When I was in Arches National Park, at the start of the ranger-led Fiery Furnace hike, the ranger asked us all why we were there. The reasons given were as varied as the number of people on the hike. Some people appreciated the connection to nature, others just loved being in the great outdoors, yet others liked the physical activity.
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Why hike? (Reasons to go hiking)
What about you? This may not even be a question you ask. You may already love it. But I didn’t. Not for the longest time. When I was a kid growing up in Australia, I wasn’t very fit and “bush walking”, as we called it, seemed difficult and uncomfortable and – dare I say it? – a bit boring. Well, things have changed since then. I don’t consider myself super fit, but I do try and stay in reasonable shape, mostly so that I’m not limited by my body to what I can do.
For me, hiking allows me to see amazing things that I couldn’t otherwise see and to experience the incredible beauty on this planet in a way that is not possible any other way. Whether it is hiking up to a glacier in Patagonia, on a glacier in the Rockies, out of the Grand Canyon, through a canyon in the Grand Tetons, or through a river in Zion National Park, I would never have been able to experience the power and beauty of these places if I hadn’t been hiking.
For a fun summary, read about the different types of hikers you may come across out on the trails.
This hiking guide
This hiking guide is an overview of key aspects to hiking to get you started on your next (or first) hiking adventure, as well as a summary of the hiking posts on this blog. As always, if you have additional suggestions, tips or experiences to share, comment below. And if you are looking for a gift for a fellow hiker, check out this gift guide for hikers.
Things to consider when choosing a hike
Not all hikes are equal. The key to great hikes is to pick a hike that is within your ability level in a hiking area that excites you.
For inspiration ideas, check out this guide to choosing your next adventure.
There are many factors to consider before you set out. Thinking about all of these things will help make sure that you have an awesome time.
Hikes can be out-and-back or a loop. I prefer loop trails because I always see something new. However, on out-and-back trails, the view on the way back can be quite different, even though you’re back tracking along the same route.
You can avoid backtracking on some one-way trails by arranging a pickup or drop off at the start or end point, or by catching public transport at both ends of the trail. The hike between Portofino and San Fruttuoso in Italy is a great example of this.
Length is not the only thing to consider, though. Keep in mind the next factor too.
2. Elevation change
Many of the best places to hike are in mountains or canyons. Mountain hiking and canyon trails like the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail can involve quite a lot of climbing or uphill or downhill walking, or even scrambling. Even more challenging (with spectacular scenery as a huge payoff) are high altitude treks like hiking Colorado’s Fourteeners.
Some trails involve a lot of stairs (like the amazing Watkins Glen Gorge Trail in New York), but if you take it slow, even they are definitely doable.
Going up is typically more strenuous in terms of cardiovascular effort, but going down can be hard on your knees. I actually preferring going up, as a lot of downhill can hurt my knees. If this is you too, using hiking poles can help take pressure off your joints.
3. What you’ll see along the way
If you are wondering where to go hiking, well, there are good places to go hiking everywhere. For example, there are many beautiful hiking trails through forests, along the sides of mountains on through valleys or even through fields of wildflowers.
Many of the best hiking spots do go through spectacular scenery (Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park, for example). However, not all do. Some are more about the destination at the end of the hike than the journey itself.
4. The destination
What is at the end of the hike? Many of the best hikes end at a viewpoint/ lookout (like the French Valley hike in Chile), a waterfall or some other spot where you can sit and relax. Waterfall hikes are especially wonderful in hot weather, because you can cool off – by soaking your feet at the very least.
5. Where it is: Local hikes vs. hiking on vacation
Local hikes are easy to get to and you can go home at the end of the day. If you are lucky to live in an area with beautiful hikes and great local hiking trails, then this is no fuss and easy.
However, many awesome hiking locations are in far-flung places and you will choose to go there specifically on your vacation. Hiking vacations do require some preparation and may not be for everyone. If hiking and camping are not your thing, you will need to look for good hiking trails near a hotel at least.
6. Level of difficulty
This is influenced by the length, elevation, weather, and terrain.
Easy hiking trails may be paved paths that are wheelchair or stroller accessible or just short, fairly flat dirt trails that require little effort. Easy trails are ideal for family hiking. The Congress Trail in Sequoia National Park is a spectacular easy hike.
Moderate hikes involve some up or down and will be a couple of miles at least.
Difficult or strenuous hikes typically involve a considerable change in elevation and distance. The most difficult hikes may include technical elements such as chains, steps cut into rocks, ladders, or narrow ledges with drop offs. These are better tackled by hikers with some hiking experience and without a fear of heights (the Beehive and Precipice trails in Arcadia National Park in the US are great examples).
There are great hiking trails in all sorts of places. You make have to hike across a river or even IN a river like The Narrows hike in Zion National Park. River hiking can be lots of fun, but cold water and uneven surfaces require special equipment.
