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Essentials for your First Hiking Experience

FITNESS Your first hike will probably surprise you in two main ways. First, it will be more difficult than you expected. Second it will be far, far... Read more
Essentials for your First Hiking Experience


Your first hike will probably surprise you in two main ways. First, it will be more difficult than you expected. Second it will be far, far more rewarding than you thought it would be, and that feeling will extend beyond the duration of the trip itself.

The best way to prepare for a hike is to walk regularly for at least a few weeks prior to the trip. If you know how long the trip will be, that will help you plan your preparation.

For example, if you know you’ll be taking a day-hike of eight miles, and you’re not used to walks of that length, begin by walking a mile a day, for a couple of days. Then up it to two miles for a couple of days, then to three for a few days. Ideally, you should be covering about 75% of the hike’s length – in this case six miles – every day or two, for a week prior to the trip. This makes sure your body is used to the effort. If you can do the walk with a light pack on your back, that’s even better.




Wear the same footwear you’ll be wearing when you do the hike itself, even if the terrain is different. This will help you in two ways. First, your feet will get used to the footwear, and you’ll know if there is a problem with the fit. Finding out mid-hike that blisters are forming is not a situation you want to be in. Better to detect problems like that well before you step out into the woods.

Second, walking a few miles on pavement in a pair of light trainers is not the same thing as covering ground in heavier boots, perhaps with a shank and high side for arch and ankle support. These types of boots will provide the protection and support you’ll need in certain conditions, but they are also heavier, and will require more energy than trainers. Be ready for that.

When you’re training, you should also try to match the terrain to what you’ll be hiking over on the trip itself. If you’ll be in a hilly area, try to find a practice area in which you’ll have to climb and descend some elevation. This will get your quads, heart and lungs used to the extra effort. If you’ll be covering rough or uneven ground, first get used to crossing some of this in your hiking boots, and then try with your pack on as well. If there is any concern around falling, hiking poles are very useful (we’ll talk more about them below).




If you plan for a multi-day trip, and you haven’t built up to that with a series of shorter ones, then your pre-trip training becomes more serious. You’ll need to get organised, have your gear chosen and packed, and practice with the load on your back. These can be from eighteen to twenty-five kilos (sometimes more), depending on your size and the conditions where you’re hiking, and will have a profound impact on how far you can go in a day – not to mention what you’ll feel like afterwards. Both for your safety and for your level of enjoyment, training becomes a key factor in making the trip a success.




Hiking can be tailored to almost any fitness level, but physical preparation is still a big part of enjoying your hike. The longer you can maintain a regular training routine, the readier you will be for your hike and the more you’ll enjoy it.

When you get to the final day or two before the trip, give yourself some time off. Rest up and save your energy. The fitness will still be there when you call on it, and you’ll be craving the endorphins.




Part of minimising the impact of your first hike is choosing an experience that matches your fitness level and similar experiences. If you are a marathon runner, for example, you won’t be used to carrying a load on your back, but you’ll obviously have the mental and physical endurance to take on a more challenging hike.

If you’ve not been physically active, and this is part of an effort to increase the health of your lifestyle in general, then you’ll want to choose something that will stick in your memory as a pleasurable experience, and make you want to get back out there as soon as possible. This might mean a mile in a day. Take your time. Take breaks. Enjoy the scenery. The key is to get out there, to begin where you are and build from there.




As you get used to a short hike of a mile or two, you will naturally want to go farther – and your body and mind will naturally prepare for the increase. Before you know it, covering five or six miles in a morning will leave you wanting to press on through the afternoon. You’ll be sitting on a log at the end of the day, sipping your tea or cool water, and thinking ‘You know... it might be nice to spend the night out here some time.’ And it may well grow from there.

Even within the list of ‘day hikes,’ there is a lot of variation. Some people eat up a dozen miles in a morning and are ready for more. Some are happy with three or four miles. Part of it is fitness level, but it’s even more about the tone of your hike. Are you competitive and goal-driven, or are you in it for a contemplative getaway?

The important thing is to start with something relatively comfortable. Don’t show off or overdo it. The goal is a pleasant time covering a modest distance. There will always be time to build on a good foundation.




The biggest difference between walking, and hiking, is that hiking often requires you to carry food, water, and possibly even equipment with you. For experienced hikers, the choosing of equipment becomes part of the enjoyment, but when you’re just getting into the activity, it is too much to worry about. Don’t choose a first hike that requires you to carry a heavy pack on your back. Multi-day or overnight trips are great, but not as a first experience.

