Hiking is an incredible hobby, adventure activity and form of exercise.
Whatever the reason you’re doing it, getting out and exploring the great outdoors nourishes both the body and mind.
Getting into hiking doesn’t need to be difficult, but there are some things worth knowing that will make your life that much easier.
Find a hiking buddy
Hiking alone offers a sense of freedom but it can be intimidating and lonely at times.
When you’re just starting out find a friend to keep you company. If you know someone who hikes regularly, ask if you can join them on their next outing.
People are always happy to share their routes, expertise and even their gear.
You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn from a single weekend hike.
If you don’t know anyone then look for local organised outings, hiking events or dedicated walking groups.
Dress for the occasion
What you wear when hiking should be one of your first considerations.
Once you’ve decided where you’re going, how long for and what the weather will be like, you can start putting together your wardrobe.
The right clothing can give you a safe and comfortable experience, whilst being underdressed can put you in discomfort or danger.
But don’t rush out to buy the most high-tech gear on the market. Just opt for non-cotton clothing, favouring wool or polyester.
A quick-drying, performance-fabric base layer won’t chafe and combining it with a merino long-sleeve will keep it breathable and warm – even when wet.
Wear multiple, light layers that you can put on or take off as the temperature changes.
Carry a completely waterproof outer layer and if you’re heading out in winter then a good down jacket or shell.
Invest in your footwear
Right up there with the correct clothing is a decent pair of hiking boots.
As soon as you’re covering more than 10 kilometres, fashion trainers simply won’t do the trick.
Decide how highly you value ankle support and opt for a low or high hiking boot accordingly.
Low top hiking shoes are still sturdy enough underfoot to protect your feet from the rocks and irregularities of the trail and are more comfortable.
Trail runners are another great option for routes that aren’t overly technical.
If you’re heading for extremely rugged terrain including boulder fields, steep scree slopes, or mountainous areas then you’ll need a high boot and secure fit.
Whilst we are talking about foot comfort, we highly recommend special hiking socks to avoid perspiration build up and blisters. Look for socks that are a combination of wool and synthetic fibers.
Pick a pack
There are backpack options for every environment, capacity requirement and physical build.
Coming in an array of sizes and colorus, each offers its own additional features.
For comfort and balance your bag needs a firm support system, a waist belt and a chest strap.
An added bonus are waterproof covers, hydration system pouches/access points and easy-access pockets.
Osprey, Lowe Alpine, North Face, Patagonia and Black Diamond are all reputable brands with backpacks that will survive the test of time.
Consider a pair of poles
Consider adding one or two hiking poles to your gear to take the stress off your back/knees and offer additional stability.
Having a bit of help with your balance can be invaluable on rugged terrain, slippery rocks or on river crossings.
Test your gear
Before setting off, make sure you know how to use/set up everything that you’re taking with you.
If you don’t then it’s pointless extra weight.
Do a trial run of everything in your back garden or lounge, as this will also give you the opportunity to identify and repair any broken or worn out items.
Choose a route
There are numerous ways to find a trail that meets your needs.
Look at websites, hiking blogs and guidebooks for information around trail difficulty and distance, directions, water sources or food stops, whether dogs are allowed and accommodation/camping facilities.
Friends that hike regularly are the best sources of knowledge as they can recommend a route suited to your ability and preferences.
Before you start your search though, figure out how much time you have, what distance you are comfortable hiking, your fitness levels (and the elevation you can handle), and whether you are happy to wild camp.
Don’t forget to account for the time of year and weather conditions and read up around whether there are any high or exposed sections of the trail that could be snowy.
Some hikes require far more planning. If you are doing a thru-hike that starts and finishes at different places, you’ll need to shuttle cars to your start and end points or take public transport.
Remember that if you’re going it alone or with a group of beginners then start out with short trips to popular hiking destinations along well-known trails.
Getting out on your first hike can seem daunting but starting small allows you to get a feel for life on the trail without being overwhelmed.
As well as starting with shorter hikes, keep your backpack as light as possible.
