Hiking is an excellent way to get out into nature and get some exercise. It’s easy to get started—you need little more than your legs—so let’s look at how.
Be Realistic About Your Fitness Level
Hiking is a pretty low-intensity activity that anyone can do, regardless of fitness level—it’s really just walking in a pleasant environment. That doesn’t mean that fitness level doesn’t matter at all, though.
If you spend most of your days being sedentary, then you’re going to start at a different level to someone who routinely runs half marathons. You’ll still be able to get started hiking; you’ll just need to start a little more gently.
Even if you’re fit, hiking can be surprisingly challenging. If you’re not used to walking long distances, you’re likely to get blisters. Going uphill is lung-busting while going downhill plays hell with your knees. It requires different conditioning to something like playing soccer or football for an hour.
When you’re starting, be realistic about how far and for how long you’ll be able to walk. Assume it will take you about an hour to walk two miles, including rest stops. It’s better to have a pleasant hike but feel like you could have done more than to have to drag yourself through a hellish last few miles and swear off it forever.
Start With Marked Trails
Hiking is a really popular activity. There are well-maintained marked trails all over the world. No matter where you live, there will be something to get you started. The best place to find them is through AllTrails. Just plug in your location, and it will list all the trails nearby. Even better, it provides maps of the trails that you can print out.
When you’re starting, it’s a good idea to stick to the official, signposted trails instead of cutting out on your own into the backcountry. You’re much less likely to get lost or to end up in treacherous terrain. Once you’re comfortable with simple trails, you can look into venturing farther afield.
Go Easy With the Elevation Changes
Walking on flat ground is easy. Walking up or down a long hill is not. Once you get seriously into hiking, you can start tackling routes with more challenging elevation changes. When you’re beginning, however, you should go easy on the amount of walking uphill (very tiring) and downhill (painful) you do.
At least initially, I’d recommend looking for flattish trails with elevation changes of no more than 1000 feet. You’re better off doing a gentle ten-mile forest hike than the six-mile, 2000 foot elevation gain climb to a nearby peak.
Get the Right Shoes and Socks
The most critical bit of gear for hiking is your footwear. If your feet are happy, you’ll be happy. On the other hand, if you’re limping along with wet, blistered feet, no amount of mountain vistas will make you feel anything under than miserable.
A decent pair of sneakers will do—as long as you’re sticking to flat, well-maintained trails. If they’re suitable for running on the road, then they’re probably okay for simple hikes.
As soon as you start to venture out seriously, hiking boots should be your first purchase. They provide crucial ankle support in case of falls, relieve some of the pressure on the downhill, have a good grip, and won’t mind a bit of mud or puddles.
The best hiking boot is the one that fits you. The only way to find that out is to get down to your nearest REI or another outdoor store, talk to the sales reps, and try a few pairs on. They’ll be able to advise you on what’s right for you.
Socks are also important. The wrong socks are a cause of blisters as often as ill-fitting boots. Pick up a decent pair of hiking socks in your size. We favor merino wool ones.
Prepping For Your First Hike
There are a few things you should do before you head out on your first hike.
- Check the weather: Don’t go out if it looks like it’s going to be bad. You won’t enjoy it, at least not at this stage in your hiking hobby. Wait for a clear day with moderate temperatures and no risk of thunderstorms, hurricanes, or tornadoes.
- Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back: It’s the single most important thing you can do to stay safe outdoors. If something goes wrong, they’ll be able to alert rescuers quickly.
- Charge your cellphone: A fully charged cell phone is an essential bit of rescue kit. Don’t leave home with your battery almost empty.
- Put on the right clothes: As you get more into hiking, you’ll start to acquire all the right gear. For now, don’t sweat it too much. Check out our article on layering to stay warm and try and avoid wearing too much cotton. Your gym gear is probably perfect.
- Pack enough food and water: If you’re not going too far, you won’t need too much food and water—but you should still bring some. As a general rule, bring 16 fl.oz of water for every hour of hiking you plan to do. Foodwise, calorie dense chocolate bars, nuts, and fruits are very popular. If you’re going for longer than a half day, you can start looking at bringing more complete meals.
- Bring the right safety gear: A lot of lists will suggest bringing a map and compass but, if you don’t know how to use them, they’re useless to you and more likely to lead you astray. For your first hikes, your safety gear should be a torch, suncream, a warm jacket you can put on if you get slowed down or injured, and a simple first aid kit to deal with blisters.
Respect the Environment
Hiking is such a joy because it takes place out in nature. Respect that. Just as you don’t want to stumble on bags of trash, don’t leave your litter around for other people to find.
Similarly, don’t start fires, trespass on private land, vandalize or mark things, or otherwise be an ass.
Hiking is one of my favorite hobbies. Whenever I visit a new place, I always try and climb the highest nearby hill for beautiful views. Getting started is easy so grab your boots and go!