Hiking is a gateway drug and a dangerous one at that. One moment you’re buying your first pair of proper hiking socks, the next you’re dedicating an entire room in your house to storing outdoor gear. We don’t typically advocate for vices that empty wallets, push our bodies to their limits, and find us waking up in strange places, but for outdoors junkies, we make an enthusiastic exception.
There’s really no better way to experience a place than by exploring it on foot. Here at The Manual, we’re fans of all modes of outdoor travel from hiking to biking to paddling, but if you really want to immerse yourself in nature, doing it one step at a time is the way to go. If you’re ready to take that first step but aren’t sure where to begin your journey, you’re in the right place.
In this hiking for beginners guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know on how to prepare for hiking and make it a serious habit. We’ll cover what to wear and what gear you’ll want to bring along, and we’ll even help you find some of the best hikes to take in your area. Right… Let’s chase this dragon…
What To Wear On Your Hike
If you’re not sure what to wear on your first hike, we’ve got good news for you: Chances are you’ve already got some of the clothes you’ll need to get out there and start hiking. Which clothes you bring along depends on a few different factors though, so let’s dig into the details.
Generally speaking, beginner hikers have two main choices for hiking footwear: Hiking boots and trail runners.
Hiking boots are a tried-and-true companion out on the trail, and a good pair will serve you well through just about any season or terrain. Over the ankle boots offer maximum amounts of support and protection, and often have some water resistance baked in as well. We recommend wearing boots on gnarlier trails with serious obstacles like rocks, roots, and steep inclines, but they’re probably overkill for your average day hike.
That’s because although hiking boots are built to take a beating on any terrain, for your typical hiker they provide way more support than you need (unless you’re carrying some serious weight on your back), and also don’t provide as much ventilation for your feet as lighter-duty footwear.
That’s why we often recommend starting with trail runners instead, which feature supportive footbeds and aggressive tread patterns for traction but won’t weigh you down or run as hot as a traditional hiking boot. If you’re carrying less than 20 pounds in your pack (which should be the case for just about any day hike), and aren’t hiking in cold weather, chances are you’ll be happier in trail runners.
Whatever option you choose, we recommend popping into your local outfitter to ensure you get the correct fit for your feet, no matter how long is your beginner hike. The footwear used for hiking often requires different sizing than your favorite casual footwear, and you don’t want to be two miles down the trail before your feet start to blister up because your shoes are too loose or too tight.
We can’t stress the importance of this one enough: Do not go out hiking in casual cotton socks.
Keeping your feet happy over the course of a nice long hike depends on keeping them dry and warm. Cotton fibers absorb and hold moisture, which prevents your feet from regulating their temperature or shedding moisture through your footwear.
You’ll want to pick up a pair of dedicated hiking socks made from either wool, synthetic fibers, or a blend of the two. There are a lot of options out there for hiking footwear, but we pretty much always recommend new hikers start with a pair of Darn Tough’s merino wool hikers, which offer excellent breathability, insulation, and cushioning, and come with a lifetime warranty to boot.
Hiking Clothes For Warm Weather
Similar to the socks described above, hiking clothing largely depends on the climate you’ll be hiking in, but regardless of where you’re hiking, we recommend avoiding cotton fibers from head to toe.
If you’re hiking in the warmer months, you can typically get away with any moisture-wicking athletic shirt and a pair of running shorts and be comfortable all day. Most hikers want some extra pockets for storing quick access essentials like their phone, snacks, and a pocket knife though, so we generally recommend picking up a pair of dedicated hiking shorts like Columbia’s Silver Ridge cargo shorts, which are made from rugged and lightweight ripstop nylon that wicks moisture, dries quickly, and provides solid protection from harmful UV rays.
Hiking Clothing For Cold Weather
If you’re hiking in colder weather, your loadout gets a little more complex, but the concept is pretty straightforward: You’ll want to layer up to stay warm, but be able to shed extra layers as needed to stay comfortable.
Start by picking out a set of full-length base layers, both top, and bottom. Base layers help you regulate your body heat while also wicking away sweat as you hike. Again, you’ve got the choice of either synthetic fibers or merino wool here, and both come with some tradeoffs.
