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9 Tips for New Hikers
In high school, I was bit by the hiking bug, logging miles of trails with my sisters and grandmother, from short, flat loop trails to a day-long hike to the summit of Mt. Tallac near Lake Tahoe. But somewhere along the way, I quit — until two years ago, when a trip to Point Lobos State Nature Reserve in Monterey, California got me trekking again.
As a beginner again, I’ve picked up a few tips that every new hiker should know. These tips are for short, moderate or easy hikes — if you’re planning a strenuous hike or backpacking trip, look for a more comprehensive guide!
1. Pack light.
You’re going to be carrying that backpack for miles and hours, and if it’s heavy, you’re going to feel it. While snacks, a camera and extra socks are difficult to ditch, do you really need that 200-page, hardcover guide to every trail in the state, or the field guides to bird and plants in North America? Try photocopying just the relevant pages instead. If you carry a notebook, make it a small one. That said, don’t leave out essentials like a map, a compass or GPS, water and a first aid kit. REI has a list of ten essentials that should be in every hiker’s backpack. Safety first, then comfort.
2. Dress appropriately, wear layers and bring a rain poncho.
Weather can change drastically on the trail, from cold mornings to hot afternoons to sudden downpours. Rain ponchos are light and cheap, but a large garbage bag with holes cut for your arms and head will work nearly as well. Bring a jacket — but unless you’re hiking in freezing temperatures or snow, go for something warm but light and easy to pack away in a backpack, like a lined windbreaker. Bring extra socks, in case your feet get wet, and if you have long hair, don’t forget a hair tie unless you like sweaty strands stuck to your neck.
If you’re hiking through underbrush, wear pants to avoid scratched legs, poison ivy and ticks. Don’t wear jeans if you expect to be sweaty or cold — cotton is no fun in either condition. Nerd Fitness has a great beginner’s guide to hiking that includes a section on what to wear, as well as a ton of other great tips.
3. Invest in good equipment.
It’s possible to hike in sneakers, but hiking boots are built to help prevent common injuries on the trail. And cheap boots are likely to fall apart on you or fit your feet poorly. You’ll also want a good, lightweight, sturdy backpack that can be adjusted as needed. If you worry about being unsteady on your feet over loose rocks or up steep inclines, you’ll want a walking stick, too.
Another area to splurge is the first aid kit: You don’t need a full trauma kit, but you’ll want bandages, gauze, medical tape, sunscreen and antiseptic wipes, and you should also bring along a pressure wrap (in case of twisted ankles), tweezers (for splinter or tick removal) and a snake bite kit. Washington Trails Association has a good guide to building a hiker’s first aid kit.
4. Break in your equipment.
Yes, this deserves its own point. Those new hiking boots? Wear them on short walks for a few weeks before hitting the trail with them, so your feet get used to them and they get soft enough not to give you blisters. That first aid kit? Learn how to use everything in it. The last thing you want to do is be reading the instructions on the snake bite kit after you or a trail buddy has been bitten.
5. Be aware of any pre-existing health problems.
Hiking can put a lot of strain on the body, especially if you’re not in shape, so if you have a heart problem, diabetes, asthma, a bad knee or some other health problem that might flare up on the trail, be prepared. That includes talking to your doctor about any precautions you should take and supplies you should bring in addition to the standard first aid kit. If you have a weak ankle or knee, wear a comfortable brace or wrap to prevent injuries.
6. Bring lots of water.
My rule of thumb is to bring twice what I think I’ll need. If I’m planning a short, hour-long hike and think a single one-liter bottle will do, I bring two. There’s always something more to see, and I always get hotter and thirstier than I expect. Water starts out heavy but gets light as you drink it, so bring extra and stay hydrated. If you plan to be out a long time and don’t want to carry gallons, get a water purifier or filter and learn how to safely use it.
7. Bring snacks.
You may not think you’ll need them if you’re only going out for a couple hours, but a sudden drop in blood sugar on the trail is not fun. Fruit snacks or roll-ups, an apple or some trail mix with dried fruit — anything with a little sugar — is a good choice. If you plan to be out all day, include a couple of sandwiches as well — just be careful to avoid ingredients that will spoil easily.
8. Know your limitations.
If you’re out of shape and can barely make it through 10 minutes of cardio, don’t plan a nine-mile trek up a mountain. Start with short, easy hikes and gradually increase the difficulty, and go for walks around town throughout the week. Many larger regional and state parks have walking trails or nature trails, which tend to be short and relatively flat, plus they often have interesting information about local habitat, plants and animals. These are a great place to start. Prevention magazine offers some tips for exercises you can do at home between hikes to help prepare for the trail.
9. Tell friends where you’re going.
Whether you are hiking with a group or solo, make sure someone who is not on the hike knows where you are and when you expect to be back. That way, if you get lost out of cellphone range or injured on the trail, someone will know to be looking for you. And charge your cellphone before setting out!