Water and food should be the heaviest items in your bag and avoid carrying camping equipment for your first few hikes until you build up strength and fitness.
Speaking of which, to get the most out of your hike, make sure you’ve got a relative level of fitness before setting off.
You don’t need to be a muscle man but even a few home workouts will go a long way.
Know the way
Navigation is a key skill when hiking.
Whether you opt for a paper map or digital device, knowing how to find your way from A to B (particularly in poor visibility) could be the difference between life and death.
Paper maps should be kept in a waterproof bag and accompanied by a compass.
If you prefer using a map on your phone or GPS device, be sure to carry a backup power source.
Share your plans
Let family or friends know what trail head you’re starting at and what time you’re expecting to be back.
Ideally share a detailed route plan and timeline and check in once a day for multi-day trips. S
tay on your chosen trail and don’t take shortcuts on switchbacks.
When you’re just starting out, never hike alone. Hiking with a partner is not only more enjoyable but useful in case you have an accident.
Your safety and wellbeing are your responsibility.
This is what makes hiking so liberating – it’s just you and Mother Nature and no one to intervene. But know your limits.
Altitude, climbing and heat will significantly impact hiking difficulty.
Be conservative on your first hike and remember there is no shame in turning back if you realise you’re outside of your comfort zone.
Account for any medical conditions or injuries when planning. For a multi-day trek we would recommend carrying a first aid kit with the following items in:
- Antiseptic wipes and antibacterial ointment
- Blister treatment, plasters, an assortment of bandages/gauze pads and tape
- Ibuprofen and paracetamol
- Bite/sting treatment
- Rehydration sachets
- A decent multitool
Never hike on an empty stomach.
Even if you’re pushing on to get to your destination before dark, give yourself a 10-minute break to refuel.
As a beginner it can be tough to know how much food and water you need.
As you gain more experience, you’ll get a better sense for this.
Stock up on snacks that are carbohydrate-heavy and a few salty ones to keep your electrolytes in check.
Drink before you get thirsty and always take your rubbish with you once you’re finished.
As a general guide, aim to eat 200–300 calories per hour and drink about half a litre per hour of moderate activity.
When it’s hot or the trail increases in difficulty, these levels will need to go up. Carry a little bit extra in case your hike takes longer than anticipated.
If you’re not sure what water refill points are en route then consider taking water treatment- either in the form of purification tablets or water filtration bottles.
Going to the bathroom
Here’s one that you might not want to ask your hiking friends but is a common concern for novice hikers.
If you’re staying well-hydrated, you will need to go every couple of hours and it can’t be avoided.
Simply find a place that’s well away from the trail and at least 200 feet (about 70 steps) from water sources.
Bring a small amount of toilet paper and a zip-top plastic bag and make sure you flush it when you get home or to camp.
Day hikers generally take care of their ‘other business’ before heading out but if you have to go then make sure you’re off the trail and 200 feet from water, then dig a hole 15-20 centimetres deep.
Use this as your toilet and bury the paper in the hole too.
Some hikers choose to burn it but generally that isn’t necessary. In areas of high-elevation or sensitive/protected environments it might be a legal requirement to pack out solid human waste.
If this is the case then bring human waste disposal bags.
Just don’t forget to carry plenty of hand sanitizer!
Plan for the worst, hope for the best
As the old proverb says, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
Check the weather forecast ahead of time but carry enough layers and waterproof items for an unexpected downpour.
Know where to find water should you run out and have those points marked on your map.
Assume it will take twice as long to hike uphill as down and bring a flashlight with extra batteries or a head torch in case you don’t make it to your destination by dark.
Choosing not to carry a first aid kit is simply tempting fate.
Hiking is about getting back to nature and letting go.
Plan your hike but realise that unexpected situations will always crop up and being able to laugh off the occasional kit failure or weather downturn will make for a much more rewarding adventure.
Instead of rushing through a schedule, take some time each day to appreciate your surroundings and soak up the incredible outdoors.
Richard is a keen day-distance walker and lives close to the South Dorset Ridgeway and South West Coast Path.
Bucket list walks include: