The ultimate hiking guide
This is our new complete guide to hiking in 2021.
You told us we needed to centralize the most important resources into one place, and we’ve listened!
So if you’re planning and executing your next day-hike or thru-hike, you’ll love this comprehensive guide.
Consider bookmarking this page as we’ll be updating it on a regular basis.
Let’s get started.
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The Complete Guide to Hiking
Hiking seems simple enough: go into the woods, put one foot in front of the other, rinse and repeat.
Do a quick Google search of anything related to hiking though and you will be overwhelmed with debates over every single aspect of it – internal vs. external backpacks, wool vs. synthetics, or even the ethics of hiking in national parks.
It’s enough to make your head explode!
How could something as simple as walking be so complicated?
Truth be told though, hikers just love to argue, and the more experienced ones can’t help but inject their opinions into every topic; it’s not nearly as complex as it the internet makes it seem – just one foot in front of the other.
There are probably a few aspects of hiking that you might be concerned about:
Where should I go, how can I ensure that I won’t break my leg on my first outing, and should I be worried about bears?
Relax, we’ll get there, and by the end, you’ll feel confident enough to take that first step into the wilderness.
What are the benefits of hiking?
It sounds like you’re thinking about getting into hiking, but there are plenty of other great ways to spend time outside – rock climbing, kayaking, if you live on the coast you could even take up sailing; so why hiking?
The physical benefits
Hiking is a fantastic workout. It might look like a stroll through the forest, but hiking works several muscle groups, especially if you’re carrying a pack on your back.
If your hikes involve big elevation gain, you will surely strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors.
Downhills might seem like a peace of cake, but it does wonders for your core strength and balance. Not to mention that any kind of prolonged aerobic activity is going to improve your cardiovascular health.
There may be a lot of different options for getting a workout outside, but few have such wide-ranging health benefits.
The mental benefits
In the past few decades the mental health community has caught on to what many cultures have known for centuries.
Spending time outside is good for us; not just physically, but mentally.
The benefits go far beyond what we would expect for aerobic exercise, hiking allows us to get back in touch with nature and away from the stresses of work and our electronic devices.
If that all sounds a little too new age-y for you, there are several other, more concrete, mental health benefits to hiking.
- Completing a difficult trail leads to feelings of accomplishment.
- Hiking with a buddy is a great way to bond with friends.
- Spending time away from distractions promotes creativity.
- Planning a fun hike gives you something to look forward to.
- Joining a hiking group is way to make new friends.
Getting in shape for a hike
While hiking will certainly keep you in shape, it’s a good idea to do at least a little training before you set off into the wilderness.
Doing so will lessen your chance of injury, reduce your need for recovery time afterwards, and most importantly, make the experience more fun.
Pre-hike fitness tips
- Start by taking a few walks around your neighborhood, maybe three times a week, starting at half an hour and working your way up to an hour. This first step is just to get you outside and moving. Move as fast as is comfortable, but don’t break into a run.
- Once you’re feeling okay with moving for an hour, put on a backpack, and load it down with a few water bottles. A one liter bottle weighs about two pounds, so work your way up to carrying five or so to simulate a full day pack. You can don some ankle weights for an extra challenge.
- You’ll also want to work on your strength training with some exercises at home. Lunges will develop your leg muscles and build up core strength, while push-ups are a great upper body workout and will make carrying a pack a lot easier.
- After your workouts, don’t forget to stretch. This will prevent soreness, aid in recovery, and is a good habit to keep when you’re hiking (don’t just collapse in a chair afterwards!).
Finding routes and planning a hiking trip
This is undoubtedly the most intimidating aspect of hiking
Without an experienced friend or guide, how do ensure you don’t run into trouble?
While that fear may have been valid in the days before the internet, there’s no excuse for going into a hike blind in these modern times.
You just need to understand how to make use of all the information available.
Start by asking yourself some basic questions.
When will you be hiking?
Trails are like a living, breathing organism and they can drastically change through the seasons and from year to year.
Unless you happen to live in the tropics, where temperatures only fluctuate a few degrees throughout the year, season will be a critical factor in choosing a hike.
Starting out, you should avoid winter hikes, perhaps with the exception of well-trafficked trails in city and county parks.
There’s just too much to deal with when snow and ice are present. In the other three seasons you’ll need to watch out for rainstorms, which could leave the trail nearly impassable with mud.
In places like New England and Alaska, spring brings the unbearable biting black flies.
Fortunately, descriptions of popular trails usually give a “best time of year to hike”.
Time of Day
As a hiker, you should stick to day hikes and save the nighttime and sunrise hikes for when you have a little more experience.
If you’re hiking in a hot climate, like the southern U.S., it’s always best to start early to avoid the punishing mid-day sun.
In the deserts of Arizona and Utah, hiking in the afternoon can be downright fatal.
Where Will You be Hiking?
Hiking trails are all around us; you just have to know where to look.
The easiest way to find one is by picking up a guidebook for your state or region, which will provide detailed information about the route.
But you don’t really need to spend money to find a good trail, you just have to do a little internet research.
These are a few of the types of hikes you’ll want to search for in your area.
Chances are your first few hikes won’t be far from your house.
City and county parks are some of the easiest places to find a trail, but unless you live in a wilder section of the country, these won’t provide much elevation gain or variation in terrain.
What they offer though is safety in numbers.
You’ll see a lot of other hikers on these trails (good way to strike up a conversation and make new friends!), so if something were to go wrong, help would not be far away.
Since the trails are popular, you should have no trouble finding information about them.
Having trouble finding trails in your town?
A good start point is GoogleMaps; turn on the bicycling layer to see dark green lines representing trails.
Zoom in to find the name of the trail and then do a search to learn the specifics on it (paved/dirt, elevation gain, shade, etc.)
County and state parks are great options because you can still find loads of information about them online, but the trails see less traffic, leaving you more quiet time in nature.
If you want to take things a step further, look for wildlife preserves, wilderness areas, and state/national recreation areas.
Just know that the information about each trail gets murkier the fewer people that frequent it.
National Park Hikes
America’s national parks are often touted as “the best idea” it has ever had.
The 61 (and growing!) national parks have some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in the world.
They’re also designed to appeal to a diverse population, from city slickers that have never stepped foot on a trail to hardcore backpackers that live several months out of the year in the wilderness.
National parks have excellent maps and trail descriptions too; additionally, the knowledgeable park rangers can help you plan a route that’s suitable for your level of fitness and experience.
All those wonderful features have one downside; they make them incredibly popular.
Most of the beginner friendly trails at marquee parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Great Smoky Mountains will be clogged with tourists during the summer months.
That’s not to say all of them are crowded though; remote parks like Big Bend on Texas’s southern border sees fewer than half a million visitors per year and Great Basin in eastern Nevada doesn’t even get 200,000.
If you’re really looking for some solitude though, consider visiting one of the 117 national monuments instead.
Unlike national parks, many of the monuments are undeveloped aside from the trails, making them a great option for those that want to see nature at its most pristine.
How far will you go on your hike?
This is probably the most frequent question hikers have: how far is too far?
There’s no easy way to say how many miles is acceptable because every trail has a different elevation profile and terrain.
Instead of thinking about miles, let’s consider hours on the trail.
As a beginner hiker, you should shoot for no more than a couple of hours.
Use that time to walk several miles of flat ground or ascend and descend a steep thousand-foot trail; it’s up to you.
As you get experience, this time limit can increase, so long as you’re always carrying enough water to prevent dehydration.
How to find a hiking trail
Now you’re getting down to the nitty gritty of planning a hike. You’ve got a few ideas about where to go, you just need to pick an actual trail.
Start by assessing your abilities
The first step in choosing a hike should always be assessing your abilities; that’s not a beginner hiker tip either, this is something you should do before every hike.
Our bodies change; injuries and lack of activity can drastically reduce our hiking ability.
What to look for in a hiking trail
So you’ve found a trail listing, what characteristics do you need to look for before deciding whether it’s right for you.
This will be your anchor point.
You know whether you can do three miles or ten on flat ground, so use this to eliminate hikes that are too short or too long for your needs.
Distance is important, but elevation gain is really what makes a trail challenging.
For your first few hikes, stick to relatively flat routes, and increase by a couple hundred feet once you are comfortable.
After several hikes with moderate elevation gain, you should have a baseline for what you’re capable of.
Is the path compacted dirt? Does it turn to sludge in the rain? Has anyone described it as a granite staircase from hell?
What the trail is made of can make a big difference when it comes to difficulty.
Proximity to water
If you’re doing a longer hike and won’t be able to carry enough water for the whole trip, then you’ll need to know where to get potable water or at least find some that can be filtered or sterilized.
Just because you’re capable of hiking a trail doesn’t mean it will be worthwhile.
Are there great views from the summit? Is there a waterfall along the way?
Look for things that will interest you during the hike.
Types of hikes
There are so many different ways to have a good time on the trail and once you get some experience, you’ll see the rich tapestry that is the hiking experience.
These are some of the different styles of hiking you might come to love:
This will almost certainly be your first type of hike. As the name suggests, it takes place within the confines of daylight, no camping equipment needed.
