Hiking is one of the easiest and most accessible outdoor activities, so if the past year of lockdown has you itching to get out into nature, there’s nothing better than a calming walk in the woods. However, hiking can seem a bit daunting if you’ve never done it before, which is why we reached out to expert hikers for tips and advice for your first time out. We also asked them what to look for when buying new hiking gear so you can comfortably hit the trails all summer long.
Like most outdoor activities, the experts we talked to say planning is key. “When planning to hike for the first time, do some research on some great beginner hikes in your area to dip your toes into the water and not get overwhelmed,” says Melissa Benjamin, a gearhead at Backcountry. “There are a lot of great resources with a quick search online and even apps like AllTrails to find hikes in your area. Start small with only a few miles, [and] be sure to account for the trip back!”
Campspot ambassador Tyler D. Way echoes this sentiment and says you should always have someone back home who knows where you are. “Do enough research beforehand while you still have reception, including checking the weather, pulling up directions and downloading trail maps,” he says. “It’s always a good idea to text someone where you’re going and when they should expect to hear from you after your hike.” Benjamin also encourages everyone going into nature to learn and follow the Leave No Trace principles, which will help you have a minimal impact on the environments you visit.
Once you’ve found the perfect trail, you’ll want to think about what to bring on your hike. While it won’t be as exhaustive of a list as if you were going camping or backpacking, there are still certain essentials you should have with you whenever you go outside.
“When getting ready to buy gear for hiking, think about the terrain and conditions you’ll be hiking in,” Benjamin says. “How rocky or steep is the hike? Are you going in spring or fall? How far do you plan on hiking? Remember that the elements can at times be unpredictable.”
Dennis A. Vásquez, bureau chief of field operations at New Mexico State Parks, says even though you should prepare for any situation, you don’t need to shell out loads of cash for the latest and greatest gear. “It’s not necessary to buy the fanciest or most expensive equipment,” he says. “Start with basic, solid, modestly priced equipment. If you get hooked on hiking, you can upgrade as you go along.”
One piece of gear that you shouldn’t cut corners on, however, is some sturdy boots. “The number one essential is a good pair of shoes or boots,” Benjamin says. “To ensure you give yourself the best chance at having a good time on your hiking adventures, you want to make sure you are comfortable from head to toe, but especially consider your footwear when starting out.”
Keep reading for more recommendations and advice from our experts, and remember to go outside respectfully and responsibly. “With more and more people getting outdoors comes greater responsibility for each of us to take better care of it,” says Way. “If we all can pack out what we bring in, pick up any loose trash and be mindful of others along the trail, then everyone will be able to enjoy the great outdoors for generations to come.”
Hiking boots, shoes and socks
Altra Men’s Lone Peak 5 ($130; rei.com)
When looking for footwear, you’ll want to decide if you want shoes or boots. “Shoes are great for shorter distances,” says Benjamin. “They are lighter, so they are great when starting out to not feel weighed down by your footwear. However, shoes won’t provide as much support and typically aren’t as durable.” If you’re going for short hikes or want to travel light and fast, these trail running shoes from Altra are a super-comfortable option.
Nike Pegasus Trail 2 ($160; nike.com)
Way’s wife, Kendra Clapp Olguín, loves these trail runners from Nike for lighter walks. They’re made with GORE-TEX, which is a waterproof membrane that will keep your feet nice and dry even in wet conditions.
Unisex UA HOVR Dawn WP Boots ($190; underarmour.com)
“If you plan to go for longer hikes on more rugged terrain, boots will be the best choice,” says Benjamin. “They will provide … nice ankle support and are a must-have for wet or muddy terrain.” Way uses these high-top boots for intense hikes where he needs ankle support. Plus, they have high-traction rubber on the bottom and a waterproof and breathable membrane so you can hike more safely.
Women’s Lone Peak All-WTHR Mid ($170; rei.com)
These are Olguín’s go-to boots when the weather gets cold and she needs more ankle support. Their wide-toe box allows your feet to splay out and stay comfortable, all while staying supported and dry.
Darn Tough Hiker Women’s Micro Crew Cushion Socks ($23; rei.com)
“Getting a blister will ruin your hike, so a good pair of socks and shoes are a must,” says Way. “Make sure to break your shoes in around the neighborhood a few times before you hit the trail.” These socks will help your feet stay protected and comfortable all hike long. Made from a merino wool blend, their moisture-wicking abilities will also help keep your feet from feeling hot and sweaty. A men’s version is also available.
