HIKING TIPS FOR BEGINNERS: A GUIDE FOR FIRST-TIME HIKERS
If you’ve been struck with a newfound yearning for a walk beyond your backyard into the backcountry, lace up your hiking boots and follow that impulse. Hiking is profoundly healthy for both your mind and body. Researchers have found that getting out and walking in nature can mitigate symptoms of depression, increase your attention span, and improve your overall fitness level. And those benefits aren’t reserved solely for seasoned hikers taking multi-day treks through difficult terrain. Heading outside regularly from a few hours to a half-day of hiking is plenty to strengthen your body and refuel your soul. If you’ve never ventured beyond the paved walkways at your local park, don’t be daunted. With a little preparation and awareness, you’ll be ready to hit the trails with confidence.
Feet first: Unless you are hiking a very short, flat, and well-tended trail, sneakers are not going to be rugged enough footwear. You’ll need to get a comfortable pair of waterproof hiking boots with significant ankle support. Be sure to break them in before your first hike. Wear them for walks around your neighborhood, to the local park, and running errands so they are trail-ready and less likely to cause blisters. As for hiking socks, material matters. Merino wool socks are classic for hiking because they are moisture-wicking, breathable, and keep feet comfortable across seasons. Cotton socks should be avoided for hiking because they absorb and retain moisture, which is a sure path to blisters.
WHAT TO CARRY IN YOUR BACKPACK OR DAYPACK ON A HIKE:
Training to hike: Long distances require stamina. Stepping over roots, rocks, and uneven terrain requires core strength, coordination, and balance. And steep trails, on both the way up and down, are physically demanding. If you walk, run, swim, bike, or attend cardio classes regularly, you’ll likely have the endurance level needed for a brief, flat-terrain hike. But if you were fairly sedentary before the urge to hike struck, it’s important that you improve your fitness level before trekking significant distances or taking on more challenging hikes. If you are impatient to ramble in the company of Mother Nature, seek out short, beginner nature trails intended for all fitness levels. Finally, train wearing your backpack filled with what you will carry on your hikes, because extra weight takes getting used to.
Pick your trail: Thankfully, others have trodden the path you’re about to tread before you and you can learn a lot about your planned route before hitting the trailhead. Most park systems rank trails from easy to difficult and many will give estimates for the approximate time the trail will take. It’s best to begin with short, easy trails that take no more than half the day from start to finish, especially because new hikers often find the going a bit slower than they expected.
Watch the weather: When you’re first starting out, aim to hike only on fair weather days. You don’t want to be grappling with extremes of heat and cold while learning the ropes. But keep in mind, the weather is fickle and forecasts are often downright wrong, especially if you are hiking in the mountains. The weather can change dramatically and quickly. You should always carry a warm, packable, waterproof jacket to protect against the rain and cold on a hike, even if there isn’t a cloud in the sky and it’s a comfortable 75 degrees when you set off.
Don’t go it alone: Enjoying solitude while communing with nature is lovely, but unless you are an advanced hiker with the know-how to handle unexpected situations, it’s always best to hike with another person or with a group. If you have pals who are experienced hikers, ask them if they’d like to join you on some shorter hikes to show you the ropes. Another option is seeking out a guided group or a hiking club that is happy to welcome newbies.
Layer up: Dressing in layers will keep you comfortable through the significant variations in temperature that can occur with changes in elevation and cloud coverage, as well as when you travel between heavily wooded and open-sky sections of the trail. Your outdoor clothing should be easy to take on and take off as needed. Convertible pants are perfect for transition-season hikes. You’ll also need a sun hat in the warm seasons and a knit winter hat when it’s cold.
Stay on the trail: For your safety and for the protection of the natural places you’re visiting, it’s important to stick to designated trails. If you’re hiking with your dog, make sure your best friend sticks to the trails by your side to avoid any unwanted wildlife encounters. By following trail blazes for your chosen route, you’ll be sure your planned three-hour hike doesn’t double in length and, above all else, you don’t get lost.
BE SAFE ON THE TRAIL:
Leave no trace: This is how beautiful, natural places stay beautiful and natural. Everything you bring on the trail with you should come out with you. When you stop for lunch, no sandwich wrappers should be left behind. You should also resist the urge to pick wildflowers or collect rocks. Leaving the lovely things you pass exactly as you found them shows respect for nature’s gifts, as well as for the other hikers who will come along after you.
Above all, take it slow and enjoy the view: Hiking is a workout. If you take it too fast, you can wear yourself out and find yourself dragging on the second half of the hike. Take rests every hour or so to drink water and eat. You need to stay fueled and hydrated. Enjoy the sights and sounds around you. The breeze in the trees, the sunlight in a meadow, a deer in the distance. Then you’ll be sure to enjoy the experience from your first footfall to your last.