Hiking 101 – Everything You Need to Know

Between working, family, school, and any number of activities that take up our time, it is often challenging to find an activity that is simple yet fulfilling. Hiking is an outdoor activity that anyone can do; it is as easy as a walk in the woods or it can be a grueling ascent up a large alpine peak. While hiking can be as simple as throwing on a pair of sturdy hiking boots, forethought and planning can go a long way. WIth proper preparation and education, your hiking trip can be enjoyable, feasible, and positive.

It is important to understand all aspects that go into planning a fun day out on the trails:

  • Understand where and when to hike will take place will help set realistic expectations.
  • Take weather, safety, etiquette, and the environment into consideration will allow hikers to be more prepared.
  • Be knowledgeable on hiking equipment. This can be daunting, but even an elementary understanding will help you make the best decisions for your trips.

Enjoying the outdoors through hiking can be beneficial to you and the environments in which you visit. Your mental and emotional well being can benefit from being in an open outdoor environment while hiking can create awareness for environmental issues and impacts.

Where to Hike

Hiking trails can be found on every continent and in every country. In the United States, you will find hiking trails on two types of land: private and public land. Indeed, some trails can be found on privately owned land. Here hikers need to determine if and where hiking is permitted on those lands. Always assume that hiking is not permitted unless otherwise noted on private land.

The majority of trails are located on local, state and federal public lands. Most of the parks located on public lands are governed by local laws and regulations. Outdoor retail stores, parks websites, and written publications (maps and guides) will provide the majority of information needed to begin your hike.

Local hikes and trails are available to everyone. Due to conservation and outdoor restoration efforts, anyone can find a local or regional hike and there are a number of popular hikes. The Appalachian Trail traverses over 2,000 miles along the east coast of the United States and it is the longest continuously marked footpath in the world. Similarly, the Pacific Crest Trail spans over 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada in western United States. While those hikes can take months to accomplish, there are a number of national icons that can be hiked in sections or single days. Some of the most notable are Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Mt Whitney (tallest peak in contiguous United States) in Inyo National Forest, Everglades National Park, and Adirondack Mountains in Adirondack Park. Those are only a few, but every region and climate has their share of unique hiking opportunities.

Types of Hiking

HIking can encompass a number of different activities. The most popular hiking option is general trail hiking. This can include hiking a variety of different terrains and lengths of time and distance. One of the benefits of general trail hiking is that no specialized equipment is necessarily needed to begin. However, changing up the type of hiking you partake in can help offer variety, different workouts, and much of the same equipment can be used across the different hiking disciplines. Here are a few different types of hiking:


Peak Bagging

Peak bagging is another type of hiking that involves hiking to the summit of a number of different peaks or groups of peaks. This type of hiking can be long and physically challenging, but will typically provide scenic views. The ultimate goal of this type of hiking is to summit (to reach the top of a hill or mountain) as many peaks as possible.



Scrambling is a type of hiking that involves walking or hiking up steep terrains using both hands and feet. This type of hiking can be more technical and dangerous, but can provide interesting and challenging routes to your hike. Scrambling may be required for certain sections of a hike or take hikers off trail altogether.



Snowshoeing is a type of hiking that allows hikers to continue hiking through the winter months. A snowshoe is a type of footwear that helps distribute a hiker’s weight over the surface of a snow so that the hiker does not sink into the snow. Hiking trails in the winter can offer a different perspective and provide a different type of workout. Additionally, once trees have dropped all of their leaves, hikers may be able to get more expansive and panoramic views from outlooks.



Orienteering is a more competitive form of hiking that involves hikers finding their way to specific waypoints with only the use of a map and compass. This is a very specific activity, but the proper use of maps and compasses is a vital skill to ensure a safe and enjoyable hike. Whether competing or casually hiking, orienteering skills are valuable, and used often.



Geocaching brings another aspect to hiking that can be fun and entertaining for everyone. Geocaching involves using a global positioning system (GPS) to find containers or geocaches. Once found, the hiker would make a note in a log book or leave an item for the next person to find. This can provide alternate routes and off trail hikes as compared to your average outing.


Trail Running

Lastly, trail running is a form of hiking that can offer hikers and runners the opportunity to use trails for running. Trail running can offer more varied terrain than typical running and can be a great way for hikers to build endurance.

Hiking can include a number of different specialties, but each of them help people enjoy the outdoors and live active lifestyles.

Considerations for Hiking

HIking in the outdoors can be fun, but hikers often need to prepare for unsafe situations. Different seasons throughout the year can require some planning and foresight before your boots hit the trail. Additionally, hikers need to be cognizant of the different wildlife living in the areas they are hiking. Wildlife encounters are rare, but it is important to know what to do, should the situation arise.


