Guide to Hiking Essentials For Beginners
*Disclosure: we independently choose all product recommendations. When you buy from product links in our posts, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. This supports our ability to provide the best advice possible.
Hiking can be such a fun and rewarding hobby once you get past the initial fears that some beginners may experience. Hey, we get it — the outdoors can be a dangerous place and without the right stuff, it can be pretty uncomfortable.
HOWEVER! On the right trail with other fellow hikers, a trekking journey (or even just relaxed day hikes) can be a great way to unplug, recenter yourself, and discover what truly makes you happy.
I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to do the day one hike, but I did and I feel so accomplished!Explorer Chick Sneha
Now if you’re feeling a little nervous about your grand entrance into the outdoors, you’re in the right place (pretty sure we’ve all been there) and we’re here to help ensure you have the best possible introduction to hiking. From choosing the right trail to safety gear and hiking layers, we’ll go over all the hiking essentials for beginners so you can feel confident in hiking groups or on your own.
Choosing Your First Hiking Trail
Picking your first hiking route can feel a little overwhelming. There are so many options both locally at local parks and nationally, but choosing a trail that is best for beginner hikers doesn’t have to be a daunting chore. To start narrowing down the trail options for your first hike, start with considering how much time you have and your fitness level (how much is too much climbing for you?). You may also want to consider the fitness of your hiking partner if you plan to start hiking with friends.
Apps like All Trails or Gaia GPS can be extremely helpful when trying to choose a trail that is best for you. These are user-generated applications that can offer real-time updates on trail conditions, recent trip reports, elevation gain, difficulty level, and useful information like parking or tips and tricks from hikers of all ability levels. If you’re more of an old-school gal who doesn’t like computers, a trail map or trail guide of the area you want to hike in can be great resources as well.
Also always check the NPS website (or your local park website) for any current updates like closures for maintenance or from unsafe conditions due to weather. These can be invaluable tools for a beginner hiker as you navigate through learning about trails and hiking on public lands.
Be sure to review safety tips for when you’re planning your first hiking adventure. Be mindful that if you get an early start, you’ll beat the heat and the crowds. If you’re really brand-spanking new, a good first hike probably shouldn’t be more than a few hours and you should try to choose a well-marked trail if possible. Always tell someone else where you are going to be, then set off and have fun!
Essential Hiking Gear to Bring on a Beginner’s Day Hike
The ten essentials are always the starting point for safe and prepared packing for a day hike, no matter the experience. It will give any outdoor enthusiast a good foundation for what to take on each and every trip, no matter the length or difficulty.
We have a full post all about the ten essentials, but here’s a quick rundown of that gear:
- Sun protection
- First aid
- Tools/repair kit
- Emergency shelter
- Snacks/extra food
- Extra clothing
With those being said, here are the ones that are especially important for beginner day hikers when you’re not doing longer hikes.
- Rain Gear: Even when the sun is shining or the forecast may predict clear skies, it’s still a good idea to bring a poncho or some type of wet weather gear to stay dry in the event an unexpected storm rolls your way. Not only is it safer to stay dry, but you’ll have a far better time when you aren’t completely soaked!
- Water: The usual recommendation with water is a half-liter per hour of moderate activity. This depends on activity level, weather and your personal needs, but it’s a good starting point. You can also bring along a lightweight filtration system like a steripen, Lifestraw or Grayl purification system if you run out of your own potable water.
- Snacks: Stick to packing snacks that are high in protein, that will keep you feeling full longer. Foods that are lightweight or come with little packaging that are easy to eat are the easiest snacks. Bring an extra day’s worth of food in case of any emergencies.
Explorer Chick Expert Tip
Find what kind of food will give you energy but also feels “luxurious” while on the trail. I like stroopwafels because they’re tasty, sweet, and easy to eat, quick calories. Also, apples because after being on the trail for a couple days, I usually crave something fresh and sweet. I like honey crisp or gala apples and plus they travel really well.
- First Aid Kit: Always be prepared for any injuries on the trail by bringing a small first aid kit. A good start for your first aid box include band aids, antiseptic cream for cuts or hot spots on your feet before they become blisters, a sling or ace bandage for any sprains, and ibuprofen (the miracle drug TBH).
