A Beginners Guide to Day Hiking

When we think of hiking, a lot of us tend to think of a long, difficult walk with steep elevation changes and difficult terrain. The definition of hiking is “to walk for a long distance, especially across country or through woods.”

The reality is that even a walk around your local park can be a hike.

Difficulty and terrain don’t matter—what does matter is that you get outside and enjoy yourself! The perfect way to start is with day hikes—length doesn’t matter!

Continue reading to learn how to prepare, select a trail and start hiking.


Beginners Hiking Guide - Picking the Right Trail

Start Small

The first step is to start small and know your physical limits. Look for group hikes in your area or start with short hikes with buddies or experienced hikers.

Pick hikes that you think will be way too easy—you might be surprised! Start smaller and work your way up to more difficult and longer trails.

Many trail injuries and rescues take place when beginners choose a difficult trail so that they can get a “good workout.” In reality, any type of physical movement is good for your body. The wilderness is serious business—not the place for overconfidence.

Be mindful of elevation gain on a hike. Elevation gains make your body work harder, and weather can change more rapidly at higher elevations. 

Get to Know the Trail

Once you’ve selected the hike or trail, research it. Read reviews online and learn about the terrain, length, and type. Is it a one-way or is it a loop? Is there an elevation change? How well is the trail marked? Use a website like Alltrails.com and read reviews from other hikers.

If at all possible, get a trail map. Don’t think you can rely on your smartphone, because in many wilderness areas there is no reception.


Select the Right Hiking Gear

Wear Proper Clothing and Footwear

Wearing the proper clothing and footwear can make all the difference! Clothing and footwear can make for a pleasurable experience or an absolutely miserable one.

Wear light, layered clothing and avoid cotton and denim if at all possible—these materials absorb moisture and stay cold, wet, and heavy. Bring an outer layer such as a fleece jacket, even if you don’t think you’ll need it.

It is not advisable to wear brand new shoes or hiking boots on a hike. If you have them, be sure to break them in with regular use before hiking in them. Wear shoes that are comfortable for you, support your feet well, and will be able to handle many types of terrain. The last thing you want is blisters halfway into your hike from new boots.

Bring the 10 Essentials

The 10 Essentials are classes of essential items developed by The Mountaineers to prepare hikers and mountaineers for situations they may come across, including the possibility of spending the night outdoors.

The 10 Essentials may vary based on the type of terrain or location you are going to be in, but the systems remain the same. It is important for every hiker, even on a short day hike, to be prepared for any situation.

  1. Navigation—As stated previously, try to obtain a paper map and bring a compass along in case you get turned around on the trail. Cell signal may not always be an option.
  2. Illumination—Always bring along light. Whether it’s a flashlight or a headlamp, you never know when you’re going to need it.
  3. Sun Protection—This includes sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.
  4. First Aid Kit—There are many small and lightweight first aid kits for hikers, or you can always make your own!
  5. Knife and Repair Kit—A swiss army knife or multi-tool is great in many situations, but you also want to think in terms of what might break. Duct tape and some paracord are always good ideas, too.
  6. Fire—In case of emergencies, you want to be able to start a fire. Not only can a fire keep you warm – the smoke can be spotted from far away in the event you get lost. For this purpose, you can bring along a lighter or a small box of waterproof matches. Vaseline covered cotton balls make great fire starters.
  7. ShelterYou don’t need to carry an entire tent on your day trip. Something as simple as a small tarp or a garbage bag can do the trick. The point of the shelter is to protect you from the elements, something simple and waterproof will do.
  8. Nutrition—Pack some extra trail mix or protein bars, just in case.
  9. Water—You want to bring enough water for your hike and then some. If you can’t carry all the weight and know there is water in the area, bring along some water purification tablets or a lifestraw.
  10. Extra Clothes—This will vary depending on the season and location. Higher altitudes get very cold at night, and in the summer you may encounter rain. Keep this as lightweight as possible or incorporate it into what you’re already wearing.

The Hike

Hiking on a trail during the daytime

Timing is Everything

Head out early in the day. Even if you think the trail will take you a short amount of time, you don’t want to leave any margin for error. The hike may be more difficult than you anticipated, causing many breaks. It gets darker in the woods quicker than anywhere else, so make sure you start your hike as early in the day as possible.

Pace Yourself

Along with setting out early in the day, be sure to take your time! Enjoy yourself on the trail and don’t use up all your energy in the beginning.

Saunter along at a comfortable pace and enjoy your surroundings to make the most of your experience.

Leave No Trace

As a hiker in wilderness areas, it is up to you to minimize your impacts on the environment.

Never, ever leave the trail. Not only is it way too easy to get lost this way, but it also damages valuable crust and plant life.

If you build a fire, try to keep it in already existing rings. Make sure it is 100% out when you leave it, and be aware of fire rules and dangers in your area. Dispose of waste properly, and respect wildlife and other people. Pack it in, pack it out!

With a little preparation, planning, and consideration, your hiking adventures will be off to a great start! Always remember to bring the 10 essentials, plan your trip and for your sanity’s sake—wear comfortable footwear!

A beginners guide to day hiking

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