Teenage female hiker on rocky mountain summit overlooking peak panorama

Planning a Hiking Trip: The Complete Guide

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One of hiking's biggest draws is that it's one of the most accessible outdoor activities on the planet. There's no minimum distance that constitutes a hike, so it's a very personal experience and open to anyone to take part in. The only real "requirements" you could say are that you're traversing dirt, sand, or rocks; you've got some essential gear and items with you; and you have a route or location picked out. Beyond that, as long as you're enjoying the outdoors and breathing in the fresh air, that makes it a hike, regardless of whether you're covering two miles or 20. Metrics like speed and distance don't define whether you're a "good" hiker, making it an ideal activity for people across the athletic spectrum.

Instead, being a "good" hiker is more about being safe and prepared. You should commit to memory some basic skills and best practices to keep you, your fellow hikers, and the environment safe and healthy. 

Here are the basics of what to know about planning a hike. Use this info as a jumping-off point—online hiking resources are endless, and experienced hikers are almost always happy to share their knowledge with enthusiastic beginners. 

A group of people hiking through the forest

TripSavvy / Linda Strauta

Choosing a Route for Your Trip

Lots of factors go into how to choose your route. Unless you're prepared for a backcountry trip and have expert navigation skills, you'll want to select an established trail.

Decide on a Location

If you haven't hiked in a while, choose a day trip near your home. Your legs may be tired after a long hike, and you'll appreciate having a shorter drive home.

Next, decide if you prefer a hike at a park or in wildlands. Spaces designated as national or state parks usually have very well-maintained trails. That means they're well-marked, generally routed to avoid extremely steep climbs or rocky terrain, and patrolled by park staff, which can be helpful if you find yourself in need of assistance. Park trails aren't necessarily easy, but they're designed for hikers of all levels. Wildlands (like national forests or official wilderness areas) are also protected by federal or state governments, but they're usually less developed and less crowded than parks. 

Evaluate the Trails

You can learn relevant and timely information about trails using tools like MapMyHike.com or AllTrails.com. (You can also see how difficult other users think the trails are, though of course, reviews are subjective to the hiker's ability and their experience that day.) When evaluating a hike, gauge your ability to do it based on distance, elevation gain (how many feet you'll gain during the hike), and the trail profile, which means how gradually the trail gains elevation. A hike that slowly gains 500 feet will be easier than a hike that gains all 500 of those feet in one mile. Remember that on out-and-back trails (as opposed to loop trails), you only have to hike as far as you want—what matters is enjoying yourself, not making it to the top. 

Consider Seasons and Elevation

If you live at sea level, expect to get exhausted and dehydrated quicker if you choose a trailhead that starts at several thousand feet above sea level. And just like with skiing or hitting the beach, trails have seasons. Trails in mountainous areas like Lake Tahoe and Colorado will be covered in snow all winter followed by mud in early spring, while trails in places like Joshua Tree or Everglades national parks may be unbearably hot in the summer. 

Planning and Preparing for Your Trip

You’ll discover your personal hiking strengths and weaknesses as you become a more experienced hiker. Start small and slow, and work your way up to multi-day trips. 

Assess Your Fitness Level

Fitness is important for hiking, but you can't necessarily gauge how fast or efficient you'll be as a hiker based on your weight or age. Hiking requires strong legs and glutes, so if you don't have them, you'll start building them as you hike more. Or if your trip is a few months out, you have time to get in proper shape. If you ever find yourself getting exhausted quickly on a trail, though, you can just turn around and aim to cover a little more distance next time. What is more important is being free of injuries. If you have medical issues like joint inflammation or balance issues, you'll want to ask your doctor about extra precautions and safety measures you may need to take.

Know Your Route

Study it in advance of your trip, and have multiple copies of your map on hand, too. It's always helpful to have both paper and electronic maps, and taking a picture of any maps posted at the trailhead can provide a quick reference when you're looking for an intersection. Many hikers also use wearable real-time trackers like Fitbit or Garmin watches.

