How to start hiking and backpacking. Are you new to hiking or backpacking? If so, this article is for you, but you may also learn a few tips after skimming through it if you have hiked before.
There are tips from my personal experience and new strategies I learned from my research. Learn basic concepts every hiker should know, gear tips, food tips, and more.
There is nothing more to say, so let us begin with the ten essentials
The ten essentials
The ten essentials are items hikers never neglect because they are essential for their safety and health on the trail. To properly utilize the ten essentials, it’s good to know how to use some of the gear. For example the compass, first aid bandages, and repair kits.
- Navigation (map & compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses & sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candle)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter (tent/plastic tube tent/garbage bag)
- Pro tip: Have a checklist, and check it twice to make sure you bring everything you need.
pack several pairs of socks and underwear, and remember you can wear the same clothes for three to four days.
change your socks frequently when you are hiking to prevent blisters.
Bring moleskin or liquid blister prevention.
You don’t need hiking boots for your first short hike, just don’t bring running shoes, not enough support. If you have some, bring leather shoes.
Have a spare pair of socks (hiking in wet socks isn’t fun)
You see cotton absorbs moisture, and traps water near your foot, making your feet uncomfortable.
Don’t use cotton socks! Cotton can also make your feet warm and itchy during hot weather.
Also, try socks that are seamless within, these socks can prevent blisters. Also, consider toe socks, they may feel more comfortable for you.
Pro tip: Rent don’t buy: Rent your tent, sleeping bag, and pad. Also, Renting allows you to experiment with different products before purchasing them.
A layering approach is typically used by experienced hikers. Layering is the best way to combat changes in temperature with minimal clothing.
Base layers keep moisture off of your skin, polyester & merino wool are good materials for doing just that. Although the thickness of your layers should be determined by forecast and your level of physical exertion.
Insulation layers give your body warmth by holding pockets of air. Natural down is often (lighter/warmer) while synthetic polyester is (better/cheaper when hiking in wet conditions).
Lightweight is best for a variety of your trips, but obviously not for extreme cold. As a beginner, you should hike in a place that doesn’t experience deadly snow.
Shell Layers protect you from the elements, (wind, rain, snow). The material is typically nylon or Gore-tex, often treated with durable water repellent (DWR) finishes. Having more weather protection comes with the tradeoff of less breathability and vice versa.
When you are taking care of… well your human waste, it’s a good idea to bring a trough. With this tool, you can dig a cathole to cover your waist. Your cathole should be 6-8 inches deep, and 4-8 inches in diameter, and make it 200 feet away from any water source.
If you are camping with others, make sure to disperse your catholes in a wide area. Also, it’s hiker etiquette to go off the trail, so please don’t squat on the trail, and do your business away from camp.
Tent: Select a tent that is rated for three seasons. Four-season tents are designed for harsher conditions and mountaineering. I would not recommend doing mountaineering since you are getting started with hiking.
Also, on the subject of tents, if you want plenty of space for yourself, get a two-person tent.
Backpack: If your pack is comfortable on the hips and in the shoulder region, then it’s probably fine. A fair amount of weight is around 30 pounds. Test your backpack on a day hike, and note any negatives.
Also, it’s a good idea to carry your backpack for normal walks to get used to the weight. If you plan on getting an ultralight model, note that they will have a less supportive structure for your back.
Sleeping bag: Consider material when purchasing sleeping bags. Synthetic is a good material for sleeping bags because it’s versatile and tends to be more budget-friendly than down material.
Sleeping pad: Insulation, Cushioning. Not just cushioning, a floatie won’t keep you warm. Choose a sleeping pad between comfort and warmth, or choose a self-inflating pad which is a plus for personal convenience.
(ultralight stove): Less than a pound is good. Also, Consider fuel types that will be sufficient for the amount of time you plan on staying. Beginners typically pick a gas-canister stove because they’re affordable and easy to use.
If you’re just going on a weekend trip, you could bring a kojin ultralight backpacking stove. It’s very easy to use, and cheaper than many gas canister stoves.
Kitchen supplies: Bring enough utensils for each of your planned meals. Also, you can get by with plastic utensils, no need to bring fancy silverware. Use biodegradable soap for washing dishes, and remember to wash away from any water sources and your camp.
Rainwear: Bring a waterproof/breathable jacket. (rainwear can prevent mosquito bites). Rainwear is a safety item, many people believe the weather forecast is set in stone and leave behind their rainwear.
These people can get hypothermia if the forecast changes and they are left unprepared for the ensuing storm. Be prepared for changing weather by bringing rainwear, allowing you to quickly adapt to changing conditions.
