“The beginning is always the hardest” – everyone has heard that and although most people agree that it’s true, the majority of us give up before even starting. And why not, since there are so many reasons for doing this or at least it often seems this way. These essential hiking tips for beginners are intended for all those who don’t have experience (or have a little experience) with hiking and backpacking but who would like to spend a great time outside in nature.
Most beginning backpackers lack the skills and experience of veteran hikers and are prone to the same mistakes typical for so many novice backpackers (needless to say, even some seasoned hikers underestimate dangers and make careless mistakes). However, with some simple research, reading, and asking most costly mistakes can be easily avoided without having to take instinctive decisions when you get yourself in trouble. And it usually isn’t very smart to rely on your intuitive judgments because it was discovered more than 40 years ago (by the famous psychologists Kahneman and Tversky) that even experienced researchers are prone to the same cognitive biases in more intricate and less transparent problems.
Tips for beginners
There are some basics necessary to follow for having a safe hiking experience which will be fun to do and fun to talk about later. Let’s start from our backpacking tip #1:
Start with rather flat, level walks of about 5-6 km (3-4 miles), preferably in a forested or scenic area. For those kinds of hikes, you don’t need special hiking shoes. Also, unless hiking in the desert or at high altitude, you will need to carry a small quantity of water and food. These short hikes will help you decide if backpacking is something you like to do. From there, you can take on longer hikes and/or hikes that gain significant elevation. For those hikes, you will need hydration (some people prefer rigid stainless steel water bottles that can keep their contents hot/cold up to 24 hours while others – lighter, compact, and more convenient collapsible water containers), better hiking footwear, and some food.
If you start simple, then backpacking isn’t so complex. As you advance into longer and tougher hikes, you will find more planning, preparation, and gear are needed.
Choose easy trails
Continue with easier and not too long trails – somewhere between 50 and 150 km (30-90 miles) is probably optimal. Choose a more popular trail because this increases the chance of meeting people if you need help at some point. Avoid thick forest and brush as well as rocky slopes and trails. Traveling over a variety of terrain usually is riskier and requires specific skills and experience.
As a hiking beginner, there are still many opportunities to go off the radar without putting yourself in a dangerous situation. There are lots of great walking well-maintained trails that go for miles. Visiting a state or national park is also a good idea because of the following:
- It’s affordable (some national parks do not charge an entrance fee, while others periodically offer free entrance days).
- There are crowds of people at popular spots during the tourist season.
- There’s always something interesting to see – spectacular views, beautiful landscapes, and rare wildlife.
- There’s a lot of information (even if you can’t find something online, you can always ask park rangers about it).
- Most parks have a range of trails for all skill levels.
- It’s a great chance to relax, which is good for your physical and mental health.
You can also scout online at places with built-in landmarks, for example, an area with lakes. If you want to go off-trail, lakes are great because they are built-in landmarks. As long as you’re by the lake, you’re close to the trail that got you there.
Hike with a group
You know best whether you’d like to enjoy laughter and companionship on the trail or prefer solo hikes. However, it’s usually better for inexperienced hikers to join a group. The positives of hiking with a group include but are not limited to the following:
- It’s more fun to walk with others. Loneliness can be hard even for experienced hikers.
- It’s safer in general. You can rely on others for help if an injury or illness occurs.
- The chance to get lost is much smaller.
- Sharing equipment and chores means that your pack will be lighter and you won’t have to do everything (cooking, cleaning, setting up camp, collecting firewood, etc.).
- Gathering first-hand knowledge. You can learn a lot of new things from those with greater experience.
Walking with others involves certain considerations that help make travel more efficient and enjoyable. For example, stay close to the group, don’t lose contact with other hikers, be cheerful and helpful, and mind the person behind you especially when grabbing branches. If you follow these simple rules chances are you’ll have a safe and enjoyable experience with the group.
