How to Start Hiking Right Now

The start of a new year often brings the desire to discover another hobby.  If hiking is on your list of 2021 goals, you are in the right place.  You may be wondering how to start hiking.  In this article, we’ll break down the basics for you to get started – from finding trails, to when and where to go, what to carry with you, and basic trail etiquette.  

How to start hiking.  Just get out side on trails like this one.  A gravel trail meanders through rocks into the distance.
You’ll be amazed by the places the trails can take you!

How to Start Hiking – First Steps

The most important step is to get moving. If you are not currently used to walking or being on your feet for extended periods of time, this will be a good introduction.  Keep the distance and difficulty of these initial walks tailored to the endurance level of where you are starting from.  This may be an option in your neighborhood.  Additional options include outdoor tracks at high schools during off-hours, multi-use paths off of major roads like parkways, and paved or pressed gravel trails at city parks.

When you are ready to hit the trails, start by looking for trails at Regional and State Parks in your local area.  Look for trails that are at your skill level or just a little more challenging.  Don’t pick something much more challenging on your first few times out.  I’d also recommend picking trails that are fairly popular.  This way you know that you will always have company on the trail should you encounter any issues as you build your skills.  During COVID times, please practice proper protocols and maintain a safe distance from other hikers. For more details on hiking safely during the pandemic, check out this post:

Researching Trails

There are many resources available to help research trails. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

  • Apps:  Resources such as “Hiking Project” and “All Trails” let you search trails within a specified area and filter search criteria by items such as distance and difficulty.  When you find hikes you like, you can save them for future reference.  Details for each hike include a map, summary, display showing the amount of elevation gain/loss in feet during the hike, current conditions, and more.
  • Blogs:  Searching for blogs on areas where you plan to hike allows you to get firsthand references for trails in different areas..
  • Guidebooks:  There are many guidebooks covering “best hikes” for different areas.  Keep in mind that they tend to note a speed and level of difficulty but this varies for everyone and that is OK.  Always allow yourself more time to complete a hike than what is noted in a guidebook in case unforeseen circumstances arise.
  • Maps: Hiking maps show all known trails in a given region with key landmarks and distances.  They are also easy to carry with you in a backpack during your hike..
  • Resources from a destination: If you are visiting somewhere new, such as a national park, their newsletter and maps often have details about trails and ranger-led hikes.

What You’ll Need

Early on, when walking at your local parks and in your neighborhood, what you’ll need is pretty minimal.  As you start to venture out more to trails, some additional items are recommended to help ensure your safety.

Most importantly, always carry water with you.  It is critical to always have a way to keep yourself hydrated, even if you think it will just be a short walk.  When possible, a reusable water bottle is a good investment for situations like this.

A hiker smiles on the steps of a mist cover trail in the spray of a waterfall.  Water droplets dot the camera lens.
Always carry water, even on the aptly named, Mist Trail!

I prefer to carry a backpack for my water bottle, keys, and a few other essential items.  If I am going on a longer hike and am looking to carry more water, I will fill a water reservoir (up to 100oz) and carry that in my pack.

When getting started, any backpack will work for carrying the basics.  If hiking becomes a hobby you are passionate about and you find that you want to do hikes that take several hours, I’d recommend looking into a hiking backpack around that time as these have special features that are designed to distribute the weight in the backpack evenly and help you hike comfortably.

Footwear is key

Supportive footwear is a hikers best friend!  When you hike, you’ll want footwear that gives you traction on slippery surfaces, helps you keep your balance when surfaces are uneven, and, above all, fits comfortably after hours AND miles of wear.  If you buy shoes or boots from REI, they usually have a little rocky area where you can “test” what it is like to walk on this type of terrain.  Whenever you purchase new footwear, break it in with several short walks. You could be in for a lot of pain and blisters if the first time you wear your new shoes is out on a long hike.

Good boots are key part of how to start hiking.  A female hiker poses on a rocky hill in front of a snow covered Mount Rainier.
Sturdy footwear will help you keep your balance on uneven terrain.

