Your First Trek: How to Get Started With Hiking

Hiking is a fun way to explore nature, get some exercise, and take a break from everyday life. If you’ve never gone hiking before, you might wonder how to start. Don’t worry—it’s easier than you think! This guide will show you the basics of hiking, from picking the right shoes to finding the perfect trail for beginners. So, lace up your boots, and let’s get ready for an adventure in the great outdoors. Whether you’re looking to climb up mountains or just stroll through the woods, hiking is a great activity for everyone.

Why Start Hiking?

Couple hiking with their dog

Hiking isn’t just about walking on trails; it’s a gateway to numerous benefits that touch on your physical health, mental well-being, and your connection to the natural world. Here’s why you should consider starting hiking:

For Your Body

Hiking is a powerful workout that improves your heart health, strengthens your muscles, and boosts your balance. It’s a cardiovascular activity, meaning it gets your heart pumping and increases your stamina over time. Plus, hiking through uneven terrain makes your body work harder, which can lead to stronger legs and improved balance. The best part? It doesn’t feel like a workout in the traditional sense because you’re absorbed by the beauty and tranquility of nature.

For Your Mind

The mental health benefits of hiking are just as impressive as the physical ones. Spending time in nature and away from the hustle and bustle of daily life can significantly reduce stress and anxiety. Hiking offers a sense of peace and quiet that’s often hard to find in crowded cities or busy schedules. It’s also a great way to clear your mind, enhance your mood, and boost your creativity. There’s something about being in the outdoors that refreshes the soul and gives you a new perspective on life’s challenges.

For Your Soul

Hiking connects you with the natural world in a deep and meaningful way. Whether you’re trekking through forests, climbing up mountains, or walking alongside rivers, you’ll develop a closer relationship with the environment. This connection often leads to a greater appreciation for the planet and a desire to protect it. Moreover, hiking can be a spiritual experience for many, offering a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves and fostering a feeling of inner peace.

For Adventure and Exploration

Hiking opens up a world of adventure. Every trail offers something new to discover, from breathtaking views and hidden waterfalls to unique wildlife and vibrant plant life. Hiking is a way to explore the unknown, challenge yourself, and experience the thrill of adventure. It’s about making memories, whether you’re on a solo journey or sharing the experience with friends and family.

Getting Ready – The Essentials

Hiking essentials

Before you hit the trails, it’s important to prepare yourself with the right gear and knowledge. This preparation will help ensure your hike is enjoyable, comfortable, and safe. Here’s a checklist of the essentials you’ll need to get started with hiking:

Selecting the Right Gear

  • Footwear: The foundation of a good hike starts with your feet. Choose hiking boots or shoes that offer support, protection, and traction. Make sure they fit well to avoid blisters and discomfort. Breaking in your footwear with shorter walks before your hike is also a good idea.
  • Clothing: Dress for success on the trail by considering the weather and the terrain. Wear moisture-wicking fabrics to keep sweat away from your skin, and layer up to adjust to changing temperatures. A hat and sunglasses can protect you from the sun, while a lightweight, waterproof jacket is essential for unexpected rain.
  • Backpack: A durable, comfortable backpack is crucial for carrying your essentials. Look for one with enough space for your gear but not so large that it becomes cumbersome. Padded shoulder straps and a hip belt can help distribute the weight evenly.

Packing the Essentials

  • Water: Hydration is key. Carry enough water for the duration of your hike, or bring a water filter or purification tablets if you plan to refill from natural sources.
  • Food: Bring high-energy, lightweight snacks like nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, or jerky. If you’re planning a longer hike, pack a meal that doesn’t require refrigeration.
  • First Aid Kit: Prepare for minor injuries and ailments with a basic first aid kit. Include items like adhesive bandages, antiseptic wipes, blister treatments, and any personal medications.
  • Navigation Tools: A map and compass are essential for navigating the trails, especially in areas with poor cell service. Consider bringing a GPS device or a smartphone with a hiking app as a backup, but make sure you have a way to recharge it.

Understanding Your Physical Readiness

  • Pre-hike Fitness: Hiking can be physically demanding, especially if you’re not used to regular exercise. Start with shorter, easier trails and gradually increase the distance and difficulty as your fitness improves.
  • Recognizing Your Limits: It’s important to listen to your body and understand your physical limits. There’s no shame in turning back if the trail becomes too difficult or if you’re feeling unwell.

Choosing Your First Trail

People hiking in a forest

Selecting the right trail for your first hike is crucial to ensuring a positive and memorable experience. You’ll want to find a trail that matches your fitness level, interests, and the kind of natural scenery you want to enjoy. Here’s how to choose your first trail wisely:

Consider Your Fitness Level

  • Distance and Elevation Gain: Assess your current physical condition and select a trail that aligns with your capabilities. If you’re new to physical activity or hiking, start with shorter trails that have minimal elevation gain. These trails are usually less strenuous and offer a good introduction to hiking.
  • Difficulty Rating: Pay attention to the trail’s difficulty rating. Trails are often classified as easy, moderate, or difficult. For your first hike, stick to trails labeled as easy or moderate, ensuring you don’t overexert yourself.

