Hit the Trail: Hiking & Backpacking for Beginners

Not much can compare with striking off down the trail—or leaving behind the path altogether and going cross-country—on foot. Hiking, after all, is an ancient human pastime, and while these days most of us don’t need to hoof it through the wilds to survive, the activity certainly taps into some deep-rooted joy.

It’s also fantastic, all-ages exercise, and a means of reaching some truly wild—and truly gorgeous—countryside. If you’ve never really given hiking a shot—or if you’re motivated to someday spend multiple days out in the backcountry—read on to learn some of the basics.

Why Hiking & Backpacking?

From the physical to the emotional, hikers and backpackers reap many benefits from their by-the-basics form of outdoor recreation.

  • Finding Wilderness & Solitude: On foot, you can access wilderness that a car-bound traveler never sees. Some of the most ravishing landscapes in the U.S. lie away from the blacktop in remote mountain basins, desert rimrock, and other roadless wildlands. You can usually ditch the throngs in even the most crowded state and national parks by hitting the trail; if you’re willing to venture off-trail (allowed on many swaths of publicly owned land), solitude tends to be easy to come by.
  • Greater Well-being: Studies suggest that spending time in outdoor environments can boost emotional well-being and reduce stress. In the mid-1980s, the great biologist E.O. Wilson coined term “biophilia” to describe the inherent bond we feel with the natural world, and some have suggested spending time in our species’s ancestral home—wilderness, essentially—provides some blood-level benefit.
  • Getting Some Fresh-Air Exercise: Hiking’s an excellent form of exercise. As this factsheet from the American Hiking Society explains, the activity can ward against ailments such as hypertension, obesity, and osteoporosis. According to the Society, you burn some 100 calories per mile of walking; a pace of 2.5 miles per hour, meanwhile, sees you burn roughly 200 to 250 calories each hour.
  • Building Skills & Confidence: On-foot forays into the wilderness have been used by a variety of schools and organizations as confidence-building exercises, including for at-risk youth.
  • Enjoying Group Adventures: Yes, the solitude we described a few bullet points before is one of the big-time rewards of hiking, but a trek can also be a fantastic chance for group bonding. Away from the distractions of workaday demands and hyperactive screens, you and your hiking companions can enjoy deep discussions on the trail and storytelling around the campfire, solve daily challenges (confusing trail directions, demanding terrain obstacles, etc.), and share some sublime sights: from sunrises and alpenglow to waterfalls and wildlife.

5 Steps for Getting Started

One of the great things about hiking is its accessibility: Hiking for beginners doesn’t require them to invest in a slew of fancy apparel and gear to enjoy the sport. With some good footwear, some comfortable clothes, and a map to local trails, you’re just about set!

And you can easily graduate from short, test-the-waters dayhikes to longer and more strenuous trails—and then perhaps  your first backpacking overnighter or two. More likely than not, you’ll be hooked.

Let’s run down the initial steps to getting your feet wet hiking-wise: a foundation you can build upon as you become more comfortable with the activity and start (literally) expanding your horizons.

Step 1: Preparation

There are trails of every description out there: for every inclination and every ability level. Although short, level walks aren’t terribly physically demanding, it’s a good idea to work into some semblance of shape before kicking off a motivated hiking regimen.

Ultimately the best way to stay in hiking shape is—surprise surprise—to hike, but there’s much you can do at home for conditioning: whether you’re prepping for your first trails or simply trying to stay fit and fiddle through the winter. Naturally, doing as much walking as you can is a good first step—especially if you’ve got any unpaved park paths in your neighborhood you can incorporate into your circuit. (Three miles on a paved sidewalk is not the same thing as three miles on a dirt path.)

At home (or at a fitness center), you can do stair-climbs, lunges, box squats, and other workouts aimed at boosting leg strength. As you advance, add a weighted backpack to the routine.

It’s also a great idea at the outset to track down a hiking buddy or two. Companions on the trail can motivate and entertain you; they also provide something of a safety net in case of sprained ankles or other contingencies.

Step 2: Essential Hiking & Backpacking Gear

The keyword when it comes to your hiking wardrobe is layering. You want a breathable and insulating outfit that you can modify to suit the conditions at hand: stripping down when the afternoon heat cranks up, bundling up when that squall moves through.

What to Wear

  • Base Layer: Choose merino wool or a synthetic for your moisture-wicking base.
  • Mid Layer: Down, wool, or fleece make a good middle layer, meant as insulation.
  • Shell: Your outer layer can be a simple windproof shell, or a heavy-duty waterproof and breathable parka with the muscle for the elements at their worst.
  • Socks: From wool to synthetics, hiking socks tend to be extra cushioned around heel and ball of foot, and may be worn along with a liner. You’ll typically be balancing moisture-wicking and insulative properties.
  • Hat: For warm-weather hiking, a baseball or wide-brimmed hat provides sun protection. And it’s a good idea to always stash a warm hat in your daypack in case conditions turn unexpectedly blustery.
  • Gaiters: Gaiters can provide valuable leg protection for both summer and winter hiking. Besides warding against poison-ivy and briars and cushioning your shin when it (inevitably) bashes against a log, these leggings also help keep water and snow out of your boots.

