How to start hiking

“Hiking is just walking, isn’t it? That can not be difficult, right?” No, it certainly is not difficult. But to compare it to a walk around the block is perhaps a bit too short-sighted. Hiking is a sport that requires serious preparation, good planning and thorough outdoor skills. I listed 10 tips, which can turn any sportive walker into an adventurous hiker.

1. Build up slowly

To start hiking is a matter of building things up slowly. Just like the well-known “start to run” program, you also have to gradually build up the distance and pace while hiking. Start with a trip of two to three days and gradually build up to a week and longer.

Slowly but surely you can build up to hikes like the Via Alpina in Switzerland

For your first trips you best opt for a route through simple terrain, with a mild and pleasant climate. If, after a period of time, you manage to complete a full week of hiking, you can consider to increase the difficulty level. Exchange the rolling hills for higher mountains. Choose a winter trek instead of a sun-drenched route. Or neglect those mountain huts for once and pitch your tent in the middle of nowhere.

2. Don’t go looking too far

Are you ready to set off on your very first multi-day hiking tour? Then do not go looking for it too far. You may have been dreaming of a certain journey far away on a different continent for years, but as a novice hiker it is better to put away that dream for just a while.

The farther away you plan your journey, the harder everything becomes. First you have to take into account a foreign language, in which it is much more difficult to express yourself. In addition, there may be cultural differences, which can sometimes lead you into problems. Not to mention possible bank card, visa or telephone problems. None of this, when you’re staying close to home. Moreover, there is also a whole army of friends and family at home ready to pick you up from the forest when necessary, if you slightly underestimated the hiking distance.

Wim enjoying the view on the Via Alpina trail in Switzerland

Make it as easy as possible the first time you go out hiking and find a nice trail in your home region. Nothing more fun than playing the local tourist! Save yourself the extra headaches that are inevitably linked to a trip in a remote area. Because less worries means you can fully focus on the hike itself. You will automatically have more time on your hands to learn the tricks of the trade and especially to enjoy the hike.

3. Check the weather forecast

Forewarned is forearmed. When hail and thunderstorms are coming your direction, you better know about it beforehand. You can adjust your choice of clothing and planned overnight accommodations to what the weather gods have in store for you. Or you can – in the worst case – completely blow off your trip.

Weather forecasts should not be taken lightly. Check them thoroughly prior to your trip, and certainly consult them daily during your trip as well. Just about every region in the world has its own local weather station. Local weather services are much more accurate than general ones. They even distinguish between the predictions on different altimeters.

After more than 10 days of trekking, we feel heroic at Mount Everest Base Camp (17,600ft)

These websites display a detailed collection of various weather stations throughout the world:

4. Learn how to read a map

We might be living in the 21st century today, but the GPS still has as least as many supporters as it has opponents. Something I, by the way, perfectly understand. Because I myself also belonged to that second group for years. But even the advocates of a GPS device will agree unanimously that it is of undeniably great importance that every hiker must be able to read a map. And that is not only because of the fact that every electronic device such as a GPS can suddenly break down, but also because when you can technically read a map you will be able to benefit much more from your GPS.

Wim checking his gps on our 41 day Pyrenean Traverse

After all, map reading does not only mean drawing a road on a map and then walking from A to B. It also means measuring distances, interpreting contour lines, distinguishing surfaces and reading path types. Once you know what all those crazy symbols and colors on a topographic map actually mean, you will be able to identify water sources or find a good bivouac spot.

5. Plan your overnight stays

Sometimes it is nice to leave everything to chance and to go on an adventure with an open mind. But as a novice hiker, it is certainly advisable to at least plan your overnight stays in advance. Before you start to go wild camping, it is even worth considering leaving your tent at home and starting with a multi-day hut trip. In this case the weight of your backpack will be a lot lower, since you do not have to carry a tent and sleeping mat. In addition, you can often enjoy an evening meal and breakfast in a cabin, so you will not need to pack a gas burner and other cooking equipment either. This way you can easily get used to the weight on your back and slowly build up the luggage you will be carrying.

Our tent, high and dry, on a rock on the Mare a Mare Nord trail on the isle of Corsica

6. Invest in proper outdoor equipment

Relax! You do not need to shatter that piggy bank just yet. On your first trips, the cheaper so-called B-brands will undoubtedly suffice. On my first multiple day hiking trips I also carried a backpack that I bought at some kind of dollar store. And my lightweight super absorbent towel consisted of an ordinary cleaning cloth.

But the higher the difficulty level of your trip gets, the better your material has to be. Physically you might be strong enough to move through alpine scenery for three weeks, but without proper thermal clothing you will be in for some very unpleasant surprises. Also when the distance of your multiple day hikes becomes longer, you will have to bring more luggage with you. And then it pays off to opt for the (more expensive) super lightweight outdoor products.

Wim at the campfire during a packraft adventure in Sweden

So yes, investing in proper outdoor equipment is certainly recommended. But do not spend those hard-earned pennies until you are sure that you will be wearing your hiking boots more than once in the coming years.

7. Pack lightweight

Hiking equals “back to basics”. And that is a principle that you must clearly understand. Of course we all want the most comfortable mattress, a fully equipped outdoor kitchen and five cool t-shirts to choose from every day. But you will be cursing that extra weight that you put in your backpack, already after the first five miles.

Our backpacks, ready for take off to conquer the great Pyrenean Traverse

As a rule of thumb, a loaded backpack should not weigh more than about 20 to 25 percent of your own body weight. You can of course saw off the handle of your toothbrush, tear your cleaning sponge in two, cut the pockets out of your pants or take the cardboard cylinder out of your toilet roll. But if you really want to save on weight, you will gain the most by focusing on the three heaviest elements in your backpack, being: your tent, your sleeping system (mat and sleeping bag) and your backpack itself. So think carefully about which products you are going to purchase for this, because it will have a big impact on the total weight that you will have to lift onto your back.

Need some extra inspiration? Click here to see our packing list.

8. Fuel your body

Do not underestimate the amount of calories you burn on a trek. The exact energy consumption depends on how heavy the route is, but the temperature also plays a major role. Men on average consume more calories than women. In general, you have to take into account that you will be burning about 4,000 to 4,500 calories every day on a multi-day trek.

Yum! Lentils on the menu during the Pyrenean Traverse

Carbohydrates are your main source of energy during hiking. It is mainly the slow carbohydrates (such as pasta and granola bars) that your body will crave most. But the fast carbohydrates (such as chocolate and grape sugar) can also come in handy if you are looking for an energy boost to climb up that last ridge. Protein-rich foods (such as fish and peanuts) will help your muscles recover faster. But magnesium tablets also work wonders in preventing muscle stiffness. Take in extra salt to replace sodium lost through sweat, by drinking soup in the evening. And do not forget to drink enough water: at least two liters during the hike itself.

9. Leave no trace

That the outdoors has a positive impact on us as a person is indisputable. But what impact do we have on the outdoors…? It is this question that we, as hikers, need to ask ourselves every hike over and over again. We can only enjoy our beautiful planet for as long as we take care of it. And that is only possible if you follow the “leave no trace” concept as well as possible.

Pristine landscapes on the Via Alpina trail in Switzerland

But what does that actually mean to be a so-called “invisible” hiker? Or more importantly: how do you – for heaven’s sake – leave no trace behind. “Leave no trace” is based on seven principles:

  • plan ahead and prepare,
  • do not go off-road,
  • dispose of waste properly,
  • leave what you find,
  • minimize campfire impacts,
  • respect wildlife,
  • be considerate of other visitors.

It does not take a degree in nuclear physics. But if applied correctly, it can mean a world of difference.

10. It is no competition

All too often I see on trips that there is a real race going on between the hikers. They try to leave as early as possible in the morning, just to be the first to arrive at the next hut. But if I could give you one precious piece of advice, it would be this: hiking is not a competition!

You have absolutely nothing to prove to anyone or anything. You do not have to be the fastest. You do not have to hike the furthest distance. You do not have to carry the heaviest or the lightest backpack.

Actually, there is nothing you need to do while hiking, but one thing. And that is to enjoy yourself. To the fullest…!

Pure joy on the Mount Everest Base Camp Trek
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