Have a plan, and a backup plan, and an emergency plan
Plan ahead your hiking adventure. Choose your terrain wisely – you can do it easily online. As a general rule, the terrain should be appropriate for your skill level. Before venturing into an unfamiliar territory or season, research the conditions so that you can make informed choices that will maximize your comfort and safety. Get as much information as possible – consult climate databases, topographical maps, satellite images, print and online guidebooks, hiking blogs, forums, and trip reports. It’s also a good idea to ask other hikers who have made the trip. Get the most reliable weather report for your area and check it when planning your hike and again right before you leave. Weather is a big deal. It can make the difference between going for a casual stroll and… Well, dying. It sounds dramatic, but the weather has that kind of power. Learn about precautions for weather, conditions, and terrain in your particular area. There are always details and dangers you should know that are specific to the environment you will be hiking in. Make a backup plan in case things don’t go as planned. Carry a map, a compass, and consider canyons or rivers: they’ll keep you from getting lost. Be prepared to start a fire, bandage a cut, wrap an ankle, and signal for help.
Select the right hiking footwear for yourself
That’s really the one thing that isn’t negotiable. Good, sturdy, comfy, light, breathable, and stable hiking footwear that fits your foot. Remember, though, that a kilo on your feet is five to six on your back in terms of energy needs, so really don’t go with the heaviest ones you can find. Whether specific hiking shoes or boots are necessary depends on your personal preferences, weather conditions, the distance of the trail, and the terrain you will be negotiating. If you are hiking on steep, rocky terrain, sturdy but comfortable hiking boots will provide support and increase your safety. Heavy-duty backpacking/mountaineering boots that provide ankle support and more stability are a sensible choice for mountain, winter, and off-trail hiking. Lightweight hiking shoes and trail runners are perfect for 3-season conditions. If you hike during the summer months, you might prefer to wear hiking sandals or trail running shoes. Both are breathable and will keep your feet cool and dry. Moreover, once wet, they don’t need too much time to dry, which reduces the chance of blister formation as well as other skin-related problems. This leads to our hiking tip #6:
Limit the amount of “off-trail” hiking
If you are a true beginner, you might want to limit the amount of “off-trail” hiking you do for the sole reason of not getting disoriented and lost. Better if you restrain from going down side trails. However, if you do that deliberately or not deliberately, do the following: first, use sticks to mark previous locations on the trail. You may want to break them in half and make little symbols for the direction of travel. Second, bring a compass with you to try and stay oriented. These steps might save you some more trouble. If you get lost – climb up the hills for a better vantage point to look around. Try to come back down the hill to find the end of the trail you followed before. If you still cannot find your trail, try to traverse higher hill to get a better viewing angle. Once you find your trail and start locating the marks you made, the marks will make all the difference because they will show you how to make your way back to the main trail.
Make sure you stay on the trail. Even by leaving your trail for just a moment, you may end up very lost and put yourself in a dangerous situation.
Know yourself and keep improving
Stay mindful and aware of your physical capabilities and think carefully about risk versus enjoyment. Knowing and being true to yourself is extremely important when in the outdoors.
Being an outdoors lover can be very rewarding: you get to breathe deep into fresh air, connect with your body, or overcome your fears – but dire mistakes can make your life miserable. While knowing oneself is huge – it is also important to keep improving. How can you do that? Just follow this simple cycle: 1) gain knowledge; 2) apply it; 3) get comfortable on, and 4) repeat.
Here are some examples of useful knowledge, actions, and tips:
- Ask other hikers for advice on the trail even if you don’t know them.
- Make sure you carry bear spray if you pass through bear territory.
- Carry the right amount of food and water.
- Know how long you’ll be away from civilization, calculate how much water/food you will need, and plan ahead your meals (most experienced hikers prefer to have three solid meals a day and one or two snacks).
- Get a versatile multi-purpose tool. It can literally save your life in the wilderness.
- Pace yourself – burning out can get you in trouble if you don’t reach a certain location in your plan.
