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Hiking 101: What to Know Before Hitting the Trail

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Mary Zakheim
Written by Mary Zakheim

With a giant 25-pound pack on my back, old Nikes on my feet, and a strong desire to fit in with my new gang of seasoned outdoorspeople, I marched into the Montana forest and began my first backpacking trip. It was the first of many. I was lucky enough to be friends with people who knew what they were doing, to attend a university with a robust outdoors program, and to live in a city where heading out into the great unknown was encouraged. But not all of us are that lucky — so for those of you itching to get outside but don’t quite know where to start, I’ve drafted up this guide for newbie hikers. Happy trails!

Know Your Limits and Start Small

When you’re choosing a hike, it can be easy to get swept up in the adventurous romanticism of it all — and to overestimate what you’re actually capable of. Luckily, the internet offers newbie hikers a lot of information about the trails that they’re looking to embark upon. It’s good to start on the National Parks website to find the trail that’s right for you. After selecting a park that you want to try out, give the park a call and ask which trails they’d recommend for a beginner. When you arrive at the park, feel free to stop by the ranger’s office to ask any questions that you may have until you feel comfortable setting out! For more information, turn to the Washington Trail Association’s handy guide for first-time hikers!

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Bring the Proper Supplies

Yes, it’s generally okay to hike in tennis shoes. No, you probably don’t want to hike in jeans on a hot day. Yes, bring more water than you think you’ll need. No, you don’t need to bring an entire hospital’s worth of supplies in your First Aid kit. The list could go on. And it does — check out this checklist from the Washington Trails Association to make sure you’re not heading into the mountains unprepared!

Do Your Research Before Heading Out

I can’t stress this one enough: Research your hike until you know it by heart. I like to write out the checkpoints on a small notebook so that it’s always handy even if my phone dies. There are so many resources to help you get to know your hike — from the National Park Service’s website to the more detailed regional hiking websites to local outdoors bloggers, there’s no reason to head out unprepared. Sure, hiking sounds simple enough — you’re just walking in the woods, right? — but if you get to a fork in the trail and forget which way to turn, this could spell out big trouble for your leisurely day outside. Check out REI’s guide for first time day hikers and backpackers for additional information.

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Stop By Your Local Outdoors Store for Advice

Whether it’s an REI, Cabella’s, or other local outdoors-oriented shop, the employees are hired there for a reason: They know the area and they know what they’re talking about. Go in and ask them any questions you have about hiking in your local area and ask them for advice — they’re probably the best ones to give it if you don’t have an avid outdoorsperson in your friend group. A lot of shops also offer pretty cheap gear rentals so you can get everything you need for your first trek without having to sink some serious funds into expensive outdoors gear. Bonus: Some stores offer free or cheap camping, hiking, and backpacking classes so that you can feel more prepared when you head out! It’s also a great place to make new hiking buddies — when I moved to a new city, I signed up for outdoors courses to learn, yes, but also to meet like-minded folks.

Tell Someone Where You’re Going (and Bring a Hiking Buddy)

If it’s your first time in the outdoors, the best practice is to bring someone else with you (bonus if they’re more experienced than you). It’s also wise to tell someone at home exactly where you’ll be going, how long you expect to be gone, and when you plan on returning. I like to tell my brother where I’m going and what time he can expect to hear from me so that if I don’t get back to him by that time, he can alert the proper authorities in a timely manner. Make sure to leave some extra time in case you hit traffic or your phone dies — you definitely don’t want emergency resources used just because you underestimated how long the hike would take. Check out general safety practices here.

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Know and Practice Universal Hiking Etiquette

This one is probably the most important because nobody wants to be on a trail with someone who doesn’t respect other hikers or the natural environment that they’re in. The most important rule of hiking and backpacking is to Leave No Trace (LNT). It recalls the adage: “Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.” This is serious. You’re taking advantage of the great outdoors, it’s your responsibility to leave nothing behind — not even an apple seed (seriously, I’ve scrounged on the forest floor to pick up dry couscous that I dropped). It’s also worthy to read up on general conservation practices as well as common etiquette for other hikers and wildlife. Read up on a succinct guide here.

Join a Club!

The best way to see the nature that your region has to offer is to join a club and meet others who are more experienced than you (which means they can take you on cool, off-the-beaten-path locales)! Take a class at REI, ask your local state or national park, or find a more casual group to join where you can geek out about the outdoors together. Go on and enjoy the outdoors — I haven’t been disappointed yet!

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Do you have any other tips for first-time hikers or backpackers? Let me know if I missed anything in the comments!

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About the author

Mary Zakheim

Mary Zakheim

When she is not figuring out what the middle button on her headphones is for, explaining the difference between Washington State and Washington D.C., arriving to the airport too early or refusing to use the Oxford comma, you can usually find Mary in the mountains, at a show or on her couch.

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