My personal preference is for hiking boots.  I always prefer boots that are ankle height for two reasons – the first is stability to keep me from rolling or twisting an ankle and the second is as defense against snake bites when hiking near venomous snakes.  I have been using Soloman’s Women’s boots for the last five years. They have been amazing and I swear by them now.  

One other essential piece of footwear is good socks.  There are specially made hiking socks, however these tend to be a bit costly.  I’d recommend purchasing a couple pairs later on if that is an option but to get started, thick padded socks of any kind will do the trick.  These will help keep your feet warm, dry, and comfortable.  I have found that the right socks help prevent foot blisters, so if you find something that works for you, stick with it.

When to go

Start by planning daytime hikes, while others will be active in the areas you are visiting.  Be sure to leave enough time to start and end your hike before nightfall.  I always like to check sunset times for awareness before heading out.  One additional item that I recommend that everyone have, from the very beginning, is a good headlamp (with spare batteries).  This can make such a difference if things don’t go according to plan and you find yourself getting back later than expected.

As far as seasons, Spring, Summer, and Fall are all great seasons for hiking.  Depending on where you live, you may need to be aware of snow making certain trails treacherous or impassable in the Spring, early Summer, or part of the Fall.  Check local websites and apps for trail conditions and do not attempt these trails, if snow-covered, as this can be dangerous and also makes navigation difficult.

Need to Know Trail Info

Know these pieces of info before you set out on the trail and you’ve got the basic covered:

  • Trail blazes: These are rectangular paint lines that are used on trees, logs, etc. at interval distances to identify the trail.  Blazes for a specific trail remain the same color throughout the trail.  For example, the Appalachian Trail (AT) has white blazes. A single line means the trail is continuing straight.  Two blazes indicate that the trail is turning (in the direction of the top blaze).
  • Trail Etiquette:  
    • Ensure you are able to hear what is going on around you.
    • If you are approaching another hiker from behind, say hi or let them know you are passing.
    • Hikers going uphill have the right of way.  If you are going downhill, step aside to let hikers going uphill pass by. Step on rocks or durable surfaces, whenever possible.
    • Bicyclists yield to hikers and horses/pack stock.  Depending on the situation, bicyclists may let you know they are passing you, so keep an ear open if on a multi-use trail.
    • Horses/pack stock have the right of way over hikers and bicyclists.  Move over to let animals by.  Speak calmly to announce your presence, if approaching animals from behind so as not to startle them.
A tree along side the trail is marked with two painted trail blazes.  Understanding these is an important part of how to start hiking.
The color and configuration of trail blazes provide guidance on the trail.

Leave No Trace

In order to help protect the great outdoors as we are enjoying it, we must each take an active role in its preservation.  This can be done by keeping the basic principle in mind of leaving a location better than you found it or “Leave No Trace.”  

There are seven principles of Leave No Trace.  Most best practices for helping maintain our wilderness while hiking, camping, and enjoying other outdoor activities fall within them.  Per the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, these principles are:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

For more details on each of these principles, visit their website: 

How to Start Hiking – Next Steps

With this info, you have all the details you need on how to start hiking.  I hope that you hit the trails soon and love it as much as I do!  If you enjoy it and decide you want to pursue it more, I’ll leave you with two next steps for continuing your journey:

  1. Purchase the 10 Essentials for hiking and a good day pack with the capacity to carry them all.  The 10 Essentials are recommended items that every hiker has with them in case of an emergency.
  2. Take basic wilderness skills classes such as survival, navigation, and first aid.  

How to Start Hiking Highlights

Conservation Considerations

One trend I’ve seen on the trails more recently is people blaring music from their speakers as they hike.  This disrupts the peace that many were looking to find out in nature but more importantly, disturbs the wildlife that live there.  It can impact their communication, sleep cycles, and more.  If you’d like to listen to music on a hike, please use headphones but make sure you can still hear what is going on around you for your safety.

Let me know your thoughts:

Are you starting to hike?  If so, how is it going and what are your questions?  If you’ve been hiking for a while, share something you’ve learned along the way that you wish you knew sooner.