Planning your hiking expedition can be a bit overwhelming, especially for beginners. Not to mention the challenges that arise whilst you are actually out there in the wilderness.
Many hikers will find it difficult to live in urban areas, and what about bears? Then there are other concerns such as what to eat, what to pack, how to navigate while hiking and how to deal with the climate.
So, in this comprehensive hiking guide, we are going to break down everything you need to know when preparing for this life-changing adventure.
Just a little preparation and planning will get you going.
Hiking is a low-impact activity which involves hikers walking across long trails or paths, in a forest or mountains. This activity can be of moderate to high difficulty, depending on the type of trail.
A hike can be for just one whole day or last for more than 20 days; it really comes down to your choice. You can go for a hike alone or in groups.
Hiking is slightly different from trekking, as trekking is a much longer program.
Altogether, hiking is an amazing activity that helps you explore the history and culture of a country or a specific area. It’s like a cultural adventure, where people meet trails.
As for the duration and difficulty of a hike, there are two different types:
No matter what type of hiking you engage in, it is surely one of the greatest ways to visit local areas and experience the natural wilderness.
Hiking is just walking right.
So primarily, it requires your willingness to get out there and explore your surroundings.
Once you make up your mind, you just need to arm yourself with the right kind of clothing, gear and safety kit, and you will do just fine.
Hiking is suitable all year round, depending on your selected area and its weather conditions. It is better to avoid hiking during winter, as it can get dangerous or harsher. But the mountain areas that host ski sports in winter are ideal for hiking.
Nothing is more mesmeric than the beautiful landscapes and panoramic sceneries you see whilst hiking. But these aren’t the only pros of hiking, there’s a lot more to it than you think.
Being in the company of nature can reap lots of benefits, mental as well as physical.
Whether you are planning to go on a day-long expedition or a short hike, either way it will act as a low-impact cardio workout. Such cardio exercise will help you:
Hiking has the ability to reverse the effects of arthritis and osteoporosis and tends to boost your bone density. Thus, regular hiking will gradually decrease the loss of calcium in your bones, making them stronger. Not to mention, hiking is also considered as a weight-bearing workout, which helps in strengthening muscles and bones.
The most significant hiking benefit is for a person’s mental well-being. As you hit the trail, you will instantly feel more relaxed, your stress levels and anxiety will be reduced and your mood will be uplifted. Regular backpacking tends to prevent people from depression, as your brain engages in more creative and problem-solving situations.
Here’s how hiking impacts your mental health:
One of the biggest concerns of newbie hikers is; what gear to pack for the journey.
While packing for hiking, the ground rule is to keep it as light as possible, so to remain comfortable and safe.
Now there are two scenarios here; what to pack for a one-day hiking trip and what to pack for multi-day hiking? Let’s go into detail.
A backpack is the first and foremost item needed for day hiking. Choose a backpack that can efficiently hold 11 to 20 liters of gear, ideal for short, one-day hikes. here is a guide about Best Osprey Backpack.
Pack your clothing as per the weather conditions of the trail. Make sure you are well prepared for unplanned weather and consider clothing that will protect you from rain, sun or snow.
When it comes to footwear, it really depends on personal choice. Some hikers prefer wearing trail runners, while others would opt for hiking boots. Go for training hikes and see which footwear feels comfortable to you. Many might think that hiking with trail runners is bizarre, but it is actually not. Trail runners are able to survive thousands of miles, even the most rugged terrains out there. As compared to heavy hiking boots, trail runners are much more reliable and comfortable for one-day hikes.
Pack snacks that will suffice you for day hiking and will be easy to carry on the trail.
How much water should you carry on your hike? - That’s a great question.
You can carry about 2 liters of water per person for a one -day hike. A hiker must drink around 1 liter of water every 2 hours, or more if hiking during warm climates. Carry aluminum or stainless steel bottles instead of plastic bottles and fill them up timely at water sources.
You will come across mesmeric terrains while hiking, and you might feel like capturing the beauty to cherish the moments. For that, we recommend that you carry your best point-and-shoot camera that is handy, lightweight and has an excellent zoom. There’s no point in hauling a 10 lbs. camera on the hike.
