Whether you’re brand new to hiking and aren’t sure where to begin, or here to brush up on things, I’m happy you’re here.
I understand that hiking for beginners can be overwhelming. In fact, I once stood in your shoes. It seemed like there was a lot to learn- how to find trails, the proper gear to wear, how to stay safe and minimize our impact on the environment, the list goes on.
That is why I’ve put together this extensive guide to hiking for beginners. I’ll teach you how to find the best trails for you, how to leave no trace, and what to pack to stay comfortable and safe.
My goal by the end of this guide is to prepare you for your first (or next) hike and help you gain the confidence to set foot on any trail! Keep scrolling for some of the best hiking tips for beginners.
WHAT IS HIKING?
To start, let’s define hiking and the different types you can choose from.
Hiking is one of the best ways to disconnect and experience nature. It allows you to reach destinations only accessible by foot. Places full of views some only dream about, and places full of history you wouldn’t otherwise know about.
The definition of hiking is “the recreational activity of walking in nature”. Basically meaning a long walk in the country, desert, or woods that isn’t on a road or sidewalk. Some hikes have paved paths but most will be on dirt or rock trails.
You’ll find hikes in all different lengths and difficulties, so below is a breakdown to better understand each.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF HIKES
- Day Hikes are what most people are doing and referring to when they mention hiking. Day hikes are done in a single day and can range from a 1-12+ mile journey.
- Backpacking is commonly used in lieu of trekking, but both mean the same thing. It is a multi-day journey into nature. These consist of carrying all of your gear with you and staying the night in the wilderness. Backpacking trips are great for reaching destinations too far for you to reach via a day hike. Trips can last anywhere from one night to months at a time.
- Thru-Hikes are long treks where you start and end at different locations. These trips tend to be weeks to months long and are bucket-list trips for most backpackers. The most popular US thru hikes are the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and Arizona Trail.
Since this guide covers hiking for beginners, we’ll be focusing on day hiking. Day hikes happen to be my cup of tea and are the perfect way to begin your outdoor journey.
THE 3 LEVELS OF HIKES
Almost every day hike is categorized by its level of difficulty. This helps hikers determine if they think they’re capable of completing the hike. Below are the 3 main levels of hikes you’ll come across.
- Beginner or Easy hikes are typically well groomed trails, easy to follow, not too long in distance, and don’t climb too much elevation (relatively flat).
- Intermediate or Moderate hikes are geared toward slightly more experienced hikers who can handle the higher elevation, light scrambling, rocky/uneven trails, and longer distances. These hikes tend to get your heart rate up and some route finding skills may be needed.
- Experienced or Difficult hikes can be a combination of very steep trails that burn your muscles, class 3+ scrambles, rocky/uneven trails, or long distances. Route finding skills are essential for the trail may be difficult to follow or nonexistent.
It is important to remember that the classification of hikes can be very subjective. Every one of us have different skill sets and fitness levels. But, they really do help us in determining what hikes we are comfortable going on and is a good starting point.
If you’re starting out as a beginner hiker I suggest choosing a beginner or easy hike to get a feel for it and gain more experience, then work your way up from there.
*Disclaimer: the below links may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive commissions if you choose to purchase through my links I provide (at no extra cost to you). Please see my disclosure for more info.
HIKING FOR BEGINNERS: HOW TO FIND HIKING TRAILS
Now that you understand the types and difficulties of hikes, it is time to find a trail! But where do you start?
Luckily there are a ton of resources online to help you. Below are some of the best ways to find beginner hiking trails.
- AllTrails is the most popular website/app for trail searching and planning. You can find trails nearby you on the map, or search based on difficulty, area, length, and more. Users can “track” their routes and upload pictures and reviews. Reading the reviews can help you determine any recent changes in the trail and get an idea for the hike. It is important to note that AllTrails uses crowdsourcing for its stats and routes, which is fine, but it can create inconsistencies.
- National and State Park Websites are great resources if you are visiting one. Simply visit the park’s website and look under “hikes”. Most will list all, or at least the most popular, trail options within the park.
- Blogs can provide in depth tips, stats, and photos from first-hand experiences. Good trail guides or hike reviews will give you more information than what is on AllTrails. Of course I may be biased ;), but blogs were always my go-to for hike research and inspired me to create mine!
- Facebook Groups are a great way to learn about hikes near you since most hiking/adventure groups focus on an area or State. Users post photos, information, and ask questions regarding local hikes. You may even find some people to hike with!
