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Hiking 101: How to Get Started

By: Caitlin

One thing I fell in love with after moving to Colorado was hiking. It has become one of my most favorite ways to not only exercise my body, but also to restore my mind by separating myself from my day-to-day life and connecting with nature.  It’s an activity that has become somewhat of a ritual for me, and I do everything I can to go on a hike for at least an hour each week to help to keep my mind and body strong.

Originally coming from an area on the East coast that offered far less access to trails, I never had much opportunity to fully experience a true hike until I moved out west. And, like many people, I had no idea where to begin when first starting to hike!

I’m the kind of person who, while diving into the unknown, plans and packs for ANY foreseeable/possible instances that could potentially happen. But, for me, this literally means that I would have WAY too much stuff.  I’d over plan, underestimate myself, and lost all the pleasure in hiking.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned all of the nuances of hiking and learned what I really needed, how to plan for the foreseeable and unforeseeable, and started to feel much more comfortable on the mountain.

To save you much of the effort that I went through, I’ve outline the simplified process I developed for planning and getting ready for my hikes below.  I hope you take this guide and decide to do some exploring yourself!

Hiking 101 :  A Beginners Guide

How to Pick Your Hike Route

If you’re like me, the most difficult aspect of “going hiking” can be figuring out where to go. Especially if you’re a beginner (like me) or new to an area (also, like me) the simple task of just finding where to hike can be such a chore and deter you away from trying!

Some resources that I use regularly to assist me in finding the right hike for me based on the weather, time of year, amount of time I have available, and energy / endurance.


AllTrails is my ultimate go-to guide when first deciding where to go on my hike. While I downloaded the app because I use it so regularly, the website is incredibly useful by itself, too.  It gives so much information about your hike that it can feel overwhelming, so I’ve outlined a quick cheat sheet for the most useful pieces of AllTrails below.

    • Use GPS to track your location and connect you to trails. From your starting point, the system connects you to hikes nearby. You can also plug in a location of interest to search for hikes close to a specific location, such as your workplace or favorite coffee shop.
    • The description of the difficulty of the trail is important to understand so that you pick a trail that appropriately fits your skill level. Trails are labeled easy, moderate, or hard based on the rigor needed to complete. This typically takes into consideration both the length and the terrain of the trail.  However, understand that conditions do vary on trails throughout the year, so I always suggest starting on trails a little bit easier than you might usually before transitioning to more difficult trails.
    • The website shares what time of year this trail is most accessible.  As an example, some trails become snow covered for most the year or may be inaccessible for portions of the year.  It also shares the best time to go for viewing purposes if you’re interested in viewing animal migrations, blooming of wild flows, or seeing leaves changing colors in the fall.
    • Length of the trail in miles, as well as what type of trail you’re looking at on the site.  The primary descriptions you might see include:
      • Loop trails bring you full circle and back to your starting point
      • Out and back trails go to a specific point, you then turn around and hike back to your original starting point. This trail usually leads you to a specific scenic point, like a waterfall, where you then turn back to hike the opposite way to get back “home”
      • Point to point trails are designed to go from one place to the next, but are too long to go back to your original starting point. A good example of this in Colorado would be the Mt. Evans Scenic Bypass. It’s 27 miles you can bike, hike, or drive through, but would be too far to hike back on a typical day
    • AllTrails offers to download your trail map to use throughout your hike.  This is especially useful when you might not have reception or wireless service mid-hike!
    • To make this huge database even easier, AllTrails offers extensive search filter options. To narrow the list of trails down, you can choose;
      • Difficulty of the trail
      • Length
      • Elevation gain
      • Rating
      • What to do;
        • Things like backpacking, skiing, fishing, trail running, mountain biking, scenic driving are just a few options
      • What to see;
        • You can search for trails that will bring you to see specific landmarks such as caves or waterfall, or things like wildflowers and animals!
      • How can come;
        • This app will share whether they would recommend that you bring your do or if t would a good option to bring your kid along for the ride.
      • Trail type;
        • You can search specifically for loops, out and backs, or point to point trails
      • Trail traffic;
        • Depending on if you’re looking to meet fellow hikers or get some alone time, AllTrails also allows you to search for the least (or most) trafficked trails in your area

Finally, AllTrails also gives you the ability to see reviews from other hikers who have done the trail before. The reviews can be incredibly helpful in getting quick tips for that trail in particular, also typically being some of the recent information available on that specific trail.  I always make sure to give the recent reviews a quick glance to make sure that I’m reading the most recent, highest quality information available.

Local State Guides

From my experience, each state has their own online resources for parks and respective outdoor activities offered.

Amazon also offers an extensive list of hard copy resources for those of you that like something a little more tangible.  After I moved to CO, I was given a guise that contains not only resources for hiking, but also has maps that include other useful information, such as where to find gas and food.

This guide has been my favorite for the Rocky Mountain States.

