I first got into hiking in the summer of 2010. I’d just graduated with my bachelor’s degree (go Wolfpack) and realized, rather late, that I wanted to be a wildlife biologist instead of a veterinarian. I spent the months prior to my graduation scouring relevant job advert websites looking for
a job adventure. I considered myself outdoorsy (I grew up in rural North Carolina), but I was green- I’d never hiked ten miles or experienced dispersed camping. As a result, I was a little shocked when I was offered a research technician position near Glacier National Park studying bobcats. I was getting paid to hike, and right after graduation! I was going to be following radio-collared bobcats, though, which meant I needed to be prepared. So, I rolled into an REI with all of my graduation money, and the rest is history.
Hiking isn’t just throwing on a pair of shoes and hitting the trail. It certainly can be, but there are a lot of things I wish I’d known before day 1, like what supplies to bring or what hiking pants are the best. The great thing about hiking is that it can be enjoyed at every fitness level, on any budget, and in any place. With so much flexibility, however, how do you get started? My affinity for hiking is based on personal experience as well as preference, but I also received a lot of guidance to prepare me for my first job in the back country. If I hadn’t been adequately prepared, from my boots to my pack to my water rig, I doubt I would have enjoyed it very much. Regardless of whether you are planning a day hike, a multiple-day excursion, or are considering a new activity for the first time, here are the things I recommend considering to help you be awesome.
The Right Boots
This seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? When I was shopping for my first pair of hikers, I had no idea what I was doing. There are so many options. Choosing your boots depends on the adventure you’re pursuing. There are hiking shoes, which have flexible soles and are low-cut (think more durable tennis shoes); these are great for easy day hikes. There are hiking boots: mid to high-cut models with firmer soles tat work on a variety of terrain, high-cut models with very firm soles designed to carry heavy loads across long distances. Within each category you have variation in water resistance, firmness of the sole, width in the toe box, breathability, and height of the upper portion of the shoe (how far it extends on the ankle). Other things to consider: leather versus synthetic uppers, shoe midsole support, and lug pattern on the outsole. I personally find mid-cut model hiking boots the most comfortable, as they cradle the ankle and minimize the likelihood of rolling your ankle on uneven terrain. To determine what boot is the best fit for you, go to an outdoor store and try on several models regardless of your activity. While you won’t know how the shoe truly performs on your feet until you’re on the trail, many stores have small rocks you can climb on to see how the shoe fits on non-flat surfaces. You want boots that your feet don’t slide forward in on a decline, do have stiff outer soles (ie, don’t bend like tennis shoes), and provide ankle support. I recommend a mid-height hiking boot for all trail types. The best hiking boots usually have Vibram soles, and my hiking circle prefers Asolo, Danner, Keen, Merrell, Oboz (the only brand I wear because they feel like hugs on my feet), and Vasque brands. Most good boots will start around $100.
The Right Socks
Many a hiking trip has been ruined by blistered feet. While a properly fitted boot mitigates the majority of this, sweat and movement can create hot spots on every portion of the foot. I swear by wool socks, even in high temperatures. Wool socks are excellent for hiking because the are comfy, durable, and most importantly, they wick away moisture. Most brands have varying degrees of thickness, which ensures that you can be cool in summer and warm in winter. I recommend against cotton socks when hiking due to their inability to pull sweat away from your body. Pro tip: always carry an extra pair of socks in your pack (in case the ones you wear get wet), and never put your wool socks in the dryer, as heat flattens the fibers and reduces wicking ability. Some brands even offer lifetime warranties, which means you have no excuse to not explore! Wool socks last forever and are priced $10-20 a pair. Seems expensive, but it’s worth it long term.
The Right Pack
Whether taking a short day hike or spending several days in a state or national park, you probably want a pack. For short hikes that don’t require you to carry much, a regular backpack (like the ones we used in school) can work. The benefit of a proper hiking pack, however, is that these packs are designed to distribute weight across your body in an efficient way. Most hiking packs have a hip belt (your regular school backpack usually won’t) that moves the majority of the pack’s weight off your shoulders and to your hips. If you’ve ever felt the strain of school books on your back, you’ll immediately know why this is a great idea. Further, having a pack that is fitted to your torso length is extremely important, as it the fitted internal frame provides support and allows the pack’s weight rest appropriately on your lower body. All backpacks have an array of pockets, load lifter straps, and ventilation features. Like boots, hiking packs are divided into groups based on trip type/length and capacity. For shorter adventures, a 30-50 liter day pack will work because it is smaller and lighter. For more serious day hikes, or multi-day hiking trips, a larger pack that carries 50-80 liters is best (this size range is the most popular). For the hardcore explorers doing back country excursions, you’ll want something that carries 70 liters and up. You can easily be fitted for your pack at an outdoor store. Popular brands include Osprey (my personal fav), Kelty, REI, and Gregory. There are many brands available to meet your fit, use, and budget needs, so don’t stress if you can’t snag one immediately. Small day packs start around $44 and increase with size, with your largest packs around $330 (I paid ~$225 for my 65 liter pack, and I love it. Seriously. It is SO comfortable).