Hiking can be an activity that is fun at all times of the year. Your location and season can have an impact on how you prepare and partake in your hike. Hiking during warmer weather doesn’t require specialized clothing, but heat and hydration are always a concern. Taking breaks often and drinking plenty of fluids are the keys to enjoying warm weather hikes. Sunglasses, sunscreen, bug sprays, and hats are all things necessary during the warmer seasons. Even on cool days, humidity can attract pesky insects. Avoiding insects can be done by applying bug sprays and continuing to hike. Standing still can lead to swarms of gnats and mosquitos. In addition, the sun's ultraviolet rays can give you sunburn on both cloudy and sunny days;so be sure to reapply sunscreen every two hours.

Similarly, hIking during cold weather brings additional challenges. Frostbite and hypothermia are two cold related illnesses that can be easily avoided. Warm weather jackets and boots will help keep you warm. More specifically, look for down or down synthetic jackets and winter boots when preparing for your trip. It is also important to ensure that all clothing and equipment are waterproof because once you get wet on a hike, it is often difficult to warm up. To avoid slipping or sliding on ice and snow, hikers should consider crampons, ice spikes, or snowshoes. These tools can attached your your hiking boots and will provide additional traction in ice and snow conditions. A common cold weather mistake that hikers often make is not utilizing sunscreen on cold days; hikers can still easily get sunburn on the trail. Lastly, it is often easier to get lost or turned around on a trail. This can happen when snow covers a trail that is not marked very well. Hikers need to be sure to use their maps and GPS often to ensure they remain on the trail.


While on the trail, wildlife encounters can be challenging, but are easily avoidable. The majority of wildlife are calm and easily scared off. Depending on where your hike takes place, you are likely to see a variety of animals such as deer, birds, and other small mammals. If you are hiking near lakes and rivers, you may encounter fish and reptiles. Encounters with larger mammals such as bear, moose, mountain lion, and elk can be dangerous and even fatal; however, most encounters can be avoided by taking the right precautionary steps.

It is often best to hike in groups and be sure to continually make noise as you hike; this will scare off most animals. Many companies even make “bear bells” which are small bells that attach to your bag to ensure you’re making constant noise as you hike. This will warn wildlife of your approach and reduce your chances of startling a large animal. If you do get close to large mammals, try to make yourself as large as possible and make noise. Bear spray can also be used to deter all large mammals if they get too close for comfort. This spray is a form of “pepper spray” for animals. Be sure you know how to operate your bear spray before you head off into the woods with it and only use it when absolutely necessary.


Similar to any niche activity, hiking has etiquettes that all hikers abide by. This makes your hike more enjoyable and keeps your activity safe. Every region and hike is different; therefore etiquette can change from location to location, but generally speaking, the same expectations apply for all hikes. For example, the most common outdoor rule, is to leave no trace. In other words:

The only things you should take from your hike are pictures and memories. While thee only thing you should be leaving is nothing.

This helps preserve the environment for future generations and prevent organizations from having to conduct clean up efforts. Another common etiquette rule is that ascending hikers always have the right away. Since descending can be easier, you always want to let hikers moving uphill to continue unimpeded.

A number of organizations are involved in helping provide safe, clean, and usable trails. Their conservation efforts often include clean up, education, fundraising, and awareness. Anyone can get involved; every little effort helps. Something as small picking up a piece of trash left behind can help. Above certain altitudes, trash and bodily waste take much longer to decompose which is why it is so important to follow all rules and regulations while out on the trail. In addition to waste, hiking can have profound effects on the environment; always stay on marked trails and be sure to leave the environment intact.

Hiking Equipment

When you walk into an outdoor store, the amount of equipment and gadgets available can be overwhelming. Keep in mind, that while much of it isn’t necessary, understanding what each item’s role is can help you make a more sound decision as to whether you should purchase the different types of gears.


A hiker’s best friend on the trail is always his or her’s footwear. Socks should never be cotton as cotton socks don’t dry well and wearing wet socks can lead to blisters. Always look for socks that are wool or a synthetic wool blend. These will be the most comfortable and are relatively easy to find. Also, be sure to buy the correct sock for the corresponding season:

  • Buying socks that are too warm and your feet will sweat too much and
  • Buying socks that are warm weather socks, and it can lead to cold uncomfortable feet during cold weather hikes.

Once you have found a comfortable, quality sock, you are ready to move onto finding a pair of boots.

In addition to socks, a solid set of hiking boots can alleviate almost all foot pain and discomfort. There are a number of types of hiking boots out there, but you want to look for a shoe that fits fairly snug. If your feet move too much or too little, you risk developing blisters, which can dampen any hiking experience. Most reputable hiking boots are both water repellant and light. Different shoes may compromise on one feature in lieu of another. As a hiker, you need to purchase the best shoe for your type of hiking.

Boots will typically come in three styles:

  • High cut hiking boots- above the ankle.
  • Mid cut hiking boots - near the ankle and
  • Low cut hiking boots - below the ankle.

Try out each style of hiking boots to determine your preference. Always try on both boots in the store and look for retailers that offer a section of varying terrains.

Once you’ve purchased a pair of hiking boots, break them in before putting any substantial miles on them. Nothing can ruin a weekend of hiking quicker than a poor pair of boots and socks.