You will have to take plenty of toilet paper on the trails, as a matter of fact. Store them in a zip lock bag to keep them dry. Whenever you want to go for a #2, dig a cat hole with the help of a trowel. Remember to stay at least 200 feet away from a water source.
There are a few permit sections of trails that require you to carry your doings in a WAG bag. Sounds dreadful, but it actually isn’t. The bag has a deodorizer inside to neutralize the smell. A WAG kit is necessary on a few parts of the trails, as myriads of people visit every day.
Hiking expeditions can sometimes be risky, especially in the backcountry. Make sure to carry a first aid kit with you comprising of medicines, painkillers, band-aids, etc. to be safe. You should also carry a medical emergency guide that will help you perform proper first-aid with step-by-step instructions. You can also carry an emergency shelter for uncalled situations.
Always carry matches or a mechanical lighter in your supplies. Select waterproof matches, specially made for hiking purposes and store them in a sealed can. If the situation arises, make sure to pack dry tinder for firestarter purposes.
A small, bright headlamp will come in handy during hiking trips. Always check the batteries before heading out and also carry a lighter backup light source (like a smartphone).
Proper sun protection is an extremely important factor to consider during any backpacking adventure, even if the weather is cloudy. So, don’t forget to pack your sunglasses, SPF lip balm, sunscreen, hiking hat, etc. Select a sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 to protect your skin from UVB and UVA rays. Apply it every 2 hours.
Anything could happen when you’re out in the wilderness, so it’s good to be prepared. Carry tenacious tape, just in case you need to repair a torn tent, popped sleeping pad, backpack, dry bags, jackets, or any other fabric, rubber or vinyl-made gear.
The tape will prevent rips from spreading further. Go for a tape that has a non-gloss finish, as it will look almost invisible and you don’t have to worry about matching colors. You can also bring a small roll of duct tape for heavy-duty blister protection.
A small utility knife comes in handy to perform various tasks during backpacking trips. It's good to have an all-in-one tool (knife, can opener, tweezers, etc.) on the trails.
Make sure to carry a permit wherever necessary and keep it where it will be easily accessible. That’s because you have to show it to respective Park Rangers of the area.
Don’t forget to pack small toiletries and hygiene products such as toothpaste, travel toothbrush, hand sanitizer, etc, which are absolute needs.
Don’t forget to carry prescription medicines and menstrual products as well.
A small towel will come in handy to clean up after a long day’s hike. This will not only help you in maintaining proper hygiene, but also freshen up your mood. Make sure to never wash yourself directly in the lake or other water sources, as it is dangerous for the ecosystem and wildlife. Rather, walk a little further away from the water source, take a water bottle shower and use your small towel as a washcloth.
It's good to have some kind of entertainment, so you can just relax after a long day of hiking. You can carry journals along with you as well, to pen down your experiences on a trail.
Apart from all these listings, you can also carry a whistle (to signal for help in emergency situations), a garbage bag (to store garbage that you may create), toilet paper (it also serves as a firestarter), compass, maps, GPS, altimeter watch or other such navigational gear, binoculars, ID, cash, credit card, cellphone, trekking poles, etc.
For multi-day hikes, you might need to carry all the gear mentioned above, but what else?
Is there any extra gear needed for more than one day of hiking? The answer is; Yes. Here are a few things you need to add to your pack (along with things listed above):
A tent is one of the heaviest items that you will be carrying on your hike. Which is why it is important to choose a tent that focuses on keeping the weight down.
There are plenty of non-freestanding tents out there, deliberately designed for ultralight backpacking and thru-hikers. Single-wall shelters work exceptionally well in keeping the weight down, whilst being feature-packed and of comfortable size. These might take a little longer to set up, but they are extremely lightweight compared to traditional tents.
Whereas, double-wall freestanding tents are for those who are ready to carry some extra weight, but won’t compromise on convenience.
Many trails are situated at an elevated height, so you might feel cold, even during summer. If you plan to go hiking during late fall or early spring, you are likely to experience below freezing temperatures during the night. That’s when a sleeping bag will keep you warm. Make sure your chosen sleeping bag strikes a perfect balance between being warm and fairly lightweight. here is our guide about best sleeping bag for camping and hiking and best sleeping bag for couples.
During chilly hiking nights, a sleeping pad will make sure your body is insulated from the cold ground. Select an insulated sleeping pad featuring up to 3 or higher R-value.
