Hiking – The Essential Beginner’s Guide

Beginners guide to hiking

Hiking is a fantastic activity for physical and mental health. Most people can go for a walk in nature. But there are some things to consider before heading out into the forest.

My husband and I were hiking on the weekend and came across a young couple. They did not look prepared for hiking. They actually looked as if they had just come from church or a meeting of some sort. The gentleman had on a pair of loafers and both were in perfectly ironed cotton clothing.

The couple stopped us to ask “how much further?” It was obvious that they were new to hiking and didn’t know the area. They were headed into some very wet and somewhat rugged terrain. Thus, the idea for this article was born. I wish they would have read something like this before they headed out there.

Tee Harbour, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

Benefits of Hiking

There is nothing better than walking among the trees. I feel so relaxed and at peace when I am out in the forest. There is a reason for the expression “Happy Trails!”. Science tells us time and again that walking outdoors is good for our brain and mental health. But I never needed researchers to tell me that.

Hiking is also a great cardio workout. You are essentially walking for hours, which is great for your heart, blood pressure and hormones. There are usually some hills and inclines along the route. Hiking builds fitness, strengthens bones, burns calories and helps control weight.

10 Benefits of hiking:

  1. Improves overall fitness
  2. Reduce stress
  3. Improves mood
  4. Helps curb anxiety and depression
  5. Build strong muscles and bones
  6. Lower blood pressure
  7. Improves balance
  8. Makes you smarter and more creative
  9. Weight loss
  10. Helps control blood sugar levels

Happy Trails!

forest, walk, soothe soul, quote
Into the forest I go, to calm my mind and soothe my soul.

Planning your hike

If you are new to hiking, there are a few things to consider before you head out onto the trails.

How long will you be hiking

New hikers should start with short easy hikes of an hour or two. You can build up to going further later, but start with shorter hikes. I have seen unprepared people on trails, such as the couple I mentioned earlier, who are exhausted and asking “how much further?”. Don’t get caught off guard. It is dangerous to be exhausted and unprepared out in the bush with few people around. For successful planning, you need to know how long it will take you.

It will depend on the terrain, but an easy 5 km trail should take the average beginner about 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on your current level of fitness. Hiking on trails always takes longer than walking on pavement. So if you take 1 hour to walk 5 km around your neighborhood, then plan for about 1.5 hours on an easy trail.

Don’t feel obligated to start with 5 km. There are plenty of fantastic trails that are shorter. I have hiked out to some beautiful waterfalls that were less than 1 km from the parking lot. Start where you are at. But know that the further you go, the more planning you need to do.

Lower waterfall at Gooseberry State Park, MN
Lower Gooseberry Falls in Minnesota is less than 1 km from the parking lot.

Hike with a friend and tell someone where you are going

Hiking with a friend is not only more enjoyable, it is also safer. Trails can be uneven and slippery at times, so a sprained ankle or fall can happen. A friend can help you hobble out of the bush, if need be. Or they can go for help if you are more seriously injured.

The other reason to hike with a friend or in a group is that you are more of a threat to larger predators, such as cougars or bears. These animals are less likely to mess with you if you are making noise, talking and in a group. If you are alone, bear bells or singing are some ways to let wildlife know you are around.

Always tell someone not going with you where you are going and when you are expected to be back. Tell someone even if you are hiking with a friend. It is possible for you and your friend to get lost and need help. If you are not back safely in a reasonable time, someone should be able to send out a search party. This person should be able to tell the search party your planned route to make it easier to find you.

Cell phones usually don’t work in the bush.

Choosing a Trail

The fun part is choosing your adventure. I love hiking and exploring new areas.

If you have no idea where to look, you can ask around locally or do a search online. Here are some suggestions on where to start looking for a great trail…

  • Local tourist information
  • Provincial or State Parks
  • Hiking Clubs
  • Local stores that sell hiking gear
  • Google search for “area name” hikes
  • Google maps search “hiking” or “hikes”
  • Mobile apps for hiking trails

Once you find an interesting trail, be sure to check the distance, difficulty and expected time to complete the hike.

Level of difficulty

A good trail source will tell you the level of difficulty. These are usually graded from easy to extreme. The difficulty is related to the terrain. Some trail rating systems also factor in distance and maintenance.

Easy:

An easy trail is usually a well established trail with no steep sections. They are usually well marked and maintained. Easy trails are traditionally shorter trails suitable for a half day hike.

