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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Hiking 101: Everything You Need to Head for the Hills

There's a big, beautiful world out there: Don't let the only wild naturescape you see be the wallpaper on your phone's lock screen. Hiking is one of the easiest and most accessible outdoor sports. You don't need a spendy mountain bike or a big bundle of climbing gear to lace up your shoes and walk around looking for birds or basking under the trees.

Even if you live in a big city, there are probably accessible woods within a few hours' drive or train trip that are worth checking out. If you've never done it before, figuring out what to bring might seem like a daunting task, but it's easier than you might think to stay dry, warm, hydrated, and safe. We have everything you need here. If you're a little more experienced, you might want to check our buying guides for the Best Tents, Best Camping Stoves, or Best Portable Coffee Makers. Now head outside and become the hiker you've always wanted to be.

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Table of Contents

Shoes, Socks, and Base Layers

Let's start with the obvious: You won't have any fun on a hike—of any length—if you have bloody blisters on your feet or uncomfortable chafing under your armpits. It may take some time to experiment with which shoes you like best. When it comes to clothes, wear layers so you can put on or remove them before you start to sweat. Check out our guides to the Best Trail Running Shoes and How to Layer for more info.

  • A Good Pair of Shoes for $120: For moderate temperatures, we prefer low-top, non-Gore-Tex mesh trail shoes, such as the Salomon X Ultra 3 ($120) or the Merrell Moab Ventilator ($100). As we head into winter, the Lowa Renegade GTX ($240) boot is more stable, and the leather keeps wet snow from soaking through your boots.
  • Wicking Socks for $14: If your feet run hot like mine, you'll like synthetic socks because they dry out more quickly than wool. This pair by Wrightsock are synthetic and have two layers to avoid blisters. Darn Tough also makes merino wool socks in a wide range of thicknesses that will last forever.
  • Wicking Boxer Briefs for $18: Baselayers are a thin layer that goes next to your skin. They can be made from a variety of materials, but they need to wick sweat away and keep you warm. For bottoms, even in most cold weather you'll be fine with short underwear.
  • Wicking Undershirts for $75+: This guide has a few or our favorite base layer tops. I listed great lightweight, synthetic, wool, and blended options.
  • An Insulating Layer for $129: Your mid layer goes between your baselayer and shell, even though it's usually too warm to wear while hiking. More often, you'll throw it on during breaks and while doing camp chores. I'm a fan of fleece for mid layers.
  • A Puffy Jacket for $199:  Puffy jackets can be worn as mid-layers instead of fleece. They're very warm, but more fragile.
  • A Rain Jacket: Water-resistant jackets can be categorized as hard or soft shells. Softshells are stretchier and more breathable, but not completely water-resistant; hardshells are a lot less susceptible to soaking through. I like the Mountain Hardwear Exposure 2 Rain Jacket ($300).
  • Various Hats: Depending on the weather, you may need a sun hat or beanie to protect your noggin. I like this Smartwool Merino 150 Beanie ($25) to guard your neck against sunburn; check out my colleagues' guide to the Best Sun Protection Clothing and the Best Sunglasses for more suggestions.
  • Fun Extras: You will probably not need gaiters, but if you're walking through dusty environments, you'll welcome them. They prevent crud from entering the tops of your shoes in dusty environments. I like these fun Dirty Girl Gaiters ($20).

Bottles, Bladders, and Snacks

One of the biggest beginner mistakes is to not bring water or food, even on short hikes. Depending on the heat and your level of exertion, you could get thirstier than you think, and salty snacks help you retain the water you drink. For a short day hike, a liter bottle should be enough. If you're heading out all day or if it's particularly hot or dry, load up.

  • A Good Water Bottle for $30: Metal water bottles are unnecessarily heavy for longer trips, but they're fine for day hikes when it's not freezing out (watch A Christmas Story if you want to know why). You also can't go wrong with a classic Nalgene bottle ($7) if it's freezing cold. Check out my guide to the Best Water Bottles for more suggestions.
  • Try a Hydration Bladder for $38: If you favor hydration bladders instead of water bottles, this is a good one. Before I switched back to bottles, I preferred my Platypus to my CamelBak because it was easier to clean out between hikes.
  • Or Just A Plastic Bottle: A contender for the best hiking bottle comes from your corner grocery store. I use a Gatorade bottle, which is strong enough, very lightweight, cheap, and fits most packs' water bottle pockets.
  • Snacks: You don't have to gobble energy gels, but they're portable, travel well, and are even tasty once in a while. Check out your grocery store: Pretzel nuggets and Pop-Tarts make for popular hiking snacks, too. Fruit and nuts are a nice break from heavily-processed foods, too.

