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How to Plan a Day Hike for the Beginning Hiker

Updated on July 13, 2012
Picture taken by the author from the Appalachian Trail in Amelia County, Virginia
Picture taken by the author from the Appalachian Trail in Amelia County, Virginia | Source

What Beginners Need to Know About Hiking

If you love to walk and the autumn or spring breezes beckon, nothing beats a day hike. But before you head out onto the local trails, there are several important things you should know and do. Beginning hikers often inadequately prepare for their first day hike, and that can lead to sore muscles or worse, injury. Before you head off into the mountains or out into the forests, use these tips to successfully prepare for and enjoy your first all-day hike.

Get in Shape for Hiking

Some people assume that hiking is easy because it's walking; we all walk, right? Hiking is actually much more strenuous than walking. Most people who walk for fitness do so on suburban sidewalks, the local high school track, or a treadmill, all good choices. Hiking, however, takes you up slopes and inclines, sometimes very steep ones. On a long hike, you will also be walking over varied terrain often strewn with rocks, tree roots and more. Just keeping your balancing and changing your stride over the course of many miles is strenuous. Combine this with carrying a day pack and water, and you'll understand why it is important to train for your hikes.

While I am not a personal fitness trainer nor a fitness expert, here is how I prepare for hiking:

  • I build up my walking distance gradually, adding a mile per week until I can comfortably walk the distance of my hike and a little beyond it. By 'comfortably' I mean walk it without feeling undue strain. I may feel tired, but my legs and feet don't ache. I wear a step and mile pedometer and carefully track the distance. I have noticed that if I can walk it, I can hike, but if I can walk a little farther than my planned hike, I do much better on the hike.
  • Add inclines or hills to your workout. To prepare those thigh muscles for long uphill climbs, make sure you add some inclines to your workout.
  • Don't forget your core body strength! I'm always surprised at how carrying my pack on a day hike doesn't hurt my back, but my abdominal muscles start to ache. I've learned the hard way that some simple abdominal exercises added to my workouts can help; situps, Pilates-type exercises and more.

Don't forget that if you have any health problems, check with your physician before doing these or any other exercises. Use the 3 c's - Care, Caution and Common Sense!

Choose Your Route for Your Hiking and Fitness Level

Next, to plan your first day hike, choose a route that's suitable for your fitness level and hiking experience. Most hiking routes are well marked by colored streaks or dots on trees and rocks. Know how to read a hiking route, and choose one that is in a well-visited park or area. Look for the level of the hike on websites or guidebooks; choose one recommended for beginners or marked 'easy' or 'moderate.'

If you're hiking with children, try to keep the day hike manageable. You know about how far your children can walk without getting tired and what their tolerance level is for outdoor adventures. Always under estimate, rather than over estimate, what you think you are capable of doing. It's better to end your hike a little early than to find yourself out when dusk is falling!

Packing for a Day Hike

What to pack for a day hike? First and foremost is water. You will need at least one quart or more of drinking water per person. Don't assume there will be creeks or streams on your hiking route. First, there may not be, and second, you should NEVER drink water from creeks or streams. Such water can contain bacteria and parasites that can make you sick. Yes, wild animals drink it, but they are used to it. You're not. Carry water with you at all times.

Next, you will need your lunch for a day hike. Pack something with carbohydrates and protein. Fruit is an excellent choice such as bananas and apples. A simple trail mix can be made by mixing together peanuts, almonds, raisins, dried cranberries and other dried fruit of your choice.

Check the weather reports and consider packing a lightweight hiking poncho with you. Such rain gear comes in handy when a sudden downpour occurs on trail. I also pack a simple first aid kit, a whistle, and a compass. During the summer months, we also carry bug spray that includes tick and mosquito repellent. We keep moleskin patches and adhesive bandages in the pack, too, in case shoes rub or or our feet develop blisters. Moleskin is a patch that you can cut to any shape and use it as a cushion against rubs. We have a Swiss Army knife too which is easy to carry and that also helps to cut up the moleskin or open band aids if we need them. Don't forget a lightweight, portable digital camera!

