The panoramic summit views, deep breaths of crisp fresh air, and the chirps of playful birds in the ponderosa pine trees. Hiking is the best.
And with a newfound zest for fitness and nature, 2020 welcomed 8 million new hikers to the trails. Unfortunately, many new hikers lose their love for the trail by misjudging endurance while taking on too demanding of a hike.
Sure, the thrill of a three-day outing in the peaks of Colorado sounds exciting. But, when getting started hiking, a few miles to a scenic view is the perfect hike.
After all, new challenging trails and endless beautiful scenery are always patiently awaiting.
This article guides you through beginner hiking with advice on conditioning, gear, and tackling the trails. By the end, you’ll be trail ready and on the path to becoming an expert hiker.
Getting started hiking
How did you choose your last hike? Or, if you’re heading out to your first, have you picked the trail?
If you were skiing, you wouldn’t go directly to a black diamond, and the same goes for hiking. Research is essential for judging the right trail.
In the United States, National Parks are home to over 900 trails extending for over 50,000 combined miles. When heading to a National Park trail, the NPS.gov website provides information, history, directions, and maps.
But your best resource is AllTrails.com. All Trails contains a massive database of trails that lists distance, difficulty, type, and reviews. Most have user-submitted photos to better help you gauge what’s to come.
All Trails does have a membership sign-up that disables some features. However, searching the trail name in google can circumvent much of it.
Hiking trail basics
Easy hikes range in their distance but are typically around 3-mile trails. Hiking 3-miles takes approximately an hour to an hour and a half. But don’t let the length fool you; there are strenuous 3-mile hikes that take a grueling 6 hours.
Hiking trails are defined by a style, most popularly:
- Out-and-back: traveling along the same trail to a point and returning along the same path. Often leading to a destination, like a panoramic view or waterfall.
- Loop or circular: A trail that begins and ends at similar points but never doubles back on the same path. Often scenic throughout.
- Point-to-point: Different ending and starting points, often miles apart. Usually, point-to-point trails are part of an extended trail network, like the 2,190-mile Appalachian trail.
- Lollipop trail: A hybrid of the out-and-back trail and a looping trail. A lollipop trail starts and ends as an out-and-back trail with a loop trail in the middle.
Out-and-back trails are the most common hiking trail. Since the last half of the hike is familiar, out-and-back trails are also excellent for hiking beginners.
Conserving water and judging rest is much easier when the trail is familiar.
There are five basic safety rules for hiking. These rules can be summed up as preparedness and common sense and include:
- Don’t travel alone
- Know where you’re going
- Take basic gear
- Bring basic provisions
- Exercise common sense
48% of missing hikers are male and hiking alone. When trekking through the wilderness, cell service is spotty to non-existent and it’s easy to be too far for anyone to hear your yells.
Hypothermia from overnight temperatures and dehydration are common killers of hikers.
Even in a group, always let someone know where you’re hiking and when you plan to finish. This way, if they don’t hear from you, help can be called.
Reliable GPS, a compass, and a map are all invaluable in the wilderness. Before heading to the trail, confirm someone from your party has a first aid kit. The essential first-aid kit should contain the following:
- Anti-bacterial cream
Essential gear for hiking beginners
You can get by wearing clothes you have when getting started hiking, so don’t run off and immediately spend a fortune on gear. But, early in your hiking journey, prioritize purchasing a good pair of hiking boots or shoes and hiking pants.
I frequently wear trail running shoes on easy hikes paired with training shorts or joggers.
Once you’re ready to step up to more challenging trails, add these must-haves to your hiking shopping list:
Learning your terrain and the type of hikes you enjoy will ultimately affect your decision on the types of boots to purchase.
Hiking boots come in various styles and types, ranging in:
- Upper length
If hiking in your region involves creek crossings and snakes, a waterproof leather boot with a high upper is best. I run into very little water in the hot Southwest, so I need breathability and opt for lightweight styles with mesh and suede leather uppers.
Find the pair that fits your needs and purchase a quality boot.
You get what you pay for in hiking boots, and a good pair is worth the investment. You’ll only need to replace hiking boots every 500 to 1,000 miles.
Starting early morning hikes chilly to find yourself sweating an hour later is typical. Because of this, you’ll want flexibility in clothing without lugging around a change of clothes.
Hiking pants with zip-off legs provide just that.
Besides convertibility, hiking pants are made from durable material, protecting you when the inevitable slip and fall happens.
Hiking pants come with auxiliary pockets, insulation, reinforced knees, moisture wicking, and quick drying. And no, zip-off hiking pants aren’t the only option. You can’t beat hiking joggers for an easy hike on one of those perfect weather days.
Always look for synthetic blends, and avoid cotton. Cotton is an absorbent material, making hiking in blue jeans your worst option.
Hiking socks would be my first purchase. A nice, moisture-wicking sock, padded in all the right places, makes a world of difference. Never forget your hiking socks.
Traditional Hanes crew socks are 76% cotton, absorbing sweat instead of keeping your feet dry. Hiking socks have blends of merino wool, a material that naturally regulates your temperature, wicks moisture, and has antimicrobial properties.
Taking care of your feet on a hike is a must, and hiking socks are designed with hikers in mind.
Being a hiker and a photography hobbyist, I’m a sucker for a great backpack.
Keeping your hands free is essential on a hike for more than just tiring from carrying heavy water. Your hands and arms play a critical role in your movement and catch you when slipping and falling.
When shopping for a backpack, there are three common categories:
- Day pack
- Backpacking pack
- Hydration packs
A backpacking pack is for multi-day hikes and camping trips, while day packs are more conveniently sized backpacks.