Read Up on Specific Trail Requirements

Read up on your hike before you go. Do you need a permit? If so, where do you get it? Is the hike free of snow and mud? Where should you park? Is your dog allowed? All this information will be readily available on park websites or on trail websites and phone apps.

Buy and Break in Proper Footwear

Always break in your shoes before starting a hike. Not only are blisters painful, but they can lead to infections and make it uncomfortable to wear shoes for days after. Choose hiking shoes with extra grip and traction on the outsoles since walking through terrain can quickly wear away at gym and running shoes. In general, the longer the hike and the more weight you're carrying, the stiffer and more supportive you'll want your shoes to be.  

What to Pack for a Hike

As a general rule, if you don’t need to carry any supplies, it’s probably a walk, not a hike. If you’re going hiking, you’ll need some or all of the following:

  • The 10 Essentials: Many hikers subscribe to the "10 Essentials" theory of what to pack while hiking, including items like rain gear, shelter, a knife, and more. If you're unsure what to expect on your specific trail, packing the 10 essentials, as listed by the American Hiking Society, can cover your bases.
  • Food: Strenuous, uphill hiking can easily burn upwards of 900 calories an hour. Bring enough food to keep your body powered. Energy-packed foods like those made with honey or protein-packed foods like nuts and jerky will help your body more than heavy carbs or overly processed foods.
  • Water (and a water filter): As a general rule, bring as much as you can carry when starting—at least a liter per two miles. After a few hikes, you'll be able to gauge your consumption better. Remember to drink water frequently; ideally, before you even feel thirsty, as thirst is the first sign of dehydration. If you find yourself not having to urinate for several hours, you're probably not drinking enough. Backpacks with built-in hydration reservoirs make it easy to sneak sips on the go, while water filters can be useful on hikes near streams and rivers.
  • Clothing: While you’re unlikely to need a full change of clothing for a day hike, you should bring clothing that will accommodate both day and nighttime temperatures in the very unlikely event that you find yourself still on the trail come nightfall. It’s also a good idea to bring a rain and wind jacket, even if the forecast calls for sunny skies.
  • Fun extras: If you love birdwatching, carry binoculars. If you’re artistic, bring a sketchbook and pencils. Trail logs can also be a fun way to keep track of your hikes.

Backpacking (or overnight hiking) has a much more robust list of needs, including a larger backpack, cooking supplies, a tent, extra clothing, and potentially wildlife-related items like bear bins or bear spray. If you've never gone backpacking before, it's best to take your first trip with someone who has so you can learn the basics. You can go with a friend, or take a guided backpacking trip near your local park. Try REI Adventures for affordable weekend-long trips around the country.

Important Safety Considerations 

Nearly everything in this entire article relates to safety, from choosing the right shoes to properly evaluating a trail. But the tips below are especially important.

  • Have a plan: You always need to know where you’re going before you leave the house. Not only is knowing which trail you’ll take essential to packing and prep, but you absolutely must let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. That person is responsible for taking action if you’re not back by then.
  • First aid: Always carry a first aid kit, and make sure you know how to use the supplies. You can twist your ankle just as easily on a one-mile hike as a 15-mile hike.
  • Rescue: Know how to get help if you need it. That means having phone numbers for emergency rescue services as well as a way to get in touch with help if you don’t have cell service. Devices like a Garmin InReach or Spot X use satellite comms and are worth the investment for frequent hikers. And a whistle is a lightweight but powerful item for alerting your presence to other nearby people if needed.
  • Flora and fauna: In general, wildlife tend to avoid humans, but they can sometimes react defensively if surprised by your presence. Make noise while hiking in bear country, carry bear spray when hiking in grizzly country, and wear ankle boots when hiking in areas with rattlesnakes. If you’re hiking in an area with poisonous plants, you’ll want to wear pants, tall socks, or gaiters to protect yourself from accidental contact. 
Article Sources
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  1. American Hiking Society. "The Ten Essentials of Hiking."