Hiking for Beginners: 10 Tips for the Trail
“I don’t have the experience.”
“I will do it when I know more.”
“I’m not in good enough shape.”
I can’t even count the number of times I have opted not to do something simply because I didn’t feel like I had the expertise I assumed was required. The thing about experts, is that they all started out in square one, just like the rest of us. The difference between an expert and a beginner is simply that the expert chose to take steps to move out of square one.
I am not an expert. But I have had my fair share of staying in square one because I didn’t think I was qualified to take a step forward.
Every time, the thing that used to keep me at home on my couch instead of chomping on trail mix in the wilderness, was feeling like I had to become an expert before I could even attempt to begin.
Sound familiar? If it does, then let me share my mistakes and fears with you so that you can feel equipped and qualified to get off the couch and go see something beautiful.
1. Put aside all of your unreasonable expectations, and just let yourself get outside – hike your own hike.
The Comparison Game is one that produces no winners, just regular people who feel terrible about themselves. I have this tendency to compare myself to everyone around me, which instantly results in a twelve-page list of my own shortcomings and inadequacies.
I can’t go for a day hike because this person on Instagram just spent a month in Nepal, and now a day hike sounds lame and sad.
Stop it. Stop it right now. You are on your own journey, at your own pace, and that is AWESOME. And that should be the ONLY thing you are worrying about right now.
So right now, decide what you think you are capable of, and write it down. 2 miles of flat ground? Spectacular. Up for a 5 miler with a little elevation gain? Equally spectacular. Planning a 12 day trip in the Alps? Also equally spectacular. The point is you are getting out and hitting the trail. Figure out what works for you, and start there.
2. Be kind to your feet.
I have a friend who wore solid leather, non-breathable Danner work boots on a two-day trip in the very rugged terrain of Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness. He instantly got a blister on the pad of his foot, and said nothing. The blister grew, and he decided the best method would be to stomp as hard as he could on every sharp rock he passed, to try to pop the blister, while still wearing his boots. This was day one. His method was slightly flawed, and by the end of the 2 days, he had the biggest, grossest, most horrifying blister I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’ve practiced some pretty bad footcare in my days. By the end he could barely walk. He had blisters within blisters within blisters. Seriously, I’d never seen anything like it before. The entire bottom of his foot looked like hamburger. I really wish I was exaggerating. The image still haunts my dreams.
Wear shoes you know are comfortable on your feet, make sure they are breathable, and wear moist-wicking socks (never cotton!). If you start to get a hot spot and you think it might turn to a blister, do everything you can to take care of it before it becomes a blister. Just the other day I was snowshoeing and stripped down to my bare feet in 25 degrees so I could tape my heel. Your feet have to carry you in and out – be nice to them! And please, for the love of all that is good in the world, don’t stomp on rocks to try to pop your blister.
3. Please bring toilet paper (and pack it with you when you leave).
A friend told me about an unspoken rule amongst loggers. If someone comes out of the woods missing a sleeve, don’t say a word. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but there are ways to prevent extreme moments of desperation. I don’t have that much room to talk. I was on a quick 45 minute out and back scramble early one morning, and I brought nothing with me. I could survive anything for 45 minutes (or so I thought), and I wanted to travel light. I almost had to use my sock (sorry logger friends, I was wearing a tank top), but thankfully I made it back in time. Bring a zip lock baggie with some TP, and bring a second baggie to pack out the TP you use. You might think that seems gross, but trust me, walking around a corner and finding it littered with the TP of dozens of hikers is significantly more disgusting. Don’t be that guy. And no one wants to have to use their sleeve.
4. Do your research.
Select a hike you know will work for you. Find the right mileage, elevation gain, etc. In addition, check weather reports (and don’t ignore them), how popular the hike is, the condition of the road leading up to the trailhead, whether or not dogs allowed, current trail conditions, estimated time to complete the hike, and things like if wild animals have been spotted on the trail recently. And most importantly, use that information to help better prepare yourself for the hike. Don’t be like me and ignore all research because you saw a pretty picture on Instagram. Also, don’t assume your hiking buddy did all the research and will fill you in later, like my sister and I do every single time we hit the trail.
