A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking: Everything You Need to Know


“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

I’m going to make a bet with you.

By the end of today’s article, I bet I can convince you to say the following, “Damn Steve! Now I want to go hiking. FINE.”

After all, Hiking is one of the greatest things you can do for your health, both mental and physical:

  • It’s amazing way to get off your ass and explore your local surroundings.
  • It requires next to nothing to get started.
  • It’s a great bonding activity with friends, family, and significant others
  • It’s a great date idea for the right person!
  • You already have everything you need to get started.
  • It’s free. As in, zero dollars.
  • It’s a great reminder that this world in which we live is pretty amazing.

Our community members love hiking too. In fact, one of our recent success stories specifically cited hiking as one of the fun activities she loved to do to help her lose 50 pounds.

Today I’m going to teach you how to hike with a little help from our furry-footed friends.

By the end of today’s post, my goal is convince you to have picked a trail, picked a date, and identified a fella or gal to join your fellowship (galship?).

I took the above picture while hiking through Killarney National Park in Ireland many years ago, and every time I look at it, I couldn’t help but think of Tolkien’s middle-earth masterpiece, so I apologize (not really) for all of the Lord of the Rings nerdery running throughout this post!

Let’s get you hiking.

Hiking 101: How to Get Started With Hiking

When you think of hiking, you might imagine a bunch of road-tested perma-travelers with oversized backpacks, hiking through epic mountains for weeks upon weeks at a time. 

Or maybe, a pair of hobbits setting out on a worldwide adventure to destroy a ring of awe-inspiring power.

If you’re just beginning your journey to a better lifestyle, just thinking about serious hiking can be enough to keep you inside your comfy hobbit hole.

Although hiking can an epic undertaking, it doesn’t need to be!

It can also be super simple and fun:

  • A quick jaunt (such a great word, right?) around your local park after work.
  • Exploring the woods behind your house with your kids on a saturday morning.
  • A half-day hike with your friends on a fun nature trail.
  • A full day or overnight hike that also includes camping.

Here’s my definition for hiking: A person (or self-aware robot) exploring their surroundings and their feet are on actual ground. Like, dirt. And grass.

Some might say it needs to be difficult, have a certain elevation change, require a blah blah blah. It literally doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you go outside and do something you wouldn’t have done otherwise.

Here in the Nerd Fitness Rebellion, hikers would fall into the Adventurer class.

If you’re looking for a fun “cardio” activity and want to exercise in a way that’s exciting, hiking is a great way to get your legs, feet, and body used to strenuous activity.

You get to pick your speed and difficulty, you can always find a way the right amount of challenge for you.

HIKING101: 5 STEPS TO PLAN OUT YOUR ADVENTURE

1) Decide how long you have to hike.  This is a beginner’s guide to hiking, we’re not looking to hike the Appalachian Trail. Instead, we want to start with  trails that can be done in less than a day, that won’t require you to pack a tent, or bring extra change of clothes.  Pick a hike based on how much time you have – do you have the entire Sunday? Or do you just have a few hours on a Tuesday afternoon? It took Frodo and Sam 6 months to get to Mordor, but you probably don’t have that much time.

However, if you DID want to “walk to Mordor,” I got you covered there too. You’re welcome!

2) Decide if you’ll be hiking solo or with a friend/group – I love hiking solo – it’s mobile meditation for me.  However, it’s also more dangerous should anything happen while you’re out on the trail! If you’re heading into the wilderness, I’d recommend buddying up with a friend or your significant other for your hike. It’s the perfect bonding opportunity. This is especially true if they have more hiking experience or they know the area that you’re hiking in.

3) Determine your level – if you are a hiking newbie and horribly out of shape, sending yourself out on an eight hour hike through the unmapped wilderness is incredibly unintelligent. And as your mom has probably told you before, “I thought you were smarter than that.”

Start slow, and pick places around your town that will allow you to stop when necessary and get back to your car or home quickly. No need to be a hero; it’s always better to come back excited and say “wow that was easier than I expected!” than to realize you’re six hours from home and out of steam. Well, being a hero is cool. But not THAT kind of hero.

4) Pick your hiking location – Keep it simple! Go to AllTrails.com, put in your zip code, find your hiking trail!

Or pull up Google Maps and look for big green plots of land. We call those “parks.” Google the park name, learn about it, and decide if that’s where you want to go. Do not over complicate this step. Just get started.