Research Local Trails

  • Use Trail-Finding Websites and Apps: There are many resources available online that provide detailed information on trails, including length, elevation gain, difficulty level, and user reviews. Apps like AllTrails, Hiking Project, and others can be invaluable tools for finding suitable trails near you.
  • Consult Local Hiking Books and Maps: Sometimes, traditional paper maps and hiking guidebooks offer insights and details that are not available online. These resources can also suggest the best times of year to hike certain trails.
  • Ask for Recommendations: Join local hiking groups or forums online. Experienced hikers can provide personalized recommendations and tips based on your interests and fitness level.

Think About What You Want to See

  • Scenery and Natural Features: Consider what you want to experience during your hike. Are you interested in waterfalls, panoramic views, dense forests, or perhaps seeing local wildlife? Choose a trail that aligns with your interests.
  • Accessibility and Popularity: Some trails are more crowded, especially on weekends and holidays. If you’re looking for a quiet, solitary experience, seek out less popular trails or plan your hike for early in the morning or on weekdays.

Safety and Preparedness

  • Check the Weather: Always check the weather forecast before heading out. Weather conditions can change rapidly, especially in mountainous areas.
  • Let Someone Know: Before you go, tell a friend or family member about your hiking plans, including which trail you’ll be on and your expected return time.
  • Pack Essentials: Even for a short hike, pack the essentials, including water, snacks, a first aid kit, and navigation tools.

Safety First

Hiker climbing over rocks

When embarking on your first hike, prioritizing safety ensures not only your well-being but also a more enjoyable experience. Here are essential safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Study the Trail Map: Before you go, familiarize yourself with the trail map. Know the route, including any intersections or points where you might need to make a decision on which way to go.
  • Check Trail Conditions: Trail conditions can change with the weather and seasons. Look for any recent reports on the trail’s condition, which might affect its difficulty or accessibility.
  • Carry a First Aid Kit: Always have a basic first aid kit on hand for minor injuries. Knowing basic first aid practices is equally important.
  • Emergency Contacts: Have the local emergency numbers saved on your phone. Additionally, carry a whistle for signaling in case you need to attract attention.
  • Check the Weather Forecast: Weather can impact your safety on the trail. Check the forecast and prepare accordingly, especially for rain, snow, or extreme heat.
  • Dress Appropriately: Layer your clothing to adjust to changing temperatures and protect yourself from the sun, wind, and rain.
  • Know the Local Wildlife: Research what types of wildlife you might encounter on the trail and learn how to safely coexist. This includes knowing how to store food properly to avoid attracting animals.
  • Stay Calm and Keep Distance: If you encounter wildlife, keep your distance, make yourself known without startling the animal, and slowly back away if needed.
  • Don’t Rely Solely on Technology: While smartphones and GPS devices are helpful, batteries can die, and signals can be lost. Carry a physical map and compass and know how to use them.
  • Stay on Marked Trails: Straying from marked trails can lead to getting lost and damaging the environment. Stick to the path and respect trail signs and barriers.
  • The Buddy System: Whenever possible, hike with a friend or in a group. This not only makes the experience more enjoyable but also means you have someone to help if you encounter difficulties.
  • Have a Plan B: Always have a backup plan, including knowing the nearest exit points along the trail and what to do if you need to turn back.
  • Inform Someone of Your Plans: Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. This is crucial for ensuring help can find you if you don’t return as planned.

Prioritizing safety on your first hike can make all the difference in ensuring a positive and memorable outdoor adventure. By preparing for the unexpected and respecting the natural environment, you’ll set the stage for many more hiking adventures to come.

Navigating Your Path

Using a map and compass while hiking

Successfully navigating your way through a hike not only ensures you reach your destination and return safely but also enriches the experience by giving you confidence and independence on the trail. Here’s how to keep on track and enjoy every step of the journey:

Understanding Trail Markings

  • Trail Markers: Familiarize yourself with the trail marking system used in your hiking area, such as blazes on trees, cairns (stacks of rocks), or signs. These markers indicate the direction of the trail and help you stay on course.
  • Interpreting Signs: Pay attention to trailhead signs and maps. They provide valuable information about the trail’s length, difficulty, and key features along the way.

Using a Map and Compass

  • Map Reading: Before setting out, learn the basics of map reading. Understand how to identify key features like rivers, ridges, and paths and how these correlate to the landscape around you.
  • Compass Basics: Knowing how to use a compass in conjunction with your map is a fundamental outdoor skill. Learn how to orient your map to the north and how to take a bearing from the map to navigate in the field.

Technology in Navigation

  • GPS Devices: GPS devices can be helpful tools for pinpointing your location and navigating. Just remember that technology can fail, so consider this as a supplementary tool rather than your primary means of navigation.
  • Hiking Apps: There are many apps designed for hiking that offer offline maps and trail guides. Make sure to download the necessary data before you leave home, as you may not have cell service on the trail.

