What Do I Need Before My First Hike? Great Gear For Beginners

Over the past five years, I have had some great hiking adventures, from mountain passes to ocean shores. During that time I’ve learned a lot about hiking, but I remember my first hiking trip and how under-prepared I felt. So, I decided to do some research on must-have gear to give beginning hikers piece of mind to feel prepared for their first hiking experience.

All hikers, including beginners, need gear that will eliminate as much fatigue and discomfort as possible, and keep them safe as well. This gear, sometimes called the “10 Essentials” of hiking, includes shelter, a backpack, a sleep system, appropriate clothing, food and water, navigation, first aid, a headlamp, and the means to start a fire.

If you have these essentials in place, you will have the peace of mind to fall in love with hiking.

Let’s face it – hiking can be hard. You are wearing heavy pack (depending on the length of your trip), you have to walk a long ways up and down difficult terrain, and the weather can be trying. But you’ll be able to focus more on the great things about a hike if you can worry less about those things.

Find The Right Shelter

You generally have two options for shelter on a hiking trip – a tent or a hammock. I prefer a hammock, and explained why with this post. However, you may find that you prefer sleeping in a tent. It is completely a matter of choice.

The benefits of sleeping in a hammock include ease of setup, deeper and faster sleep, and the fact you can set up almost anywhere. Also, a big plus for beginning hikers is that hammock setups (the hammock, hammock straps, and a rainfly or tarp) can cost much less than a normal tent setup. For example, a good-quality backpacking tent can cost more than $300. Meanwhile, you can purchase an entire hammock setup for half that price.

The benefits of a tent include better shelter against the elements, it is a more familiar way to sleep, and it is easier to store your gear in a tent. And while the tent setup may be more expensive, it generally does not weigh any more than a hammock setup. In fact, most ultralight backpacking tents are lighter than a hammock setup.

Regardless of what you prefer, both a hammock and tent will provide the shelter you need if you set up correctly have have the right gear in your pack.

Bring The Right Clothing – Including Shoes And Socks

Let me save you some trouble and discomfort: Cotton is ROTTEN!! Seriously, don’t wear a single piece of cotton during your hiking trip if you can avoid it. Cotton underwear, cotton socks, cotton shirts – leave them at home.

I love to wear dri-fit and wool clothing when I hike. I love the fact that I can be dry within 10 minutes after taking my pack off. This is so important, especially at night as you are trying to get warm as the sun sets. If you still have a damp shirt on when you prepare for bed and go to sleep, you are likely to have a miserable night.

Consider dri-fit, wool, or synthetic materials for shirts, pants, base layer (in colder weather) and coats. You’ll want materials that can wick away moisture (either from your body or from the elements) and dry quickly. Cotton doesn’t do that.

Here’s how I would dress for a summer hiking trip in the mountains:

During my travels, I’ve found that the most important factor toward my enjoyment of the trip is the condition of my feet. As such, I would argue that choosing the right boots (or hiking shoes) is a hugely important step to prepare for a hiking trip. Some factors you might consider when choosing the right boot/shoe:

  • Fit – Boots or shoes should fit snugly everywhere but be tight nowhere. You should be able to wiggle your toes. Test your footwear at the end of the day – when your feet are swollen – to best test how they fit.
  • Test Them Out – One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to wear new boots/shoes on a hiking trip. Your feet need time to acclimate to the boots, and they to your feet. Walk around in the boots before you purchase them, and then go on shorter hikes in different terrain before your big trip.
  • Support – Consider the midsole. This is the part of the footwear that will provide protection from shocks. Trust me, hiking over rocks or uneven terrain is a painful proposition. In most cases, selecting a stiff midsole for your footwear is worth it, despite perhaps some added weight.
  • Don’t Forget The Socks! – I’ll keep this simple: For ANY hiking trip, leave your cotton socks at home. Cotton socks will make and keep your feet damp longer, and lead to blisters. Select wool or synthetic socks.

So, what footwear do I recommend for your first hiking trip? I think that a great option of hiking shoes for beginning hikers is the Merrell Moab 2, for both men and women. These boots are sturdy, comfortable, and ventilated (which I prefer over waterproof boots).

I also recommend Darn Tough hiking socks, including the cushioned, crew option as well as the low-cut option. Darn Tough socks are made from merino wool, which is a soft, comfortable alternative to regular wool. They are durable and do a great job of keeping your feet warm and dry.

Choosing The Right Backpack

Your backpack will likely be the biggest investment as you start your hiking adventures. A good pack can cost up to $500. However, I’ve found that good packs can be much cheaper and do the job for multi-day hiking trips.

The key to a good pack is comfort and functionality: your pack should be able to carry your load without causing too much fatigue for you, and should allow for ease of access for your accessories.

What should you look for in a backpack?

  • Choose the right capacity: For a multi-day hike, your pack should probably be at least 50 liters. I’ve found that 55 liters is the largest I’ve needed, even for a 4- or 5-day hike.
  • Choose the right size: For a multi-day hike, try to keep the total weight of your gear below 35 lbs. You’ll need to make sure your pack can take this sort of weight – if not, you’ll be feeling it!
  • Get your adjustments right: As you adjust your pack, you’ll want to remember a couple of things: First, you should feel most of the weight on your hips – not your shoulders. Second, you should adjust your straps on the shoulders, sternum, and sides to pull the pack closer to your body. Pack your gear in such a way that the heaviest items (Food, Cooking Gear, etc.) are closest to your back.

So, what backpack should you choose? I’ve found that the Kelty Coyote line of backpacks is a good starter pack to get your bearings as a hiker.

What Is The Best Sleeping Gear For A Hike?

If your aren’t careful, you can add a lot of weight to your pack with the wrong sleeping bag – you can’t take the regular camping sleeping bags you are used to for regular camping. You should take a lightweight sleeping bag that can comfortably fit in your pack.

Thankfully, there are a ton of reasonably-priced options for a good, warm, lightweight sleeping bag. I’ve reviewed some my favorite sleeping bags for under $150.

Whether you sleep in a hammock or a tent, a lightweight sleeping pad is a necessary piece of gear to help you stay warm and comfortable as you sleep. Be aware of the R-value for your sleeping pad – the higher the value, the more insulated you will be against the cold. A good option for a sleeping pad can be found HERE.

What Food Should You Bring On Your First Hike?

There aren’t a lot of wrong answers here, so long as you don’t bring a can of chili or pork and beans. Just be sure to think of something that doesn’t weigh much, can be prepared in a small dish with hot water, and will not spoil after 1 or 2 days on the trail. Some of my favorites:

  • Hikers Oatmeal, with powdered milk, instant oatmeal, brown sugar, flaxseeds, wheat germ, and even some almond butter. Just add hot water. Delicious.
  • I’m not a coffee drinker, but many bring single-use coffee packets and add hot water. I like to bring hot chocolate.
  • Nuts and jerky for snacking on the trail
  • Tortillas or bagels with summer sausage and hard cheese for lunches. Some cheese spreads are usable as well.
  • Mountain House meals are good dinner or breakfast options (just add hot water), but can be pricey.
  • I like to make my own dinners with either Ramen or quick-cook noodles and freeze-dried meat and veggies. You can add your own spices for taste).
  • Pop tarts are my favorite dessert – A perfect reward for a day of hiking!

Take some time before your hike to plan your meals – pick the most calorie-dense food you can, prepare them before you go (so all you need to do is add water) and keep them stored separate from your clothing and other items.

Always Have Access To Water

I would be remiss to add that water is the key to any hiking trip. You should know before you start your hiking trip where you can access water – check trip reports from other hikers or get a detailed map of your hike.

You should start your hike with 2 liters in a bottle or two (I like to bring the large Smart Water bottles from the grocery store), and then use a filter (like this Sawyer Products filter) along the trail to filter your water and keep you hydrated.

ALWAYS have a water filter with you when you go hiking. You should never drink unfiltered water on the trail, no matter how clean it may appear, unless it is absolutely necessary.

Have A Clear Plan Before You Go

In many ways, this is the most important step for any beginning hiker to consider when they decide to embark on a hiking trip. Safety is paramount to your adventure – you should take steps to make sure you will be as safe as possible. Such steps include:

  • Know Your Route – I love the All Trails app. It has maps that detail elevation changes, reviews from other hikers, and total length of the hike. You can use it during your hike so long as your GPS is available – you will know how far along the trail you are, and even if you have left the trail (yes, I have done that before!). I would also recommend contacting Forest Ranger stations for information about the hike you plan to tackle – they even have maps that detail campsites where you can sleep each night.
  • Read Reviews – There are so many resources, including All Trails, to see what other hikers say. The hiking community is amazing, and they leave detailed reports about where to park, where trailheads are located, and what parts of the hike are difficult.
  • Go w/Friends – I would always recommend going with others when you hike. Hiking alone, especially as a beginner, is not a great idea.
  • Communicate Your Plans To Others – Anything can happen on a hiking trip. So, no matter what your plans, communicate where you are going and when you are going to be back to your loved ones. If you are hurt or lost on your trip, they will be able to get a search started for you, if needed.

You should also carry a topographical map of the area where you will be hiking, along with a GPS device and a compass. There are many devices, including your cell phone, which can meet this requirement. In any event, make sure you will know where you are at all times during your hike.

Take Care Of Yourself With A Good First Aid Kit

A standard kit works well for most issues. I would recommend taking duct tape, moleskin, or blister kits to help with the inevitable blister. You should also have a small container of antibacterial cream, some bandages, and a knife or scissors available to you. For a great, simple first aid kit, I suggest Adventure Medical Kits.

I also really love my Gerber Dime Mini as a great tool for first aid and any other problem that may arise.

Finally, make sure you have sun protection – SPF 30 or higher is appropriate. Hiking with an exposed sunburn can be an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous move.

Never Leave Yourself In The Dark – Bring a Headlamp

Black Diamond makes a great headlamp – always have one in your pack along with an extra set of batteries, or if your headlamp is charged with a USB cord, consider bringing a power bank to keep it charged at all times.

Make Sure You Can Start A Fire

You may consider yourself to be quite the outdoorsman, but when you are out on the trail and need a fire, I would recommend making things as easy as possible and bringing waterproof matches with you. Along with a something that can hold a flame (cotton doused in petroleum jelly works really well), you should make firestarting as easy as possible..

There you have it! There are other items you can and should take, but these items are the key. They are the foundation for your hiking peace of mind. You’ll feel like a seasoned hiking veteran and be ready to enjoy the amazing experiences that await!

Happy Trails!

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