Ask your active, adventurous friends or coworkers if they know any good spots.

The world is FULL of hiking trails and awesomeness – you just need to know where to look.

5) Regardless of where you are going, let somebody else know where are when – if you are out hiking alone, take the time to email or call somebody and let him know that you’ll be hiking and when you expect to be back.

We don’t want to hear about any 127 Hours[1] stories on NF…that would make playing video games way more difficult.

You don’t need to tell them the brand of your underwear (please tell me you’re wearing underwear) or how many almonds you’re bringing, but let them know the important details so if they don’t hear back from you by a certain time they know to alert the proper authorities.

So right now, you should have answers to the following questions:

  • How much time you can dedicate to hiking.
  • Who you will be hiking with.
  • Your level of experience
  • Using AllTrails.com or GoogleMaps to pick your hiking location.
  • Who you will tell about your hiking experience.

HIking Footwear: What to Wear on your Feet Hiking!

This is simple: stilettos, your favorite mini skirt, a fishnet halter top, and a vest made out of raw meat. You’re welcome!

In all seriousness, I’m a big fan of being comfortable without breaking the bank. Like, you probably already have most of the clothing you need to go hiking.

WHAT SHOES SHOULD I WEAR TO HIKE IN?

We cover footwear extensively in our healthy feet article, but I’ll cover shoes specifically in the case of hiking here, but we at Nerd Fitness are huge fan of Merrell products – Merrell shoes of various types have treated me well for the past decade.

Just don’t a lack of quality hiking boots keep you from a hike. If you’re concerned, pick an easy paced hike with your current shoes to be safe and ramp up when you can ramp up your gear!

Some people hike the Appalachian Trail in their bare feet (must be part-Hobbit), so whatever you do: don’t let your footwear choice keep you from getting started. Just make sure you break your shoes in and take them on test drives! Don’t take the tags off a new pair of shoes and then go on a multi-day hike – that’s a recipe for blisters and a miserable time.

Okay, let’s look at our feet. 

Now that we’ve done that, let’s look at some shoe options:

LEVEL ONE: Hiking shoes – “hiking shoes” are great if you’re going to be doing simple day hikes or hiking occasionally: they have good grip on the bottom, give you enough support, but aren’t too heavy that they are a hindrance.

Here are my favorite options if you in the market for some new hiking shoes:

  • Merrell Vent Hiking Shoe
  • Merrell Trail Glove 4 (Men) – I have the blue ones. They rock.
  • Merrell Trail Glove 4 (women)Oh what’s that? “Steve I don’t have hiking shoes! Is this the end of the world?” Well, do you have any sort of athletic shoe? Depending on the grip on the bottom, they could be decently okay for you to get started with when it comes to a basic hike.If sneakers are your only option, lace em up, pick a beginner hike, and see how they do. Just be careful on slippery surfaces – your kicks might not give you the grip won’t give you the grip you need to get over them.

LEVEL TWO – Hiking boots – I don’t hike enough or do enough multi-day hikes to justify the cost of hiking boots, but again I would point to Merrell boots if you’re in the market.

“Why boots over shoes, Steve?” 

Although many prefer trail shoes (like yours truly), I can absolutely see the value in a great pair of hiking boots if you’re going on a serious hike, traveling for multiple days, or more. They have more ankle support, thicker tread, thicker shoes, and provide your feet with significantly more protection.

REI has a great article helping you pick between Trail shoes and Trail boots. My advice? Start with what you currently have before deciding whether or not to invest in big boots. Once you build up the habit of hiking and decide you want to make it a bigger part of your life, you can make the investment.

My advice? If you are going to buy boots, go to a professional store, get fitted properly, and then break them in over many weeks before going out on a trail.

WEIRD BUT FUN FOR SIMPLE HIKES: Vibram FiveFingers – I hiked all around the globe, in various situations, wearing my Vibrams for close to 4 years. They made me feel like a ninja monkey, and a hobbit. I got weird looks, but something just felt right about being able to feel the contours of the ground beneath me. I will say, when hiking in Vibrams it can be easier to twist an ankle when stepping on a root or rock, stepping on sharp rocks can hurt, so I found myself watching my feet much more than expected.

These days, I’m much more of a trail shoe kind of guy, but some still swear by Vibrams!

If you’re in the market for buying new boots, this quick video is a good primer: