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10 Tips for Beginner Day Hikers

While SectionHiker is a backpacking blog, I also do an enormous amount of day hiking and like it because it can be such a social experience. Here are some tips that I provide day hikers who are just getting started and contact me seeking advice, to set them on the right path.

1. Find a Group or Club to Hike With

Group hikes are fun and organized hikes take the guesswork out of trip planning if you're unfamiliar with an area.
Group hikes are fun and organized hikes take the guesswork out of trip planning if you’re unfamiliar with an area.

The fastest way to become a good hiker is to hike with other people because it’s fun and motivating. If you live on the Atlantic seaboard there are many regional chapters of the Appalachian Mountain Club that lead frequent hikes you can join. The same goes with the Washington Trails Association and the Sierra Club on the west coast and throughout the country. Meetup.com is also a tremendous place to find  local hiking groups, meet people, make hiking friends, and plan your own hiking adventures.

2. Hike once a Week at a Local Park

Open Forest in the Middlesex Fells
Open Forest in the Middlesex Fells

Day hiking takes practice and conditioning if you want to build up to more strenuous and challenging hikes. Try hiking at least once a week at a local park, either by yourself or as part of a group. You’ll develop your footwork skills, get practice planning hikes, test out new gear, and build up your physical endurance. It doesn’t matter where you hike, as long as you hike. Make it easy on yourself and find a nice park with a few trails that isn’t a big distance from your home. If you keep the barrier to going low, you’re more likely to go.

3. Learn to Hydrate Properly

My Hydration System
My Hydration System

Beginner hikers often don’t carry enough water on hikes. Plan on carrying about 1 liter for every two hours, although this can vary based on time of year, weather conditions, your pace, body weight, and the difficulty of a hike. Learning how much water you need in these conditions is an important skill, so pay attention to what your body needs.

4. Carry the 10 Essentials

EssentialsUp to 4 HoursMore than 4 Hours
Map and CompassLocal MapLocal Map
Suunto A-10 Compass
Sun ProtectionBilled CapBilled Cap
Dermatone TinDermatone Tin
Long Sleeved Synthetic Shirt
InsulationFleece SweaterFleece Sweater
Rain Jacket and PantsRain Jacket and Pants
Beanie Hat
Insulated Jacket
IlluminationSpot headlampSpot headlamp
Extra Lithium BatteriesExtra Lithium Batteries
First Aid KitAdventure Medical KitAdventure Medical Kit
FireSmall box of Wooden MatchesSmall box of Wooden Matches
Light My Fire Fire SteelLight My Fire Fire Steel
Vaseline Coated Cotton BallsVaseline Coated Cotton Balls
Tools and Repair KitSwiss Army Classic KnifeSwiss Army Classic Knife
Duct Tape, Safety PinsDuct Tape, Safety Pins
NutritionNuts, Dried Fruit, BarsNuts, Dried Fruit, Bars
Hydration2 Water Bottles or 70 oz Reservoir2 Water Bottles or 100 oz Reservoir
Water pruification tablets or a Sawyer water filter
Emergency ShelterEmergency BivyEmergency Bivy
Foam Sit Pad
Tarp and paracord
OtherEmergency Contact InfoEmergency Contact Info
Loud WhistleLoud Whistle
Toilet Paper and Trowel

Learn about the 10 essentials (see 10 Essentials Guide), why you need them, how to use them, and start bringing them on your day hikes. The wilderness begins as soon as you leave a trail head: on average it takes emergency responders an additional hour to reach a victim for every 15 minutes of hiking away from a trail head parking lot. Don’t underestimate the need to hike prepared, even in a more urban setting.

5. Find Comfortable Hiking Footwear

Asolo TPS 520 Hiking Boots
Asolo TPS 520 Hiking Boots

Finding comfortable footwear that doesn’t cause blisters may take you a while. Focus on finding boots or shoes that work for you instead of putting up with ones that hurt or fit poorly. Be patient and keep trying ones until you dial in footwear that works. Everyone’s feet are different. Boots, mids, or trail runners: it doesn’t matter which you choose. They are all have advantages and disadvantages.

6. Develop Your Layering System

Dress Like and Onion - Pinkam Lodge Ready Room
Dress Like and Onion – Pinkam Lodge Ready Room

Learning how to dress like an onion, or layering, is an important moisture management and heat regulation skill for hikers to master. Everyone’s metabolism is different, so try different base layers, mid-layers, insulation layers, and shells until you develop a system that works for your needs in most three season conditions. Hint: wearing many thin layers gives you better control over temperature regulation than integrated component garments.

7. Leave a Trip Plan with a Trusted Friend or Relative

Whenever you take a hike by yourself or in a group, leave a trip plan (see How to Plan a Day Hike) with a trusted friends or relative that details where you are going, the trails or route you plan on hiking, where you’ve parked your car, when you expect to be return, and who to call if you’re overdue. Short hikes or long: this is a very important trip preparation step.

8. Learn How to Read a Topographic Map

Topographic Map of North and South Doublehead
Topographic Map of North and South Doublehead

Learn terrain-to-map association so you can identify the landforms you see outdoors in order to find your position on a map. This is an even more basic skill than using a compass and one that you’ll use much more frequently.

9. Learn by Imitation

Imitate more experienced hikers, and eventually you'll be as experienced as they are
Imitate more experienced hikers, and eventually you’ll be as experienced as they are

I’m not proud. I learned how to dress like a hiker, hang a bear bag, and many other skills by watching more experienced hikers and backpackers and then imitating them. People are happy to teach you new things whether they know it or not!

10. Volunteer to do Trail Work

Shaping Stone
Shaping Stone

When you become a hiker, you join a community of people who love the outdoors and hiking. Volunteering to do trail work will help you understand how precious our hiking trails are how important their preservation is for future generations.

What advice would you give to a beginner day hiker?


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  1. Buy a GPS and have someone tell you how to use it. Buy a PLB (Personal Locater Beacon). They are getting cheaper and you may save someone else’s life with it. I have a satellite phone, but they are expensive. It would be great if there was one in your party.

  2. Find someone someone to hike with who is similar (or better) in skill and fitness to partner with you on your adventures. On those days when you don’t feel like getting up for that alpine start, or the weather looks miserable, likely your partner will be saying, ‘Let’s go.’ You’ll learn together and reinforce those memories.

  3. Part of the adventure is taking the time to read the guidebooks (buy them all for your area), and the maps, and otherwise plan your adventure. Don’t just go and follow the person in front of you. When you return, review those maps — it will reinforce your memory of the experience. And remember: in spite of planning, the real adventure begins when things go wrong (or the unexpected happens). Often, it doesn’t seem like an adventure at the time… but it will every time you retell the story. BTW, when faced with the unexpected, ask, “Is this the real adventure that is presenting itself?” Be prepared. Be safe. But also, take advantage of unexpected opportunities.

  4. I read this one in the first guidebook I ever bought. It said (among many other useful recommendations): “Avoid dragging along a reluctant partner; and leave behind the chatterer, however dear a friend, for he or she will steal all your attention from your walk.” The book was the 1980 edition of ‘Easy Hiking Around Vancouver’ by Cousins & Robinson.

  5. Learn how to do your own weather forecasting. It is not difficult, and you’ll become better with experience. Most weather forecasts are for urban areas (often accurate for the nearby airport). On the prairies this can be valid for a whole region. This is not true in the mountains. The big hills influence and dance with the weather, and the best way to anticipate what will happen out there is to study the local patterns (or for wherever you hike). The conditions can change dramatically with altitude.

    If you hike in snowy hills, you must learn how to recognize (and avoid) the potential for avalanches. Learning about avalanches may become part of your adventure.

    Stay off glaciers until you know how to travel on them. Learning about glaciers may become part of your adventure.

  6. Most modern smart phones have a gps built into them. Find a good gps mapping app for your phone that can download and use off-line maps and learn to use it.

    • An excellent list and comments. Retirement has given me a chance to get back to hiking. One thing I have found is the importance of Trail type. Of the two close areas I huke in, ones base is roots and rocks while the other is more traditional woodsy with terrain you do not have to constantly look at. A big difference in footwear and supplies.

  7. Remember that five miles on the trails is not the same as five miles in an urban setting. Trails are rough, rocky, and root-y, and many of them go uphill and downhill. Find out the elevation gain for your distance and then you can have a general idea as to how steep it will be.

    Also, going downhill is not twice as fast as going uphill. Going downhill can still be very hard work.