Moderate:

A moderate trail is usually well established with some steep sections or sections that are more rugged. A moderate trail can sometimes be a longer trail that would otherwise be considered easy except for the distance. Moderate trails are usually full day hikes.

Difficult:

A difficult trail is not for beginners. There are usually significant elevations or distance. However, a difficult trail is usually maintained. Some difficult trails can be completed within a day by experienced hikers.

Extreme:

An extreme trail is only for experienced hikers in excellent physical condition. Trails usually have sections of very steep slopes. These are usually longer trails that might not be maintained. Technical skills may be needed, such as navigation or rock climbing abilities.

Beginners should start with an EASY trail.

Top of the Giant, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ontario

Weather

It is extremely important to check the weather forecast before you start out on your hike. Check it before you decide on which day. But be aware that the weather can change, so check it again on the day of your hike, just before heading out.

Weather extremes can make a hike miserable and dangerous. Avoid hiking in both hot and cold extremes. The perfect hiking weather is about 10 – 12 degrees Celcius (50 – 55 degrees Fahrenheit) and overcast without rain.

Overcast weather protects you from the heat and glare of the sun. You should still wear sunscreen for UV protection, as clouds don’t filter UV rays. The shade of cloud cover also is easier on your eyes. Bring a good pair of sunglasses anyways though.

Cooler temperatures help keep you comfortable. Hiking is exercise and your body will heat up. Usually your body will feel several degrees hotter than the outside temperature. Wear layers that you can take off or put on depending on how you feel.

Hot weather

If it is sunny and hot outside, take extra water to stay hydrated. Slow down your pace so that your body doesn’t get as hot. Consider hiking in the early morning or evening to avoid the heat of mid-day. Hike in areas that are shaded. Be aware of signs of heat stroke such as a rapid heart rate, headache, dizziness, muscle cramps or a lack of sweating.

Cold weather

Dress in layers. Take extra food to keep your body fueled. Hike at a faster pace to take advantage of your body’s ability to generate heat. Be aware of signs of hypothermia such as shivering, slurred speech, slow breathing, clumsiness, lack of energy, and weak pulse.

Storms

Consider postponing your hike if a storm is approaching. If a sudden storm hits when you are out hiking, then you need to be aware and prepared. When lighting strikes are occurring, count the seconds after the flash to the time of thunder. If it is less than 30 seconds, hike to a low lying area immediately. Put down any hiking poles and remove your backpack. Stand in an area where the trees are shorter. Crouch into a fetal position with only the rubber soles of your shoes touching the ground if lightening strikes are eminent.

Choosing the right pack

I have several packs that I use for half day, all day or overnight hikes. I will admit that I don’t do any overnight hiking anymore, as my old back doesn’t do well sleeping on the hard ground. But, I still have my pack for it should the mood strike me again.

You want the smallest pack for the length of your hike and your needs. The larger the pack, the more it weighs. You want to keep it light because you will be carrying it the entire distance. A heavy pack will have you considering whether or not to throw it off into the bush when you are tired. Don’t do that!

Hour-or-less hikes

I usually just carry a small hand held water bottle and maybe a nutrition bar in my pocket. No specialized packs are needed. However, there are these cool smaller water bottles that have a strap for your hand so you don’t have to always be gripping the bottle. That can be tiring after a while.

Half day hikes

A bum pack or small backpack is usually big enough for a half day hike. I can fit water, snack, small first aid kit and emergency blanket in there.

Full day hikes

Full day hikes require a backpack. You will want it to fit all the necessary items, plus some of the layers that you may want to take off as the day gets warmer. You can also get hydration backpacks that have a water bladder and straw for easy access to water.

Overnight hikes

These type of hikes require much larger back packs. Since this is a Guide for Beginners, I won’t go into details about overnight hiking here. It takes much more planning and preparing than I can write in this guide. I don’t recommend overnight hiking if you are just starting out. It is also costly to get all the right lightweight specialized gear for sleeping and cooking. That said, overnight hiking is fun and I encourage you to explore this idea once you have more experience with day hiking.

Look for good quality

When you buy your pack, look for good quality that will last you several years. Double stitching will help hold the seams together. And test out the zippers and fasteners. You want sturdy zippers and clips that will stand the test of time. Canvas is sturdier than nylon, but nylon is lighter weight and less expensive. Nylon is not very durable. If you buy nylon, make sure it is rip-stop.

Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Nutrition on the Trail

Water

Water is essential for hikes. Even if you hike for less than an hour, you should take some water with you. You may not need it, but if you get lost, you will be very thankful you brought it.

We lose water as we exercise through breathing and sweat. The greater the exertion and the longer we exercise, the more water we lose.

A general guideline is to take 1 Liter of water for every 2 hours of hiking time. This varies from person to person and with weather conditions. Note that water is heavy to carry, so it is not always better to take more than you need. Just take what you need.

Signs of dehydration include thirst, dry mouth, lack of energy, headache, dizziness, cramps and can even lead to seizures and collapse in severe cases.

Snacks

Along with water, we also lose electrolytes, or salts, through exercise. Our muscles also use sugars, specifically glucose, when we exercise. After long distances, your body will start to use fat for energy, once the sugars are depleted.

Salts and sugars need to be replenished if you are hiking for more than a couple of hours. Fats and proteins should be considered if you are doing day hikes.

Take foods that are lightweight, convenient, not messy or sticky and easy to eat. Healthy ideas for snacks include:

  • nuts and seeds
  • dried fruit or fruit bars
  • trail mix
  • energy, protein or granola bars
  • fresh, ready to eat fruits and vegetables
  • whole grain cereals or granola
  • rice cakes or whole grain crackers

What to wear?

What you wear can make a hike enjoyable or make it miserable, so choose wisely. You don’t need to buy a lot of fancy or specialized hiking gear. I want you to just go and enjoy being out in nature. But you should be aware of some basic things first.

On Your Feet

You will be walking in the bush for hours, so make sure your feet are comfortable and protected. Trail terrain isn’t always sturdy, so you want something on your feet that will provide traction and grip the trail.

Shoes

Your shoes are the most important piece of hiking gear. You want to wear something that is comfortable, but will give you support, traction and protection on the trails.

There are many different types from shoes to boots, depending on preference, terrain and how deep you go into the bush. For the beginner, a well-fitting and comfortable pair of hiking shoes or trail runners should do the trick. These shoes are a little lighter in weight. A heavier weighted shoe will cause your legs to tire sooner.

If you are prone to ankle injuries, look for a good hiking boot with ankle support.

You will want to look for a shoe or boot that gives you a little bit of waterproofing. No shoe is 100% waterproof as water can seep in through lace grommets or up over the top of the shoe. But, you at least want to try to keep your feet dry for as long as possible. Wet feet can lead to blisters and sores.

Your hiking shoes or boots should fit snug, but not tight. You don’t want your feet to slide around in the shoe. Your feet may swell as you hike, so you do want a little wiggle room at the start.

My well-used hiking boots and trail runners.

Socks

Socks are almost as important as your shoes. Take your time choosing the right pair of socks. I have talked about running socks previously in another article. Some of the same principles apply to hiking socks, although hiking socks are usually a little thicker.

You want your hiking socks to keep your feet dry, prevent blisters, and add some cushioning.

Do not wear cotton socks. Cotton socks hold moisture, stay wet, slide around in your shoes and are notorious for causing blisters.

Buy a good pair of socks that are meant for hiking. You will thank me for this. These socks are usually made from a thicker synthetic material or wool. You want a crew length sock for hiking. This height protects part of your leg from scratches of bushes or rocks and absorbs any sweat that trickles down.

Whatever sock you choose, it is worth repeating…

No Cotton Socks!

For full day hikes, it is a good idea to pack a spare pair of socks in your backpack in case your feet get wet.

Rainbow Falls Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

On Your Body

You want to be comfortable on your hike and prepare for weather conditions. Look at the weather forecast and prepare for some possible changes even if just hiking for the day.

Just like socks, you should avoid cotton clothing and jeans. Cotton holds moisture and can get wet and heavy during your hike from sweat or rain. Jeans are usually made from cotton denim and can get very heavy when wet. Your jeans may be comfortable, but, trust me, the weight of them will tire you after a while. You can probably get away with wearing them for short hikes.

You don’t need to purchase special hiking clothes. Just wear what you have at home already. Workout gear is great for hiking. Wear comfortable, lightweight and quick drying clothing for the best hiking experience.

Shirts & Jackets

Wear a wicking shirt as your base layer to pull sweat away from your body. These are made of synthetic or wool fabric. They are designed to handle moisture. You can get these in most sports, athletic or outdoor stores.

It is always best to wear long sleeve shirts to protect you from the sun. If the weather is hot and you just cannot wear long sleeves, then be sure to put on sunscreen.

