Heading outdoors hiking is not only great for your physical and mental health, but it’s a great way to explore your surroundings and nature. For me, it’s also a way to build my character and get to know myself better, clear my mind and put my camera to use capturing the beauty around me. And it makes me incredibly happy every time I hear that I have inspired someone else to start hiking for the first time. To help you embark on this journey, I wanted to share what I have learned through my hikes.
As the new summer hiking season is on our doorsteps, here it finally is – the answers to the most asked questions I have received about getting started with hiking and tons of useful tips I have absorbed over the last few years hiking in the Swiss Alps. With this knowledge, I am certain that you too can soon head out and enjoy the world of hiking.
Start Easy and Short
This is by far the most asked question – but where do I begin?
The answer is simple – start easy and short and build up your experience, confidence, endurance, and fitness level from there. I’m known for overdoing it more than often and can tell you there is absolutely no need to move mountains on your first hikes. Look up short and easy trails in, ideally, a familiar area – this way you’ll be more likely to have a good experience and walk away wanting more.
Starting with a shorter trail will help you assess your fitness level and preparedness for bigger and longer hikes. And if things go wrong, it’ll be easier and quicker to get to safety. With shorter hikes, you can also take more time enjoying the surroundings and taking photos like I do. I would advise beginning with 5-7km of easy trails and progressing from there. Good trail descriptions will advise on the difficulty level, so be sure to check it out.
Use the Gear You Already Have
There is no need to invest in expensive top-class hiking gear if you’re not even sure if this activity is something you enjoy or if that gear is the right one for you. If you’re interested in physical activities, you must have at least some starting point. As long as you have good and sturdy shoes or boots, the rest doesn’t matter as much at first.
I definitely did not have the greatest gear to start with! I used to hike in just any trainers and often wore denim shorts. Now, I cannot imagine myself doing that, but it took me time to learn what works best for me.
My main takeaways are – comfortable, breathable, sweat-wicking, and quick-drying weather-appropriate clothes ideally worn in layers (no cotton!) and sturdy shoes (my favourites are Adidas TERREX hiking trainers or Merrell hiking boots). If you buy a new pair of shoes, make sure you “break them in” before heading out for a hike – you wouldn’t want blisters to ruin your day.
The same goes with things like backpacks… Use the bag that you have at first or borrow from a friend, and then you can decide what to buy next, if at all. For example, I carry my camera on my hikes, so it was important for me to have a hiking- and photography-specific backpack, but your needs might be different, and only time and experience can tell.
When I first started, I didn’t have hiking poles, and for the longest time, I thought I didn’t need them. But then I got gifted a pair for my birthday, and use them on most hikes ever since because I have found them very useful. Generally, hiking poles help you share the load of the weight evenly across the whole body. On downhill stretches, they also help protect the knees from impact, and in some instances increase your speed and endurance. If you’re on a technical trail, they might be invaluable to provide you with stability and safety.
I used to think that I definitely need a hydration pack, otherwise I’m not a proper hiker. With time I did get one but have learned since then that on most day hikes I actually prefer reusable bottles. And with that, I also learned that my hiking bag needs side pockets where to put the water bottles for easy access on the go. However, if you opt for using a hydration system, you’ll need a bag with a designated compartment for it.
An easy way around buying expensive gear is limiting your needs. How is that? For example, hike only easy trails in good weather at first. Might seem silly, but there’s some truth to it. If you’re on an easy path on a sunny day, you won’t need top-spec boots or waterproof layers, as simple as that.
Whatever clothing you choose, it is important to have various layers so you can adjust to both the outdoor and your body temperature. It might be a crisp day, but if you’re tackling a steep hill, you’ll quickly break a sweat and it always helps to have a system of thin layers that can be easily removed or added as and when needed without overheating or getting cold.
To sum up – don’t feel discouraged to start hiking just because you don’t have “the right” gear or the funds to get it all at once. Start with what you have and perhaps choose the trails you cover appropriate to the technical abilities of your existing gear.
Know Your Trail
Before you head out, it is important you understand your trail, for example – where it starts, where it will end, how long it is (kilometers) and how long it will take you (hours, minutes), what ascent and descent you’ll need to cover, how to navigate yourself on the route and what, if any, are your ways out.
For you to best prepare and know what to pack, say snacks and water, you need to know how long you’ll be out and how strenuous it will be on your body. That seems like a lot to know, but without this information, you’re pretty much unprepared. You could just “wing it”, but I would never advise doing so if you’re a novice.
There’s nothing better than the good old hiking maps to help you with your research. It doesn’t have to be a physical map, as there are a lot of resources online, however, you might not have a signal to access online maps while on the hike if you need them. Make sure you can have offline maps on your mobile device or acquire a paper map that covers the trails you will be hiking on.
I often use FATMAP to plan my routes, and it’s the perfect resource for this – you can plan a route based on your chosen activity (ie. hiking) from point A to B and it’ll show you the distance, ascent, descent, and the time required. Alternatively, you can search existing routes in the area you’re headed to.
In my planning process, I always use the maps to explore the surrounding area and other trails nearby in case I run out of energy and need to cut my route short or end up in trouble. Alternatively, you can plan a shorter route and a longer route so you can choose on the go depending on how you feel.
Another important thing to know about your trail is the seasonal conditions. If it’s higher in the mountains – when does the snow clear? Is it accessible and safe (or even open) at certain times of the year? Can you get to it using public transport? Some gondolas and mountain trains here in the Swiss Alps might be closed for maintenance or between seasons. Make sure you know all this before heading out.
When you have all this information ready, don’t forget to let someone know where you’re headed and when to expect you back, especially if you’re solo hiking like me. Apps like Whatsapp allow you to share your location with your contacts, or (if you can get it working) you can use the Find My app on iPhones and share your whereabouts this way.
