5 hiking tips every beginner should know

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My partner and I are lucky: We live within walking distance of a trailhead. After we felt as if we’d traversed every block in our neighborhood early on during lockdown, we finally took advantage of our opportune location and began a ritual of hiking every weekend. Eventually, we landed on a favorite route, and even took to stringing up hammocks mid-hike. If you have access to a trail, I highly recommend hiking as a quarantine activity. Besides being COVID-safe, it’s done wonders for my mental health. Reaching this point, however, required both research, and trial and error. Here’s a beginner’s guide to hiking, so you can skip some of that heavy lifting and hit the trails, stat.

Plan your route

I highly recommend AllTrails, a website and mobile app that allows you to search for trails based on variables like length, elevation gain, difficulty level, and whether they’re dog-friendly, so that you find a trail that aligns with your goals. Or, ask friends for recommendations. My partner and I started hiking a trail he’d already biked, although it took trying different ones in the area (while still making sure to research them beforehand) to figure out a route we loved.

Start out small,” Maggie Slepian, managing editor of The Trek, told The Strategist. “A five-mile walk in town is very different from a five-mile hike — two and a half miles out and back — with 2,000 feet of elevation gain.” Account for the distance between home and the trailhead, and the time you have. If you have two hours, don’t try to finish a 10-mile trail a half-hour drive away.

If you’re a newbie, I recommend hiking with someone for not only morale, but safety reasons, in case you get injured, and to avoid getting lost. Also, this probably goes without saying, but just in case: Steer clear of trails with potentially dangerous wildlife, such as bears, moose, and rattlesnakes.

Layer up

Depending on where you hike, the temperature can vary considerably between shaded and sun-exposed areas, which means layers are key. I try to wear a dry-wick base layer to evaporate any sweat, and at least pack an insulating mid-layer. In colder weather, I bring a puffy outer layer, too. This North Face jacket stands up to wind and rain while still letting your skin breathe, making it a solid option. The same goes for this Lululemon jacket, which not only protects you from the elements, but has a unique yet stylish silhouette. The Brooks carbonite windbreaker also works, and its chic colorway with reflective material help keep you visible to others on the trail.

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For bottoms, I usually opt for leggings. They’re movable and, let’s face it, so damn comfy. Yoga pants might be too flimsy, though. Instead, look for durable tights designed for hiking, like these Eddie Bauer trail leggings, which one reviewer reportedly wore while hiking 300 miles of the Appalachian Trial. In the summer, my partner swears by his convertible pants, like this pair from Marmot. The pant legs zip off, which — you guessed it — converts them into shorts.

Wear the right shoes

Now is not the time to throw on your old gym shoes. Invest in a pair of hiking shoes, if you can. “Hiking shoes have specially made thick rubber soles that have deep indentations to provide good traction, called lugs,” explains Jacqueline Sutera, a podiatrist and Vionic Innovation Lab member who specializes in preventing and treating foot pathology. The anti-slip soles provide maximum grip, she adds. “They are also made from materials that repeal and protect feet from mud, rocks, water, and other outdoor elements.”

Hoka One One makes a shoe that checks these boxes and then some, merging the toughness of a hiking boot with the traction of a climbing shoe and the lightness of a running shoe — and it’s 100% vegan, too. For something more low-key yet still functional, these Merrell trail shoes are lined with breathable mesh and have an Air Cushion heel for stability and shock absorption, while these Brooks trail racing shoes shield your feet from roots and rocks, and offer traction even on wet ground.

I tend to wear hiking boots, partly because I’m a little crunchy (I live in Berkeley — need I say more?), but also because I like the ankle support. These waterproof Merrell boots have tongues designed to keep out annoying debris, and are made with leather from suppliers with sustainable practices. Since boots take a little while to break in, start with an easy hike if you do buy a pair.

Pack smart

At this point in your hiking journey, a lightweight backpack should suffice. The REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack has ample storage, including plenty of pockets and a sleeve that holds a hydration reservoir, although you’ll have to buy the reservoir separately. A padded mesh back and shoulder straps, along with a sternum strap and waistbelt, provide comfort and support.

My day pack essentials include sunglasses, a mid-layer, and a puffy layer on cold days. If a hydration reservoir isn’t your style, I recommend this wide mouth Hydroflask, which will keep your water cold your entire hike and won’t impart it with that weird metallic aftertaste.

Snacks are also key. I suggest bringing some with enough protein and healthy fats to hold you over, like these Kind energy bars, and maybe clementines, trail mix, or some other nutrient-dense food that travels well, as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends. On a recent hike, I fueled up on these tasty, ridiculously easy-to-make banana oatmeal breakfast cookies I’d baked a few days beforehand. (I’d pack them in Tupperware, in case the chocolate chips melt.)

Don't forget your tech: This G-Shock sports watch connects to your phone and allows you to track your steps and calories burned, among other metrics. And if you really want to upgrade your Instagram story game, the handheld Osmo Pocket camera allows you to shoot fluid, movie-quality videos of your hike. Let's be realistic, your iPhone whatever is not going to be able to capture that sherbet-hued dusk sky like a real camera will.

Optional: Hit pause for a mid-hike chill session

If you have time, take a moment to relax and experience nature in ways beyond hiking on a trail. My partner and I have gazed up at the treetops in our Trek Light hammock, and lately, we’ve been setting up these lightweight, portable Moon Lence camping chairs in the creek that runs along the trail near his parents’ place (where we’re currently visiting) and dipping our feet in the water. To really up our chill game, we store beer in the freezer for a few minutes, then pour it into our wide mouth Hydroflask, which keeps it fizzy and ice cold, although Hydroflask also makes a beer growler. I’ve used this leakproof, outdoorsy flask from Stanley for spirits.

As woo as it sounds, hiking reminds me that even as a pandemic devastates us, nature persists. Leaves still fall, and creeks still gurgle and flow, as they have long before coronavirus hit. I hope hiking offers you the same reassurance.