Getting a good night’s sleep is a must and the right kind of camp pillow will make that possible for you on the trails. When it comes to a camp pillow, it really depends on your personal choice. Some hikers prefer inflatable pillows, whereas some like stuffed sack pillows. Stuffed sack pillows are comfy, feather light and come with the softness of a fleece layer. here is our guide for best camping pillow
A wet sleeping bag is a nightmare in itself. So, keeping the gear inside your backpack free from water is necessary on rainy days.
You can carry one or two large sized garbage bags for when the weather gets too harsh and you want to line the inner side of your pack. To make waterproofing easier, go for waterproof stuffed sacks that allow for quick organization.
Keeping weight to a minimum for a hiking trip is a must! And we can’t stress it enough.
Your kitchen setup also comes under the key area where you need to keep it down.
For a three-day hiking trip, you can take a 230-gram fuel canister with you to make coffee, dinner, soup or oatmeal.
For longer trips, carry a lightweight water purifier or filter that will suffice you from one water source to the next. Select a purifier that works fast and doesn’t include any chemicals, pumping or squeezing mechanisms.
Additionally, you can even take a few Chlorine Dioxide Pills, just in case your purification system loses battery, fails or breaks.
Mosquitos are bloodthirsty, vicious and quite annoying. While hiking in any of the lake areas, you might come across bugs, mosquitoes, etc., especially in the month of July and August. To avoid this, keep a small container of DEET or other insect repellent lotion with you. Also, spray Permethrin on your clothing, tent, sleeping bag and other gear to protect yourself.
For trips that are longer than a couple of days, you need to take a lightweight, small power bank. Devices that usually run on batteries such as cameras, phones, headlamps, etc., are likely to run out of battery, so it's better to have a backup.
To store all scented items (such as trash, toiletries, etc.) and food, you can take an approved bear canister with you or cooler.
Bear canisters are large enough to carry and store all your resupplies, and keep them safe from bears, raccoons and any other creature that is very much attracted to human food. And, these canisters also double as a stool. Avoid placing this canister near cliffs, lakes and rivers. You can strap the canister right on top of your backpack or even carry it inside.
Your backpack is another of the heaviest items you will be carrying for hiking, so it's important to choose a comfortable and lighter pack. We would recommend you to go for backpacks that weigh around 2 to 3 lbs. Such backpacks have simple frames and can handle up to 25 to 35 lbs. weight.
For short hikes on the terrain, go for up to 15 to 20 liters of daypack that will encompass lightweight clothing, a few snacks and water. For longer days in the wilderness, you will need more clothing, gear, water and food. So, opt for a pack having about 30 liters of capacity.
Choosing the right kind of apparel and footwear for hiking has to be an extremely essential factor of your planning. Anything you wear on your hike, from top to bottom, will make a huge difference on your entire hiking experience. It can either make it an amazing experience or a bad experience, sometimes even put you in danger.
Over-packing can lead to an uncomfortable hiking trip. So, make sure you pack only that which is necessary, which you can layer easily and avoid taking multiple things that fulfill the same purpose. It is better to take dry synthetic clothing that is washable and dry easily. Depending on your personal choice, you can pack hiking leggings, hiking pants, a long-sleeve shirt, a pair of hiking shorts, 2 to 3 t-shirts, 2 to 3 pairs of socks, 2 to 3 pieces of underwear, a warm hat, a sun hat and a pair of gloves for cold nights.
Before you begin your hike, the footwear you’re wearing is the most important thing to check. Regular running shoes won’t provide the much needed traction on the hikes, making you unstable on rocky and uneven terrains. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What type of hike are you heading to?
- What kind of trail is it?
- Are there any wet or cold conditions?
- Would you need an ample amount of ankle support in footwear?
Here are a few footwear options for you to choose from:
For hiking in mountain ranges during peak season, make sure you are armed with rain gear to prevent yourself against hypothermia. In such conditions, one must opt for a lighter rain shell with a puffy coat that provides adequate warmth. Such puffy jackets will come in handy even during summer backpacking trips. When the sun goes down, you can just throw on your hoodie.
Lightweight fleece is another excellent option for layering. During wet as well as cold climate, a fleece jacket will provide enough warmth when worn under the rain coat and puffy hoodie. But during summers, you probably won’t need one of these.