REI Co-Op COOLMAX EcoMade Lightweight Hiking Quarter Socks ($13.95; rei.com)
A shorter sock option, this pair from REI is made from a fabric that comes from recycled water bottles. It’s breathable and has lightweight cushioning to keep your feet supported.
Osprey Skimmer 20 Hydration Pack ($100; rei.com)
The next thing you should look into buying is a backpack. “There are several sizes to choose from depending on how much you want to carry and how far you plan on going,” says Benjamin. “A go-to size for everyday hiking is around 15 to 20 liters. Look for packs that have a water bladder compatibility; some bags will even come with a water bladder, so that’s a win-win! This way you can have your water easily accessible during your hike.” This 20-liter pack from Osprey includes a 2.5-liter bladder, and it comes with Osprey’s lifetime warranty. It also has a men’s version, the Osprey Skarab 22.
REI Co-Op Flash 22 Pack ($54.95; rei.com)
This pack is Olguín’s favorite, as it has two hefty side pockets that can carry large water bottles. It also has a detachable waist belt and chest strap, so you can use the extra support or take them off to shed weight.
Incase DSLR Pro Pack ($149.95; amazon.com)
Way uses this pack to carry tons of camera gear, such as a DSLR, extra lenses and even a drone. If you want to capture stunning photos and video of your new hiking adventures, this pack is a great way to bring all your gear along.
Osprey Tempest 20 Pack ($130; rei.com)
Another stellar pack option from Osprey, this pack (and its counterpart for men) fits everything you’ll need for a long day of hiking. Plus, its super-supportive shoulder straps and waist belt will make all your gear feel light so you can hike for longer.
Smartwool Merino 150 Long-Sleeve Base Layer ($85; backcountry.com)
“Weather can change quickly, so be sure to bring layers. For your next-to-skin layers, consider merino wool,” says Benjamin. “When active, it is extremely breathable and moisture-wicking.”
REI Co-Op Lightweight Base Layer Long-Sleeve Crew Top ($39.95; rei.com)
While not merino wool, this base layer’s polyester and spandex blend still promises sweat-wicking properties to keep you cool on the trail.
Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Shirt ($35; rei.com)
“Be on the lookout for clothing with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF),” says Benjamin. “This will provide you with sun protection built right into your clothing.” This simple shirt from Patagonia features 50+ UPF protection and has a moisture-wicking, stretchy fabric so you can stay comfortable even under the hot sun. A men’s version is also available.
REI Co-Op 650 Down Jacket 2.0 ($99.95; rei.com)
“Consider a packable light jacket that can stuff down into itself so you can easily carry it or toss it in your bag,” says Benjamin. This ultralight puffy weighs under 11 ounces and can easily fit in your bag.
Patagonia Torrentshell 3L Jacket ($149; backcountry.com)
You’ll also want to pack a rain jacket in case the weather turns bad. This option from Patagonia is extremely waterproof so you’ll be ready for even the worst downpours.
Women’s Lone Peak All-WTHR Mid
Black Diamond Trail Trekking Poles ($99.95; backcountry.com)
“If hiking on long, steep trails, trekking poles are great,” says Vásquez. “It might take a few minutes to get used to using them, but you’ll soon come to appreciate trekking poles.” Take some weight off your joints with these ones from Black Diamond.
REI Co-Op Trailbreak Trekking Poles ($59.95; rei.com)
These aluminum trekking poles are lightweight and have ergonomic handles designed to fit a variety of hand sizes. Plus, the adjustment locks have an oversized lever so there’s less fumbling with your poles on the trail.
Other hiking essentials
Nalgene Ultralite Wide-Mouth Water Bottle ($6.95; rei.com)
Of course you’ll want to bring plenty of water while you’re hiking. If you don’t already have a water bottle, you can trust this classic Nalgene to do the trick.
CrazyCap 2 XL ($84, originally $104; crazycap.com)
Not only does this bottle keep your water cold for hours with its double-wall vacuum insulation, but it also uses UV light to kill 99.9996% of germs in your water, so you can scoop up some water from a nearby stream for a refill (just make sure you don’t grab any physical debris like dirt).
United By Blue Herd Horizon Bandana ($12; rei.com)
“A cotton bandana can have many uses on the trail,” says Vásquez. You can use it as a napkin after your midhike meal or as a sweat rag, or you can even tie it on your head to help stay out of the sun.
Moleskine Classic Notebook ($19.95; amazon.com)
“We’ve started to bring small Moleskine sketchbooks with us to find a quiet spot and sketch what we see,” says Way. “It’s become a helpful prompt for us to be in the moment and is also a personalized way to look back through some of our different adventures.”
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