Choose moisture-wicking fabrics, these fabrics keep your skin dryer by pulling sweat away from you. Quick-drying fabrics like nylon and polyester are good for dealing with sweat if you are expecting to exert yourself.
Like I said before, avoid cotton, it can even lead to hypothermia in certain situations, such as getting caught in a rainstorm.
A compressible 20-degree bag will work for many people for three seasons.
first aid kit or extra headlamp batteries should you need them.
bring fire starters
Lastly, give yourself one luxury item to bring with you.
Pro tip: socks are just as important as boots on long hikes. It’s best to always have two pairs on. One silk/synthetic liner sock, and an outer one made from wool or similar.
Not only does it remove moisture better, but the inner sock helps to remove the friction that might otherwise go to your skin.
Bring tums anti-diarrhea if you have a sensitive stomach, or just in case something doesn’t agree with you.
Don’t overpack after buying a big backpack
New backpackers usually purchase a large backpack weighing (70+ liters). Beginners try filling their packs with unnecessary big clunky binocs, heavy cameras, or other nick nacks to fill up the extra space.
This is the wrong approach, instead select the gear you plan on putting in your backpack, then put the gear in. Read my guide on how to pack a backpackers backpack.
Weigh your pack, and remember to lift your backpack. Is it too heavy, and are you falling to the ground struggling to hoist it? Looks like you overpacked.
Haste makes waste, don’t pack the night before, pack in advance. With your packing finished, you now have time to substitute items or experiment with where to put items.
A good rule of thumb to follow is this, backpacks shouldn’t weigh more than 20% of your body weight. To learn about how much a backpacking tent should weigh read my article here. (how much should a backpacking tent weigh)
Heavy items, like fuel, food, or water should be placed low and inside of the main pouch of the pack. Place lighter items, like a down coat higher in your pack.
This placement strategy also gives you easier access to your layers. Essential items, like maps, snacks, a cell phone, and at least one water bottle, should go stored in an external pocket where they can easily be reached.
Sleeping bags, and down jackets are a good first investment, you will use them a lot. Also, sleeping bags help reduce pack weight by acting as a cushion when placed at the bottom of your pack.
Where to go
To answer how to start hiking and backpacking, its important to know where to go. First, it’s important to select an appropriate location for your hike. Look out for certain indicators when selecting your trail.
First, find some local trails near you, there is no need to travel to a national park far away. There are probably all kinds of trails closer than you think that you may not know about, do a quick search on Google maps or All-trails to find them.
Second: Select a trail that is easy to moderate. Your first time out shouldn’t make you too sore since you will be selecting a trail that matches your beginner skill level.
Third: Consider the trail’s elevation before committing. A steep trail will leave your inexperienced hiking legs wobbly like noodles. Your noodly legs could cause you to trip and fall during the descent.
One of the first trails I did was a steep trail, and I was dusted by the time I reached the top. I could have hurt myself going down with my noodle legs, and I am surprised I didn’t. Don’t be like me, pick an easier trail.
I would recommend either a flat trail or one with a negligible amount of elevation. Look for any considerably high elevations points, and consider whether or not they will be a problem.
For technical reference, If a trail gains 1,000 feet in one mile, that trail is considerably steep.
Also, a general guide to follow is that for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, add one more hour to your trip.
Fourth: I would say your first trip should be about a 2-4 mile round trip. Also, choosing to go on a round trip gives you less to think about. If your trip isn’t a round trip, then your hike will finish at different places, which means you’ll need to reserve a shuttle car to your start and endpoints.
Fifth: Consider various technical features to the trail like stream passing/rock climbing. Are the trails well-marked / easy to follow? Does the trail have a bunch of turns, and would you find yourself easily getting lost in it?
Instead, pick a trail with relatively flat and even surfaces that are easy to follow. Does the trail have bathrooms? Find To date info on status, i.e., any parts washed out or impassable.
Last one: Is there any wildlife near the trails that could become a problem? On your first trail, you probably wouldn’t want to be going deep into territory which could have bears. Since you’re a beginner, you are likely to make mistakes protecting your food, and may attract wildlife.
For your first trip, pick a trail without such risks. Also, consider if this trail has bugs to worry about, and bring some bug spray.
In conclusion, your first trail should be Local, an easy 2-4 mile round trip without a lot of elevation. It should be easy to follow, and away from bears or bugs.
Pro tip: Go in mid-summer to maximize daylight hours and your odds of comfortable conditions.