Choosing the correct clothing can help your hike be comfortable and safe. As with socks, you always want to choose clothing based on the type of hiking and season in which you are hiking. Cotton is often the worst choice for hiking clothing (this includes denim) as it does not dry easily and it is heavy when wet.

Instead, choose materials that dry quickly and wick moisture away from your body. It is important to educate yourself on base layers and outer layers. A quality base layer can help keep you warm and also move any moisture away from your body. Many hiking specific clothing items will have convenient pockets and zippers to store items or change your outfit on the fly.

Hiking pants that zip off into shorts are convenient and provide clothing options to hikers while on the trail. Versatile clothing can help you pack less, carry less weight, and be comfortable.

Trekking Poles and Walking Staffs

Hiking can put a great deal of strain on your lower body, but trekking poles and walking staffs can provide relief. These can help take pressure off your knees and ankles. You will also use less energy while ascending and descending during your hike which will subsequently allow you to go farther and faster than without them.

Trekking poles come in pairs and are appropriate for hikes on uneven and rocky ground or on hikes that ascend and descent often. Walking staffs on the other hand, are more appropriate for less strenuous hikes and walks. Trekking poles and walking staffs come in a number of materials for varied weight savings and strength. Some products will even collapse for easy storeage. More advanced models will allow hikers to mount cameras on them, but a simple pair of poles can go a long way during your hike.


There is a variety of tools and gadgets that can assist hikers on their journies. Flashlights should always be packed if you plan to hike before dawn or close to dusk. Hikers can opt for headlamps as an alternate option.

A small pocket knife or multi tool can come in handy. A knife can serve a number of uses out on the trail. Knives can be used to prepare food or open packaging. They can also be used to cut and modify cord. Preparing kindling for a fire is very simple with a sharp and reliable knife, and lastly, a knife can be used in conjunction with your first aid kit to do things such as removing splinters, cutting gauze pads to size, and cutting medical tape.

Similarly, multi tools can offer a small, but less reliable knife. Their main advantage is that they can also provide a number of other tools that can be used on the trail. The more gear a hiker travels with, the more there is a change that he or she will need tools to fix or adjust a piece of equipment. While helpful, knives and multi tools are not always necessary. Always consider the length of your hike as well as the terrain you are encountering.

A pack shovel often proves useful while on the trail. Certain parks require that hikers build cat holes when using the restroom and without a shovel, hikers are digging holes with their bare hands.

A short spool of paracord will be useful as well out on the trail. This can often be used to repair packs and boots, hang tarps, or create clotheslines.

Depending on the length of hikes, you may also want to pack fire kits. Building a fire in the evening can help deter bugs and other wildlife while also providing warmth and lighting in camp. Always be sure to to check local regulations in regards to building and maintaining fires.

Technical Equipment

Advances in technology have made hiking easier and more accessible than ever. Many small electronic devices can provide a number of vital statistics and information. On the other hand, something as simple as a map can provide life saving information.

Understanding how to read and orient a map is vitally important during your hike. Always plan your route before you hike; know where your trail begins and where you plan to finish. Then, during your hike, be sure to check your map often and ensure you are still on course.

HIkers can also use a GPS to track your movement. There are a variety of GPS brands and models to choose from but most will provide similar information. You want to be sure your GPS provides live data on location, has the ability to save trips and routes, and provides altitude information.

Multiday and long distance hikers may also benefit from satellite phones. These allow hikers to reach loved ones from anywhere in the world. Most phone calls made from satellite phones can only last a few minutes, but can provide comfort in knowing that the hikers can reach family and friends in time of triumph or need.

Additional Equipment

While the aforementioned equipment is important to your hike, there are a number of other items that can make your hike safer and more enjoyable. Consider how you will carry and consume water and liquids during your hike. Water bottles, water sacs, and hydration packs are all convenient for day and multiday hikes. Hikers must also give consideration to the types and variety of foods to pack during hikes. Shorter hikes may not require any food, but longer and multi day hikes may require some sort of food to refuel with. The food should be easily packable and nonperishable.

In addition to food and water considerations, hikers may want to also carry cameras and journals. Depending on your camera abilities and budget, you can go with a simple digital point and shoot camera or a complex DSLR. DSLR cameras will provide stunning pictures, but will be heavier and bulkier. DSLR cameras are a more inconvenient item since you may need to make extra room and pack more equipment to use them.

A trail journal is an optional piece of equipment that can be helpful. These will help you share your hikes with family and friends, and it will also allow you to reference previous hikes when planning new adventures.


Hiking can be a simple yet rewarding outdoor experience for people of all ages and abilities. Although hiking is simple, it does require planning and research before you head out on the trails, but once you hit the trails, you can have miles and miles of wilderness to explore. Thanks to conservation efforts, everyone has access to outdoor hikes and the United States offers a number of climates and terrains to trek through. Now the only thing left to do is lace up your boots, grab your map, and head out into the great unknown.

Bonus: Infographic!