Take toilet paper with you. Nature calls when you're out for the whole day, and most trails do not have comfy bathrooms. Learn trail etiquette to answer the call of nature; leave the trail, walk at least 200 feet away from the trail (and NOT near a body of water such as a stream or pond) and dig a small hole using your boot heel or a rock. Cover your contribution and leave no trace.

Oh, and if you do that activity? Learn to spot poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac!

Choosing a Good Beginner Trail

To find a good hiking trail for your first day hike, search online for hiking trails in the geographic location you're visiting or near your home. Check state parks and national parks; most have wonderful hikes, both half day and full day. Another great day hike that's not too difficult is a rail trail. The Rails to Trails Conservancy transforms disused and retired railway lines into hiking, bicycling and horseback riding trails. The trail grades rarely have more than a 10% incline because trains can't chug up anything steeper, and they're usually near something scenic such as a stream, pond or forest.

Once you've found a hike near you, either send away or purchase a trail map or print it off your computer. Print several copies and give a copy to each person accompanying you. This can help you navigate the trail and find markers along the way. Although most trails are blazed, meaning marked with colored paint, sometimes the trees that are marked fall down or the trail makes an unusual turn that is hard to spot. The photo above taken from a mountain top was a hike I completed with my family in 2011. The trail was well marked, but at one junction near the end, turned so abruptly that I would have gone the wrong way if it wasn't for the directions we had printed out that warned of the abrupt change of direction. Although a change of direction on a hiking trail is marked by a double diamond or two lines rather than a single diamond or line, the trees which had been marked had fallen down. My husband hiked ahead for a bit to find the mark, and sure enough we found it, but if we hadn't had a warning from the trail directions I'd printed off the web we would not have found them.

Dressing for Your Hike

Lastly, what do you wear to hike? Think mobility, comfort and durability. Wear jeans or shorts and a comfortable shirt. Dress in layers. Pay special attention to your feet and choose thick, cushioned socks and well-fitting hiking boots. I do not wear sneakers on trail as I have found the rubber soles, no matter how good the tread, slip too much on leaves and rocks. Never wear flip flips or sandals on trail. Aside from the dangers of cutting your feet, there are snakes in the wild. Hiking boots at least offer some layers of protection for your foot between you and an angry snake should you accidentally step too near one! Hiking boots with ankle support are useful on more rugged terrain.

Safety Precautions

As you embark on your first hike, here are a few safety precautions to keep in mind. First, always tell someone where you are going, and when you plan to be back. National Parks often have a ranger station and it is a good idea to sign in there or at the kiosk at the trail head. Don't forget to sign out to let them know you returned safely!

Hiking with a buddy is always recommended. Two are better equipped to deal with an emergency situation than one. A friend and his family were hiking in New England one summer when they encountered a man, lying face down in a stream with a head injury. He had been trying to cross the stream, slipped, fell and hit his head, knocking himself unconscious. He had a concussion. He had been hiking alone. If it wasn't for the fact that this man and his children came up on the man, he might have drowned lying in the water or died from his injuries. He was able to send his teenage son back down the trail to call for help from the Ranger Station while he and his other children attended to the man while waiting for medical help. Hiking with a partner would have been safer - if one person is injured, the other can call for help or assist the injured person!

Enjoy your first hike. Once you start hiking, you'll be hooked. It's one of the best methods of exercise I know for body, mind and soul.


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    • carol3san profile image

      Carolyn Sands 

      6 years ago from Hollywood Florida

      You gave a lot of great info. Thanks for sharing.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      6 years ago from Iowa

      Great tips. Here's another tip on what to wear: Invest in some convertible pants. When you warm up, just zip off the legs and stash them in your day pack.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      Voted up. Good advice Jeanne. But if you're hiking in Australia, there's one little-known hazard that you should learn about. :)


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