You’re better to choose a half-day hike, take it easy, and give yourself the freedom to over pack a little, without hurting yourself. That means you can carry that extra treat for lunch, that additional water bottle, or even bring your dog along, complete with water and food for your furry companion. You won’t need to worry about shaving grams off of your total load, and you can concentrate on the scenery, on building up fitness and coordination, and on being away from the rush and sound of the urban world.

Once you are ready for longer hikes, you’ll know why that smaller toothbrush is a big seller in the outdoor store, and see the value in the more expensive pack that’s three hundred grams lighter than its cheaper neighbour.




Perhaps even more important than the distance you’ll be covering, is the type of distance you’ll be covering: the terrain. A mile up hill is a lot different than a mile on the flat. A mile downhill is a different thing yet.

Common sense tells us that an uphill walk is more difficult than a flat walk, but what many don’t realise is that downhill walking, especially over an extended distance, is also harder than walking on a flat. This is because it uses the quads to break the fall of each step, holding back inertia to prevent the gradual increase in speed that would result in an all-out, uncontrolled run and eventual crash. Your downhill walk will likely go faster than your flat or uphill route, but it will make demands on your legs that they may not be used to.

For your first hike, try to choose a route that is mainly flat, with some rises and falls for interest, but not too many. The overall change in elevation should be within a hundred metres, at most. More than that, and you’ll risk the effort overcoming the pleasure of the surroundings and satisfaction.

In addition to elevation, the roughness of the ground is a factor. Skirting boulder-strewn hillsides is tough going, and slow, whereas a packed trail through a woodland is not unlike the pavement outside of your house, from a walking point of view. Loose sand is another factor, and though it may be level, it will sap energy and soak up your effort to a startling degree.

Think of your terrain as having two factors: elevation and roughness. A spike in either one means an almost exponential rise in the difficulty of the distance covered. If you’re someone with a high level of fitness and a competitive drive, you can incorporate some additional difficulty to your first hike. But be cautious. A rough mile of high-elevation hiking in rough terrain will challenge even an experienced hiker – it is not a safe or enjoyable option for a first-time hiker, even if your physical fitness level is high.




Your best friends might be the perfect people to sit across from you and chat about the week’s events, or the perfect companions to watch the latest big game, but when it comes to hiking, it’s not just about social connection; you need to hike with people who have similar characteristics, goals, and abilities as you have. In other words, their answers to the issues we’ve already covered should be similar to yours. That’s the beginning of it, but there is more to consider.




On a first hike, a companion or two is necessary. Experienced hikers sometimes go off on their own and, though it is not recommended, at least they have the experience to know what to expect and to understand the risks they are accepting in setting off on a solo hike. For the first-time hiker though, it is important to bring along someone who can help in the case of injury or illness and – ideally – who knows a bit more about hiking than you do.

This is a balance. You likely won’t go out with a highly-experienced hiker who tackles multi-day trips of a dozen miles a day or more, but it is nice to have a companion who can pass on some of what she or he has learned. Their fitness level should be close to yours, or at least they should be enthusiastic about the level of hike you’ve chosen to try. They should know the signs of hypothermia, and at least some basic first aid – as should you.




It’s no good having someone ahead in the distance, turning around with a look of disdain, willing you to push yourself beyond your current level. Nor do you want to be the one waiting around for someone who is unable to maintain a pace that suits your current level – not too much, anyway. You want instead companions of a similar ability level, and similar goals for the hike. These will be people with whom you can talk as you hike, share the joy of the scenery and sunshine, and with whom you can recount the pleasures of the day when you finally settle in to the well-earned rest and repast at the end of the day.

Your first hike should be enjoyable, but it is important to remember that it is a learning experience, perhaps more so than any other hike you will take in the future. It’s not about reaching new goals or overcoming elusive challenges – it’s about encouragement and support. Aside from avoiding some very real dangers, such as hypothermia or injuries due to falls, being encouraged throughout your first hike will increase feelings of enjoyment and accomplishment, and may result in a lifelong love of walking in the great outdoors.

Choosing the Right Gear
Another key to enjoying your first hike, is using the right gear. This doesn’t mean buying the most expensive or technical options out there though; it’s about choosing equipment and clothing that best match the needs of you, as the hiker, and of the hike you choose. Just as you wouldn’t wear an arctic parka on a cool summer’s day or a bathing suit in an Orkney winter, you don’t want to be caught out in the woods in the wrong kit. Here are a few things to consider.




As it is your first hike, you likely won’t choose very rough terrain, so your footwear should offer significant support, but needn’t be too heavy or bulky.

You probably don’t need a full-grain leather boot. Go rather for a split-grain leather or synthetic boot, as they are generally lighter, more breathable, and yet still tough enough to put up with your needs as a new hiker. If you are in a colder area, or hiking at a high elevation, it’s a good idea to have some insulation in the boot. Also not to be forgotten is a proper hiking sock; these are made to wick away moisture and keep your feet dry and comfortable.

Go for a stiffer midsole if the terrain you’ve chosen is more challenging. It will seem less comfortable at first, but once you’re well into a rougher hike, it will absorb a lot of the shock – and therefore fatigue – a more flexible boot will inflict on your foot.

If you are carrying a heavy load, you’ll want a shank (or plates) in the sole of your boot to protect your feet from roots and stones, and to add load-bearing stiffness to the midsole. If your choice of hike is less strenuous, which we recommend as you’re starting out, then a shank is not necessary.

The grip on the bottom of the boot, called the ‘outsole,’ is made of rubber. For most hikers, the outsole should be grippy and have a very slight give when pressed with a key or thumbnail. Some boots have additives in the rubber, like carbon, that make the outsole more durable, but can decrease traction, making them slippery, especially on bare stone. These are often used with crampons (metal overshoes with spikes) and are for more extreme, icy conditions. For your first hike, go for rubber soles with ample grip.

Try on your boots at the end of the day, when your feet have swollen – as they do every day – and wear the socks you tend to wear on the hike. A quality store will have an expert on hand to make sure your foot is properly measured, length, width, and arch. He or she can also asses your foot volume, to ensure you get the right make of boot.

Style may be important to you, but it should be a far second to a good fit and appropriate features. Once on the trail, a great-looking boot that rubs your feet to blisters won’t be so attractive anymore. Think of your boots as a tool, rather than apparel, and choose for function over fashion.

Once you have a pair in mind, take a walk around the store. Spend fifteen minutes looking at other gear, and familiarising yourself with the way the boots feel on your feet. Pay attention to each foot separately too, as one may fit fine, but the other need adjustment. Often something as simple as the way you tie your boots can change the fit, so ask advice from the store’s expert if anything feels not quite right.

Finally, don’t take them home, set them by the door, and forget about them until the trip. Instead, put them on. Wear them around the neighbourhood. As you train your body for the hike, train your feet for the feel of the boots. Your boots will need to be ‘broken in’ as well; softened through use and initial wear.

Cost should not be prohibitive. Hiking boots are not going to be as cheap as discount trainers, but they needn’t be hundreds of pounds either. Let the clerk know your budget and keep an open mind with regard to style and colour.




Generally speaking, the key to comfort while hiking is the use of layers. This allows you to add or remove insulation according to the temperature and conditions. The ability of fabrics to wick moisture away from your body is also important. Not all fabrics are appropriate for this though, and some special consideration is needed; one layer of non-wicking material can block the process for the other layers, causing moisture from sweat to collect and make your clothing damp and cold. Avoid cotton entirely, and look instead for technical fabrics designed with wicking in mind.

You should have a tee-style shirt against your skin. Over this we recommend a base layer of fleece – light if you are hiking in warm weather, and heavier for colder conditions. You should have a shell to wear over this, to repel water and block the wind. Each of these, base and shell, may have ventilation zips in the armpits, and perhaps at the shoulder blades and pectorals, that allow freer air flow, assisting in the wicking process and allowing for more precise control of your insulation.

Always bring a hat to protect you from the sun, but don’t forget that you may need some extra warmth up there too. Especially in windy conditions, a light stocking cap can prevent headaches and keep you warm and comfortable.

Likewise, a pair of sturdy gloves, thin for warmer conditions, will keep your hands warm and protect your skin when using logs or trees to assist in balance and climbing over any rough patches or fallen trees.




Unlike brief cases or satchels, packs for hiking are made to fit the wearer. The line from the top of your hips to the base of your neck will determine the basic size of pack you need. Once you know that, you can customise the fit to your body using strap adjustments.