Synthetic base layers are typically more affordable, longer-lasting, and easier to maintain than merino wool. They also have the unfortunate reputation of absorbing and hanging on to bodily odors though and can get particularly ripe after a long day in the woods. Many synthetic base layers come with anti-microbial treatments nowadays, which helps with the “funk” problem, but they still don’t perform as well as merino in that regard.
Merino base layers offer all of the same benefits as synthetic fibers (comfortable, insulating, moisture-wicking, etc.), but are naturally bacteria and odor resistant as well. There’s really nothing quite like a pair of merino leggings to turn any pair of pants into a cozy winter garment, but they’ve got some drawbacks as well. Most notably, they’re a good bit more expensive than synthetic base layers. They also don’t typically last as long, whether it’s just from wear and tear or from hungry moths snacking on the natural fibers during the warm months while you’re not looking. Merino also can’t go in a hot dryer (it will shrink and degrade quickly from the heat), so these base layers require some extra attention on laundry day as well.
Insulating Middle Layers
Cold weather hiking also means bringing along an insulating middle layer to help you trap and retain your natural body heat.
Most hikers either opt for a packable puffy jacket filled with down feathers or synthetic insulation or pack a cozy layer of performance fleece to deliver the warmth instead.
Both are viable options. Puffy jackets are lighter weight and pack down much smaller than fleece, which helps keep your overall pack size and weight to a minimum. Performance fleece mid-layers are typically a little more rugged, affordable, and easier to maintain, but are bulky and harder to stow when you’re not wearing them.
Whatever you choose to bring, once again, make sure it isn’t made from cotton. Cotton middle layers like hoodies and cheap sweaters absorb the moisture you sweat out as you hike, and once they’re wet, they’re useless (or even downright harmful) for maintaining your core temperature.
It might seem a bit excessive, but we recommend throwing some basic rain gear into your pack every time you go for a hike. Getting caught out in the rain sucks, but getting caught unprepared sucks a lot more.
At a minimum, you should throw a simple, packable waterproof jacket into your pack to help keep your core warm and dry if the weather takes a turn. If there’s a good chance of rain in the forecast, or you’re expecting to get wet outright, we also recommend bringing along a set of rain pants to minimize the misery that comes with being cold and wet from the waist down.
What To Bring On Your Hike
Whether it’s a short and sweet four-mile loop on your local trail or a 15-mile excursion through parts unknown, there are a few essentials that you should bring along for every hike. This is the quick-and-dirty version on how to get you into hiking ASAP, but keep in mind you can always add whatever creature comforts you want (camera, hammock, book, etc.) if you’ve got extra room in your pack.
Choosing A Daypack
No doubt you’ve seen pictures or videos of hikers lumbering around with giant backpacks loaded down with bedrolls, pots and pans, tents, hunting gear, etc. That’s not the kind of pack we’re after here.
Instead, single-day hikes pretty much always stick to the humble daypack, which is typically little more than a compact backpack with some extra support and room for one day’s worth of gear.
We recommend looking for a pack size around the 20L mark for shorter trips that will only last a few hours. This gives you plenty of room for the ten essentials (more on that below), as well as a few extras, snacks, electronics, whatever.
If you’re pulling a particularly long or challenging day, the amount of gear, food, and water you need will increase, and your pack size will grow accordingly. Even the most obsessive over-packers should be able to get away with a day pack around the 30L mark though, as anything over that is overkill and starts creeping into multi-day backpacking territory.
The Ten Essentials
We could give you a laundry list of specific items to throw into your day pack, but the truth is every hiker will differ slightly according to their personal preferences, and that’s just fine by us. Honestly, the authoritative checklist on hiking gear was published over forty years ago anyways and is still widely accepted and used throughout the outdoors community. We’re talking, of course, about the ten essentials.
The ten essentials are the classic checklist of everything you need for outdoor endeavors. As you prepare your daypack for your first outing on the trail, run through the following checklist and make sure you’ve got each category taken care of:
- Navigation: For shorter hikes in populated areas, this can be as simple as your smartphone with a map or hiking navigation app of your choice ready to go. In more remote areas, you may want to consider a GPS device that doesn’t rely on cellular reception to function properly. Regardless of which route you choose, it’s always recommended to bring along a good ol’ fashioned map and compass, and that you take your time to learn to use them.