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN BEGINNER HIKING TRAILS
When searching for your first hiking trail there are a couple things you should keep in mind. You’re just getting your feet wet so you don’t want to start out too difficult!
- Consider the mileage of the hike. You don’t want to start out with super long trails, so aim for 1-3 miles and let your body get a feel for how far that is. Give your feet time to adjust to the terrain and extra weight from your hiking backpack.
- Low Elevation Gain. For beginner hikers I’d suggest climbing no more than 500 feet in elevation gain for the first hike.
- Find an urban trail to start. Urban trails are the trails in the vicinity of the city, sometimes paved, but well groomed and populated. I’d stay away from backcountry trails for your first hike and instead work your way up to them.
- Find a beginner or easy rated hike and work your way up from there!
OUT AND BACK VS. LOOP HIKES
When researching hikes you will find the terms round trip, out and back, and loop. They can get confusing especially when you’re trying to understand their stats. Are the stats one way, or a total?
- Round trip usually means you hike to a destination and then turn around and go back the way you came. You start and end at the same trailhead. The round trip stats should include both legs of the hike, or “there and back”.
- Out and Back means the same thing as round trip. You hike out to the destination ,or end of trail, and then back to the trailhead. The out and back stats should include the total of both ways.
- Loop Hikes start and end at the same trailhead too, however it is continuous, and you don’t turn around. They’ll usually make a big squiggly circle on the map!
HIKING 101: STEPS TO TAKE BEFORE ANY HIKE
There are some steps I religiously take before setting out on a hike. Doing so can make all the difference in having a smooth adventure, and I highly suggest them for beginner hikers.
This is by no means a complete list and you may find something else you’d like to add. A lot of this is trial and error, and learning from your own experiences. But I hope the points below will help you get a good start on planning your beginner hike!
- Check the weather before leaving. Beginner hikes are more enjoyable in sunny/overcast, comfortable weather. Wind, rain, or snow may ruin your experience when first starting out. Regardless of your preferences in hiking weather, you’ll at least know what to pack and how to prepare for your first hike!
- Research the road conditions. Weather does play a big factor in road conditions, however some roads are crappy regardless. Sometimes it is a dirt road with a bad washboard, lots of pot holes, 4×4 with high clearance only, the list goes on. Getting an idea of what the ride to the trailhead is like is important because some of us may not have vehicles equipped for it!
- Are there permits required? A lot of trails will require certain passes or permits. When researching for your hike keep an eye out for this so you can plan ahead and arrive prepared.
- Download any maps / routes. I ALWAYS suggest having a map, especially for hiking for beginners. You should always have a paper map, but I also use the Gaia GPS app to track my routes and so I can see exactly where I am on the trail.
- Check if dogs are allowed! There are a lot of parks and trails where dogs are not permitted. If you plan on bringing yours along you’ll want to know this ahead of time because it can determine what hike you do.
- Tell someone your itinerary! Every single time you set out to hike, solo or with a partner, you should always leave your itinerary with someone incase of emergency. It is also a good idea to leave a copy in your car incase of search and rescue.
HIKING GEAR LIST FOR BEGINNERS
Now that all of the logistics are figured out, it is time to pack for your hike. To beginner hikers this may seem a bit excessive, believe me, I thought the same when I was first starting out. But through experience I’ve learned it is better to be prepared in the outdoors than unprepared and rely on someone else.
Let’s start with the list every hiker should know by heart- the 10 essentials for hiking.
PACK THE 10 ESSENTIALS FOR HIKING
The Ten Essentials are small, compact life saving items every hiker should have in their backpack. You’ll want these with you incase of an emergency on the trail. And no, don’t skimp out on these because you’re worried they’ll weigh down your pack- most are lightweight and you won’t even notice the difference!
- Navigation– a map, compass and/or GPS device. At the very least you should have a paper map of the area you’re adventuring in, and for beginner hikers I highly suggest downloading a GPS app on your phone such as Gaia.
- Illumination– flashlight or headlamp. I suggest every hiker having a headlamp with either backup batteries or a portable power bank. I carry 2 affordable headlamps and a power bank on every hike.
- Sun Protection is essential for the outdoors, especially if you’re in the desert. To start I suggest at the very least sunscreen, hat, and your favorite pair of sunglasses.
- Hydration means water, water, water! Depending on the weather and length of trail, you should always carry 1-3L of water with you. Having a hydration bladder will help you carry the weight and support staying hydrated without having to stop.
