Beginner's Guide to Hiking: What to Wear, Bring, and Expect on Your First Hike

Beginner’s Guide to Hiking: What to Wear, Bring, and Expect

One of the biggest challenges for hikers occurs when you are first getting into hiking. You don’t know what gear or supplies to bring, what to wear, or what to expect on the trail. So today I want to provide you with a beginner’s guide to hiking so you can #optoutside this spring!

It was less than a year ago that Ryan and I began hiking on a regular basis. We had gone hiking before, but hiking in Indiana is significantly different than hiking in Washington state (hello, mountains!). At first, it was tricky to know what trails to hike, what to bring, and what to wear. Over the months we learned from personal experience, research, and frequent visits to REI, all of which inspired and informed this beginner’s guide to hiking. 

Beginner's Guide to Hiking: What to Wear, Bring, and Expect on Your First Hike

Beginner’s Guide to Hiking

How to Prepare

Hikes can range from easy treks with gentle elevation gains to daunting scrambles over boulder fields and ledges while climbing over a mile vertically. If you’re new to hiking, you don’t want to begin by summiting Mount Rainier or Mount Whitney; rather, you want to find a hike appropriate for your fitness level. 

If you are already active, especially in endurance sports such as running, you can probably begin with hikes in the 4-8 mile range. Keep in mind that hiking 8 miles on a mountain has different challenges than running 7 miles on the roads and you will probably feel more tired afterwards.

Before you hike, be sure to research your trail of choice. Find out how far it is, what the elevation gain is, and what the weather is like so you can prepare accordingly. Many states have trail association website where you can read recent reviews, which will help you know what to expect and alert you of any issues like flooding or avalanches.

Here’s a list of websites to help you find and research hikes:
Every Trail General Guide
All Trails US Guide
Washington Trails Association Hiking Guide
Oregon Hikers Field Guide
Sierras Hiking Guide
Hike New England Trail Finder
Adirondack Trail Information
Appalachian Trail Conservancy Explore the Trail
Colorado Hike Finder

Most trails, especially ones in state and national parks, require passes. You can buy a day pass or purchase a season/annual pass, but make sure you know ahead of time so you aren’t parking illegally or don’t have cash to buy a day pass.

Gear such as trekking poles and hydration packs are great to have if you hike frequently, but not necessary for a beginner hike. At the end of the day, you just need good hiking shoes, outdoor appropriate clothing, food and water, and a love for the outdoors to start hiking!

What to Wear

The most important piece of gear for hiking is appropriate footwear. You wouldn’t go for a long run in spinning shoes; likewise, hiking in road running shoes, while feasible, isn’t the best idea. Regular running shoes do not provide the grip necessary for stabilizing on uneven terrain, dirt, rock, roots, and snowy. At the very least, wear trail running shoes that have extra grip and cushion compared to a normal pair of road running shoes.

If you plan on incorporating hiking, especially in mountain ranges such as the Appalachians, Sierras, Rockies, or Cascades, invest in a good pair of hiking boots. You can get fitted for hiking boots at outdoor stores such as REI (be sure to read their guide to selecting hiking boots). Some of the best brands for hiking shoes include Vasque, Salomon, and Merrell, which retail in anywhere from $140-$250. 

You can also purchase hiking shoes, but boots offer extra support of your ankles and protect you from water, snow, dirt, and insects.

Clothing should follow three simple guidelines: comfortable, breathable, and layerable. You want to be able to move without any restriction, so make sure your clothes can stretch with your body. Layers are important because the weather can change quite a bit as you climb, but you don’t want to bundle up and sweat (which can lead to hypothermia).

Depending on the climate, you will want hiking pants or shorts, breathable crew socks, a wicking base layer, an outer layer, and a rain jacket for weather emergencies. If it’s colder, add on a vest or puffy jacket, another base layer as needed, and gloves, hats, and neck gaiters.

When in doubt, stash a couple extra layers in your backpack; it’s better to be over prepared then too cold on a hike! I usually wear several layers hiking (which you can see in the photo below: rain jacket + vest + thermal layer + base layer), and I’d always rather carry these and take off layers than wish I had dressed better. 

Beginner's Guide to Hiking: What to Wear, Bring, and Expect on Your First Hike

PrAna, REI Co-Op, Patagonia, Kuhl, and Marmot make some of the best hiking clothes out there at a variety of prices. If you have clothes for running outside, several items such as long sleeve base layers, breathable jackets, and running leggings will work for hiking as well also as you get started. 

Be sure to check out my guide to what to wear for hiking in cold weather and my clothing picks for hiking in summer!

Finally, skip any perfume, cologne, or heavily scented soaps or lotions, as these will attract bugs.

