So you’ve decided to break out of your comfort zone, strap on a fresh pair of hiking boots, and hit the trail for the first time ever? Amazing! Not only is hiking an easy and fun activity to do by yourself or with a friend, but it’s also a relatively inexpensive way to unplug and enjoy the world around you.
In the past several years that I’ve been hiking, I’ve learned a lot about how to hike smart and stay safe and comfortable in whatever conditions mother nature throws at me. If you’ve never gone for a walk in the woods, there is plenty to learn about planning your hike and preparing yourself with the right gear.
I hope this guide will give you the confidence to take the first step out of the door and onto your next hiking adventure!
Leave No Trace
Not everyone knows how to be a good steward of the outdoors and the planet when they first get started using public lands for recreation. An easy way to remember best practices for sustainable and responsible use of trails, whether you’re on a day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip is to “Leave No Trace.”
The “Leave No Trace” framework includes 7 principles that represent how to be a good steward of the land and leave a minimal impact during every aspect of your hiking adventure. These principles are:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Basically, the “Leave No Trace” principles encourage you to “leave only footprints, take only pictures,” when you’re recreating on public lands. For more information about the seven “Leave No Trace” principles, you can explore the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics website.
Disclaimer: Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.
Dress for the Season
So you’re planning your first hike and getting excited – what’s the next step? Check the weather to determine what to wear! Regardless of the season, you always want to be prepared in case of the weather changes unexpectedly.
You wouldn’t want to get caught in bad weather wearing shorts and hiking sandals, so dressing in layers is always a good rule of thumb. Remember – You can always take articles of clothing off if you get too hot, but you can’t add extra layers when you get cold if you didn’t bring them.
When choosing hiking clothes, try to stay away from cotton and stick with moisture-wicking fabrics like merino wool, polyester, nylon, and synthetic blends, which help regulate moisture and temperature.
What to Wear Day Hiking in Spring & Summer
Weather changes happen quickly and unexpectedly in the mountains! One of the most common things to expect in spring and summer weather forecasts are afternoon rain showers, so it’s always smart to keep a wind and water-resistant jacket in your pack. Fortunately, these days rain jackets are typically made to be compressible and will fit pretty well when stuffed in the bottom of your hiking pack. Some of my go-to day summer and spring hiking clothes include leggings from Fabletics to protect my legs from overgrown flora and sun exposure and a Short Sleeve Moisture Wicking Athletic Shirt.
Protection from sun exposure is another thing to keep in mind when hiking during the spring and summer. It’s important to protect your skin and eyes from exposure to harmful UV rays – especially at higher altitudes. Don’t forget to wear a hat with a brim and a pair of sunglasses to protect your face and your eyes while logging miles on the trail. I like to wear a bucket hat because it protects the skin on my neck as well!
What to Wear Day Hiking in Fall & Winter
Hiking during the fall and winter seasons usually offers the most solitude on the trail, and I love hiking during these seasons to see the foliage change color as well!
Baselayers are a great place to start when choosing your fall and winter hiking clothes. Fleece-lined leggings and wool such as Smartwool base layer top or synthetic blend shirt can be layered beneath hiking pants and a long-sleeved mid-layer top and fleece or puffy vest to provide the best insulation in colder temperatures. A water-resistant, down, or synthetic insulated jacket is key in the fall and winter. Even if you stuff it at the bottom of your hiking pack and don’t use it until you get to the summit, you’ll be glad you brought it!
When hiking in the fall and winter, a beanie can also be an excellent addition to your pack, just in case you’re chillier when you get to the summit of the mountain you’re climbing than you were at the trailhead.
Sturdy hiking footwear is the key to confidently hiking in all terrain and protecting yourself from injury. Entry-level hiking boots can be very affordable, too. When I first started hiking, I wore these Columbia boots, which are lightweight, waterproof, and won’t bust your budget.
If you’re planning to hike more challenging terrain, you’ll want to wear something built to give you sturdy traction on variable and potentially slick surfaces. Now that I explore more challenging trails, I like to wear these Danner boots, perfect for wet weather and rugged conditions.
Don’t forget the socks! Stay away from the cotton socks and, instead, buy hiking socks made from wool. I usually wear socks from Merrell and Wildly Good for warmer days and during the winter from Meriwool.
Day Hiking Essentials
Last, but certainly not least, you can prepare yourself for your first hiking adventure by bringing some specialized gear in your hiking pack. But first, how do you choose a hiking pack?
I like to hike with a pack that has plenty of storage space and pockets, as well as a waist and chest strap for support. This 25 liter REI pack is a great option because it has plenty of storage space, exterior fasteners and loops to carry your trekking poles, a sleeve and port for a hydration reservoir, and it even comes with a rain cover. For outdoor photographers, this Brevite camera backpack is an awesome alternative.
What Goes Into Your Pack?
Now for the gear! You may not have service where you’re going, so it’s always smart to pack a waterproof topographic map, a compass, and download an offline map any time you hit the trail. You’ll also want to bring a first aid kit and a pocket knife – because you never know what will happen when you venture out into the wilderness. Extra sunscreen is an excellent addition to your pack as well!
In case you get caught on the trail after dark, you’ll want a source of light to find your way back to the trailhead/parking lot. Don’t forget to bring a headlamp with you or a small flashlight.
Another valuable piece of gear to bring, especially if you’re planning to take photos with your cell phone or camera, is a power bank. My husband and I use this Mophie power bank on longer hikes, and it’s heavier but imparts a fast charge and will work for multiple charges throughout your hike.
If you’re planning to hike in bear country, plan to pack bear spray and a personal alarm. This is the alarm I like to bring along.
Regardless of the length of your hike, don’t forget to bring extra water than you think you’ll need and snacks! Salty, non-perishable snacks, like trail mix with nuts, are good options to replenish electrolytes when you’re drinking more water than usual on a hike. It’s also great to keep a personal water filter in your hiking pack just in case.
If you’ll be hiking in the winter, it might be a good idea to check trail conditions before you arrive at the trailhead. Depending on recent weather, you might want to pack trekking poles and snowshoes or microspike/crampons traction devices. If there is a considerable amount of fresh snow on the ground, gaiters are a great addition to your hiking boots as well. They are designed to fasten onto your laces and will keep the snow and moisture out of your shoes so your feet stay dry.
Even if you’re just beginning to get into hiking, this shortlist of gear will set you up for success and many miles of safe, fun hiking! Now that you know the basics to get you past the trailhead so that you can blaze your first trail, the only thing left to do is take the first step out of your front door. Happy trails!