- Nutrition– always bring extra food just incase you need to spend the night out in the wilderness. 1 protein bar is simply not enough. Instead, pack a couple along with some trail mix or your favorite snacks. My favorite protein bars for the trail are Rise Bars. They are jam packed with protein, soft, and have whey or vegan options.
- Extra Clothes– You always want to layer up and be prepared for the unpredictable weather. Typically you want a base layer (synthetic), insulating layer (fleece), and then a protective layer. A protective layer could be a rain jacket, hard-shell jacket, or a packable down jacket.
- First Aid. There are many useful items in first aid kits that actually come in handy out on the trails. Having one on hand can really help incase of emergencies! This first aid kit has a little bit of everything and is great for beginner hikers.
- Fire meaning windproof matches, a lighter, or a fire starter. You’ll want to be able to start a fire (responsibly) if you end up having to spend the night out in the wilderness.
- Knife or Multitool. These can come in handy for so many reasons! I opt to carry a bit of a bigger folding knife, but we’re talking about hiking for beginners, so a multitool or small pocket knife is efficient. Carrying a small roll of duct tape or repair tape is a smart idea, along with a safety whistle.
- Emergency Shelter. These typically come in two forms- a space blanket or bivy. For beginner hikers a space blanket will be sufficient.
Okay, I know, what you’re thinking. If you’re just hiking a quick urban trail that is in the middle of the city and super populated, do you NEED all of this?
Some people ALWAYS have the 10 Essentials, and others pack them depending on the trail. This is entirely up to you and your confidence. At the very least I suggest that once you start hiking in more remote areas, or alone, carry the Ten Essentials.
POPULAR QUESTION: Do I bring my wallet with me on my hike? If your only other option is to leave it in the car, then YES pack it in your pack. Never leave any valuables left alone in your car. Unfortunately it isn’t uncommon for cars to be broken into at trailheads.
HIKING BACKPACKS FOR BEGINNERS
You’ll need something to carry your 10 Essentials in, and it doesn’t have to be one of those super expensive, name brand backpacks. All of this gear can get expensive, so I’m going to share with you a great beginner hiking backpack, and the one I currently use. This way you can choose whether to work your way into it, or go all in!
- Mountaintop is a very affordable outdoor brand that has great quality hiking backpacks. I still have mine and use it from time to time. I like this 35L pack because it is plenty big enough for all the essentials, but not too big. It also comes with a rain cover!
- My current day hiking pack is the Osprey Skarab 30 L. I absolutely love the built-in support that takes the weight off my shoulders and all of the storage options.
As a beginner hiker, you don’t need anything too crazy. Here are a couple pointers to keep in mind when picking your very first hiking backpack:
- Can use any type of backpack, just stay away from drawstring bags.
- Opt. for a backpack that has padded shoulder straps.
- If it has mesh in the shoulder straps or back of it, that is great for airflow!
- To start out 20-35L is a big enough pack. Don’t go larger than 40L for an all day hiking backpack.
hiking for beginners: what to wear
As a beginner hiker you definitely don’t need to go buy a whole new wardrobe. You most likely can wear clothes already in your closet while keeping these guidelines in mind.
- Hiking Boots or Shoes. To start, you can definitely wear any running or walking shoe. However, you’ll eventually want to invest in a quality hiking shoe or hiking boot. Your feet will thank you for it as you advance to longer miles and tougher trails in unpredictable weather conditions.
- Base layer (breathable tops). These can be synthetic workout tops that are either tank tops, short sleeves, or long sleeves. The main thing is to avoid cotton which retains water and will weigh you down.
- Insulating layer (warm top). A good insulating layer typically is either fleece or merino wool and is layered over your synthetic top.
- Protective layer. Depending on the climate and weather, this could be either a rain jacket, hard-shell waterproof jacket, or a down jacket to layer over your fleece or merino wool sweater.
- Comfortable bottoms. Like cotton, denim is heavy and retains water, so stay away from wearing jeans if you can. Instead, opt for a lightweight type of pant that allows plenty of mobility. You don’t need to start with a hiking specific type of pant- leggings, running tights, or even breathable shorts will work. Keep in mind that shorts leave your legs exposed, so depending on the trail you may want your legs covered.