Hiking with others
If you have the option, go with an experienced friend who has hiked before. There is no need to learn everything about hiking by yourself. Also, hiking can be less stressful, and more fun if you have a friend coming along with you.
Hiking groups are another option if you don’t have any friends that like to hike. Don’t know of any hiking groups, just research them on the internet and you will probably find some near you.
You will learn a lot more your first time if there are others to help you out. Also if you go with a group you are less likely to get lost, so join a hiking group. It’s a great way to start hiking and backpacking.
Hiking with a friend or group has other practical benefits. It helps to spread out the weight of your backpacking gear.
If you’re hiking with a group, or with friends, make sure to clearly define each person’s responsibility.
Will one person be responsible for the food, or will everyone bring their own food? Who will be bringing the tent? Will someone else bring the stove and cookware? Make sure you have all of these types of questions answered clearly.
Availability: Make sure that everyone can come. Some people might say they would like to go when in reality they can’t get time off work that week. Check schedules, plan a day, and make sure people know you are seriously planning a trip, it’s not just an idea.
Go without your dogs: no need to complicate matters
Nice and easy does it
Take it easy and don’t rush at first, you don’t want to give your 90% in the first 10% of the way. Enjoy the view and keep a steady pace.
Find the right pace, the right pace is one you can maintain all day. It might seem strange at first, and you may feel that you can go faster, but this pace is where you want to be. Why limit your pace like this?
Because after a few miles, especially uphill, you’ll need to use your saved energy.
Be aware of your body and remember to take note of any pains. Pain is a signal your body uses to communicate to you. Listen to the signals, and take rests if you need to.
Know when to rest.
Another good practice, don’t hesitate to stop and make camp after hiking only a few miles on your first day if you’re tired. If the hike is catching up with you, and you are becoming very tired, then turn around.
No need to keep going because sometimes going back (downhill) can be more time-consuming. Also, you are more likely to injure yourself on the descent. Hikers are usually tired, and uncoordinated during this phase causing them to make sloppy steps and nasty falls.
A great way to start off easy is to hike in national parks. They are great for beginners, for the trails at national parks are easy to follow. There are simple maps for your average person to understand, and clearer rules and guidelines too.
Pro tip: Make camp early on before you’re tired, that way your camp can be a place you come back to once you’re tired, not a chore you have to complete.
Pro tip: For weekend hikes, it’s smart to set up camp Friday night, that way you won’t have to travel with as much gear on Saturday and Sunday.
Permits and restrictions
Know about any restrictions or permits, for example, are there restrictions for where you can and can’t make a fire? Sometimes you may need a permit to access certain areas, make sure you know all of this info before your hike.
If you are planning on hiking during the weekend make sure to get there early, and have a backup plan in case you can’t get to the camping site.
Learn how to use a map and compass. You don’t have to be dependent on technology with a compass. Although I realize that a lot of people will probably not learn how to use a compass when they are just getting into hiking.
I would recommend downloading GPS maps from your phone so you have them in case of internet problems, or bad cell reception. For example, an app called Alltrails allows you to download maps of an area that you can access while offline. The app also features reviews of hiking locations and pictures. Although Alltrails is not completely free if you want to use every feature.
Consider investing in a SPOT tracker to summon emergency assistance by satellite. Another free option you could try is Safe 365. It’s an app that can track your phone in case you get lost. These options are not an excuse to shirk responsibility for your own safety – they are backup options.
Phones run out of battery, but if you bring an external battery charger you can keep your phone running for longer. Don’t forget your charging cable!
Also, don’t forget to bring a backup map made of real physical paper.
Pro tip: Orange tape is good for finding your way back to the trail. Mark every 20 ft with orange tape back to the trail if you want to see a waterfall or something off the trail. Takedown the tape once you are returning.
Select food high in carbohydrates and fat, camping food is not dieting food. No need to worry though, Since you will be working off a lot of your intake. You will go through the carbs and fat quickly, especially if you’re traveling at a high elevation.
An important safety tip, bring extra food, how much? Bring enough for an extra day in nature, and avoid canned foods.
Calorie intake? Around 200-400 calories for snacks, every few hours instead of a normal, three-meal eating schedule.
Dehydrated food can be nice, but expensive in most cases. Pros: the only thing you have to do is add boiling water to cook/rehydrate your food using a canister stove or something similar.
Total intake: Around 3,000-6,000 calories a day. A minor caveat, intake may vary depending on the individual, but this is a rough estimate.
How much water should I bring? Around the 50-to-60-liter range is appropriate for a trip less than four days.