5. Bring the Ten Essentials
A friend of mine who was just getting into hiking hit me up for a day hike. We’d met for coffee not too long before our hike and I uttered the stupidest words imaginable, “it’s such a short hike, I won’t even bother bringing things like the ten essentials.”
Looking back, I want to punch my past self in the face. We were planning to do a 7-mile, well-populated trail to an alpine lake. I packed water, food, TP and my camera. Literally nothing else. When we got to the lake, it was so early in the day we decided to push another 4 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation to the upper lake. This portion of the trail was very secluded. It was early in the year and not may people had made it up there yet due to snow levels. What started out as a quick and easy hike had turned into a strenuous 14-mile hike, and my friend was a total hiking novice. I knew I could push myself that hard, but I took a pretty big chance pushing her that hard. Luckily, she is a beast and despite tripping and falling into the bushes, we had no real mishaps. We were back to our cars four hours later than expected, but we were safe and sound. That trip could have ended VERY differently, and I’m really grateful that my stupidity didn’t get us in a dangerous situation. Make sure to always bring these things with you, no matter how short your hike is:
Navigation (map & compass)
Sun protection (sunglasses & sunscreen)
Insulation (extra clothing)
Fire (waterproof matches/lighter)
Repair kit and tools
Nutrition (extra food)
Hydration (extra water)
Emergency shelter (tent/plastic tube tent/garbage bag)
Read more about the 10 essentials here.
6. Find a hiking buddy.
Not only is it safer to hike with a buddy, but it can be a lot more fun to share those moments with someone. Make sure your adventure buddy knows what they are getting into, comes prepared, and has a personality that you know you will get along with. Try not to bring someone you will hope gets eaten by a bear.
7. Understand Trail Etiquette and Leave No Trace
I use hiking as a way to cope with life. An escape from reality, a way to deal with anxiety and depression, and to get away from the busyness and distractions that cloud my mind in normal day to day life. No one wants to deal with annoying people on the trail. But how many people are even aware they are being annoying or breaking trail etiquette? Here are a few rules to abide by:
Pack it in, pack it out. Don’t leave ANYTHING behind.
If you need to listen to music, use earbuds. Please don’t blast music for the entire mountain range.
If the trail is narrow, the people coming up have the right away. If you’re headed down, step aside and let them by. If you aren’t sure who has the right away, go ahead and be the bigger person and move over.
Don’t pet or feed the wildlife.
Make sure you are at least 200 feet away from trail, campsite, and water source before taking care of your business.
8. Bring delicious food.
I unashamedly motivate myself with food. I am a huge believer in snacks. Getting tired? Have a snack. And make it a good snack. Not feeling well? Snack. Good snack. You also burn a lot of calories on the trail and need to replenish them to keep your energy levels up. Make sure you give your body the fuel it needs! I like to have a summit snack – something delicious that I can look forward to, that makes it feel like a celebration. I also keep a delicious snack in the car for a reward when the hike is complete. And sometimes another snack at home to reward myself for getting home. I really like snacks.
9. Don’t bring the kitchen sink.
There are a lot of things you do need to bring with you on the trail, but there are also a lot of things you will think you need but you don’t. Sure, it may be really nice to have your down blanket in case you get stranded overnight. However, the chances of that happening are very slim, and you will really appreciate the difference in weight by just bringing a small emergency blanket. You don’t need to bring clothes for every possible weather condition – bring the basics, and leave the unnecessary things at home. This is one of the really big perks of doing your research before the hike. Know what you will need, bring the essentials for an emergency, and enjoy a bit of minimalism for the day.
10. Remember to have fun.
The whole point of getting outside is to relax, breathe, and see something beautiful. Don’t lose sight of what is important. Just be present in the moment and savor the beauty around you.