A step up from day hikes, overnight camping lets you travel further into the wilderness to fully experience nature.
Sometimes you just want a good workout and don’t have to time to stop and smell the flowers.
These hikes are maybe only an hour or two, but often involve some elevation gain to keep your heart rate up.
There are usually located close to home.
Long distance trails
Anyone who’s read or watched Wild or A Walk in the Woods wants to do a long distance trail like the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail.
These are excellent hiking goals, but they require lots of planning – save them for later in your hiking journey.
This style of hiking will always take longer than the time listed.
Every viewpoint will need be captured, and if wildlife gets involved, you could be set back an hour or more.
Choose shorter hikes if you know your camera will always be out.
High potential for bragging rights, but getting to the summit can overshadow the journey.
Where to find information on your hike
There is a wealth of hiking information available if you just know where to look.
Start by checking out:
- Hiking Guidebooks for your area
- The travel and outdoors section of your local newspaper
- State and local Department of Recreation websites
- National Parks Service’s website
- Bureau of Land Management’s website
What to do before you hike
You’ve picked a route and a ready to hit the trail. Not so fast though, these are a couple of things you’ll need to do to prepare:
- Pack your hiking backpack (see essential gear below).
- Make sure that everything you pack actually works.
- Tell someone where you’re going and what time you’ll be back.
- Leave a map showing your starting location and intended route.
- Break in your hiking shoes/boots for a couple weeks beforehand.
Essential hiking and backpacking gear
Many hikers have a dedicated gear closet or even a whole gear shed, but you don’t need to buy out the sporting good store to get started.
These are some of the most essential items you’ll need to start your hiking journey.
What hiking clothing should i wear?
Hiking has a uniform, not necessarily a consistent one, but most of the time you can pick out who has just come off the trail.
The key to having a good day of hiking is taking good care of your feet.
Tending to hot spots before they turn into blisters, giving them a little massage at the end of hard day, but most importantly, choosing the right boots/shoes before hitting the trail.
Tall, rigid boots have been the standard for soldiers, lumberjacks, and just about everyone that’s ever had to spend a significant amount of time traipsing through the woods.
Hiking boots have some pretty great advantages like durability, protection against rocks and tree roots, and most importantly, ankle support.
Nothing will ruin your day quite like a rolled ankle ten miles from your vehicle.
Boots also provide the stable base necessary for carrying a heavy pack.
However, they come with the downside of being much bulkier than your average shoes.
Carrying a pound on your foot is equivalent to an extra five on your back – or at least that’s what Edmund Hillary, the first man to ascend Everest, said.
Their rigidity limits your ankle’s range of motion too (that’s how they protect the joint), which puts a greater strain on muscles further up the leg.
Trail running shoes
In recent years, hikers have taken cues from the running community and embraced the ethos of ultralight minimalism – hiking in lightweight shoes and trail runners.
So long as you’re not carrying a heavy pack, it’s not really necessary to wear such stiff footwear. So long as you still heavy good traction (and trail running shoes have it in spades), hiking shoes can be a great option for shorter hikes where you would benefit from more flexibility in your ankles (like steep ascents).
What these lightweight shoes don’t provide is ankle support, but minimalist hikers will tell you that wearing shoes that have no support will strengthen your ankle joint.
That may be true over time, but it’s something you have to work up to.
If you don’t have the most stable ankles, don’t cut out that support completely.
Choosing your hiking boot/hiking shoe material
Hiking boots and shoes come in two basic varieties, leather and synthetic.
There are several different types of leather that can be used, but for our purposes, leather is leather.
It’s an animal product, which means it’s not suitable for vegan hikers and it will require a little more maintenance.
Leather wears extremely well, lasting for years when it’s taken care of, but if left wet, it will smell terrible and grow fungus.
You’ll need to carefully wash off mud and grime, which can slowly wear down the leather.
Leather boots also take longer to break in and are more expensive.
So why wouldn’t everyone choose low-maintenance and easy to break in synthetic boots?
Synthetics usually don’t last as long; they get holes and the stitches tear away from the fabric panels over time.
If you don’t mind shopping for a new pair every couple of years, this isn’t an issue though.
You’ll also need to decide whether to go waterproof or not.
Waterproof, or more accurately termed water-resistant, boots utilize membrane materials like Gore-Tex. This blocks water from coming into the boot, but allows sweat and water vapor to exit.
While that sounds great, the membrane isn’t perfect and your feet will feel sweatier in them, especially in warmer climates.
So unless you expect frequent wet trails, non-waterproof footwear might be the better option.