Other Things to Pack

  • Food: Food that’s effective and satisfying on the trail warrants its own full-length treatment, but suffice it to say that you want high-energy sustenance and extra provisions for possible emergency situations.
  • Water: Water bottles or bladders provide on-the-go hydration; a water filter or purifier is highly recommended for backpacking purposes—and, ideally, even a dayhiker should have one as an emergency backup.
  • Topographic Map: A GPS unit is not a substitute for a properly scaled and up-to-date topographic map for the area you’ll be hiking in.
  • Compass: Same deal here—every hiker should know how to use a compass, both on its own and in concert with a topo map. These can be life-saving skills, in all seriousness, and they stone-cold reliable in ways a smartphone or GPS are not.
  • Knife: If you’re a hiking/wilderness enthusiast, you can’t make much more sensible of a purchase than a high-quality survival knife. From fashioning an emergency shelter to wielding a cookfire pot, a full-tang blade is just about the most all-around useful tool you can have in the backlands.
  • First-aid Kit: A mishap can occur even on the most accessible “front-country” trail, so it’s essential to always have a first-aid kit—a prepackaged version, or one you cobble together yourself—stowed in your pack. Make sure you know how to use the contents, and periodically do an inventory so you can restock if necessary.
  • Fire-starting Materials: Keep one and preferably multiple fire-starting materials in a waterproof container in your pack. This could include matches, a lighter, flint and steel, and a bundle of ready-to-go tinder such as rolled-up newspaper strips or dryer lint.
  • Flashlight/Headlamp: You’d be surprised how many dayhikers strike out on what they think’ll be a short afternoon jaunt, only to find a misread map, a wait-it-out hailstorm, a bad fall, or some other complication keeps them out in the boonies well after dark. A flashlight and/or headlamp should definitely be among your gear, as should extra batteries. (Or buy a hand-crank light.)
  • Tarp: A tarp stowed in your pack can come in real handy in a survival situation, as it makes a fine emergency shelter.

Step 3: Finding Routes & Planning Trips

As a beginner hiker or backpacker, you’ve never had so many options for tracking down information on routes, trails, and itineraries. There are excellent guidebooks on the market for most parts of the country; those with multiple (and of course updated) editions tend to be winners.

Online, meanwhile, you’ve got websites such as Trails.com, members of which can access digitized selections from published guidebooks, as well as Outdoor Project and RootsRated, which include trail reviews and destination profiles of high value for planning both dayhiking and backpacking adventures. These days, too, the are myriad geographically specific forums for outdoor recreationists that offer a great medium for novice hikers to get tips and insights from more experienced counterparts.

Meanwhile the websites of public land-management agencies—from the National Park Service and USDA Forest Service to state parks/recreation departments—come chockfull of trail descriptions and maps, though some are better than others in this regard.

The staff of those same agencies are often able to provide suggestions about good routes and areas for your particular abilities and interests—take advantage of that inside knowledge.

When assessing a trail, you’ll want to key in to critical details such as the mileage and the elevation change involved. A thousand feet of elevation gain spread out over five miles feels much different than the same ascent packed into a three-quarters of a mile, the latter being a much more strenuous proposition.

You’ll often see hikes (and climbs) in the U.S. and Canada classified in terms of difficulty via the Yosemite Decimal System. Class 1 encompasses the easiest and most straightforward forays on well-marked and decently maintained trails; Class 2 may demand some route-finding and present the occasional tricky traverse. Class 3 defines the most difficult category of what most would consider “hiking” (there are classes 4 and 5 for climbs), and involves some hands-and-feet scrambling, more intense exposure, and the possibility of a fatal fall. Many a non-technical summit hike involves a little Class 3 up top—say, to negotiate a knife-edge ridge or talus pile.

Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. An inexperienced trekker might tackle a 10- or 12-mile trail as a shoulder-season dayhike and end up in a race against the plummeting sun. When backpacking, it’s especially important not to overestimate your abilities when it comes to daily mileage. Maybe you can bang out 15 or 20 miles one or two days, but by the third you may be hurting. You always want to schedule in the possibility for the unexpected: For instance, a poorly maintained stretch of trail may be littered with blowdown, which can slow you up enormously.

Step 4: Important Hiking/Backpacking Skills

As we alluded to above, it’s essential to learn your way around a topo map and compass if you plan to spend any time out in the backcountry. Learn how to match the landforms before you to the contours of the map; practice setting and following bearings and back-bearings.

When it comes to backcountry cuisine, some backpackers like to go lean-and-mean and no-fuss: trail mix, granola, dried fruit, and other fodder requiring no cooking. Modern-day backpacking stoves, however, are remarkably light and compact (the fuel somewhat less so), and you can whip up some impressive (and diverse) one-pot masterpieces that go a long way toward answering the mean hunger the trail inspires.

