Guide to Hiking for Beginners
Interested in getting into walking, trekking or hillwalking but not quite sure where to get started? This article will walk you through the things you need to know! Read on for a guide to hiking for beginners, which will make sure you are well prepared for your trip.
I love the freedom of packing my backpack and heading out. It is both comforting and empowering to know that I have everything I need with me. Just my legs can take me to truly incredible wild places. There is simplicity in walking which offers us a chance to switch off the stresses of life. Traveling by foot helps us to slow down amidst our hectic everyday lives. Spending leisure time in the outdoors has never been as popular as it is now. With many people’s normal holiday plans cancelled, this summer has seen a huge increase in the number of people searching for new experiences in the local hills and mountains.
Spending time in nature is hugely beneficial for our mental wellbeing. And walking, as a low impact activity, can be an excellent way to improve fitness and lose weight. On the other hand, planning your own hikes and days out can be a real confidence booster. Walking, generally, does not cost anything. Almost everyone lives near green spaces, trails or footpaths. And it is easy to get started with very basic equipment. Read on for my tips on how to get into hiking and maybe you’ll fall in love with it too.
This article is aimed at walking and hiking in the UK. But a lot of the advice is general and relevant for anywhere in the world. However, remember to check the details for your local area regarding access rights, weather and hazards (such as wild animals) which are not an issue here in the UK. I hope you enjoy my Guide to Hiking for Beginners!
Every good guide into hiking for beginners should start with an explanation of the outdoor etiquette. I am passionate about advocating access to nature and the outdoors as a right everyone has. But there are also certain responsibilities everyone needs to be aware of:
- Leave No Trace. This is incredibly important in order to enjoy nature in a responsible and sustainable way. After you have been in an outdoors space – no one should be able to tell you have visited. This means that you should always carry out your rubbish and not drop any litter. Not cause any damage to vegetation, trees or walls – this includes damage by fire. Not build lasting structures such as stone circles. Manage human waste appropriately by either burying it or carrying it out with you. Keep an eye out for a future post dedicated to Leave No Trace and things we should all be doing!
- Close gates. Footpaths often cross farmland or land used for grazing. Even if you can’t see any livestock, it does not mean that they are not roaming around. Especially sheep often graze on vast upland areas. It is your responsibility to always close gates behind you or your group. Always try to use gates and stiles instead of climbing over fences. But if this is not possible be mindful to not damage the fence as you go over it. If you need to climb over a gate, always do it near the hinges as this is less likely to cause damage.
- Be considerate towards others. Let people pass you on narrow trails or paths by stepping to the side. Don’t obstruct the path when you stop for breaks. Allow faster people to overtake you and overtake people courteously.
- Keep dogs under control. It is lovely to take your four-legged friend adventuring with you. But it is incredibly important to effectively control your dog the whole time. The rules regarding whether dogs need to be on lead vary depending on the area and the time of year. It is especially important to keep dogs on a lead during bird nesting season from March/April to the end of July each year. Dogs should also be kept on a lead at all times near livestock. And you should avoid taking them into fields with animals with their young.
Getting into hiking or hillwalking requires very little specialist equipment to start with – but there are some things which will make your outdoors experience more comfortable and enjoyable. This is the equipment you will require for hiking for beginners and more experienced folks alike:
The most important thing you need is a good pair of shoes. A pair of basic running trainers will do. You can find cheap options from outdoor retailers, bigger supermarkets and charity shops. If you want to invest into your new hobby a bit more, look for trail running shoes. These will offer improved traction on muddy trails or footpaths. My favourite trail running shoes are from Salomon, with other popular brands including Inov-8, La Sportiva and Karrimor. Even Adidas does a few different trail running shoes which you can often find on offer anywhere with a decent selection of sports shoes.
If you want to get into hillwalking or more technical trails, or if you feel like your ankles need more support on uneven terrain, it is worth getting a pair of walking boots. Boots are a good choice also if you are carrying a heavier backpack. I love my walking boots and wear them with Superfeet insoles for additional comfort. Any good outdoor retailer will be able to help you to choose the right pair of boots or insoles and you can try on as many different pairs as you need to with no obligation to buy. It is important to find the right footwear so it’s worth taking some time over it!
It’s good to remember that no matter how good your shoes are – the wrong socks can still give you blisters. For trainers, use sports socks which come above your ankle to avoid sand and grit getting into your socks. For walking boots, the best option tends to be hiking socks designed for cushioning the right areas of your feet. Brands like Smartwool and Bridgedale are very popular and likely to suit most feet.
You can start walking and hiking with very little specialist clothing – but there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, avoid clothes made out of cotton like heavy t-shirts, jeans or college trousers. These will make you very cold if they get wet or sweaty as they trap the dampness next to your skin. Instead pick breathable and wicking materials designed to keep you dry and warm. Sports t-shirts, thermal tops and fleeces are good basic choices. I use leggings all year round, in colder temperatures with pair of thermals under them, and in wet weather with a pair of waterproof trousers over the top. Other options, such as shorts or hiking trousers are a matter of preference. A good inexpensive alternative for dedicated hiking trousers are workwear trousers which often come with the same features for a fraction of the price.