Emergency Supplies and Tools

You're probably not in active danger on a popular, well-traveled beginner trail. But until you're more experienced, you can still get into situations where a little bit of foresight would make you more comfortable and safer. Here, we try to help you think ahead.

  • A Headlamp for $50: Your hike might take longer than you think. If you run the risk of getting back after dark, a headlamp that shines at least 300 lumens will keep you on the path and let you have your hands free. Get one that accepts AAA-sized batteries rather than a non-removable rechargeable battery so you can bring spares on long trips.
  • A First-Aid Kit: Pre-packaged first aid kits are heavy, expensive, and usually incomplete. Pack your own in Zip-Loc baggies. Add some Band-Aid Hydro Seal ($5). They're the most amazing blister bandages I've ever used. Pick up a Tick Key ($10) or a Coghlans Tick Remover ($6).
  • A Battery Bank for $32: I always bring a small battery bank to keep my phone topped off. There are no power outlets in the wilderness. Check out our guide to the Best Portable Chargers for more options.
  • A Simple Compass for $21: Suunto makes my favorite compasses. The park ranger's office will usually have topographic trail maps if you stop off before the trail head.
  • A Signaling Mirror for $9: A mirror or Acme Tornado Whistle ($5) can signal for help if you need rescue. You'll get tired of yelling.
  • Emergency Shelter for $17:  It weighs only 3.8 ounces (less if you ditch the fire cord and whistle) and will keep you dry and warmish if you spend an unplanned night outdoors.

If you're headed out on a less-traveled trails, here are some additional items to consider: 

  • A Hiking App: Satellite messengers can be useful, but they're expensive and you might not have to use them that often. You probably have a great hiking companion already in your pocket. Alltrails (for iOS and Android) is my favorite free pre-trip planner and trail discovery tool, but we have more in our guide to the Best Hiking Apps.
  • A Good Book: Outdoor manuals can be fun and useful guides to life, as well as an accumulation of helpful tips. Rick Curtis' The Backpacker's Field Manual ($18) is the best comprehensive guidebook on hiking I've read. You can also practice reading topographic maps with your compass while reading Wilderness Navigation ($8) by Bob and Mike Burns.
  • A first responder course:  If you're alone in the woods, it's helpful to know what to do in emergency situations. Wilderness first aid courses at REI are a good place to start. If you want more comprehensive (and expensive) training, NOLS has a very well-done Wilderness First Responder course.
  • Trekking Poles for $50: Save your knees on downhill hikes and provide stability on sketchy trails with a pair of trekking poles. These have strong adjustment levers that never come loose or slipped no matter how hard I've leaned on them. Rubber tip covers ($7) keep them from scraping up trails and snow baskets ($8) prevent them from punching through snow.

And a Good Backpack

All right! Now you have all your gear, you need something to carry it all in. The most important aspect of a backpack is that it fits you properly. Outdoor retailers like REI offer in-person fittings. Features like water bottle pockets, loops for hitching gear, and chest or waist straps will probably vary depending on the level of activity that you're expecting. 

  • A Good Daypack for $55: The sweet spot for a daypack is between 15 and 25 liters—enough to hold rain layers, a fleece, maps, water, sunscreen, lunch, and snacks, plus room for a book or camera gear. I also like the Mountain Hardwear UL 20 ($80).
  • A Pack Liner: Use a small trash compactor bag as a water-resistant pack liner inside your pack to keep everything dry in case it rains. They're more durable than trash bags and almost as cheap. For a second layer of defense against moisture, pack your clothing and shelter in water-resistant stuff sacks or dry sacks.
  • A Pack Cover for $25: If you get caught in the rain, a pack cover is a quick and convenient solution. However, it's worth noting that water will still soak your pack's uncovered back pad.

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