The Absolute Basic Hiking Essentials for Newbies

I don’t know what it is about fall – maybe it’s the crisp air, the gorgeous leaves, or the sudden realization that it’s about to be winter – but people love to get out and hike as soon as fall arrives.  It has always been my favorite season, and the best way to enjoy it is by spending as much time outdoors as possible.


It seems that this year in particular I’ve been getting a lot of questions about hiking and gear from some of my friends who are newbie hikers.  I’ve been hearing that they “can’t hike” because they don’t have the right gear, and they’re overwhelmed with how much money it would cost to get everything they need right now.  If you’re new to hiking but feel overwhelmed by all the gear you think you need in order to be a “hiker”, here’s a news flash for you:

Anyone can be a hiker.

ANYONE.  All you need is the urge to hike and a willingness to make it happen!  Well, and a few basics.  If you’re heading out on a hike and don’t even know where to begin, here are some of the must-haves on my list.  (Note that these are just suggestions and NOT a full list of what you need in order to survive in the wilderness.  For a full list of the Ten Essentials, go here.)


Good footwear

  • Total newbie level:  For many hikes, especially in urban areas, sneakers might work great.  And if you’re not sure that you’ll like hiking and you just want to try it out, sneakers can work well in a pinch.  I’ve done hikes on flat trails and gravel trails in sneakers and felt totally comfortable.  Just do some research on the surface of the trail and how long you’ll be out there, and make sure you’re wearing sneakers that are comfortable and fit well.
  • A more experienced newbie:  Hiking boots are the way to go.  As soon as you know you like love hiking, and you’re ready to make an investment, this is the first thing you need to buy.  It can be tempting to buy off-brand boots or ones that you find online on a big sale that you’ve never tried on before.  But don’t do it!  You want to make sure that the boots fit you well.  This is harder than it sounds, so make sure you go to actual shoe stores to try on the boots.  Some places like REI even have fake hills/bumpy ground for you to get a feel for how the boots will feel outdoors.  And if you can, find ones that are waterproof.  Trust me, it’s worth the extra money so you have peace of mind on rainy or muddy hikes, or hikes where you have to cross any big puddles or small streams.
  • Funny newbie story:  I once hiked a mountain in flip flops!  I was in Acadia National Park and we’d finished hiking for the day (or so I thought) and we went out for dinner.  After dinner we wanted to hike up a trail to an overlook to watch the sun set, and all I had in the car were flip flops.  I thought I was going to lose a toenail a few times but I managed to get through it with no injuries!

Adventure-ready apparel

  • Total newbie level:  chances are that you’ve got some kind of workout gear in your closet.  As long as it’s not made out of cotton, it’s now also your hiking gear!  I frequently hike in my old running leggings and tank tops.  Great places to find cheap non-cotton workout gear include Old Navy, TJ Maxx, and Marshalls.
  • A more experienced newbie:  You’ve got the moisture-wicking workout gear, now think about adding some more layers to your outfit.  I’m a big fan of hats and headbands on hikes.  If you’re spending lots of time outside you might want to look into getting a rain jacket in case you get stuck on the trails in the rain.  If you get cold easily, look for a packable puffy jacket that you can bring with you on a hike.  And if you’re like me, you’ll want pants with pockets.  You can find all of these items at Costco pretty frequently if you’re trying to save money, but it’s always worth it to pay more to get something that’s going to last a long time.
  • Funny newbie story:  I used to hike in cotton.  And then one time I got caught out in the rain in my cotton shirt.  I was so cold and uncomfortable and couldn’t change out of it for hours!  I was on vacation and I ended up looking so soggy in all of my pictures from that day.  I literally haven’t worn cotton on a hike since.

Survival items

  • Total newbie level:  Water, food, first aid kit, and a phone.  When I first started hiking I carried those four things in one of those cheap string backpacks that I got at a half marathon race.  It was crazy uncomfortable but at least I knew I had water and food with me in case I needed it.  I even had one of those cheap travel first aid kits in there too.  And if you know you’re going somewhere that has cell reception, you’ll definitely want to bring your phone in case you need to call for help.  Oh and for the photos you’ll be taking of course.
  • A more experienced newbie:  After a few hikes I bet you’ll be looking for more comfortable gear to keep you alive outdoors.  One of the best investments I ever made was a Camelbak backpack, but some people opt for a really good water bottle instead.  I also upgraded my first aid kit to a hiking specific kit that I bought at REI.  And I’d highly recommend ditching the string backpack for one that has comfortable straps and lots of compartments for carrying extra layers.
  • Funny newbie story:  I used to carry one plastic water bottle with me on every hike because I never thought I’d need more water than that.  But one time my husband and I missed a turn on a trail and had to backtrack about a mile to get back on track.  And then we didn’t realize how long the full trail would be.  So by the halfway point we had run out of water.  We were literally begging strangers to drink out of their Camelbak bladders.  It wasn’t funny at the time, but we laugh about it now (and never leave the house with too little water anymore!).


It can be tough to be a newbie hiker, especially when people tell us we have to have the most expensive and lightweight gear.  Nope.  The things you need to start out are probably already in your closet, and as soon as you fall madly in love with hiking you can upgrade to better gear that keeps you safe and comfortable.  Soon you’ll be like me and own 3 Camelbaks and 4 sets of hiking boots!

What’s your best gear advice for newbie hikers?  Tell me a funny story about gear mistakes you made when you were a newbie!

9 thoughts on “The Absolute Basic Hiking Essentials for Newbies

  1. Awesome post and great advice! My gear advice would be to have a great map and study it ahead of time! I once planned for a 2-3 hour hike but it ended up being closer to 6 hours because of one wrong turn. Sometimes the trails are not marked the best, so you have to know what alternate routes you might accidentally be on.

    1. Absolutely! This year it took 3 tries for me to summit Rendezvous Peak because I got lost the first time (the second time was due to weather). I was expecting the trailhead to be marked but it wasn’t and that made for a confusing time.

    1. Everyone (including me back in the day) that wants to start hiking always says they can’t afford it, so I always try to scope out good deals on gear!

  2. Very nice post! Once my husband-to-be and I were hiking up a dormant volcano with a guide in St. Kitts, the day before our wedding there. We assumed the guide would have snacks and water for us- wrong! We’ve never hiked without bringing water and snacks since then.

    1. Oh no! Yeah if you hike once without water, you’ll never forget to bring it again. That’s the worst!

    1. I love that store. We don’t have one in Alaska, so whenever I make it down to the Lower 48 I make sure to stop there. Plus they have a website now!

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