LEARN AND PRACTICE LEAVE NO TRACE
The Leave No Trace Principles are a set of very important principles that every hiker should know. We’re very fortunate to be able to explore these destinations full of amazing views, history, and sometimes historical artifacts. In order to recreate responsibly, and take care of these places for generations to follow, we need to keep these principles in mind:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
UNDERSTAND BASIC TRAIL ETIQUETTE
There are a few rules when it comes to hiking on the trails. No one is going to be out there handing out tickets since these are just rules of thumb, but we want the outdoors to be a safe place for everyone, no matter who they are or what they are doing.
So there are a few ways we can help everyone on the trail have a positive experience:
#1 Know Your Right Of Way.
The rules on the trail are the same as on the road- keep to the right, and pass on the left. But there are a few different scenarios that are important to cover so we’re all on the same page.
- Hiker vs. Hiker. Hikers descending the trail YIELD to the hikers going uphill. Unless of course they wave you by because they want a breather, then it is okay.
- Hiker vs. Biker. Hikers have the right away and bikers are supposed to yield. However, it is much easier for a hiker to step aside and makes more sense. So stay alert, and if it is easier for you to yield, why not help them out?
- Hiker vs. Horse or other Livestock. Hikers should yield to all horses and livestock. If you have a dog with you it is best to pull them aside as much as possible and keep them under control at all times.
- Single hiker vs. Large Group. Technically single hikers, or smaller groups, should yield to large groups of people. This is because it is easier for one or two people to step aside then a whole bunch.
- Fast Hiker vs. Slow Hiker. If you can feel someone come up behind you, riding your heels, just step aside and let them pass. They clearly want to hike at a faster pace, which is okay! And it’ll be more comfortable for you to be hiking without someone riding your ass.
- Music vs. No Music. If you want to listen to music while hiking, use ear buds. No one else should have to listen to your music while on the trail. It also isn’t fair for wildlife that depend on audio for their survival.
Since this guide is all about hiking for beginners, I believe that is a good start to the trail etiquette. However, there are 6 more rules that you should be aware of.
- Make yourself known
- Stay on the trail
- Do not disturb wildlife
- Be mindful of trail conditions
- Take time to listen
- Be aware of your surroundings
FIND SOMEONE TO HIKE WITH
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for solo adventures (its what I do), but when first starting out it is safer to hike with a group or partner. You can start by asking your significant other, friends, or family if they want to get into hiking too!
Facebook hiking groups are a great way to meet other people who are looking for hiking companions. Just search for hiking/outdoor adventure groups near you and the options should come up. A lot of times group hikes are put together by the admin/moderators.
The app Meet Up also is a good resource. Hikes are posted on there with the details and all you have to do is join and show up! It is a great way to meet others in the hiking community.
HIKING TIPS FOR BEGINNERS
Lastly, I want to leave you with some of my top hiking tips for beginners!
- Understand we all have to start somewhere, and it is okay if you don’t have all the name brand gear. You’ll learn what you like and what works for you as you get more experienced.
- Start with small mileage(1-3 miles) and build it up from there. If you ever have to turn around and cannot complete a trail, that is okay. Just aim to make it a little further the next time.
- Be aware of altitude sickness once you begin climbing higher elevation.
- Never take your safety for granted. It is so important to set out prepared because anything can happen to anyone.
If you’ll be hiking in the desert check out 16 Expert Desert Hiking Tips you need to know
favorite southwest beginner hikes
- 5 Reasons to stop at Toadstool Hoodoos near Kanab
- Hiking the Hieroglyphic Trail in the Superstition Mountains
- Wave Cave | Superstition Mountains, Arizona
- The Birthing Cave in Sedona- EVERYTHING you need to know
- Hike Pinnacle Peak Trail in Pinnacle Peak Park, Scottsdale
- How to find Soldier Pass Cave- Sedona, AZ
- Windy Saddle Park, Lookout Mountain- Colorado
FINAL THOUGHTS ON HIKING FOR BEGINNERS
WOW we covered a lot, and if you made it this far, I am confident you’re prepared enough to begin hiking. I give you kudos for researching now, whether you’re new to hiking or looking to gain more helpful information to do better.
The best way to learn is through experience. We didn’t all start out experts in the outdoors. We had to fail, research, and learn the hard way. If you’re struggling in a certain area just give it time. Go back to the basics and see how you can do better.
We are so fortunate to be able to get out and experience the outdoors. I hope this hiking for beginners guide has helped you feel more confident to get out there and start adventuring!
You may also enjoy:
- Hiking with dogs- 10 essentials you should pack
- 9 Amazing Superstition Mountains Hikes for your Bucket List
- 11 of the Best Salt Lake City Hikes
- 5 of the best Sedona Caves and how to find them