Packs made to fit a certain body size can still come in a variety of capacities, usually measured in litres. For a day hike, twenty to thirty litres are usually enough. For your first hike, the key will be striking a balance between carrying a smaller pack, and bringing everything you need to be safe and satisfied. Lighter packs are more comfortable, but extra snacks and ample water are more satisfying, and may be necessary.

The best way to determine how big your pack should be, is to first decide on what you’ll bring with you.




Absolutely key is to bring enough water. Most hiking areas have water in them, but it is seldom safe to drink untreated water, even in pristine areas. Modern industry means that pollution finds its way into remote areas, and even without that concern, certain bacteria can cause illness, discomfort, and even make it difficult to get safely home from your hike. Don’t risk it. Carry in at least a litre per half-day. If you’re a bigger person, or sweat more than normal, bring more. It will be a burden, but as you drink it, the load will get lighter, so take heart.

Since we already know that water is heavy, dry snacks and food are a great way to carry sustenance without overloading. Nuts, granola, sandwiches, trail mix, and energy bars are all popular choices. There is also a wide range of freeze-dried or low-weight meals available online and at hiking stores; some of them are pretty good, too.

When you know what you’re taking, get rid of as much of the packaging as possible, Baggies pack better than cardboard and are lighter. Extra packaging is just extra weight, so get rid of it at home and save yourself the effort.




If you plan to cook on your trip, it is worthwhile to invest in a lightweight mess kit. These pots are very light, are durable, and are often designed to double as eating dishes as well, so there will be less to carry. They are often fairly expensive for good ones, but they will last a long time and serve you well.

Survival gear is also a good idea, especially if you are in remote areas with unreliable phone reception. A ‘space blanket’ is a good item to bring along – the silver, lightweight blankets that keep heat in and rain off. It is also advisable to bring a little bit of hard candy along, to treat insulin shock or severe fatigue.

Any needed medications should come along too, of course, like insulin, epi-pens, asthma inhalers, or anything you might need access to if you are delayed and don’t get home as soon as you plan to.




A small but well-stocked first aid kit is a must. Plasters, disinfectant, and something to treat skin conditions like poison oak or ivy should be included. An antihistamine is a good idea too. Rather than take along heavy glass bottles, however, you may want to put them in smaller, clearly-marked plastic containers and then dispose of the contents after each trip.




Hiking poles have been growing in popularity for decades, not just because they are getting lighter and have better points, but because the benefits are applicable to everyone.

The most common benefit of using one or two hiking poles is reduced knee and hip strain. If you are a novice hiker, it is a good idea to offer your body as much support as you can, and easing your knees and hips into the added strain of off-road walking with a load on is part of it. Even expert hikers and guides often swear by these poles as ways to increase the number of years one can get out into the wilds and experience the joy and satisfaction of a good hike.

As well as the long-term prevention of injury provided by using poles, they often prevent injury on a moment-by-moment basis. The added stability of being a quadruped (four-footed animal) can mean the difference between a startled ‘whoops!’ and an all-out tumble.

When looking for poles, we recommend you choose one with an internal twist-lock mechanism for height adjustment. Soft rubber hand grips and internal shock absorbers will keep your hands from getting sore, and will keep the tips lodged in the ground for better reliability. Carbon fibre shafts are lighter than aluminium of the same strength, but they can be expensive; you might want to buy a less expensive pair first, then upgrade later. Some even prefer aluminium, as it can take more of a shock than carbon fibre can, and still not break. Finally, we are huge fans of the carbide tip. These can bite into slippery rocks in running water and still give you a secure point of stability. They dig into ice easily, and hold up well to the thousands of lighter impacts of use on regular terrain. Most poles also come with rubber caps to use when walking on pavement or very level terrain.




The final, most important thing you’ll need for your first hiking experience, is the right attitude. All of the best gear in the world won’t help you have a good time if you’re expecting disaster or fighting the effort. Feel your muscles working as you take each step over sandy trails, grassy meadows, or rock-strewn highlands. Let your ears take in the rustle of leaves above you and the gurgle of running water. Let your eyes follow the soaring of birds, the buzz of insects, and the dappled floor of the woodlands as you pass through on foot, just as human beings have done for tens of thousands of years.

Soak it in. Rely on your carefully chosen gear and diligent preparation. Enjoy the company. And last of all, rest in the knowledge that this is just the first in a long line of wonderful outdoor experiences. Just the first of many great hikes to come.
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