The Hydration System
Our bodies need lots of water, even at rest, which means we need to significantly ramp up our intake on the trail. Even leisurely hiking uses a lot of water, and evaporative cooling (sweating) necessitates that we make sure we are drinking enough. While this seems obvious, it can be easy to find yourself halfway through a hike and almost out of water. Too many times I’ve seen a hiker carrying a lone bottle of water on a summer hike, and this always concerns me. Hikers think about hydration in terms of ounces, and one 16 ounce water bottle will never be enough. Not having enough water can be extremely dangerous, especially if you get lost or are unable to complete the hike. This is why most hikers have a water bladder stuffed into their packs. Hydration packs are soft, durable flasks with a long tube you sip from. Most packs have a section to place your bladder into, and the benefit of this system is that you don’t need to stop and pull out a water bottle- you can literally hike and drink from the tube coming out of your pack. These hydration packs range from 1 to 3 liters, but because they are relatively flat, I recommend a 3 liter bladder. If your hike is short and you really don’t need the full 3 liters, you can always under-fill the reservoir. However, for long days, I usually carry a full hydration pack AND a pair of nalgene reusable water bottles, just in case. I personally do not like many sports drinks on the trail because of their high sugar content, but if you do, I recommend also bringing water so you can stay properly hydrated (never put a sugary drink in your hydration pack-it’s a pain to clean). Most women need around 2 liters of water per day outside of intense hiking, so your body really needs a lot of water on the trail. The extra weight is fairly minimal, and decreases throughout the day as you drink. There are a lot of brands to choose from, with prices ranging from $12-34.
Be sure to pack nutritionally appropriate snacks on the trail. Again, this seems intuitive, but if you don’t prioritize, you’ll be two miles in before you realize you left your sandwich on the kitchen table (not that I’m speaking from experience or anything). This is especially important if you are drinking a lot of water, as it balances your electrolytes. You don’t have to buy fancy trail bars or energy shots to feel your best on the trail. You can pack a good ol’ pb&j, take chicken salad, hummus and veggies, trail mix- whatever you want. Your goal should be to have protein, fats, and carbohydrates to keep up your energy as well as mitigate muscle fatigue. Your only limitations will be based on temperature, weight, and ease, and your needs will be unique based on trip length, intensity, and physical fitness. I tend to be a bit of a pack rat and always pack extra. It’s good practice in case of emergency, but I also really like to eat! I’m a huge fan of pretzels (mixed with dark chocolate, of course) because of their salt value, and I like to have a piece of fruit and some trail mix in my pack at all times. Fruit leather, meat jerky, nuts, and outdoor meal bars are compact, low-weight options.
I know cotton is supposed to be the fabric of our lives, but not on the trail. Cottons stays wet longer than synthetic fibers and doesn’t wick moisture well, which is a problem in terms of both comfort and body temperature, particularly when your nights get cool. You don’t have to spend tons of money to outfit yourself for your hiking hobby, but there are certain things that make it more comfortable. I’ll keep this short because clothing is such a personal preference, but I recommend flexible, roomy hiking pants in synthetic fabrics to wick away moisture and allow movement in the hips. Jeans are generally an uncomfortable idea, as are shorts if you are off trail (ie, you can get pretty scratched up) or in rattlesnake country. Leggings and yoga pants are also great, and many hiking pant brands zip off to shorts. I usually wear synthetic tops or fleeces on the trail, but there are limitless options to keep you comfortable. I recommend sports bras in lieu of regular bras, and I also swear by athletic (synthetic) underwear because it wicks away moisture. If you can fit it, having layers in your pack is always a good idea in case the weather changes. If its not already in your closet, any outdoor store will provide you the options you need. You can also swing by your local thrift store to look for outdoor gear!
What are you doing on your adventure? Are you looking for birds, geocaching, or waiting for that summit to create beautiful photos? Whatever your plans, be sure to include a map, a backup plan, and a good attitude. For example, I like to carry binoculars and field guides for wildlife, and I test the weight of my pack before heading out to make sure I haven’t over packed. My work requires me to carry bear spray, and as a result I always carry a canister- after all, we are exploring wild places and may encounter an aggressive animal in the process. I highly recommend investing in this! A rain jacket, camera, sunscreen, sunglasses, chapstick, and a hat are also always in my pack. A small first aid kit can easily be stuffed into your pack (include moleskin in case of blisters), and all of the above can be carried on your back in under 15 lbs.
Hiking is a full-body workout, and it will make you feel GOOD. While you probably won’t be sprinting on the trail, stretching can still be very helpful pre and post-hike. Starting the hike at an easy pace warms up your muscles and lets your body adjust to working with extra weight from the pack, and stretching at the end of the day can be great for your shoulders, back, and legs. Hiking with weak or injured knees is totally possible with the right shoes, braces, and knowing your limits. For example, I have an old knee injury that I take care of on the trail by wearing a jointed knee brace. Hip flexor stretches and yoga are also great additions to your hiking routine. Finally, I always recommend making sure you know how to properly lift your pack so as to not twist your back. This seems intuitive, but swinging heavy weight onto your back can easily result in an injury. Your outdoor outfitter can review how to properly lift your pack.
You don’t have to own an array of expensive equipment to enjoy hiking. At the very least, you need a good pair of boots, lots of water, and a plan. The rest can be acquired over time as you navigate your likes and dislikes on the trail. You also don’t have to be an athlete, or in top shape, to enjoy hiking. When getting started, set realistic goals- you may not enjoy a 5 mile hike your first time out (or you might!). Tackle a moderate trail to see how you feel, then go from there. Grab a friend, pick where you want to explore, and do it! Pretty soon, you’ll be bagging all the peaks!