    • I agree with Lizz. Also note that going downhill can be very hard on your shins! I have given myself shin splints a couple of times from overdoing it on the speed of descent. Don’t rush – plan for way more time than you think it will take.

  8. All great suggestions, but…

    If we’re talking about a rank beginner, this list, and some of the comments will scare some people away.

    I did some hiking this weekend at one of my favorite Indiana state parks with my sister-in-law who’d never really done any hiking. I loved introducing her to the trails and sights. BUT, of the 4 of us on the hike, I was the one that carried the pack with supplies, I wrangled the map and chose routes, and there was no way the other 3 were looking at a topo map.

    For where they are, these things are pretty intimidating. The important thing was to get them out there, get moving, get inspired.

    If we do more hiking, and I hope we do, we can start the conversation about these ideas. But just getting to that point will be a journey.

    • Not meant to intimidate, but to inspire. These are some basic things to work on in the earliest stages of a hiking addiction.

      • I agree with Nathan actually. My first piece of advice to a beginner would be: don’t overthink it…it’s just walking.

        If I was a beginner and read your list I’d think, “I don’t know how to read a map…I don’t own half the stuff on the ’10 essentials list’ (emergency bivy?? really?)…I guess I can’t go hiking.” And that’s pretty far from the truth.

        Now if your first hike is 15+ miles in the White Mountains in shoulder season, my advice would be to pick a different first hike.

    • This list would be quite different for a hiker in my area (Southwest), a foam sit pad? What for? The best two bits of advice here are to go with someone who knows the area, and to bring more water than you think you need. One other suggestion would be to never try to hike in brand new shoes, wear them around for a week or more to break them in and get your feet used to them. I’d go with a GPS and a map over a compass, but even these are dead weight if you don’t know how to use them. Try some geocaching to get the hang of it. I have spent a lot of time on my own out there with work. Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to get back. A roll of tp is also a good thing to take along, not only for the obvious advantages it has over leaves (have you tried that?!), but it can be used for tinder, emergency bandages, and can be rolled out in a big x to attract attention when lost or hurt. A few granola bars for emergencies has proven useful in the past, even on hikes that just took a lot longer than expected.

  9. Great article, sharing with Trail Dames!

  10. Re: Meet-ups (but a good tip for all), Slow Gin Lizz’s tip is important. I’ve been on a few group hikes where new hikers vastly overestimated their abilities and changed the whole hike into a “support the medically challenged” event. So my advice is:
    1. Take it easy and gradually stretch your limits.
    2. Strenuous hikes are not always the measure of how “good” a hike is – plenty of moderate hikes with great views to start with.
    3. Know your self and your limitations, and match that up with the hike description.
    4. Trekking poles work great for most people and can be picked up cheap!

    • Yes, yes, yes to all of the above, especially #3. My first advice for beginners would be: don’t overestimate your abilities. There is nothing wrong with an easy hike over pleasant terrain.

  11. I think one of the biggest things for people who want to get out hiking is that they need to realize how difficult “just walking” can be, and how far a mile is when you’re doing it on foot (with elevation changes).

    I think the best advice I could give to the true newbie is to plan a short hike (2-3 miles) with the option of going farther if you feel good.

    As I prep for a JMT hike in August, I have dragged many friends out for short day hikes here in Wisconsin, and it’s ranged from “Let’s do more” to, “Holy cow I’m gassed” after a couple miles. Learning to be flexible is an important early lesson.

  12. Give yourself permission to have fun. Try to learn at least one new thing, skill, flora/fauna identification, bird song, rock identification,…….. on each hike. Stay safe but do not be afraid of a little bit of misadventure sometimes misadventures are the best adventures.

  13. I returned to backpacking just a few years ago and started by day hiking near my home. I quickly wanted to find new trails and found Youtube a valuable complement to the trail guides I had purchased. While most guides do a decent to good job of describing a trail, it is likely you can find someone who has filmed their traverse. Seeing the trail conditions / terrain and the vistas they lead to both helped me decide on my next outing, prepare me for the terrain, and motivated me to reach what lay ahead.

  14. All great information – thanks so much for sharing everyone!

  15. Where I live, the advice would be to “go outside anyway.” Between Jan 1 and Apr 30 this year, we had approximately 100 days of rain. (or 20 rain free days) Don’t wait for the perfect day. It may be a while.

