count on them being there. If you can’t do refills and will be out for many hours, you might want to consider a water purification tool which I talk about down in the “nice to haves.”
Accidents can happen on any hike, so it is important to carry a basic first-aid kit. Hiking injuries happen, unfortunately. The kit should include items such as bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, and any necessary prescription medications. These items won’t take up much space but could help if something unfortunate occurs.
Clothing and Layering
The next question is what to wear. You don’t bring all of these items on every hike, but I recommend that any avid hiker has these things in their closet at home in case they want to use them on the trail.
Base layers are the foundation of any hiking outfit. They should be made of moisture-wicking materials such as merino wool or synthetic fabric to keep sweat away from the skin. Cotton should be avoided as it retains moisture and can lead to chafing. I never skimp on my base layers – after all, they are what your skin will feel next to it all day long. Base layers come in different weights, so choose one that suits the weather conditions.
Insulation layers provide warmth and can be added or removed depending on the temperature. Fleece jackets or synthetic insulated jackets are good choices for insulation layers. They are lightweight, breathable, and provide warmth even when wet. You are typically wearing these when the temp gets down below 55 or lower.
Outer layers protect against wind, rain, and snow. A waterproof and breathable jacket is essential for wet conditions. Look for one with adjustable hoods, cuffs, and hem to keep out the elements. Softshell jackets are a good option for windy conditions as they provide some warmth and protection while remaining breathable. A good rain jacket is money-well-spent.
Accessories such as hats, gloves, and neck gaiters can provide additional protection against the elements. A hat can keep the sun off the face and prevent heat loss through the head. Gloves provide warmth and protection for the hands, while a neck gaiter can protect the neck and face from wind and cold.
Nutrition and Hydration
Proper nutrition is essential for any hiker, but especially for those planning full-day or multi-day hikes. Without the right fuel, hikers run the risk of experiencing bonking, dehydration, and fatigue. To avoid these issues, hikers should follow a few basic rules of hiking nutrition.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy while hiking. Backpackers should plan to consume 30 to 60 grams (120 to 240 calories) of carbohydrates per hour to improve endurance and delay fatigue. Good carb choices include energy gels or shot blocks, sports drinks, dried fruit, and bars.
Never start the hike hungry. Since most hikes start in the early part of the day, have a good breakfast before heading out, something with some protein. Nutritious breakfast options include oatmeal with dried fruit and maybe protein powder, a scrambled egg and cheese breakfast burrito on a tortilla, or granola with powdered milk.
Hikers should also plan to eat a little bit every hour. The body can only process a few hundred calories per hour while exercising. Consuming too many calories at one time diverts blood away from working muscles in favor of digestion. Some backpackers do better with gels while others tolerate carbohydrate drinks. I know many who prefer real foods like jerky and nuts. Some can eat just about anything and power uphill. Experiment during your training to see which ones your stomach tolerates best.
Proper hydration is also crucial for hikers. Dehydration can lead to a lack of energy and diminished endurance, or even serious medical issues. Hikers should drink before they feel thirsty, as thirst is an early symptom of dehydration. Hikers should consume 14 to 22 ounces of water about two hours before exercise. During the hike, hikers should drink to thirst, aiming for 6 to 12 ounces of water or sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes. After the hike, hikers should recover by drinking 16 to 20 ounces of water or sports drink every hour for a few hours to fully rehydrate.
Hikers should also consume electrolytes when hiking in the heat. High water intake without electrolyte replacement over many hours can lead to hyponatremia, a life-threatening condition where your body doesn’t have enough salts to function. To avoid electrolyte imbalance, hikers should consume salty snacks like pretzels, Goldfish, salted nuts, or salted chips, electrolyte replacement drinks, or even electrolyte supplements depending on the amount of time and intensity of the hike.
My rule: I try to take a drink of water every 20 minutes, whether I am thirsty or not. This keeps me out ahead of my thirst. If you let yourself fall behind, especially on a hot day, it is harder to recover.