You can overpack, but you can never overprepare!
Fuel Yourself Properly
It goes without saying that you need to fuel yourself before, during, and after the hike – do not forget plenty of water and snacks when packing. The amount of water you take depends on whether you will have the opportunity to refill your bottle or hydration pack anywhere along the way and how strenuous the hike will be. Make sure you hydrate yourself properly beforehand and drink small amounts regularly throughout your hike. Some resources advise half a liter of water per hour of hiking.
As for the food, make sure it’s something you like and that will give you energy. I usually pack various snacks, sweet and savory, fruit (apple or banana, or both), and a sandwich for longer hikes. I have learned that I don’t like to have lots of food at once, therefore I always have smaller things I can snack on so that I don’t fill myself up and feel uncomfortable hiking, but it still gets me through the hike. The exact amount of food you should take with will depend on the length and difficulty of the trail, plus, of course, your personal eating habits.
Know How to Get Help and Make Sure You Don’t Need It
Do you know what number you will call if something happens and you need help? Will you be able to share the coordinates of your location? Do you know how to help yourself? Or someone else you meet along the way? Do you have a first-aid kit with you? You should be prepared for all sorts of eventualities that might happen on your hike, and be able to call for help. Nowadays you can even buy specific hiking first-aid kits that won’t take up much space in your bag. Better safe than sorry!
If like me, you’re hiking in Switzerland, I highly recommend you become a REGA patron. It will only cost you CHF 40 a year but might save you thousands if it ever came to you being rescued on the mountain. You can also use REGA app on your phone to call for help based on accurate live location.
Check the Weather
A big part of preparedness for a hike is knowing the weather conditions, especially in mountainous regions like here in the Swiss Alps. The conditions can change very quickly and before you know it you’re caught in a thunderstorm. To avoid this, I always check the weather ahead and see what is the likelihood of rain or even a storm. If it’s unlikely, I still might pack a lightweight rain jacket, but mostly I will plan my hike around the weather and try and finish my hike before the bad weather comes in (mostly late afternoons).
My best source here in Switzerland is the MeteoSwiss app on my phone. Another good source is meteoblue. It’s actually quite funny how much I check the weather since living in the Swiss Alps. But I can’t imagine another way because the weather can change so quickly and it dictates most of our outdoor plans.
I often also look at the webcams placed in the area where I’m headed – if the current weather forecast isn’t certain, the webcams will give you the best idea of what’s actually going on. Many times I have sat in the cloud down in the valley disappointed that my hiking plans might be ruined, but after a quick glance at the webcams decided to head out, because it’s sunny out there.
Don’t Forget Sun Protection
I quickly learned that the sun in the mountains is way stronger than anywhere else. Sometimes the air temperatures might trick you at higher altitudes, but the sun never sleeps! Make sure you apply a generous layer of sunscreen before your hike and reapply it every couple of hours during the day to ensure full protection.
SPF 30 factor as a minimum, ideally SPF 50. Wanting to protect nature, I will always recommend natural sunscreen. My choice is MÁDARA, their SPF 50 sunscreen stick being my favorite on-the-go product – ideal for hikes and doesn’t leave you covered in white streaks!
Follow the Trail Etiquette
To be fair, I sometimes feel like there is no trail etiquette and everyone is following their own rules or just barging their way through, but wouldn’t it be nice if we all followed the same rules to make this experience pleasant for all involved parties?
Here are a few rules that I always tend to follow and recommend you to do the same:
- Respect nature – leave no trace, keep quiet (that includes loud music), do not disturb wildlife, and leave everything just like you found it.
- Be respectful towards other hikers, and don’t be afraid to greet them.
- Yield when needed (for example, downhill hikers give way to uphill hikers, single hikers give way to groups, etc.).
- Take care when passing other hikers, especially if you’re approaching them from behind; kindly ask to pass them and use wider areas to do so. Similarly, let faster hikers safely pass you when they have caught up with you.
- Don’t leave the trail.
- Pack out everything you brought in, including banana peels and tissues (I always take small trash bags with me for this purpose).
- Keep your distance from livestock, especially when their little ones are around.
- Adhere to signs that ask you to keep your dog on a leash.
- Be aware of your surroundings – listen and observe what’s around you (wild animals, hikers in distress, etc., signs with directions or instructions, etc.).
- Research local guidelines when going to a new place to make yourself aware of any general rules.
Most Common Mistakes to Avoid
To avoid any mistakes on my hikes, I always try and plan ahead and pack my bag, and lay out my clothes the night before. However, after years of hiking, I still tend to make some rookie errors just because I haven’t spent enough time preparing, especially if I make a last-minute decision to go on a hike. Here I have compiled a list of some of the most common mistakes beginner (and unprepared) hikers make:
- Overestimating your abilities – hiking too far, too soon, and too fast.
- Not drinking and eating enough.
- Poor packing – too much stuff, not enough stuff, or burying the essentials that you will need to access quickly.
- Underestimating nature – trail conditions and weather conditions.
- Overestimating certain gear – if you are not physically and mentally ready for the hike you’ve embarked on, the world’s best gear will not get you to the end of the trail.
- Wearing the wrong shoes and socks.
- Underpreparing (wrong gear, not enough food, and water, not knowing the trail, etc.).
- Not trying out your gear beforehand (do you know how to use your poles, for example?).
- Not considering time and pace (don’t miss the last gondola down!).
- Not using sunscreen.
There’s no denying that hiking is one of the best ways to experience the outdoors and it can be an incredibly rewarding activity. Following these tips will help you to have a more enjoyable hiking experience and with time you’ll be ready to tackle more difficult trails.
If you have any tips you want to share or any questions, feel free to comment below.
See you out there!