- Maintain your feet in good condition to avoid blisters.
- Take off layers of clothing if overheating in cold weather. Sweating could lead to freezing if you’re unable to get yourself dry – taking off layers will protect you from that.
- Acclimate when traveling and climbing at elevations above 2000-2500m to prevent altitude sickness. Give your body enough time to adapt and acclimatize.
- Follow the basic rules for low-impact hiking to keep the trail as you’ve found it.
- Light a fire in all weather conditions. Carry a fire starter kit or waterproof matches.
Carry a first aid kit and a repair kit
When building a first aid kit, there are many variables that must be considered in order to adequately cover emergency contingencies while on the trail. Retail kits are often a good start, but every first aid kit should be individualized based upon a number of factors. We recommend the use of durable and waterproof containers and small plastic sealable bags for storage in first aid kits. An outer container made of durable nylon is optimal and protects contents. Among the essentials in your first aid kit, you should include some analgesics/antibiotics/anaphylaxis (Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Sting relief pad, etc.), bandages, antiseptic towelettes, blister care pads, 2″x2″ and 3″x3″ gauze sponges, emergency/safety whistle, and 6mm cord.
Your safety whistle should be an essential part of your first aid kit. It’s really important to have one at hand. If you become lost or injured the sound of a whistle will carry much farther than your voice. Three consecutive blasts indicate distress.
Build a basic repair kit with various tools and items and customize it according to your trip’s length, location, and weather conditions. The contents of your repair kit will vary but there are several things that can be essential for most trips such as a multi-tool, nylon cord, seam grip, sewing kit, tent pole repair sleeve, and duct tape. You can duct tape to mend hiking boots, fix a cracked water bottle, patch a tear, and protect painful blisters. You can also use each of the other backcountry repair kit essentials in a variety of cases.
Stay hydrated, bring sun cream
Water is absolutely essential on hikes, especially if it’s warm and sunny, there’s elevation or you are about to cover a lot of mileage. And if you sweat a lot, you’ll need more water than you think. The actual amount of water needed for a hike depends on the person. Some people need a lot of water; others need very little so long as they hydrate enough the day before. Springs and creeks are marked on topographical maps. Before relying on a water source marked on a map, check guidebooks and online trip reports for past observations or consult someone who has personal familiarity with the landscape.
Keep in mind that you may get scorched if you underestimate the sun. That’s true not only in summer but also at altitude because of overexposure to UV radiation from the sun. Keep in mind that heat-related conditions such as heat exhaustion, heatstroke, snow blindness, and sunburn are typical for high altitude hiking. A good hat, sunglasses, sunscreen with UPF, and your clothes will protect you from sunburn and other UV-radiation related conditions. You won’t have problems with the sun if you choose to hike at night. Our last backpacking tip for beginners is exactly about night hiking.
Don’t hike at night
Night hiking can be too demanding and dangerous for beginners. In the absence of daylight, it’s really easy to get disorientated and to lose your way. What’s more, misjudging a rock ledge can lead to slipping and falling down. River crossings, as well as close encounters with wild animals, can also be much more dangerous at night. It is because of all these reasons why it isn’t recommended to hike at night. However, if you are on the trail longer than expected and the sun sets before you reach your destination you will need a reliable source of light. Get a flashlight or a headlamp (better) with extra batteries. In general, flashlights are lighter, more powerful, and easier to work with than headlamps, however, wearing a headlamp is more convenient because it frees up both hands so that it’s easier to cook, read a book, etc.
Experience is the best teacher. This is true with everything, but it is very true with hiking. Some people despite all the hiking wisdom they have been given, never truly learn from it until they experience it the hard way. So plan your trip, go with a group, get a pair of good hiking shoes or boots that fit well, choose easy trails, and use these 10 backpacking tips for beginners. Learn the essentials and you’ll know how to hike safely and smartly to avoid costly mistakes on the trail.