    Also, be prepared for the local wildlife. We live in an area with aggressive bears so that means bringing a rifle or bear spray for most folks.

  16. The importance of good footwear cannot be overstated. Make sure they are comfortable, and make sure they are broken in. Get good insoles. Check the inside of your boots or shoes for flaws or damage. For example, a very small (maybe 2 mm) bump underneath the gortex liner in the heel of one of my new boots nearly lamed me for a week or more. And for the sake of your feet and your safety, pick footwear that is appropriate to where you are walking! I’ve seen people go out on rocky terrain in flip flops. I can only imagine how they felt after half an hour out.

  17. Guidebooks! My well-thumbed day hike guide is one of the “60 hikes within 60 miles” series, with good descriptions of trails and rankings of difficulties.

    Map sources: National, state, county, city park websites have trail maps and characteristics – some of these maps may have contour lines. usgs.gov for free downloadable maps to print at home, if you want to learn more about maps. Many parks will have printed maps, but sometimes these run out.

    Insect repellant plan! I use permethrin treated clothing, and avoid DEET if possible (DEET softens engineering plastics used in cameras). But, people not carrying camera gear often like DEET.

    Know your updated weather report from weather.gov (many phone apps).

    Tip: If this is your first time on the particular trail, make sure you have plenty of time to finish before dark.

    Tip: If a park office is open, ask about trail conditions, any recommendations. They will know how long most people take to finish a particular trail.

    Tip: Use your cell phone or phablet to photograph the map posted at the trail head. Map is now handy and accessible, and less likely to get lost (I have had paper maps fall out of my pocket)..

    Tip: Break time with change of socks makes your feet happy. Sweaty feet lead to blisters. On a longer hike, it can feel great to stop for a few minutes rest and snack / hydration break. Take off your shoes and socks immediately on sitting down, air those dogs (3 -season) or soak in stream and let dry for a while(summer), then after snack and hydration, put on fresh socks!

    Tip: Depending on the shoe construction, you may get a better fit with alternate lacing. Get someone to show you some lacing options, and start trying them. Happy feet = happy hiker.

    Tip: Once you decide that you like hiking, consider getting hiking poles, which really come in handy crossing the numerous streams and muddy bottomlands in my area. Poke pole into muddy stream to determine depth. Poke pole into questionable damp patch in bottomlands before stepping onto it – if pole goes deep in, so will you. I have been The Swamp Monster, getting stuck in Mississippi River wetlands mud, and having to sit down, dig my feet out, and crawl (more surface area) out. D’oh! Use poles to help balance during stream crossing.

  18. Please, please, please study and practice the Leave No Trace principles- especially toileting and carrying out trash. Thanks in advance.

  19. If you are hiking for the first time, then it is better you start with small distance and choose the right hiking route that matches your fitness level. It would be best if you team up with an experienced friend. As it is your first hiking, you surely going to experience lots of new things. :)

  20. Thanks for this guide, I am new in hiking and my group has persons. We always missed something when we start hiking. The second mistake is that we have not learnt about how hard it is to climd on the mountains, we just hear some thoughts from our friends.

  21. Cottonballs in vaseline work great but are messy. I found cottonballs soaked in candle wax to be much better. They are completely waterproof and all you need to light them is a firesteel, even in the rain!
    Even if you dont plan on being out for more than a few hours having a rock solid fire starting system with you can be a major difference maker in the event of a emergency.

  22. You know, I’m looking at those photos and thinking how cool it seems to be a hiker but how troublesome it would become once I actually got to it. Gotta fight my laziness.

  23. Rain jackets and pants vs rain ponchos?

  24. I’m concerned about personal safety and this was only mentioned once in the comments section. If I encounter an animal, does bear spray work on other animals such as mountain lions? And I hope I’m not sounding paranoid asking if bear spray can be effective on humans? What if I stumble into a dangerous situation/person?

    • The best deterrent in all of these situations is to hike with a partner. You can try to spray a mountain lion, but chances are the spray won’t do much if it’s already charging you.

  25. How do prevent the pain on the outside of the knees when hiking downhill? I use hiking poles, but by mile 6, my knees are killing me on decent! Help!

  26. I have been trying to get into hiking but the hiking groups all seem to be for experienced hikers. It’s very difficult to find hikes for beginners. Any suggestions? I have tried Meetup.com already. Many hikes say no beginners.

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