- Food options
- Bring salty snacks, sweets get old fast
- Trail mix
- Energy bars
- Angel hair pasta
- Energy chews (in moderation)
- Homemade fruit roll-ups
- perishable things like fresh eggs can’t be on the menu unless you find a wild chicken. no freezer.
- Dinner: all in one meals.
- lunch and snack. high-calorie, high-protein energy bars, and trail mix. hiking burns a lot of metabolic fuel.
- Breakfast: Pancakes, hot oatmeal. two or three breakfast bars. caffeinated beverage, your quickest option is an instant coffee or tea bags.
- Dried fruits
- Cheese & crackers
- Peanut butter
Pro tip: Repackage food and spices, leaving behind bulky, heavy containers.
Prepare for critters, and respect wildlife
Bears and coons: Place strongly scented items inside your bear can or in an odor-proof bag to combat unwelcome scavengers.
Any item emitting a strong, distinctive scent will go into your bear can before stepping on the trails. Most parks or trails require bear canisters.
Do not come between large animals and they’re young, let them be. If you must take a photo and go without disturbing them.
Collect info on the area
Are there any local poisonous plants, snakes, or insects where you will be hiking? If so, bring all the necessary gear to combat these problems. Basically, make a plan for handling different scenarios where you are wet, lost, can’t walk, and are sick/poisoned. If you have the knowledge and equipment for these issues you’ll have a good time and can have peace of mind.
You know more about where you are going, good, it’s also good to play ‘what if?’ scenarios in your head. Mentally preparing for situations during the weeks leading up to a trip is a great way to practice adapting. ‘What if scenarios?’ can remind you to bring essential gear you may have otherwise forgotten like a snake kit if there are snakes in the area.
Hydration: Is there water near the camp? If you believe there is water, make sure you know the details about the source. Springs can become dry during certain times of the year so contact your local land managers before relying on a water source.
On the topic of hydration, it’s a good idea to be over-prepared in case you stay longer than intended. Bring extra water-related gear, this will act as emergency gear. For example extra iodine and chlorine pills, you’ll be glad you did.
Make sure you tell someone the destinations you intend to go to, the vehicle you’ll be driving, and the number of people you’re going with. Basically, just make sure someone always knows where you’re going and how long you plan to be gone. Once your trip is over, and you are heading back home, check in with your emergency contact.
Pro tip: take out the batteries in your headlamp so it won’t accidentally turn on and drain the battery power.
Know your gear
Hiking shoes: Arguably the most important gear for a hike, and the first piece of gear you will regret neglecting. Hiking shoes will make the difference between an enjoyable hike, and a very short hike leaving you with blisters. My advice to you, go on a walk in your hiking shoes.
A short walk in the park is the time to find out that they hurt not 5 miles into a multi-day trip. Also, keep in mind some boots have features for specific terrain and walking strides. Do a good amount of research before you make your selection, and most importantly test it before you hike!
Learn how to use your items: Practice making your tent so you can set it up quickly in case a rainstorm should suddenly strike. Having this knowledge will make you feel more confident during your hike. Learn how to use your trekking poles, they alleviate the stress put on your knees. Know how to use bear spray if you are going into bear territory. Knowing how to read topographic maps is helpful, and while you’re at it, master the compass.
Since you’re a beginner, you are more likely to get lost, having navigation knowledge will be invaluable to finding your way back to the trail. Lastly, I would recommend learning how to properly pack a backpacker’s backpack. There is a lot of gear new hikers end up throwing away in the trash at rest stops because the little things add up. Know what you need to take vs what you want to take.
Pro tip: Don’t start your hike late in the morning because you’ll hike in the hottest hours of the day (assuming it’s summer). Start early so you have plenty of daylight.
Leave no trace
Leave nature better than you found it.
Camp like being a guest in someone’s home, you wouldn’t want to leave a big mess after you left? That’s the approach to take with visiting nature.
Gear: Bring the right gear, know how to use it, know your environment so you know what to bring, and know how much to bring. Skills:
Navigation is a great skill to learn. Safety: Be prepared for different scenarios, bring extra gear for hydration and bring extra food. Play what-if scenarios in your mind, and have an emergency contact. Practical: Know about any permits, rent your gear, know how to pack your backpack, and how to train for bigger hikes to improve your skills.
What to do next?
Now that you know how to start hiking and backpacking go on some easy trails, and take some day hikes. Then do a few weekend trips. During your travels I would definitely recommend learning how to use a compass, read my how to guide to educate yourself, and practice orientation.