A few years ago, I moved from flat, pretty much nature-less New Jersey to the gorgeous mountains, forests, and absolutely incredible hiking trails of the PNW. I knew almost nothing about hiking, but I was so excited to be able to get outside. Hiking is such an incredible thing, and I think everyone should be able to experience it!
It can feel daunting to hit the trails if you’ve never done it, so this guide is all about hiking 101 – whether you’ve never been on a hike or you have a couple miles under your belt and want to get more into hiking, these hiking tips for beginners will tell you everything you need to know to get the most out of the experience, and to keep enjoying the outdoors!
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Hiking Tip for Beginners #1: Learn About Leave No Trace
This one is huge, and one of the most important hiking tips for beginners! There’s nothing worse than seeing trails get closed due to damage to the ecosystem, or getting to a beautiful overlook only to find it covered in litter. Before you start hiking, it’s so important to learn about your impact on the outdoors, and how practicing Leave No Trace helps preserve these places!
Anytime you’re outdoors, it’s essential that you practice Leave No Trace (LNT). LNT is a set of seven principles that help us understand our impact on the outdoors – because while we usually have good intentions, the environment is more fragile than we think, and one snap-second decision can cause damage to that will take the earth years, even decades to repair.
Leave No Trace means enjoying the outdoors without harming nature, as much as it’s possible to do so.
There are 7 principles of LNT – and different trails may have specific rules or considerations, but here are the 7 principles and how they apply when you’re hiking.
1. Plan Ahead & Prepare
Avoid injuries and other incidents by being prepared before you start your hike (this guide will help with that!). This means having plenty of food and water, knowing what to expect when it comes to weather and trail conditions, and staying safe.
2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
Avoid trampling grass or other plant life, and stay on established trails to prevent damage. Stick to surfaces like rocks, dirt, and sand!
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
Don’t leave trash of any kind behind (this includes dog poop). Pack it out! And if you can, leave it even better than you found it by picking up any trash you see.
A common misconception is that biodegradable items (a banana peel or an apple core, for example) are okay to leave outdoors. But, this isn’t the case! Anything that doesn’t belong there can cause damage – read more about this in the “respect wildlife” section – and it’s just not nice to look at.
4. Leave What You Find
I know it can be tempting to pick a flower or to take a cool rock or shell, but leave these things where they belong! Animals often use the things we find in nature, and if everyone takes something from the trail, it’s not going to be as pretty. Make sure there will always be flowers to smell and rocks to admire by leaving them behind.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
This one applies more to camping or backpacking, but anytime you make a campfire, be sure to check if there’s a burn ban, set it up safely, and put it out when you’re done!
6. Respect Wildlife
Never approach or feed animals. Sometimes you may see birds or squirrels that are overly friendly, running up to people and staying close – and while it’s super cute, this is really bad. This happens because they’ve been fed by humans – and they’re coming to you expecting food.
A few things happens when wild animals start depending on humans for food:
- They lose the ability to find their own food, and when there aren’t people around (when winter comes around, for example) they’ll starve.
- It changes their behavior. Animals may get aggressive with each other because they’re competing for human handouts, changing the natural dynamics of the wildlife. They can even get aggressive with humans – sometimes this might mean behaviors like biting or scratching, but it can also mean getting aggressive in their search for food – chewing through tents and backpacks or approaching people.
- It’s not healthy – humans have a much more diverse diet than other animals. In the wild, the animals usually have a specialized diet. Giving them human food can be bad for them, leading to health problems or even death. Our food has things in it that aren’t found in the wild, and this can cause make them sick.
Along with not feeding them (and not leaving behind food scraps that they might eat), make sure to keep your distance from animals – don’t approach them, as it can be dangerous for you, and for the animal. Remember – you’re in their home!