- Sun protection: This one is open to personal preference, but the concept is the same: Regardless of the season or weather conditions, extended exposure to the sun’s rays without protection can be deadly. Some hikers pack a baseball hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen, while others opt for full-length base layers and wide-brimmed sun hats to save their skin.
- Insulation: As we noted above, what you bring along for insulation depends largely on the forecast. As far as the ten essentials go, you can “check” this box off once you’ve packed all the clothing you need to handle the worst possible conditions you could encounter on your hike. Sometimes that’s just a lightweight rain jacket, sometimes it’s the full three layers, thick gloves, and a ski mask. Just make sure you’re covered.
- Flashlight/headlamp: This might sound overkill for a quick hike during daylight hours, but the idea behind the ten essentials is being prepared for the unexpected. Consider what might happen if you were out hiking solo and slipped and fell down a steep mountain valley: You could wind up injured, spending an unplanned night in the wilderness while waiting on help to arrive. We’ll wager you’ll be wishing you had a headlamp around the time the sun goes down…
- First aid kit: Whether it’s the slip-and-fall scenario above or your hiking buddy getting bitten by a snake or twisting an ankle, having a first aid kit on hand can save your own life or someone else’s out on the trail. We’re working with limited space in our daypacks though, so we recommend picking up a simple pre-assembled kit to check this box without taking up too much space that could be devoted to important things like… you know… snacks.
- Food: Speaking of snacks, you’ll want to bring food along as well. Bringing plenty of hearty, healthy snacks ensures you’ll have the calories you need to get through the day. We recommend (a) only bringing items that don’t require cooking or refrigeration (ya know, trail mix, granola bars, that sort of thing), and (b) bringing along more than you think you’ll need in case you end up outdoors for longer than expected.
- Water: You probably could have guessed this one, but we can’t overstate the importance of bringing enough water along for the journey. Most daypacks include a sleeve to slide in a hydration bladder, which make carrying and drinking water much easier. You’ll need to drink roughly one liter of water every two hours out on the trail, so do your due diligence in planning here and (again) bring more than you think you’ll need just in case.
- Fire: Fire can be your best friend in an emergency. Whether you’re starting a fire to keep yourself warm overnight, or using one to signal for help, you’ll want something in your pack that can reliably get a fire going. No need to overthink it here, a typical disposable Bic lighter is the go-to for most hikers, but waterproof matches are an acceptable substitute as well.
- Repair items: Since you aren’t bringing along a tent or sleeping bag for a day hike, repair items play a minor role in your pack. A good multi-tool and a few lengths of duct tape are always good to have just in case.
- Shelter: No, you don’t need to bring a tent along for a day hike, but some form of shelter has been on the ten essentials from the beginning. Typically this refers to an emergency bivy, which is a water/weatherproof sack you can crawl into to protect yourself from the elements in an emergency. Many over-the-counter first aid kits include a space blanket, which is sufficient to check this box for most day hikers.
How To Find Hiking Trails
Now that your beginner hiking checklist is taken care of, there’s nothing left to do now but find your next hike. Here are a few good ways to hunt down hiking trails in any area:
There are several reliable apps for smartphones nowadays that are constantly being updated and expanded by the hiking community at large. Apps like Trailforks, Gaia GPS, and AllTrails are all free to download and help you locate trails around the world while also providing information about their length, difficulty, and conditions before you ever step foot out the door.
When in doubt, ask a local. Any outdoors outfitter in the area you’re hiking will be staffed with like-minded people who know the area and can recommend a few routes that meet your fitness/comfort level. We’ve stumbled upon more than a few local “off the map” gems by simply striking up a conversation with an outfitter while buying hiking supplies.
Ask A Friend
Got a friend that likes to hike? Start there. Not only can an enthusiast friend point you in the right direction, they’ll probably volunteer to come with you as well. Hiking in groups is always safer than going alone, and also gives hikers a chance to split the burden of extra gear/food/water between multiple packs.