I recommend a hydration pack with extra pockets. For most day trips, a pocket for snacks and a small first-aid kit are all you need.
But I did say I’m a sucker for a backpack, and they do have one significant water advantage.
With backpacks, you can freeze water bottles so they thaw and provide cold water to the end. It also helps to keep snacks and sandwiches cool.
Any pack you buy should have chest and waist strap support. These take the stress off the shoulders, making the weight more tolerable for longer distances.
Trekking poles aren’t a must-have until you start hiking advanced trails with significant elevation changes.
Poles help drive you up hills while supporting your step on the descent.
Today, most trekking poles are telescoping, folding small enough to hang conveniently off your backpack.
Hiking has many essential techniques to make the adventure more manageable and safe. Like running, breath work and pace are essential for hikers, but the up and downhill element is unique to hiking.
Most steep climbs have switchbacks, helping you avoid severe elevation grades. Still, you’ll likely find yourself scaling and descending a steep ridge that requires special techniques at some point.
Hiking up and down hills can be both dangerous and exhausting. But you can better navigate challenging terrain using tried and tested hiking techniques.
How should you breathe when hiking?
Timing your breathing to your steps helps to regulate pace and breathing. A typical breathing pattern is in for two steps while exhaling for three.
Synchronizing the two slows your breathing to avoid shallow quick breaths and provides your body with more much-needed oxygen. Be sure to consistently inhale through your nose and exhale from your mouth.
Michael Flanell, a breathing coach and Myofunctional Therapist, explains that nasal breathing regulates air temperature, humidifies the air, cleans it, and produces nitric oxide, all with less energy than mouth breathing.
Uphill hiking techniques
Finding and maintaining your pace is crucial when hiking uphill. It ensures you don’t over-exhaust yourself while allowing your muscles to adapt to the stress and cadence.
Like meditation, focusing on your pace and breathing also helps you forget the pain and ignore the remaining distance.
The urge to rely on your toes to carry you uphill is always present but must be avoided. Exhausting your calves is easy, so landing more flat with a slight emphasis on your heel is best.
Use the rest step method uphill
The rest step is a mountaineering and hiking technique for ascending mountainsides. It allows your muscles to rest by locking the rear leg and placing the weight on the skeleton instead of the muscles.
To use the rest step, lock your fully extended knee in the rear leg while swinging the front leg forward. Once the front foot is rested on the ground, you can hold the pose to provide a more extended break for the muscles or shift your weight to the front foot, locking that knee to rest the rear leg muscles as it swings forward.
Use the rest step when waiting for other hikers or periodically when needing to regain the energy to push forward.
What goes up must come down, which often means descending a steep hill with loose gravel and rocks.
Hiking downhill puts tremendous pressure on the hips and core to stabilize you while relying on your quadriceps for stopping and slowing. Allow your heel to dig into the mountainside while slowly rolling the ball of your foot to the sole and then the toes, setting the foot in place.
If the terrain is especially loose and steep, you can place your feet perpendicular to the mountain slope, zigzagging along the mountainside to work your way down.
Lastly, our bodies naturally want to lean back when going downhill, increasing joint pressure. Lean your body forward and find the perfect balance.
Conditioning and exercises for hiking
Go on hikes. How you feel during and after helps determine the type of conditioning to focus on.
I learned elevation is my Achilles heel after an hour above 10,000 feet. I was forced to turn around at mile 7.5 with only one mile remaining. The moment we reached a lower elevation, I felt perfect again.
There’s a 50 percent chance you get altitude sickness above 8,000 feet, with the odds growing to 75 percent above 10,000. High altitude is 8,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level, and very high altitude is 12,000 to 18,000.
Thankfully, I learned that on a local mountain and not on day two of an expedition.
Always listen to your body to correct or adjust for weaknesses.
When first hiking, choose shorter, more level trails near your home or a short drive away. Work up to more rigorous hikes slowly, especially if you aren’t physically active.
Like the first day back in the gym, pain is the number one reason new hikers stop. Overworking causes muscle cramps, strains, and other injuries.
Hurting yourself on the trail is different from most places. If you’re a far enough distance out, you’ll be sure to hate hiking when you finally make it back.
Conditioning your legs for hiking
Hiking is a full-body workout, but our lower body and legs carry most of the burden — although the places you hurt the next day will often surprise you.
If you go to the gym or have one at home, weighted squats, deadlifts, and lunges are excellent for strength training your legs and core.
But gyms aren’t necessary.
Start with a short, daily routine of air squats and lunges to train your legs at home. Adding weight or resistance through bands will quickly build stronger legs for hikes.
Start endurance training
Cardiovascular and pulmonary (heart, circulation, and lung) strength are the key to extending and easing long hikes. You’ll need plenty of oxygen capacity and a stout heart to complement muscular stamina.
Make walks around your neighborhood regular, then work up to light jogs and runs.
Street running is terrible on my bad knees, so I started trail running on dirt and found it to help immensely.
If you live in a mountainous region, consider stepping up your hiking based on elevation. As you climb, the air gets thinner, and your endurance will decline. But training in high elevation is excellent and will turn you into a beast of a hiker in lower regions.
Consider your training as a way to extend the longevity of your time and experience outdoors. After all, spending time in nature has been shown to positively impact depression, stress, and anxiety while improving memory and well-being.
Like anything you’ve excelled at in life, reading, writing, driving, and work, it all took practice and repetition. It only takes one rough hike to spoil it for you when first getting started hiking.
Go slow, have fun, and work your way to that three-day Colorado excursion.
Hiking is one of the greatest outdoor joys. Enjoy it, and happy hiking!
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