Dress in layers

If you are starting out in the cool morning and expect the day to warm up as you go, wear layers so that you can easily remove layers as the day warms up.

The opposite is true if you are starting in the afternoon and hiking into the late evening when it is cooling down. Be sure to pack some warmer layers to put on as it cools off.

Sports bras

For women, a good sports bra is essential for comfort. You may be ducking under branches or climbing over rocks. So keep the girls tucked in nice and comfortably tight. Sports bras will also wick sweat away from your skin. And if it gets really warm out, you can strip down to just your sports bra without looking suspiciously naked.

Light rain or wind jacket

A light rain jacket thrown into your pack is a good idea too. You never really know when those rain clouds will come rolling in. If it is a beautiful day with no sign of rain, throw one of those plastic rain ponchos or a large plastic bag into your pack, just in case. A light jacket will also protect you from a cold wind.

Hiking in cooler weather

If you are hiking in cooler weather a merino wool base layer is wonderful. It will keep you warm and dry. Merino wool can hold a tremendous amount of moisture before you start to feel wet. Dressing in warmer layers is even more important for fall or winter hiking, as you start cold and warm up with the effort of hiking. Avoid wearing a heavy winter jacket. Your layers should keep you warm with a lighter wind-resistant jacket on top.

Pants or shorts

It is also a good idea to dress in layers on the bottom too.

Underwear

Cotton undies will be soggy and uncomfortable after a few hours out in the bush. It can also cause chaffing, which you don’t want. Synthetic quick dry underwear is best for hiking. They don’t have to be expensive, but they should be comfortable and keep you dry.

Consider wearing long underwear in cooler temperatures. Merino wool is great for this too, but other wicking fabrics will also work to keep you dry.

Shorts

Wearing a pair of athletic shorts under longer pants is a perfect way to prepare for all kinds of weather. Snug fitting bottoms will help prevent branches and brush from snagging on fabric. Bike shorts or yoga shorts are perfect for this.

Long pants

Longer leggings or tights are great for a top layer. Synthetic fabric pants are also an option. Some are wind-resistant as well.

Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

On Your Head

The top of your head loses a lot of body heat. It can also become sun burnt easily, even if you have thick hair. You will want to wear a hat or something that covers your head.

Hat

I like wearing a brimmed hat. Just like other pieces of clothing, I avoid cotton hats. My favorite hats are the ones I wear for running, as they are light weight and quick dry.

Reasons to wear a hat:

  • a brimmed hat shades your face and head from sun
  • a brimmed hat helps protect your eyes from sun, wind and rain
  • protects your head and face from branches and falling debris, such as leaves and bird poop
  • warmth
  • keeps sweat from dripping into your eyes
  • helps keep bugs, including ticks, away from your head

Fabric tube or Buff

Another option is a fabric tube, or Buff. These are versatile and handy. You can wear them on your head to keep sweat off your face and neck. You can put it over your mouth and nose if the trail is dusty. And they can be used like a scrunchy to keep your hair back. The only down side of a Buff is that there is no brim for added sun and rain protection of your eyes and face.

Sunglasses

A decent pair of UV protective sunglasses are a must. You may be out in the sun for hours, so you need to protect your eyes. Even if it is overcast or the trees shade out the bright sun, you will still be exposed to UV rays. Your eyes will get tired and sore if you don’t wear sunglasses.

Safety and Basic First Aid on the Trail

It is a good idea to pack a basic first aid kit when you are hiking. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it should cover for some minor scrapes and blisters. You can purchase a small pocket sized first aid kit, but I prefer to pack my own. Here is what I usually take:

Basic First Aid Kit

  • 2 different sizes of band-aids
  • packets or small bottle of skin disinfectant
  • roll of gauze
  • small tube of first aid ointment
  • roll of bandage tape

Take a Space Blanket

Consider packing an emergency or space blanket. Those are the little silver sheets of thin foil. They are inexpensive, compact and can be tremendously handy. They really do keep you warm by reflecting your body heat back into you. You can also use them for a make-shift shelter from rain. And they can act as a perfect ground cover to give you a dry place to sit or lay down.

Pack a Whistle

Pack a small whistle or bear bells. Making noise on the trail is a good idea to let wildlife know you are around. There is a bit of controversy about whether bear bells actually work or not. Talking and singing can do the same thing. A whistle can help frighten away wildlfe if needed. It can also help alert someone if you are in danger or need assistance. A whistle is handy and easy to pack.