The one thing I think is worth investing in from the start is a good pair of waterproofs. A waterproof jacket and a pair of waterproof trousers which you can pull over all of your other layers make such a difference when the weather turns very British. Don’t be tricked into getting a ‘water repellent’ or ‘showerproof’ or ‘weatherproof’ jacket. These are not designed for the same purpose and will not keep you dry for long.
The most important features to look for in a jacket are taped seams, a good hood that will stay on your head in wind and a waterproof fabric such as GORE-TEX. For waterproof trousers, I like having a pair with zips up the sides. This makes it easy to put them on without having to take my boots off (which is the last things you want to be doing when caught out in a sudden shower). Zips also increase ventilation as – let’s be honest – waterproof trousers can get pretty sweaty.
Over the years I have built up a collection of outdoors clothing and gear. And yet a thermal top, fleece and a waterproof jacket – combined with leggings, waterproof trousers, hiking socks and boots – is what I end up wearing most often. These are also the layers I would recommend for hiking for beginners. So, getting these few basic items is enough for walks ranging from windy moors to munros. As the autumn approaches and weather is getting colder. I also always carry a woolly hat, gloves (a couple of pairs) and a buff or a scarf. Additionally, a synthetic jacket or an extra fleece for added warmth and you will be fine for most weathers.
When first getting into walking any backpack will do. You just need something to carry you extra clothes and snacks in. A bit further into the hobby you might want to get a specific walking rucksack. Ideal size for a daypack is around 20-30l. The backpack should be comfortable to wear and have a waist belt and a chest strap to help distribute the weight correctly on longer days out. Remember that backpacks are rarely properly waterproof. Therefore, it is important to either get a rain cover for it or keep your things in dry bags. I prefer the second option as it makes it easier to access my things on the go. Rain covers can also be difficult in windy conditions and dry bags help with organising things inside the backpack. In a pinch a bin liner will work just as well as an actual dry bag.
Extra tip for hiking for beginners. Keep your backpack as light as possible by making sure you only pack essential items.
Food & Water
It is good to always carry at least 1l of water with you on a walk. This will be enough for most people on day walks in the British climate. However, if you usually drink a lot of water, or the weather is going to be hot, bring extra! You can use an empty soft drink bottle or get a dedicated water bottle. Many people prefer Nalgene bottles for outdoors. They are robust and will last you for many years. Additionally, they clip to your rucksack and the wide neck makes them easy to refill from taps and streams.
Hiking uses a lot of energy. So, you should always carry at least some snacks with you in case the walk takes longer than you think, you get lost, or just run out of energy. I usually carry a packed lunch and a lot of little things I can snack on while walking. These include things like sweets, cereal bars, and trail mix. The key to food for walking is to choose foods with high energy density. No matter how much you like for example carrots – they have relatively little energy compared to their weight. So, you will have to carry a lot before they amount to enough energy to fuel you for the whole day. Therefore, it is much easier to carry sandwiches and chocolate bars which contain the same amount of energy (and more) in much less weight.
Navigation & Emergencies
One of the key skills you will quickly learn when getting into walking is navigation. For this I prefer old fashioned OS maps and a compass. But it is important to choose a method that you feel comfortable with and know how to use. This could be paper maps, GPS or an app on your phone. Although, it should be noted that relying purely on a device with a limited battery life, or reliance on signal, can leave you in trouble. So, it is always worth having a backup option available. Learning how to plan your routes and navigating on them can feel intimidating at first but by building up to more complicated days out you can gradually improve your skills and knowledge! There are also a wide variety of navigation courses available, if you would like to get some more guidance before heading out on your own.
No one sets out to have an accident – but very occasionally they happen anyway. It is good practice – and very reassuring – to have plans in place for when things go wrong. It is often recommended that you make someone aware of your route and when you expect to be back. (Just remember to let them know when you get back home!) Make sure you know how to give your location to the emergency services using either a detailed address, grid reference, or an app like what3words. You will always be able to find your grid reference on an OS map, but the OS locate app will also do this for you. I also always carry a small first aid kit with me for little mishaps – just some plasters, blister plasters, pain killers and maybe a bandage or sports tape is enough for most situations.
Extra tip: my best safety advice for hiking for beginners is to plan for when things go wrong!
It is likely that you will always end up carrying some personal items. These could range from hygiene products to sun cream or a sun hat. It might also be a good idea to carry an extra plastic bag for rubbish (yours and others).