If you’re hiking with a dog, keep them on a leash – almost all hiking trails require it. This keeps your dog, the wildlife, and other hikers safe. Check to make sure dogs are allowed before you bring yours – some trails forbid it, and it’s not “just because.” The presence of a dog can affect the wildlife, and the places where dogs aren’t allowed are usually conservation areas.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
The last principle of LNT, and a great hiking tip for beginners is to be considerate of other visitors. Remember that everyone deserves to enjoy nature and get outside, so make sure you aren’t spoiling the experience for other people.
Something I see often is hikers walking on trails playing loud music from speakers – there’s a bit of a stereotype that the people who do this are beginners, or inexperienced hikers. No shade here – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a beginner hiker! However, it’s just a piece of hiking etiquette that makes a big difference.
Playing music is totally fine if you want to, but make sure it’s not too loud – other people who aren’t in your group shouldn’t be able to hear it if they’re more than a few feet away!
Another thing to keep in mind is that uphill hikers get the right of way – if the trail is narrow, step aside when you’re going downhill. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t yield to you when they should, there’s no point getting upset about it! Most likely, they just don’t know – it’ll be okay :).
In general, be considerate of other hikers, don’t block trails, keep noise to a reasonable level, and let everyone enjoy the hike!
Hiking Tip for Beginners #2: Choose a Suitable Hike
There are a few things that make a hike a “good” hike – and it all depends entirely on you! When you’re new to hiking, be realistic about what kind of trails you want to do. A 20 mile backpacking trip isn’t a good choice for your first hike, but the difficulty of the hike you should choose will vary from person to person. Another thing to consider is how well maintained the trail is. There are some really off the beaten path trails (you’ll see them called unmaintained trails) that are hard to navigate – but most hiking trails aren’t too hard to follow if you have a map.
If you don’t exercise often and you work at a desk, hiking is a really great way to add fun movement to your life – but of course, you may want to go with an easier hike than someone who doesn’t hike much but is a runner. Regardless, think about your capabilities and your experience, and start with something not-too-hard when you’re first getting into hiking. There are plenty of beautiful hikes that aren’t too difficult!
There are two main factors that determine how hard a hike is – distance and elevation gain.
When you’re looking at potential trails, make sure to note if the distance is one way or round trip. I’d recommend staying under 5 or 6 miles if you’re a beginner hiker.
Elevation gain makes a huge difference in how difficult a trail is – a shorter trail that’s really steep will likely feel much harder than one that’s longer but totally flat. If you don’t have a lot of hiking experience, it can be hard to gauge how the number you see in elevation gain corresponds to real life. I know it was for me – I couldn’t tell you what 1,000 feet of elevation gain really meant.
For reference, climbing an average flight of stairs is 10 feet of elevation gain. So, 1,000 feet of elevation gain would be like climbing 100 flights of stairs. But the average flight of stairs is steeper than most trails – so 1,000 feet of elevation will be steeper if the trail is 1 mile long than if it’s 10 miles long.
To find a hike, you can use All Trails, ask a hiker friend, or check out some of these hikes that I recommend for beginner hikers:
- These hikes in Joshua Tree (deserts have the advantage of being flat, so these hikes are great for beginners!)
- Land’s End in San Francisco
- Rattlesnake Ledge near Seattle
- Elk Flats near Cannon Beach
- Short Sands Beach in Oswald West State Park
Hiking Tip for Beginners #3: It’s OK to Go Alone!
This one might stand out, because if you read any other hiking tips for beginners guide, just about everyone mentions not hiking alone as one of the tips. But, as someone whose work schedule never looked like any of my friends’ schedules, and someone who just likes the experience of being outside alone, I honestly think that doing solo hikes is great, and it’s possible even for beginners!
Of course, be smart with this one – your first hike ever will probably be easier with a buddy. But, if you feel comfortable, choose a hike that’s within your abilities, and you make sure you’re prepared with food and water and know how to stay safe, you can have a great time exploring solo! It’s a really rewarding experience.
The biggest danger of hiking alone is injuries, because if something happens, there may not be many people around. It can be a good idea to choose trails that are relatively popular, to ensure that there will be other hikers in case anything goes wrong.