What to Bring

I love taking pictures of hiking, but a DSLR camera adds a significant amount of weight to a pack and you risk dropping it or exposing it to rain and snow. I’m not saying you shouldn’t bring a good camera (we see many people do so), but a few good iPhone apps such will work sufficiently well. You already have your phone on you, and you don’t need to worry about ruining a $600 camera.

As I discussed in my post on hiking safety, bring plenty of food and water! Trust me from experience, you do not want to pack just a liter of water for a 10 mile hike. Pack more water than you think you will need and plenty of snacks such as homemade energy bites

Bring a backpack to carry your water, rain jacket, food, garbage bag, and any other extra gear. A backpack leaves your hands free so you can maintain better balance, catch yourself if you trip, and not worry about dropping something.

For extra safety precautions, it’s prudent to carry a pocket knife, flashlight, and safety whistle. Ryan and I also keep those space blankets from races in our bags in case we get lost and need to stay warm. 

Beginner's Guide to Hiking: What to Wear, Bring, and Expect on Your First Hike

What to Expect

Hiking is challenging in a different way than running. You work both your cardiovascular system (especially on steep climbs) and several muscle groups, including your upper back, core, glutes, and legs. Even if you’re in great running shape, you expect a bit of physical challenge in hiking. 

Be prepared to go slow, especially on steeper hikes. Hiking isn’t a race, and going too fast can increase your risk falling and getting injured.. Most of all, make sure you take time to pause, have fun, and enjoy the view!

Proper Trail Etiquette

Remember that you are sharing the trail both with other hikers and with the local wildlife. Don’t blast music (most people don’t go into the woods to listen to Top 40 hits) or wear headphones with music so loud you can’t hear those around you. Let hikers who are climbing up have the right of way, especially in steep or rocky areas.

Above all else, abide by the leave no trace principle. Pack any and all trash with you to properly dispose of later (most trailheads will have trash cans). Even leaving something biodegradable behind like a banana peel can disrupt the ecological balance. If you have to do your business in the woods, bury it.

And yes, if you hike with a dog, bag their number twos and throw them out in a trashcan. Dog poop is gross and nobody wants to accidentally step in that.

Unless you’re snowshoeing, stay on the trail both for safety’s sake and to avoid trampling the natural growth. Don’t cut the switchbacks!

Linking up for Fitness, Health, and Happiness

Where would you love to go hiking?
If you started hiking recently, what would you add to this list?
What questions or concerns do you have about beginning to hike?

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18 Responses

    1. Thank you! It is fun and a workout, but the hikes we’ve been doing lately have been like the equivalent of easy runs – exercise but not too hard. You should come out to the PNW and hike – the weather is always nice for hiking, even in both winter and summer!

  1. What a fantastic resource. I would love to get into hiking–particularly as I might have to transition out of running a bit in the next year. But alas, Chicago isn’t really that hiking friendly.
    Definitely sharing, and I hope that you will join the Running Coaches’ Link up!

    1. Thank you! Hiking is great because you still get the exercise (and sometimes I swear it’s harder than running) but it’s not as wearing on the body. I’ve heard the upper part of Michigan and Wisconsin have some good hiking, so maybe you can try there! And yes – I will join the link up, thanks for offering!

  2. Great guide! I remember our first hike/backpack – I wore cotton top to toe and it drizzed the entire weekend. I was sooo cold! These days I only wear cotton when it’s really hot outside and I *want* my shirts to stay wet. 🙂

    Also, on long hikes/hot days I like to bring my teeny tiny water filter with me. Ours is a Sawyer Squeeze and weighs next to nothing!

    1. Thanks! I wore cotton on my first hike also along with running shoes – not ideal! Tech layers are where it’s at 🙂 We’ve looked at getting a water filter and considered the Sawyer one, so it’s good to know you like it! We hiked Gothic Basin in the heat of last summer before we had our water bladders and really could have used one then.

    1. Rainier has so many wonderful hikes! Hopefully if you visit again Seattle again you can go hiking. The Issaquah Alps (about 30-45 min from downtown) and Snoqualmie Pass (right along I-90 only like an hour from downtown) are other great options – all sorts of hikes from beginner to advanced and they’re closer than Rainier (plus some of the hikes like Mt. Si and Tiger Mountain have fantastic views of Rainier).

  3. Great tips! When I was a newbie hiker we did all sorts of crazy things. I remember one time we hiked in Acadia National Park and got lost, and by the time we found the right trail and hiked to the top of the mountain we had run out of water and it was hours later in the day than we’d planned! We were so thirsty and hungry by the end of that hike that I thought I was going to be sick. The good news is that we talk about that hike every time we pack food and water for our hikes now, so we make sure we always bring more water than we think we need! It really prompted us both to buy Camelbaks!

    1. I’ve been there also with nearly being sick from being so hungry and thirsty on a hike – it’s pretty common newbie mistake! Not a fun feeling at all and that’s frustrating that it happened to you during a hike. Those hikes are great learning experiences though!

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