Staying Found

  • Regular Checks: Periodically check your location against your map to ensure you’re on the right path. Recognizing landmarks and correlating them with your map helps keep you oriented.
  • Pacing and Timing: Keep track of how far you’ve walked and how long it’s taken. This awareness helps estimate distances on the map and manage your time, which is especially important for returning before dusk.

What to Do if You Get Lost

  • Stay Calm: First and foremost, stay calm. Panic leads to poor decisions. Take a deep breath and assess your situation.
  • Stop Moving: If you’re unsure of your location, stop. Continuing to move can take you further off course.
  • Think, Observe, Plan: Think about how you got to your current location, observe your surroundings for recognizable landmarks, and plan your next steps. This might mean retracing your steps or staying put if you’re severely lost.
  • Signal for Help: If you’re lost and can’t find your way after trying to self-rescue, signal for help using a whistle, mirror, or by making a visible signal in an open area.

Leave No Trace

Hiker carrying a plastic back and used plastic bottles

Embracing the principles of Leave No Trace is essential for every hiker, ensuring that the natural beauty and ecological integrity of the outdoors are preserved for future generations. These guidelines help minimize our impact on the environment and promote responsible and sustainable outdoor practices.

The Seven Principles

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Proper planning can prevent problems and minimize impacts. Research your destination, know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit, and prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Stick to established trails and campsites. Walking and camping on durable surfaces like rock, gravel, dry grasses, or snow minimizes damage to the land.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Pack it in, pack it out. Carry all your trash out of the backcountry. Human waste should be buried in a small hole 6-8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from water, trails, and campsites. Use biodegradable soap sparingly, and scatter strained dishwater.
  4. Leave What You Find: Preserve the past and the natural environment. Leave rocks, plants, archaeological artifacts, and other natural objects as you find them. Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light. Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, keep fires small, and burn all wood to ash. Put out campfires completely and scatter cool ashes.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them. Never feed animals, as feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Respect other trail users and protect the quality of their experience. Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail. Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors. Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.

Why It Matters

Following Leave No Trace principles is more than just good etiquette; it’s a way to ensure that the wild spaces we love remain vibrant and healthy. When we minimize our footprint, we contribute to the conservation of these areas for future hikers and the wildlife that calls these places home. It’s about fostering a sustainable relationship with nature, one where we take only memories and leave only footprints.

Building Up to Longer Hikes

Woman trail running

Transitioning from short, leisurely hikes to longer, more challenging treks is an exciting progression in any hiker’s journey. It requires not just physical preparation but also mental readiness and logistical planning. Here’s how you can build up to longer hikes, enhancing your endurance, skills, and confidence along the way.

  • Incremental Increases: Begin with trails that match your current fitness level, then gradually increase the distance and elevation gain of your hikes. A good rule of thumb is to increase your hike length by about 10% each time. This gradual progression helps your body adjust without overwhelming it.
  • Regular Hiking Schedule: Consistency is key. Try to hike regularly, ideally weekly, to build your stamina and maintain the physical and mental benefits of hiking.
  • Cardiovascular Training: Engage in activities that boost your cardiovascular health, such as jogging, cycling, or swimming, on days you’re not hiking. This will improve your endurance and make longer hikes more manageable.
  • Strength Training: Strong muscles protect your joints and reduce the risk of injury. Incorporate strength training exercises, focusing on your legs, core, and back, which are crucial for hiking.
  • Flexibility and Balance: Activities like yoga or Pilates can enhance your flexibility and balance, making you more agile on uneven terrain and reducing the risk of falls.
  • Navigation Skills: As you venture into longer and potentially more remote hikes, being proficient in reading maps and using a compass or GPS device becomes vital. Consider taking a navigation course.
  • First Aid Knowledge: Knowing how to handle common injuries or emergencies is essential, especially when you’re far from help. Consider enrolling in a wilderness first aid course.
  • Community Support: Joining a hiking group or club can provide motivation, companionship, and shared knowledge. It’s also a great way to discover new trails and learn from more experienced hikers.

Building up to longer hikes is a journey that requires patience, preparation, and perseverance. By gradually increasing your hikes’ length and difficulty, focusing on overall fitness, acquiring essential skills, and planning adequately, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle more ambitious trails.

Conclusion

Starting your hiking journey opens up a world of adventure, fitness, and connection with nature. By preparing properly, choosing the right trails, staying safe, navigating confidently, respecting the environment, and gradually building up to longer hikes, you’ll enjoy all the benefits that hiking has to offer. Remember, every hiker starts with a single step, just like you’re about to do. So, lace up your boots, hit the trail, and enjoy the journey—one step at a time.

Additional Ideas:

  • Before going on a trek, it is essential to go through some proper online guides.
  • Choosing a good tour guide is essential as they can guide you through proper routes, give you good company, and, most of all, help you train for upcoming challenges.
  • Training and increasing your stamina are important steps before heading out in the wild. It is ideal to prepare yourself a month before you go hiking. However, it does not mean that you have to join expensive gyms or hire trainers. Doing simple walking exercises can be enough.