What to Bring on a Hike

After I’ve decided where I’m going to hike, I like to plan exactly what I’ll need to bring. While each hike differs based on location, length of trail, terrain, time of year, hikers ability, etc., I’ve outline some bare basics I always find myself needing and using, despite any of the factors listed above. My list of what to bring on a hike typically includes;

  • Water
    • And lots of it!!!!
    • Pro tip: Put one or two water bottles into the freezer the night before a long hike on a hot day and they’ll melt into cool water throughout the day.  Remember to bring one bottle full of normal water, too, to use until the ice melts.
  • Sunscreen
    • Typically, I’ll leave this at the trailhead unless the hike is long enough where I’ll need to reapply.
  • Chapstick
    • I could be biased because I live in a very dry state, but bringing chapstick is a must for me!
  • Eye protection
    • Sunglasses and/or a ball cap are staples in my hiking list. I have really sensitive eyes, and the reflection of the sun on the mountain makes them even more sensitive, so I make sure to have something available to cover my eyes, especially on sunny days.
  • High protein snacks
    • I like to bring a high protein bar or two because they are easy to pack, light to carry, and quick/easy to eat while you take a quick break or while you keep pushing through on your hike!
  • An extra layer
    • You never know what could happen with a change in elevation! The weather could feel dramatically different closer to the summit, compared to your starting point.  I always recommend bringing at least a light weight extra layer in case you want it past way through.
    • Take season and time of day into consideration… is the weather looking like it’s going to get warmer or hotter as you progress through your hike?
  • Bug spray/salve and cortisone type relief
    • Depending on where you live, this can be much more critical than others.
    • I always wear an essential oil blend that I swear by for summer time bug repellant. While you can easily find a recipe online that fits your needs and desires, I suggest using lavender, citronella and eucalyptus in your blend.  Lavender and Eucalyptus are two basics I use almost every day because they smell great and leave me feeling refreshed and calm. Citronella gives me that classic “summer time” feeling when I smell it. Super bonus; you smell great but the bugs don’t think so. They hate it, actually.
    • I like to bring the classic cortisone lotion, just in case anyone in my group comes in contact with any poison oak or ivy. This stuff is great for a quick fix to something really itchy before you can get to the drug store.
  • Basic first aid
    • Here’s what I suggest bringing;
      • A few bandaids of different sizes
      • Injury tape
      • Neosporin or other antiseptic lotion/gel
      • Small hydrogen peroxide (this can be big and heavy to carry, so leaving at the trailhead is probably ideal, and worth it. Getting trail injuries cleaned fast is important to stop chance of infections)
      • Ibuprofen
      • Antihistamine
      • Imodium
    • Personal Story: While I traditionally left my first aid kit at the trailhead, I’m thinking twice about this after last weekend. I smashed my finger in between two rocks as soon as we got to the view point! I had a nasty gash that could’ve really used a band aid, especially because I had to walk a few miles back to the trailhead.  Eek!
  • Additional items to consider;
    • A towel
    • A weapon
      • Bear mace or baton
    • Portable charger
    • Flip flops for the car (in case your trail shoes get muddy)
      • bag or container for muddy trail shoes

What to Wear

This was probably the biggest challenge for me when I originally started hiking regularly. I quickly learned that a change in elevation can feel like you’re moving into a different season, and that weather can change somewhat drastically in a matter of minutes!

Depending on your area, the season, weather that day, the change in elevation you’ll be experiencing on your hike, and your personal preferences, what you wear can definitely vary dramatically. But, to narrow it down a bit, here’s the rundown I typically go through before deciding what I should wear and what I should bring with me on my hike.

Shoes: hiking boots or tennis shoes?

While I thought for a long time that hiking shoes were a must for trails, it took me some time to realize that is not the case. Rather, depending on the trail, I may prefer to wear my everyday, supportive tennis shoes. When deciding between the two, I consider the terrain and weather.

Hiking boots

I prefer hiking boots if it’s;

  • Cold outside
  • If the ground is wet from snow or rain
  • If the terrain is particularly muddy or rocky
  • My boots also offer more grip in slippery conditions, so I prefer them over my tennis shoes if I’m expecting the terrain to be at all slippery

Tennis Shoes

I will wear my usual outdoor tennis shoes if;

  • The trail is paved or gravel
  • There is not much difficult terrain, such as climbing up rocks or walking through creeks
  • It is dry outside (no wet feet!)
  • The hike is under a mile long

Pants: long or short?

The biggest factor I consider when determining pants is actually, and perhaps surprisingly, not the weather or how hot it might get that day. As a girl raised in the deep, chigger-ridden woods of the east, I prefer to consider the terrain I might encounter on the trail.  

Long pants

I find myself feeling more comfortable hiking in long pants if;

  • There is any chance that I will need to walk through or touch long grass and/or mystery plants
    • This will prevent bugs from biting your legs and prevent your legs from accidentally rubbing up against a poisonous plant
  • If I have to climb on anything through the trail because it prevents any scrapes or burns from happening too easily


For the reasons listed above, I personally don’t really find myself wearing short pants on hikes too often. For me, I would have to be hiking;

  • A very clear, wide path with limited contact with the surrounding nature
  • On a hot and humid day where pants are seriously not an option
  • If I’m going swimming alongside hiking!

Hydration pack or water bottle?

Another question I asked myself a lot at the beginning of my love for hiking was how to bring a sufficient amount of water. Vital for hiking, it’s not a question of “if” but “how” to bring water on the trail with you. And from what I’ve gathered, it comes down to what you want to do and most importantly; what works best for you!

Hydration packs (Check out our favorite hydration pack here.)

  • Great for anyone who wants to stay I motion while getting a quick burst of H2O.
  • Distributing the water’s weight evenly on your back is typically easier when hiking long distances or if you’re expecting a big elevation change.

Water bottle

  • A traditional water bottle in a backpack is a classic way to get your water on the trail.
  • Since you to stop to get the water bottle out of your bag to drink, it’s a great reminder to stop, breathe and take in the scenery.
    • I prefer this method for this very reason! I love to stop and take in the moment while hydrating my body! It feels so refreshing to me.

While starting something new can be a little daunting, knowing how and where to get started is a big step towards getting out on the trail. I hope sharing my process of how I got started hiking inspired you to start something new and wonderful in your life, too, whatever it may be!

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