Safety and Protection
Don’t overlook some of the common risks on the hiking trail:
Hikers should always protect themselves from the sun to prevent sunburn, skin damage, and even skin cancer. I wear a wide-brimmed fishing hat that keeps the sun off my head, face, and neck. You’ll want sunglasses, and have a little tube of sunscreen with a high SPF rating. Keep the tube small so it doesn’t add lots of weight to your backpack.
Insects can be a major annoyance on the trail, and some can even transmit diseases like Lyme disease or West Nile virus. Insect repellent with DEET or picaridin can help keep bugs at bay. It’s also a good idea to wear long sleeves and pants to minimize exposed skin.
I once did a hike during black fly season (which only lasts for a couple weeks) and had one fly follow me for about 2 miles! My long-sleeved shirt and hiking hat were my saving grace – this fly seemed immune to repellent.
“Nice to Have” Hiking Tools and Accessories
Trekking poles can be a valuable addition to any hiking gear list, especially for beginners. They can help reduce the impact on knees and joints, provide extra stability on
uneven terrain, and improve balance on steep slopes. When choosing trekking poles, it’s important to consider the material, weight, and adjustability. Aluminum and carbon fiber are popular choices for material, with carbon fiber being lighter but more expensive. Adjustable poles allow for customization to the user’s height and terrain.
You can hike without trekking poles, but once you start using them you will probably really like them.
Headlamp or Flashlight
You don’t need a headlamp if you 100%, absolutely will be hiking during daylight. But if there is a chance of being out until dusk, you want one. Choose a headlamp or flashlight with good brightness, battery life, and light weight. LED lights are popular for their brightness and energy efficiency. Rechargeable batteries are a more sustainable option, but make sure to bring a backup in case of emergency.
A multi-tool is a versatile accessory that can come in handy in many situations. It typically includes a variety of tools such as pliers, knives, screwdrivers, and can openers. When choosing a multi-tool, consider the weight, size, and number of tools included. It’s important to find a balance between having enough tools to be useful and not carrying unnecessary weight.
Access to clean drinking water is not always guaranteed on a hike. If you will be hiking long enough to consume all of your water, and it is not a hike that has refill stations, carry a water filtration or purification system to ensure safe drinking water. Portable water filters, purification tablets, or a UV light purifier are all good options.
Hiking Etiquette and Leave No Trace Principles
Now for some hiking tips. These are some of the essential hiking skills that we wish every hiker knew before heading out on the trail.
- Yield to uphill hikers: If you are hiking downhill, yield to uphill hikers. They have the right of way, as it is harder for them to stop and start again on a steep incline.
- Stay on the trail: Avoid cutting switchbacks or creating new trails. Stick to the designated path to prevent erosion and preserve the natural habitat.
- Pack it in, pack it out: Whatever you bring on the trail, make sure to take it back with you. Leave no trash behind, including food scraps and biodegradable items.
- Keep noise levels down: Respect the peacefulness of the wilderness by keeping noise levels to a minimum. Avoid shouting, playing loud music, or making unnecessary noise.
- Respect wildlife: Observe animals from a distance and avoid feeding or approaching them. If you are in an area with potentially dangerous wildlife encounters, such as grizzly bears, I always recommend having bear spray along.
- Dogs on trails: Follow the rules regarding dogs. If dogs are not allowed, please don’t bring yours. If they need to be leashed, simply follow the rule.
Leave No Trace Principles
A core value of the hiking community is that your hike should leave nature as you found it. Leave No Trace!
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Stick to established trails and campsites to avoid damaging fragile ecosystems. Use designated fire rings and avoid building new ones.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all trash, including human waste. Use established restroom facilities if available, or dig a hole at least 200 feet from water sources to bury human waste.
- Leave what you find: Avoid picking flowers, removing rocks, or disturbing natural features. Leave everything as you found it for others to enjoy.
- Minimize campfire impact: Use established fire rings, keep fires small, and burn only small sticks and twigs. Always put out fires completely before leaving.