Another thing to remember is that if you’ll be hiking during the winter, you want to be sure to get a pair that has a decent amount of insulation.
When you’re moving, your toes will be nice and toasty, but the insulation will keep them that way while you’re resting.
Making sure your hiking footwear fits
An ill-fitting pair of boots or shoes is a recipe for disaster; so it pays to get things right at the store.
Unfortunately, most stores are nothing like a hiking trail, so you’ll need to make a few adjustments to simulate the conditions:
- Try on shoes at the end of the day: feet swell with use, and your footwear needs to accommodate them at their largest size.
- Wear your hiking socks: your wool hiking socks will probably be a bit thicker than your everyday socks.
- Do some inclines: trails usually aren’t flat, so why are you walking across a flat floor to see if the shoe fits? Do some stairs if you can; REI has put ramps in their shoe section for just this purpose.
Breaking them in
It can’t be overstated how important it is to break in footwear. Even minimalist hiking shoes and trail runners benefit from a break in period because they’re still a lot stiffer than sneakers.
Never take new shoes on a hike.
- Start by walking around your house. This will get them to form to your feet and if they start to chafe, you can easily remove them before a blister forms.
- Walk around your neighborhood while wearing them, this should start to loosen up the material, but you won’t be stuck wearing them if they start to hurt.
- Take several day hikes wearing your newly purchased footwear. This will be a test run and should match the conditions they’ll be used in later.
Not as important as hiking footwear, but still critical to a comfortable hiking experience is a good pair of socks.
Socks wick moisture away from your feet and provide a cushioned base.
Most hiking socks are made from wool due to its excellent moisture wicking properties and the fact that they’re naturally antibacterial, and thus, don’t smell as bad after a day on your foot.
If you’re carrying a heavy pack or going long distances, be sure to choose a thicker sock for more cushioning.
Pants, Shorts, and Leggings
Having wrapped up all the gear for your feet, lets move on to your legs.
You have three basic options when it comes to leg coverings: pants, shorts, and leggings – they all have their pros and cons.
Pants: a pair of hiking pants provides the best protection against brush, thorns, and biting insects. Unfortunately, they are a bit hotter, and if they’re tight, will reduce your range of motion.
Leggings: hiking leggings are the thicker, more durable version of what you’d find at the gym or yoga studio. They’re more breathable than pants, and their stretchy fit allows for more flexibility. They’re still not as durable as pants, but provide some protection against scrapes and scratches.
Shorts: everyone loves hiking in shorts, until they don’t. Shorts feel great on a hot summer day, and you can’t beat the range of motion that you have in a pair that ends above the knee. The downside to shorts is that they expose your legs to sharp brush, harsh UV radiation, and lots of blood-sucking critters.
All of these leg coverings can be made from a variety of materials too.
As a general rule with hiking clothes, you should avoid cotton.
Cotton absorbs water and doesn’t dry out very quickly, which can put you in a hypothermia situation.
Instead, choose coverings made from synthetic materials like nylon or polyester, which provide excellent durability, wick moisture, and dry quickly.
A few companies make merino wool leg coverings, which don’t smell and feel more natural, but usually aren’t as durable.
Hiking jackets and shirts
Now turning to your torso lets look at shirts and jackets.
This is where most of the layering that you hear so much about in the hiking community comes from.
Start with a base layer, which could be a basic t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, or something more technical with spandex.
The base layer needs to be moisture wicking though, so it should pull sweat off your skin and dry quickly so you don’t get too cold.
Again, synthetic and wool fabrics are ideal for this. If you’re hiking on a warm, sunny day, a base layer may be all that you need.
If the weather outside is approaching chilly though, you’ll need an insulating mid-layer.
This could be a down vest or jacket, a fleece, or anything else that’s warm to slip over your base layer.
Unlike the base layer though, this one doesn’t need to be moisture wicking or quick drying (though the latter wouldn’t hurt).
Finally we’ve reached the outer layer, which needs to protect you from the elements.
If you’re hiking in the rain, it needs to be waterproof, in strong winds, windproof.
The outer layer is usually a shell, made from durable synthetic materials like nylon. The goal of this layer is simply to protect the layers below it.
As you go from day hiking to overnighters, sheleter is one of the first things you’ll need to purchase.
If you’re car camping, go nuts; weight won’t be a consideration and you should prioritize comfort.
Backpacking in the wilderness is a different story though, every ounce counts, and your shelter will almost certainly be the heaviest piece of gear in your pack.
These are some of your sleeping shelter options:
2-3 person tents
Your standard backpacking tent will be labeled as a two-person tent, will weigh four to five pounds, be just tall enough to sit up straight in, and has around 30 sq. feet of floor space.