Depending upon the weather and temperature, your apparel will change. An effective way to adapt to the changing weather conditions is through layering. Design a system of layers to put on or remove as per the situation needs. Most basic layers are:
Avoid taking cotton clothing for hikes. Often, people assume cotton material to be a more reliable and practical choice. But it is actually not ideal for hiking. Why? Because when cotton material gets wet through rain or sweat, it will trap the cold, which might lead to hypothermia. So, it's better to ditch your denims and go for silk, nylon or woolen fabrics instead.
If you are a beginner, we would recommend you to head to a local area for hiking. Choose an area that is familiar and close to home. Research hilly areas and National Parks near to your home by checking National Park websites, travel blogs or tourism board sites.
Once you get enough experience, you can go for areas afar.
Check the elevation, difficulty level and rating of a hike before you go. You also need to determine your fitness level and capabilities. Talk to your physician if you are suffering from any medical condition and carry all your medicines on the hike.
The following tools will come in handy in finding new trails near you:
- Wikiloc.com: This website has detailed information regarding every trail on the list. You can narrow down your choices by filtering length, difficulty level and how you will be travelling to the trail. Trail listings have elevation information, suggestions, tips, comments and other crucial information along with interactive maps. But, information and data for remote areas or smaller towns might be limited.
- mapmyhike.com: On this website you will find various hikers have added notes and logged the hike that they’ve taken. You can search by your postal code and check if anyone has recently taken any trails.
- AllTrails: This is an app which connects to your phone's GPS. It will track your trail, measure the distance travelled, elevations reached, speed and much more. You can even save the hikes that you loved and share them with others.
- MyTopo: This is a website where you can find maps to download to your mobile or to print which will help you find your next trails.
- Local visitor’s centre: Most of the towns and cities will have a local visitor’s centre where you will find tons of data about the area. You can even get a hard copy of a trail guide for hiking and a couple of maps.
Hiking is a strenuous activity, so you’ll need to consume a lot of calories to keep up and retain your energy levels. That does not mean you over-pack your food. For a 2 to 3 week hiking trip, you should take breaks and resupply frequently along the trail.
Make a precise food plan and go for lighter meals such as couscous, mashed potatoes, rice mix, etc. We also recommend taking calorie-rich foods such as nuts, peanut butter, chocolate, etc. to go with your meals. Variety is the key here.
One question that pops up in every amateur hiker’s mind is;- how to navigate whilst hiking? And the answer to that is simple; through maps, a compass or modern-day equipment such as a GPS and other phone apps.
Before you begin your hike, you need to study the entire area and know about potential landmarks and elevation changes.
Trails that run over several miles will demand more than just a standard hiking map. In such a situation, hikers can make use of comprehensive maps offered by National Geographic. Most of these trail maps are compact, waterproof and contain key information regarding campsites, water sources, mileage, resupply locations and more. Getting your hands on a topographical map via US Geologic Service can also work. Apart from this, you can also carry a compass, just in case.
There are many GPS resources out there, such as user-updated GPS apps to help you derive on-trail information regarding campsites, water sources, tips, etc. You can also utilize handheld GPS units or GPS hiking watches that encompass mapping capabilities. These gadgets will make your hike more convenient.
Now, the real question is; how to navigate using your GPS unit while hiking?
The latest GPS units on the market are flooded with advanced features, so it's easy to get a bit overwhelmed, especially if you’re an amateur. Here we are going to look at the basic functions of a GPS unit and a few tips and tricks for accuracy and reception.
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It's important to remember that a GPS unit cannot really replace a compass or a map, rather it enhances the accuracy of your navigational skills with advanced technology. Hikers always need to carry a comprehensive map and a compass. For better accuracy in altitude and position, the GPS unit must get strong signals from at least 4 to 5 satellites.
The most common features found in every GPS receiver made for hiking are:
- Location: Almost every GPS receiver is accurately able to triangulate your exact position by receiving data transmission signals from multiple satellites. This data is generally displayed in coordinates: latitude and longitude or UTMs.