Hiking Tip for Beginners #4: You Don’t Need a Ton of Gear
When you’re getting into hiking it can be overwhelming looking at all the gear everyone’s trying to sell you, and some hiking tips for beginners will leave you feeling like you need to spend money before being a “hiker” – but the truth is you don’t need very much to go hiking. There are definitely a couple things that are worth investing in early on (we’ll talk about what they are in the next section), but as long as you have shoes with good traction, a backpack to carry snacks, and a water bottle, you’re ready to go for a hike! You don’t need to spend a ton of money to go hiking.
Hiking Tip for Beginners #5: Invest in Some Gear if You like hiking!
That being said, while you don’t need to buy a ton of stuff to hit the trails, if you go hiking a couple times and you know this is something you want to keep doing, it can definitely be helpful to invest in some gear at that point!
I personally am not a big believer in buying clothes just for hiking. That’s not to say they aren’t worth it at all or that some people don’t love them – there are definitely benefits, like keeping you cool and wicking away moisture, but (with the exception of rain pants and base layers for cold weather), all the clothes I hike in are clothes that I would wear day to day.
As you keep hiking, you’ll likely add to your collection, but there are a few things I recommend purchasing early on if you plan to continue hiking.
Sturdy Hiking Shoes
Shoes honestly make a big difference in how your feet feel after a hike, and if you’re hiking often, having a good pair of shoes will prevent injuries and strain in the long run. One of the best hiking tips for beginners is to invest in good shoes.
I’d say the most important thing to look for when you buy hiking shoes is traction – shoes with good grip will keep you from slipping and falling, and will make hiking way easier. I also recommend waterproof shoes – if you’re hiking in the rain, crossing a stream, or otherwise encountering water, you’ll feel much, much better if your feet stay dry.
Hiking boots are usually the go-to when it comes to hiking shoes. They are the best for protecting your ankles, give you protection from rocks or prickly plants, and provide good coverage. My favorite hiking boots are my Danner boots – they’re cute, comfortable, and waterproof!
I also love to hike in sandals (and I usually prefer them if the trail isn’t too tricky). Chacos are great for hiking, and give your toes more wiggle room. Of course, they don’t have ankle protection and won’t give you as much coverage, but you can check out this guide to read about the pros and cons of hiking in Chacos!
Another option is the Lowa Maddox shoes, which are more like sneakers. They’re waterproof, and great for hiking.
Bonus Tip: A lot of these links are for my favorite place to buy outdoor gear – Backcountry. If you install the free Lolli extension on your browser, you can earn free Bitcoin when you shop online at certain retailers, including Backcountry.
Any backpack you already have is totally fine for shorter hikes, or if you aren’t hiking very often. But, if you plan to do longer hikes, a backpack is definitely something I recommend investing in.
With a backpack designed for hiking, you’ll feel a huge difference in how your body feels. A good hiking backpack is designed to distribute weight, ensuring that your shoulders, back, and hips are sharing the load – reducing strain on each one and preventing injuries or pain.
When I’m bringing my camera gear, my favorite backpack is the Alex Strohl Mountain Light. It’s definitely the best camera bag out there for hiking with photo gear. If you don’t need storage for camera stuff, I recommend an Osprey Hikelite. If you don’t need quite as much space, check out the Osprey Daylite!
Hiking Tip for Beginners #6: Bring these Essentials on Your Hike
Along with shoes and a hiking backpack, here are some things to bring with you anytime you hike, and some hiking tips for beginners to make sure you have a good experience!
Food and Water
Always make sure to bring more food and water than you think you need. Snacks and hydration will make a huge difference in how you feel!
Another tip – the best way to stay hydrated for a hike is to drink water before you hike. Starting the day before, start hydrating! It’s a lot harder for your body to “catch up” if you start the hike dehydrated, so drinking water in advance will help you hike longer, and hike happier.
For hiking, the CamelBak water reservoirs are convenient and easy – they can fit in your hiking backpack for water on the go. Nalgene water bottles are great for day to day, and if you want an insulated water bottle to keep your water cold and refreshing, Hydro Flasks are the best!
