Hiking for the first time can be intimidating. Fears associated with the wilderness and outdoors can try to scare us away. We are constantly worried about the unknowns. What if I see a bear? What if I get lost? Will there be a lot of bugs?
But the unfamiliar should never stop us from trying something new. That’s why I made this list of tips and tricks for the brand new hiker (or maybe a good reminder for the more experienced). Don’t let those doubts hold you back. Let go of your anxieties and find your confidence on the trail!
What to Pack
1. Bringing the right clothes is crucial.
If I could go back in time to before my first hike, I would tell myself this: wear the right shoes. Now this doesn’t mean you have to go to REI and buy the most expensive hiking boots they have. But it does mean that you need to know what kind of shoes your feet need for the hike. I learned the hard way that hiking shoes need to be a bigger size than your normal tennis shoes. If you ignore this tip, your toes will end up sore, blistered and swollen. The trail takes a lot out of your feet. Treat them right with roomy shoes and a comfortably pair of socks.
Packing the right clothes is also critical. Check the weather before you go, but to be safe, always overpack. There’s nothing wrong with packing a jacket, hat and gloves and leaving them in the car once you get there. My first time hiking, I didn’t realize it would be close to freezing and only packed a light sweater and hat. I find that it is better to have too many clothes, allowing me to easily undress when I get too warm, than too little. As you’ll often hear, dress in layers.
I also never start a hike without my rain jacket in my backpack. During day hikes, your backpack will most likely be pretty light, and a rain jacket or poncho shouldn’t add too much weight. It’s better to be safe than sorry with three miles left in your hike during an unexpected downpour.
2. Don’t be stingy with the sunscreen.
Never underestimate the power of the sun on a long hike. Most people know to apply sunscreen before hitting the trail, but then forget or neglect to reapply. One layer of sunscreen will not protect you after a few hours. While taking a break mid-hike, take the time to reapply your sunscreen, especially on your shoulders and near your backpack straps (if you are wearing short sleeves or a tank top) and your face.
If your skin is sensitive or you need extra protection, try wearing a ball cap or sunhat to protect your face. I also recommend packing a pair of sunglasses, even if the forecast shows clouds. You’ll thank me later.
3. Pack more water than you could ever need.
They say if you only drink water when you’re thirsty, you’ve waited too long. This is especially true while on the trail. While you may think it is only a stroll through the woods, hiking can be very active. Even if the air is colder, you will sweat and lose water. And hiking while dehydrated will make your trip feel harder and longer.
If you take sips from your water bottle early and often, you can avoid dehydration but will run out of water more quickly. The solution is to pack more water than you think you’ll need. While planning out your trip, determine how long you will be hiking and make sure that you pack water accordingly. The general rule of thumb is to drink one liter every two hours on the trail.
4. Prepare for the worst and pack a safety kit.
Although I’ve been lucky enough to never have to use it, I’ve always made sure that I or my hiking partner packed an emergency kit. For day hikes, these don’t have to be the specially made backpacking kits that way less than a pound. At a typical grocery store, you can find a normal kit that will help with anything from bruises to sprains to lacerations. You may think you’ll never use it, but accidents do happen. And when they do, you’ll be thankful you were prepared.
Know Before You Go
5. Start small.
With any kind of exercise, you can’t start out full blast. You have to start slow, mastering the basics and building a foundation, before moving on to something more challenging. The same can be said about hiking. If you choose to take on the longest and hardest trails the first time you hike, you may find that it is much too difficult for you. This can cause your hike to be miserable rather than enjoyable. Worst of all, it can alter your attitude towards hiking in general and make you lose interest.
Even if you are in great shape, take those first few hikes slow. Try the easier trails and avoid taking on anything over a few miles. I promise you’ll still have an amazing outdoor experience, and you’ll be hungry for more when your next trip rolls around.
6. Know how long the trail will take you.
Several factors play into the time it takes to complete a trail. But when it comes down to it, hiking takes longer than walking on a paved path. Twists and turns, rocky terrain and unexpected obstacles can slow you down, extending the length of your trip.
Generally, one mile on the trail is equated to about 30 minutes of hiking. But as a newbie, this time is likely to be longer, ranging between 35 and 45 minutes. Prepare for the trip to take more time than expected so that you can pack accordingly.
7. Check the weather and park website.
Some parks will close due to bad weather conditions. This is usually because rain, snow or ice make the trails slick and unsafe to use. Or in my case, it’s because an overflowing river is rushing over the only entrance to the park (read my About Me page to learn how this simple mistake changed my life forever). In either case, it’s very disappointing to make the trip out only to find the trails closed. If there is bad weather in the area, check the park’s website and social media before leaving the house to make sure they haven’t posted about any closings.
If the park is still open and the weather conditions are worsening, reassess whether the park is safe to visit. If you feel that your hike could be too dangerous, consider rescheduling your trip for another day.
On the Trail
8. Take a hiking buddy.
At least for your first time, be sure to hike with a partner or group. This is a simple solution for many typical outdoor worries. Bringing along a friend can scare off a wild animal during an unexpected encounter, give you medical attention after an accident, or simply carry some of the stuff that you find too heavy. Plus, they’re great for keeping you company.
9. Be sure to take a trail map.
Although I don’t really find it necessary to have a fancy GPS, I discourage you from hiking empty handed. You can pack a compass in case of emergencies, but generally, all you’ll really need is a trail map. Most of the time, these are provided at the entrance or park headquarters. Paper copies are preferable since phone batteries can be unreliable. If possible, grab one for each person just in case someone gets lost.
I hope this goes without saying, but use your map! If you think you can follow a trail aimlessly and expect it to take you straight back to your car, you are wrong. Trails cross, merge, and fork off. Often times, you will need to take several different trails to get back to your starting place. If you ever feel lost or unsure of your location, don’t just start walking through the woods. Use your map to find the fastest and safest route back to the start.
10. Take breaks often.
No matter how fit you are, hiking can be hard. There are steep inclines, slippery slopes and creeks with small stones for carefully crossing. You are constantly focused on the terrain of the trail while trying to experience the beauty around you. You can get tired easily, and that’s okay.
Hiking is not a competition, it is an adventure. It should be enjoyable for you. If that means trucking through at a consistent pace, more power to you. But if it means stopping to sip on some water, eat a snack, rest your feet, or take a picture of a stunning view , that’s completely fine. As long as you’ve packed and prepared adequately, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get to the finish. It matters that you have an unforgettable experience.
Hiking should be fun and exciting, not scary. The dangers of the trails can be minimized by proper planning and packing. Never let fear stand in your way of having your own adventure. The world around us is for our enjoyment. So go out there and experience it, unafraid.