Best places to go hiking for beginners
England and Wales have a comprehensive network of Public Rights of Way. Most commonly these are footpaths and bridleways which you can find anywhere from urban areas to the mountains. In Scotland the situation is a little different as the Scottish Outdoor Access Code gives you much wider Right to Roam. However, in Scotland too most popular walks have paths on them. Paths that are visible on the ground are marked with black dotted lines on OS maps. Public Rights of Way, which in England and Wales often follow the same tracks, are marked with green dotted lines on the 1:25 000 scale OS maps and with pink dotted lines on the 1:50 000 maps. For more information about map symbols and different types of Right of Way have a look at OS website.
You have the right to walk on any Public Right of Way – so one way to get into walking is just to look for footpaths near you and start exploring! Doing that I have discovered cool locations often right on my doorstep. However, if you want to start a bit bigger, or aim for scenic walks, look for country parks, national parks, national trust estates or coastal paths. The key thing is just to get out and start exploring! When planning your route – note that the terrain can have a huge effect on how challenging the walk is. This is usually tied to how much height gain a route has. For this reason, for example coastal paths can be unexpectedly difficult as you often end up walking up and down a lot, which will make the journey much more tiring.
The UK is full of amazing destinations for walking and hiking. There are numerous national long-distance trails all around the country. The national parks cater for walkers and hikers regardless of their experience or fitness levels. Some of my favourite locations include the Peak District for relaxed walks, the Lake District for scenic hikes and Scotland for truly remote hiking experience.
Weather and how to plan for it
Weather is often the biggest changeable factor when planning days out. An the most likely factor ruining a day of hiking for beginners. Make sure you check the weather forecast leading up to your walk but also on the day for any last-minute changes. Be prepared for the weather conditions on the day and note that weather can make a huge difference in how hard a route feels. Your clothing and equipment will be slightly different for different conditions. Hot weather brings its own challenges and you will need to carry more water with you. It might also be worth considering whether you will be able to find any shade during the day. Windy conditions can make walking much harder; the temperatures will feel much colder and there are additional hazards to consider such as falling branches or gusts on exposed areas and ridges.
Rain is the most typical adverse weather we need to deal with in the UK. But the good news is that this is usually just a case of being prepared with the right clothing and ways to waterproof your gear. If you are still figuring these things out for yourself and haven’t quite perfected your wet weather kit yet – it might be a good idea to plan rainy day walks which allow you to cut them short if needed. There is nothing wrong in bailing into a warm and cosy cafe or pub on those miserably cold and wet days!
Furthermore, remember that elevation affects the weather. At sea level the temperature, visibility and rain might be perfectly manageable – but up a hill or a mountain the temperatures will drop, visibility might deteriorate quickly, and rain can easily turn into snow or hail all year round. Therefore, you should be prepared with the appropriate clothing, skills and attitude to deal with whatever the weather will throw at you! But don’t let that put you off from going – sometimes the best days out are stormy and gloomy – when you can only wonder at the strength and magnificence of the nature around you.
Building up fitness for your first hike
Rome was not built in a day – and neither is good base for fitness. Like with any sport, if you come from a sedentary situation in your life and start too hard; it is likely that you will get injured. Give your body time to adjust. Do you need to break in new walking boots or get used to carrying a backpack? These things take time and to build a sustainable habit of walking, it is good to start slowly. Go out often and into different terrains. Start with a couple of miles and add a bit of distance every time. Listen to your body and rest when you need to. Some discomfort is expected when you are building your fitness but there should be no intense pain. Problems such as shin splints often indicate that you are doing too much too quickly and need to slow down.
After a while you can increase the length of your walks, the height gain on your routes and the weight of your backpack. Build up to those 20k days or multi-day hikes. It is amazing what your body can do if you give it the chance to slowly build up strength and fitness. There are exercises, and even dedicated training programmes, online which are aimed at getting you fit for hiking. If training in a gym (or a home gym) is something you enjoy these could be for you. But to be honest, the best way to train for walking is by walking a lot.
Summary: A Guide to Hiking for Beginners
Walking, and especially hillwalking, is an activity in which you will learn more every time you go out. Experience will come with time. You will learn what things work for you. And it will quickly become something you crave; the stillness of the mountains, the wildness of the rivers and the quiet comfort of the nature around you. Hiking for beginners is often about doing a certain distance or completing a certain route. Remember to also stop occasionally, take your time and enjoy the experience!
You can get into walking and hiking with very little dedicated gear and build up more technical kit over time. If you are just starting out the things which will affect your comfort the most are good footwear and decent waterproofs. I would also recommend you to do some research and learn basic navigation skills. Always carry essential items for emergencies such as extra layers, food and water. Have a first aid kit, emergency whistle and a map and a compass with you for walks in remote areas. If you don’t feel comfortable going out alone, ask a friend to join you or join a local walking group. Or use a social media group for finding walking partners. But most importantly enjoy the adventure and the exploration. Immerse yourself into nature and maybe you will come to love it as much as I do!
I hope you have found my Guide on How to Get into Hiking for Beginners helpful. Don’t hesitate to leave comments or questions below – I would love to hear from you! For more adventures follow me on Instagram and Pinterest and subscribe to the weekly newsletter for more useful content.