- Point-to-point navigation: A destination is termed as a “way-point”. With location function, one can determine a starting way-point. If you have established coordinates for the destination you’re headed to (via a website, book, map, mapping software, etc.), the GPS receiver will provide the distance to your destination, a straight-line along with point-to-point bearing. In reality, trails might not follow a straight line, so the bearing might change from time to time.
- Route navigation: Joining multiple way-points on the trail will help you navigate from point-to-point, with the help of distance guides and bearing on the way. As you reach your very first way-point, the GPS unit will direct you towards the next one.
- Track recording: This is one of the most important features to find in a GPS unit. The track recording feature will record a virtual trail of locations you’ve been to, which will help you retrace your steps. In some units, you can even configure your GPS to automatically provide track-points over specific intervals.
One of the most common problems hikers face on the go is poor signal strength. Here are a few tips and tricks on how to tackle this situation:
Whilst planning your hike, make sure you familiarize yourself with your GPS unit, so you don’t get confused in an unknown territory. Practice using the unit in a local park to know how it works. Do thorough research before buying your ideal GPS receiver. Check its features and get the one that meets your requirements as well as fits your budget.
On the trails that have plenty of elevation loss and gain, the trekking poles will aid you in such situations. Trekking poles reduce strain on your knees when there’s a long descent or ascent.
When you are setting up an ultralight tent system, these hiking sticks can also come in handy as your tent poles. Thereby, saving a considerable amount of weight.
Trekking poles will prove beneficial during long distance treks and hikes. Often, hikers tend to avoid taking trekking poles, although you’ll see skilled athletes and sky runners carrying trekking poles to climb high alpine terrains.
Carry trekking poles with you, and your legs will thank you!
Personally, we find collapsible poles more reliable than telescopic ones. That’s because, telescopic poles have small mechanical parts which are prone to getting lost, and, it also requires frequent assembling/disassembling which is time-consuming.
- Go for collapsible poles that will suit your height, instead of the adjustable ones.
- The best trekking poles are those which allow your arms to rest comfortably when placed at a 90-degree angle in front of you. If you feel even a slight strain or discomfort whilst reaching out to the poles, or if your arms form an acute angle when using them, then know that these poles are the wrong size.
- Another factor to consider is weight. Opt for lighter poles, as you don’t want to get fatigued easily. Poles featuring carbon shaft are durable as well as extremely lightweight.
Using trekking poles is quite simple.
- Make sure to utilize the wrist straps, often provided with the poles. These straps will keep pressure off your palm and wrist and will create the required pressure from your core. And, they also won’t cause the poles to slip from your hand during crucial moments.
- Use the poles with a light touch and tap the ground gently to make precise contact. Don’t lean on the pole entirely.
- The metal tip at the bottom is generally covered with a rubber tip to provide good grip in the rocky terrains and prevent the metal tip from scratches. Remove the rubber tip in ice or snow, as the inside metal tip will provide better grip here.
Hiking safety is the most important topic to cover in this hiking guide. Preparation is the first step. Make sure you train well, know where you’re headed to, wear proper apparel and always carry a map and compass, just in case technology fails you.
Indeed, hiking comes with a few risks. It’s your duty to be prepared and take necessary precautions:
Hiking for beginners can be tough, so it is better to find a partner if it’s your first time.
It’s quite natural to get frightened when you spot a bear while hiking. Such situations rarely lead to something serious or aggressive. That’s because, even bears are afraid of humans.
Follow these guidelines while heading to a bear country:
Not every new hiker makes these common mistakes, but it is always better to be aware.
If you want to know more about hiking, there are myriads of resources out there such as articles on the internet, TV shows, magazines, hiking guides, etc. Read as much information as you can about hiking and get yourself familiar with the hiking terms.
If done right, hiking is a mesmeric, life-changing experience, as it exposes you to nature and teaches you to survive in the wilderness. You get to meet new people, find out more about the culture of the area and many more things.
For sure, hiking comes with its own risks and challenges. But if armed with the right kind of information and gear, you are going to be just fine!
Hope this comprehensive hiking guide elucidates everything you need to know about hiking and motivates you to go out there and experience it!
Since the age of 10, Tim, a writer at Outdoor With J, has enjoyed camping in the great outdoors. Although he loves the peace and quiet of the outdoors, he also likes his creature comforts. Tim’s mission is to make camping a fun and comfortable experience for all. You can find more about him here