Venturing out on foot in the great outdoors is one of the best ways to experience the world. Walking and hiking through even the most familiar region immerses you in the culture and natural beauty of a destination, connecting you to your surroundings in a truly unique and extraordinary way. An accessible activity with minimal gear requirements, hiking still requires a bit of know-how to make sure you’re safe and healthy on the trail.
Here are some quick tips and skills to help you hike like a pro
- Plan Your Route: Do a bit of research before you hit the trail. How long is the hike? Is it within your fitness ability? What kind of terrain will you be walking on? Will you be hiking in the sun or in the shade of the forest? Is it a loop trail or an out-and-back that you can follow as long as you please? From knowing where to park at the trailhead to how mosquito-y the area might be to how much climbing you’ll do, planning ahead will help you know how to prepare and what to bring along. Guidebooks and online resources are great ways to learn the basics about your destination. Don’t forget to check the weather!
- The Right Shoes: No matter what kind of shape you’re in, appropriate footwear for your hike will make all the difference in how much you enjoy the excursion. Knowing the terrain and anticipating the weather will help you determine whether you need sturdy waterproof boots with ankle support, light trainers or something in between. Most importantly, make sure your shoes fit and spend some time breaking them in before you rack up the miles.
- Pack Up Your Gear: A water bottle and a small backpack with a few essentials are trailside necessities – you can even keep it simple with a 2-in-1 pack with a hydration system, like a Camelbak. Pack some healthy snacks to nibble on to help keep energy levels up – you’re bound to find a great vista point for a picnic along the trail. Throw some extra layers in your bag too; Mother Nature loves to surprise us with unexpected winds or rain showers. Even though you checked the weather (right?!), a few key layers – especially those with UPF and/or water resistance – will set you up for success. You still have room for your sunscreen, sunglasses, a map or guidebook, navigation tools like a compass or GPS system, a small flashlight or headlamp, some first-aid supplies and any other region-specific necessities (bug spray, anyone?). Check out our Hiking Essentials Checklist for more info.
- Learn to Navigate: What good are a map and compass if you don’t know how to use them? Maps, especially the detailed topographic kind, can be overwhelming at first glance. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the map’s legend to help understand your route and its distance and elevation. While you’re sure to find an online resource for Map Reading 101, we recommend contacting your local sporting goods store to find out if they offer courses in orienteering or general wilderness training. There are also many smartphone apps that can be useful on the trail, but keep in mind that you may not always have satellite access and your phone may run out of battery.
- One Step at a Time: Planning an epic hike? Before you start out on a long distance, high elevation adventure, we suggest training up a bit by walking and hiking regularly and hitting a few hills whenever you can. Whether you’re an urban hiker or live somewhere with access to nature trails, each step you take is one in the right direction. Warm up your muscles with some light stretching and start walking at a steady maintainable pace – don’t push yourself too hard at the beginning.
- Safety First: Loaded up with enough food and water, your flashlight and first-aid supplies and your navigation know-how, you’re almost ready to hit the trail. But before you do, tell someone where you’re headed! Whether it’s a friend or a friendly park ranger, it’s always a good idea to let someone know when and where you’re hiking. New to hiking? Grab a buddy! If you don’t know anyone who enjoys a good hike, find out if your town or city has a hiking club.
- Leave No Trace: One of the things we love most about hiking is the purity of the sport. Exploring under your own power and at your own pace allows you to fully immerse yourself in your surroundings and to connect with nature, with others and with yourself. Making sure that others that follow you get the same opportunity is one of the guiding principles of hiking. Minimize your impact by planning ahead and preparing appropriately, disposing of any waste you create, respecting wildlife (and other hikers) and staying on marked trails.
With these basic tips and skills, you’re ready to get outside and get active. And the more hiking you do, the more you’ll know what kind of gear and equipment works best for you, making you even more comfortable on the trail. So get hiking!
Please note: The tips listed here are meant for day-hiking, though some apply for overnight backpacking trips as well. If you’re planning a multi-day hiking adventure, you’ll benefit from wilderness training to learn skills from planning your water supply to building campfires, handling bear canisters and more.