If you’re bushwhacking—aka cross-country hiking—reading the landscape becomes even more important than in trail hiking. When charting an off-trail course, study your topographic map to identify potential obstacles: the tight-packed contours representing steep slopes or outright cliffs, the swampy drainages of an old landslide, etc.

Step 5: Trip Safety Planning

Sharing Your Route Itinerary: Among the most important safety measures you can take as a hiker is also one of the easiest: sharing your plans with family or friends back home. Tell them the trail you intend to take, the location of the trailhead(s), and how long you’re planning to be out (hours, days, etc.). Should anything throw a wrench your outing—if you get hurt, say, or lost—search-and-rescuers will have that much easier a time tracking you down if they know where to focus their efforts.

Finding & Treating Water: Part of the value of having a good topographic map along on your hiking trip is being able to locate potential water sources. Long-distance backpackers don’t have the luxury of hauling all the water they need with them, so they must rely on springs, creeks, rivers, lakes, and even ephemeral pothole puddles for hydration. You should treat any and all water out in the backcountry, even the cleanest-looking mountain rill: Giardia and other waterborne pathogens can absolutely ruin your hiking vacation, and if you’re in an especially remote area their effects can be life-threatening.

Getting Lost: It’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll get turned around at some point or another out in the backwoods. In most cases, staying put’s the best action: Panic’s your own worst enemy, and disoriented hikers tend to get themselves in more trouble by trying to walk their way back into familiar territory. If your compass skills are solid, you can make measured, straight-line out-and-backs from a central position—the place you realized you’d lost your bearings—to seek recognizable landmarks without going astray in the process.

Wildlife: Bears, pumas, and rattlesnakes get most of the attention, but odds are you’re not going to see hide nor hair of them. In North America, black bears are the bruin you’re most likely to encounter; grizzlies are restricted to the Mountain West and the subarctic. If you’re hiking in grizzly country, purchase or rent bear spray, which, when properly used, can thwart a bear’s charge more effectively (and ethically) than a bullet. (If you’re backpacking in bear country, you’ll also want to learn the nuts-and-bolts of bear bags.) Biting insects are likely to be much more of an issue than big mammals. Wearing long and light-colored pants (and even tucking them into your socks, not that you’ll win any fashion points doing so) to make it harder for ticks to get onto your skin undetected; these pancake-flat arachnids can transmit Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain fever, and other ailments. Check yourself thoroughly after a hike so you can spot and remove ticks before they latch into you; they’re especially an issue in spring and fall.

Weather: The atmosphere tends to be much more threatening than wildlife on an average hike. Packing extra clothes and food, as we described above, gives you the means to hunker down during a storm. Lighting’s a major threat: In the warm season, if you see cumulus clouds—those tall, puffy, “classic” ones—materialize in the morning, expect thunderstorms to potentially develop in the afternoon. If you’re hiking in the high country, try to restrict as much of your above-treeline activity to the morning hours; summertime thunderheads are an almost-daily occurrence in many high mountains. Remember, too, that lightning may strike as far as 10 miles away from the associated storm.

Terrain: Many front-country trails include handy-dandy bridges over rivers, but more primitive routes may demand potentially hazardous fords: Where rivers are fed by high-country snowpack or glaciers, it’s often easier to cross in the early morning hours than the afternoon, when warm temperatures swell meltwater. Winter and spring hikers in mountainous terrain should be well-versed in avalanche safety.

Hiking Tips & Hacks

  • Nurture Your Inner Photographer: You’re going to see a lot of beautiful landscapes while hiking, so why not nab a few snapshots—or better—as mementos? You can hone your skills as a landscape photographer in the backcountry: It’s often rewarding to return throughout the year to a single easily accessible and/or beloved trail, as you can capture the setting’s phenology across the seasons: wildflower blooms, fall color, winter snowpack, etc. For more moment-by-moment chronicling, try a GoPro-style action camera: One mounted to your trekking poles makes mid-trail selfies or National Geographic-worthy shots of that moose bumbling across your path that much more doable.
  • Track Your Trips: Whether with a GPS watch or one of myriad apps for the purpose, record the nitty-gritty of your hike: the specific route, the elevation change, the mileage, and other stats. This is a great way to preserve memorable trips you want to repeat—not to mention share them online with other hiking enthusiasts.
  • Peak Bagging: Even if you’re not interested in trying your hand at technical climbing, hiking’s a great means of indulging in some low-level mountaineering. Many peaks, including some respectably lofty ones, can be reached without ropes and other specialized gear. If you’re on a couple-days’ backpack, check the topo for local high points along your route and spare a half-day here and there for achieving them: Taking in the summit-top panorama’s an awesome way to set the country you’re tramping through in context. Plus there are some bragging rights involved…
  • Geocaching: The sport of tracking down hidden containers by GPS has become a worldwide phenomenon these past couple of decades—and a fresh way to inspire hikers to get out there and explore.
  • Leave-No-Trace: Any hiker or backpacker has a responsibility to pursue the most environmentally sensitive practices he or she can: whether it’s selecting a campsite, washing dishes, or avoiding shortcuts on established trails. (The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a great resource for learning more.)

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