Most models are easy to set up, taking just a few minutes.
They’re rather “cozy”, so you if you’re someone that rolls around in their sleep or you’re not super close with your tentmate, a three-person tent would be a better choice.
Tents also often come with a vestibule, a floorless but still covered section outside one or both of the tent’s doors.
These are great places to store your backpack or sleep a dog and they’re not counted towards the tent’s size rating.
These ultra-minimalist setups are essentially a tent that’s slightly larger than your sleeping bag.
To shed rain, one or two short poles will hold the tent’s fabric a few inches above your head and body.
Comfortable they are not, but they pack down to the size of a 1-liter water bottle and weigh only a pound or two.
While hammocks have always been a mainstay of the camping experience, using one as your primary means of shelter is a fairly new concept.
Hammock shelters come with a small rain fly and a zip-up bug net so you don’t get eaten alive while you sleep.
They weigh a pound or so more than the bivy and since there’s open air below you, they can get quite cold without an additional quilt to line the bottom.
In addition to the hammock and any rain/bug protection, they also require a suspension system to attach to a pair of trees.
Ultralight setups are nothing more than a piece of thin rope, so you’ll need to get acquainted with knot-tying to use one.
Quite a few companies sell super easy to use straps that attach with a carabineer, but they weigh several ounces.
The next important piece of gear for getting a good night’s sleep is, of course, a sleeping bag.
No one can sleep well when he or she is shivering.
If you’re not used to spending nights outside, you may not realize just how much the temperature drops after the sun goes down and how much your own body temperature decreases when it’s not moving.
It’s absolutely critical that you choose a sleeping bag suited for the conditions in your area. These are some important things to look for:
There is no standardized system for rating the warmth of a sleeping bag; the temperature on a given bag is simply a guideline from the manufacturer; they are a useful tool for comparison, though.
A fifteen-degree bag should be comfortable for the average man when the mercury is hovering around freezing.
While a 50 degree bag will provide just enough insulation to not freeze or sweat through the night when temperatures are around sixty degrees.
Two things to notice in that comparison:
- Men’s comfort is used when rating a sleeping bag. Due to differences in fat distribution, women feel colder at warmer temperatures. Women should buy bags that are about ten degrees warmer than the recommended male bag temperature.
- The bag rating is a solid ten degrees lower than where I’m suggesting it be used. You can always vent heat by unzipping the bag; you can’t make it any warmer, so always buy warmer than you need.
Additionally, sleeping bag manufacturers rate their bags with the assumption that you’re wearing a warm base layer (synthetic or wool).
So if you’re sleeping in shorts and a t-shirt (or worse, naked), the bag will feel significantly colder than the manufacturer suggests.
Sleeping materials and weight
The insulation inside a sleeping bag comes in two varieties: synthetic and down.
They both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Synthetic is great if you’re camping in an area where your sleeping bag is likely to get wet – rainy regions like the Pacific Northwest of the Alaska Panhandle.
It retains its warmth, even when wet. It’s also significantly cheaper than down.
Down, on the other hand, weighs less and provides superior warmth using less filling.
As such, it’s more expensive and it loses its warmth when wet (feathers collapse, eliminating air pockets).
A sleeping pad serves two purposes, keeping you warm and providing a comfortable surface.
These inflatable or closed-cell foam mattress provide a much-needed barrier between you and the cold hard ground during a camping trip.
Unless you’re accustomed to sleeping on a board or the floor, you’ll want some cushioning to protect yourself from the rocks and dirt that lie just beneath the tent floor.
These are some things to look for when choosing your sleeping pad:
Much like the fiberglass or foam insulation in your home’s walls, sleeping pads carry an R-value that rates just how insulating they are.
Pads with low values retain less heat (which is actually good if you’re hiking in warm areas) and higher values retain more.
Women should look for pads with higher R-values, and most female-specific pads will have a slightly different insulation pattern to better fit a woman’s body.
Two things will decide your sleeping pads size: your own size and how comfortable you want to be.
If you’re over six feet tall and two hundred plus pounds, you may want a larger sleeping pad so you can comfortable stay on it.
On the other hand, you might choose a shorter pad that doesn’t cover your legs if you want to shed weight.
Pads are usually filled with air or closed-cell foam.
Air mattresses take up less space, since they are just a shell to be inflated, and don’t weigh as much.
The downside is that they have a lower R-value (air does not insulate particularly well) and can be punctured.
Closed-cell foam will keep you warmer, but isn’t as thick and doesn’t have the same give as air mattresses, so they’re less comfortable.