Stay Alert!

Your best safety tools on the trails are your eyes and ears. Stay alert. Hike during the daytime to avoid darkness. Watch for wildlife, especially bears. And keep an eye on the clouds to watch for any sudden changes in weather.

A Few Words about Bear Spray

Bear spray is an concentrated aerosol pepper spray used to deter bears. It is very potent. If you don’t know what you are doing with bear spray, it can be dangerous. There is a reason why sporting good stores keep that stuff behind the counter. It is a weapon.

Unskilled users have been known to spray themselves in the face with the spray. That is exactly what you do not want to do. Spraying into the wind can blow the pepper spray back into your face, leaving you temporarily blinded in a bad situation.

If you are new to hiking, forget the bear spray. I have hiked for most of my life and never needed bear spray.

View from walking trail near Lake Superior
Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

Leave no trace, take only pictures

Leave no trace. Pack out all your garbage. If everyone left just one gum wrapper, the forests would be filled with gum wrappers over time. It may seem small, but it adds up. Take everything you brought in out with you.

Any natural thing you find, leave there. In the same way, if everyone took out one rock or one stick, there would be nothing left over time. Leave it there for others to enjoy. You wouldn’t remove art from a museum, so don’t remove anything from nature’s museum. Take only pictures.

Be respectful of nature

Stay on the trail so that you don’t trample delicate or young plants. It is safer and easier to stay on a cleared trail. You are also less likely to get lost.

Don’t write your name in a tree or on rock. That defaces nature. People hike into the bush to enjoy nature. They don’t want to look at graffiti of who’s been there. Sign the guest registry at the start of the trail and leave it at that.

Going to the bathroom in the bush

If you are hiking for hours, chances are you will need a potty break. If there are no outhouses on the trail, go at least 200 feet from streams or lakes to a secluded area off the trail. Air dry or pack out any used toilet paper or hygiene products.

If you need to defecate in the bush, dig a hole at least 6 inches deep and cover it up afterwards with dirt. It is always handy to pack a small amount of toilet paper in a little plastic bag just in case it is needed. For part-day hikes, I usually try to go before the hike.

Taking your dog on the trail

Keep your dog on leash!

LEASH! There I said it. It may be tempting to let your dog run in the bush, but it is really bad for the environment, wildlife and other hikers.

Think about it for a minute. If your dog is not on the end of its person and running through the bush, other hikers may mistake it for dangerous wildlife. Dogs can look like a wolf or even a small bear when glanced at from the corner of your eye. I have had this happen to me multiple times. A dog happily bounds out of the bush right in front of me. It takes several seconds to realize that it is a dog. That very brief moment of confusion sends my heart into my throat and spikes my adrenaline. Not fun! And the sudden adrenaline rush makes me very cranky.

Off-leash dogs also chase wildlife. A grouse, rabbit or squirrel makes a great game for a dog, not so much for the small critter. Worst case, the dog catches the animal and mauls it. Then you are left with injured wildlife. What are you going to do then?

Your dog may also get injured. Skunks and porcupines live in the forest. Beavers, wolves, lynx, cougars and bears live in the forest too. Your dog can get into a heap of trouble by tangling with some of the wildlife. It is hard to rush your dog to the vet if you are deep into the forest and have to quickly trek out carrying an injured dog.

Pick up after your dog!

Take some baggies to pick up after your dog. Remember, leave no trace! This applies to dog poop too. Yes, it will decompose with time. But that takes a lot of time to happen. In the meantime, no one wants to smell or step in it. It also has an environmental impact because dogs eat commercial dog food, not food items in the forest. This contaminates the environment with nitrogen and phosphorus that build up and affect the ecosystem.

Dog food and water

Don’t forget to pack water and food for your dog too. And consider the breed of dog. Some breeds are meant for activities such as hiking and running, others are not. I cover this topic in my Essential Guide to Running with Your Dog. Some of the same considerations should be made for hiking with your dog.

This is Cheech enjoying the trees. Photo courtesy of Mairi Gerow.

Happy Trails

I hope you found this guide helpful. Hiking is a wonderful way to stay fit and find happiness. It is one of my favorite forms of fitness, besides running.

Click here to download a free Day Hike Checklist.

The young couple I told you about at the beginning, shortened their hike after talking with us about the trail conditions. They were lucky and made it back safely without incident.

I hope you have fun out on the trails. Be safe! And be sure to come back and tell us about your adventures in the comments below.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.