- Headlamp: You always want to have a light source in case the hike is longer than expected.
- A Hiking Buddy (or hiking buddies)! Hiking alone can be a rewarding and challenging experience but hiking for beginners should usually include a partner or group. You can always learn from experienced hikers in addition to having some company on the trail. If you don’t already have a hiker friend, find hiking buddies through your local hiking club or join the Explorer Chick Facebook community and see if there are any other Explorer Chicks in your area interested in a hike (spoiler: they probably will be)! If you do end up going solo, start on a well-trodden trail where you’ll see other hikers during the day.
What to Wear on the Hiking Trails
The short answer: clothes. (Though we have been known to do some flashing and skinny dipping from time to time…) This isn’t a fashion contest here on the trail and what you wear hiking can largely depend on your preference and comfort level.
That being said, there are a few instances where you will want the right hiking layers (i.e. the weather forecast says rain).
You can head to an outdoor retailer and purchase a whole new wardrobe of hiking friendly clothing, but you may also have some items you can easily use in your closet already. Unlike more intense backpacking or camping trips, there isn’t as much special gear required for day hiking.
Layering is key since changes in weather, especially in higher altitudes can be quick and unpredictable. Wearing a base layer but also having an insulation layer like a lightweight jacket or fleece means you’re ready for most weather changes.
Wool, synthetic, moisture wicking or light weight, quick drying materials are always favored because you won’t feel weighed down or wet from any heat and sweat. Basically, if you have a choice, avoid cotton. We know, it’s comfy and cheap, but when that cotton shirt or cotton socks are soggy, cold, and heavy, they won’t feel good anymore.
Long pants are often good if you’ll be trekking in an area with tall grasses, to protect you from the elements. Much like synthetic or wool fabrics for clothing, socks of the same material are often more comfortable and practical than cotton.
A sun hat or bandana is perfect to bring along to keep protected from the sun too.
Hiking Boots or Other Hiking Footwear
While you can be more forgiving with your clothing choices, footwear is a more crucial hiking essential. To avoid blisters, wear shoes you’re comfortable in or have already worn in a little.
As far as specific shoe type — know your terrain. If you’re going to be on a rocky trail where you’ll need ankle support, boots will probably be more supportive. If it’s a smoother trail, then you could opt for something like trail runners or hiking shoes over boots. Whichever footwear is best for the terrain, traction is always important, especially if you’re hitting a trail with elevation gain or if inclement weather has created muddy or slippery conditions.
Need help picking out new hiking boots? Check out our hiking boot guide!
You’ll want to bring a day pack with you in order to easily carry your hiking essentials. Usually a daypack is about 15-20 liters, which should be plenty of space for your hiking essentials along with water and extra clothes. You’ll also want to have space for any other considerations. For example, hiking while pregnant or during winter may require a few extra essentials.
Head to a local outdoor retailer to get fit for a comfortable pack. There are so many different styles and so a trusted resource like a dedicated retailer will let you try on a variety of packs to make sure there is a perfect fit for you.
Know the Trail Etiquette
Leave No Trace 7 principles are a good cornerstone for all hikers regardless of experience. Basically, this means to recreate responsibly by packing out what you bring in and be considerate of those around you including the environment. Trail etiquette also includes some commonsense principles as well, which is a reminder that we share the trail with others.
On a narrow trail, much like driving, there is a right of way and uphill hikers (hikers going uphill) have the right of way with other hikers. If you’re sharing the trail with mountain bikers, hikers again have the right of way, however occasionally it’s easier to yield.
Be sure to check rules about if your dog is allowed on the trail and if so, be sure to bring baggies to clean up after your dog and all dogs should be on leashes. Be aware that most National Parks do not allow dogs on most trails to keep park wildlife safe and secure.
Don’t forget that when you’re out on the trail with others, many people are there to experience nature around them. Keep noise and music to a low volume so you can all appreciate the sights and sounds around you.
Meet the Writer
Abbie Synan is a freelance writer who focuses on sustainability initiatives within the tourism industry. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she has been traveling full time since 2013, hopping the globe, visiting over 95 countries while exploring ways to be a more mindful global citizen. She is the sustainable travel expert for Wanderful, an international travel community, as well as the content co-lead for Impact Travel Alliance, a global organization educating and inspiring travelers.