Hiking Basics for Beginners: Short Hikes

If you are new to hiking, it’s certain you’ve wondered exactly what it is you need to take with you onto the trail. Once you begin searching the web for this information, you can quickly become overwhelmed with the thought of how many necessary items are recommended and how much those things are going to cost you. No worries; there are ways to ease yourself into the world of exploration and discovery without feeling stressed or breaking the bank.

In the beginning, I hiked at a local nature park which has miles and miles of dirt paths that loop around and between one another through the woods. These loops made it possible for me to make my hike as long or as short as I desired. The ability to control the length of my hike made it easier for me to determine which supplies I needed for future excursions. I learned which items were useful and which were just extra weight. If I ran out of supplies, I was close enough to my car that I wouldn’t find myself in dire straits trying to make it back to civilization. I think this learning phase is rather important for any beginner, and it also allows you to get used to carrying these supplies before you head off into the wilderness for an entire day or more.

If you are just out for short hikes and know the area well, you’re likely not going to get stranded too far away from a water source; however, always have a plan for what you will do if you run low on water. I tend to drink about a liter of water every hour, especially on hotter days. Some people will need more, and some people will need less; the important thing is that you practice and learn about your individual needs. Hike somewhere that has a backup water source, or somewhere close to your car that’s stocked with extra fluids. Track how much water you are taking in during each walk so you can best prepare for how much you will need to carry once you gravitate towards longer and more isolated hikes.

Years ago, I started out with a smaller hydration pack with storage pockets to hold my necessities. This pack cost me about $50, and I still use it to this day for shorter walks. The really nice thing about having a hydration pack is you don’t have to fumble around with your water bottle or carry it in your hand; everything you need is right on your back. In addition, you can remain consistently hydrated by sipping small amounts often throughout your hike. If you'd rather not invest the money up front, then carrying bottled water will work just fine. Another plus to carrying bottled water is you can more closely monitor your fluid intake to determine how much you are drinking per hour.

On shorter hikes, I always carry my phone, lip balm with SPF, and a couple of snacks in my pack. I apply sunscreen and insect repellent before I head out so I don’t have to carry those items. I always bring a hat to keep the sun off my face and to protect my head from any branches I might bump into during my walk. I always bring sunglasses to protect my eyes from the sun and any flying debris that blows my way as I walk into the wind. I also like to leave a bottle of Gatorade or Powerade in the car for after my hike.

One item I would encourage you to carry, regardless of the length of your hike, is a first aid kit. You can piece one together with just the very basics, or you can buy a ready-made kit for a very reasonable price. For a few bucks, I bought a kit that was smaller than a deck of cards. Not only does having a kit provide some comfort knowing you are better prepared if something minor happens, but you never know if you may run across someone else on the trail who might need some help. For a few bucks, it’s worth the cost and space in your pack.

Even on shorter hikes, it’s important to wear the right type of footwear. When you are exploring on the trail, you’re bound to come across uneven ground, areas which require some sort of climbing, muddy crossings, or even leaves or snow which restrict your ability to judge depth or safe surfaces. Wearing the right shoes will help to properly support your body and provide traction on slippery surfaces. As a new hiker, I just threw on my running shoes and headed into the woods. I can’t tell you how many times I slipped, couldn’t gain any traction or grip while on a hill, or had to walk in wet shoes after walking through mud or water. When I finally made the switch to shoes made for hiking, I was amazed at how much more effectively I was able to manage the trail and how much better my body felt during and after my hike.

Shoes are a very personal preference for each hiker. You may want to stick to a trail shoe, which is more like a tennis shoe with better support and grip, or you may decide that a hiking boot is more your style. There are pros and cons to both, so you’ll want to try on some of each and do your fair share of research before shelling out the dough. In the beginning, this will be one of your largest cost items. I have also learned that wool socks really help to prevent blisters and keep your feet dry, so spend the $15 or so and get a pair. I would recommend you buy the crew length in order to protect your ankles from brush and ticks and to keep debris from falling into the top of your socks.

What should you wear on your short hikes? Really, it’s just a matter of preference and of trying to adapt to your weather conditions. For years, I wore running tights with a tank and a t-shirt or a hoodie. I eventually made a few additions to my hiking wardrobe, such as hiking pants, moisture wicking tops, a lightweight jacket, a rain jacket, etc.; however, you don’t need to run out and spend a ton of money to start hiking. For shorter walks where you have relatively quick access to your vehicle or home, just wear whatever is comfortable and fits appropriately so it resists chafing as much as possible. If you are going to be hiking through brush, I recommend wearing something that covers as much skin as possible in order to prevent tick bites.

Everything you read on the web about clothing will tell you to wear moisture wicking items rather than cotton, and that is correct; cotton will retain your sweat and keep you wet. This doesn’t mean that you can’t go hiking until you can afford to buy moisture wicking attire. If you decide hiking is your jam and you want to do more of it, then eventually you’ll want to invest in some more practical attire for your longer hikes. For now, just get out onto the trail and wear what is comfortable for the weather that day.

Let’s recap the basics!

  • Hydration pack or bottled water
  • Cell phone
  • Lip balm with SPF
  • Snacks
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • First aid kit
  • Good shoes
  • Wool socks
  • Comfy clothes

You likely already have most of these things around the house, so you don’t have to spend a fortune to get out there and get started. Begin in a familiar place close to your home or car, pay attention to what you use and need, and build up to bigger adventures. Remember the essentials, but also remember to bring your positive spirit and to simply enjoy a few peaceful moments on the trail.

When you’re ready to start taking on longer treks in more isolated locations, you’ll need to reevaluate your supplies and upgrade your gear. For more information on that topic, check out Day Hiking Essentials: A Guide for Beginners!

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