If you don’t already have a headlamp, make sure to get one before you hike. Even if you don’t plan to hike in the dark, sometimes it takes longer to hike up than you expected and sunset hits you, leaving you speed walking down the trail with only your phone flashlight (not that that’s ever happened to me…). Get a headlamp, and bring it on every hike! Don’t forget to pack extra batteries too.
When you’re hiking, weather can change quickly, and it’s important to be prepared. There’s also a big difference in how you feel when you’re moving and trekking uphill, vs. how you feel when you stop. Especially if you’re gaining a lot of elevation or hiking in the mountains, it gets much colder at the top! Be sure to pack layers – a waterproof jacket is essential here in the PNW, a windbreaker helps a ton with windchill, and a Patagonia fleece is always great for added warmth.
Hiking Tip for Beginners #7: Think About Bathroom Stuff
Something some people who don’t hike may not think about is how to go to the bathroom on a trail! Some trailheads have pit toilets, but most trails don’t. You’ll probably need to get comfy with doing your thing outside – but honestly, I prefer this to using the pit toilets most of the time :).
For peeing, if you’re a person who needs to wipe, I super recommend a Kula Koth. It’s a reusable, anti-microbial wipe that you wash between hikes! It folds up, so the outside stays clean. It’s much more convenient than toilet paper, and more comfortable than drip drying.
You probably won’t need to worry about poo as often on a day hike, but if it happens, the best way to do it (following LNT principles) is to dig a hole 6 inches deep and 6 inches wide (a pocket trowel comes in handy here), squat, and do your thing. Afterwards, bury your poop and pack out the toilet paper.
If you have periods, this can be a real hassle on a hike. A menstrual cup is the best way to handle it, as it can go a lot longer without being changed.
Hiking Tip for Beginners #8: Remember these Hiking Safety tips
Whenever you go for a hike, there’s at least a little bit of danger – you might be away from phone service, there’s lots of things to trip on, and while getting lost is honestly pretty difficult on more trails, it’s a possibility. Here are some safety tips to keep in mind – and remember, it’s always better to be over prepared than to not have something when you need it.
- tell someone where you’re going
- download offline maps in case you lose service
- bring a first aid kit
- carry a GPS
- bring a headlamp
- carry bear spray
Hiking Tip for Beginners #9: Think About When You Hike
I’m sure most of us prefer some solitude when we hike – so when you hit the trails, it’s important to consider how to avoid crowds!
The best way to avoid crowds on a hike is to choose less popular trails – however, for beginner hikers, this isn’t always a good option, because less popular trails are typically those that are long and difficult. Luckily, even on the most well known hikes, there are some things you can do to ensure a little solitude.
First, hiking on a weekday is always best – weekends are more crowded no matter when you go. If you’re able to, plan your hikes for weekdays (but be careful to avoid holidays and three day weekends).
Time of day will also make a huge difference. Waking up to hike at sunrise will be the best way to avoid crowds on the trail, but hiking at sunset is often just as good! The middle of the day is usually busiest, so plan to hike earlier or later in the day to avoid crowds. If you hike later in the day, be careful to check sunset times, bring a headlamp just in case, and give yourself more time than you think you need to avoid getting caught in the dark!
Hiking Tip for Beginners #10: Enjoy Your Hike
The last one of these hiking tips for beginners is to enjoy your hike!
I don’t just mean like, “have fun!” – I mean really enjoy it, by hiking however you want to hike (while being considerate of the nature and the people around you, of course). You don’t have to go fast, do long treks, or run up mountains to enjoy hiking.
You can listen to music (at a respectful volume) if that’s what you’re feeling, you can take as many breaks as you want, you can hike halfway and turn around… there are no rules! Just get out there, and have fun being outside 🙂.
If you’re getting into hiking, let me know which of these hiking tips for beginners were helpful for you! Or, share some tips of your own.
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