Does the involve scrambling over rocks? Or jumping over cracks? Or squeezing in narrow spaces? Or traipsing through mud? Know this in advance and do hikes that are within your comfort level. One person’s fun can be another person’s misery.
There are great places to hike all around the world, but the climate, along with the terrain influences the things hikers need.
For example, there are many good hikes in the desert, but you will need lots of water and sun protection. Winter hiking can be a lot of fun, but appropriate warm weather gear is essential (check my winter hiking gear list for all you’ll need). There are awesome hiking destinations in national parks where there are also grizzly and/ or black bears wandering around. If so, you will want to hike with a bear whistle or spray (pick up a bottle of bear spray here). If you are hiking in tick country, you will need to know about tick safety.
Note that weather can often change rapidly and you should never assume that the weather will stay the same throughout the day. I always pack a windbreaker and lots of water even if they don’t seem necessary when I set out. With hiking, it truly is better to be safe than sorry.
9. Equipment needed
The hiking supplies you will need for a day hike are quite different from those needed for multi-day wilderness hiking. If you are doing a multi-day hiking, you will need to invest in some eco-friendly camping gear.
10. How clear the path is
Most of the best hiking trails are easy to follow, but this is not always the case. Popular hiking trails will often be marked with a colored marker or other trail markers. You can read all about trail markers and how to read them here.
There are times when hiking trail maps are essential. National park hiking trails are usually fairly easy to follow, but even in national parks, this is not always the case. Always check before you set out.
Unless you know for sure that it is a very clear path, consider getting a map, compass, and/ or GPS. Hiking maps are usually sold in the area, or can often be found online.
11. Best time of day (or night)
You need to not only think about where to hike, but also when.
For example, often early in the morning or late afternoon are the best time for desert hikes because it is too hot in the middle of the day. In fact, in Monument Valley in the U.S., the Wildcat Trail is closed between 11:00am and 6:00pm. If you set out later in the day, make sure you get back before dark (or have a flashlight).
Sometimes you need to hike at night – especially if the main reason for the hike is watching the sunrise from the top of the mountain you are climbing. E.g. Most people climb Mt Fuji in Japan and Mount Sinai in Egypt at night in order to be at the top in time for the sunrise. If you are hiking at night, a headlamp is an essential item.
12. Single day vs. multi day
Most hikes are single day hikes (like the hikes in Bryce Canyon).
However, you can also do multi-day treks. Obviously, these involve a lot more planning, as you either need to carry a tent with you or check in advance that there is a refuge or hut on the trail that you can use.
You will also need to carry your food unless you have a porter carrying your stuff. This is common on some hikes. For example, many Inca Trail treks have porters to carry your food and tent. This is also true on the Rwenzori Mountains trek in Uganda.
Having porters carry your belongings and supplies makes the hike more enjoyable for you as well as providing employment for local people, which can help make the local community more invested in preserving the environment.
However, some people prefer to save money and carry everything themselves.
13. Alone or with a guide
You need to decide whether to do the hike on your own or hire a trail guide.
Sometimes guided hiking trips are the only possibility or guided hiking tours are just easier. Guides typically know the trails very well, so can help you avoid hard parts, show you the best places to go hiking, prevent you getting lost and give you additional information along the way.
On the other hand, going by yourself gives you the independence of going at your own pace, though (and is cheaper, of course).
For multi-day hikes, if you book through a company with a guide and possibly a porter, make sure you check what their tents are like. When I did the Inca Trail, I provided my own tent (though a porter carried it) and when it rained overnight, mine was the only tent in our group that stayed dry.
14. Your level of fitness
The best trails for you to hike are those within your level of fitness. This may mean you need to get fit. E.g. when I hiked the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon at the end of our river rafting trip through Grand Canyon, I hit the gym for a few months beforehand so that the hike was enjoyable. It definitely made a difference. There is nothing worse than being miserable because you’re in pain.
For hikes that have an element of danger, or if you are in a park where the rangers want to keep track of everyone on the trails, you may need to register before you set out. This may be as simple as entering your name and vehicle registration number in a book at the start if the trail and signing out when you get back. Or it may involve registering at a park office at the start and end of the hike. If you registered in some way when you set out, make sure you sign back in, so no one goes looking for you.
It’s actually a good idea to let someone know where you are going even if it isn’t technically requited. Things can happen when you hike and it is always good to have someone know where you are.
For some areas where the rangers want to control the number of hikers, or want to make sure that they know exactly where everyone is, this can go even further and you need to get a permit. This is true for many backcountry (off the regular trails) hikes in national parks in the United States and for sites where too many people could negatively impact the environment or where a turn in the weather could endanger you (e.g. in a slot canyon).
If you need a permit, check how and where you can get it. Sometimes it is as simple as registering and getting the permit. Other times there are only a limited number of permits issued and you either have to register far in advance or even enter a lottery system.
17. Impact on the environment
Every time you go into nature, you impact the environment, so this is something to think about. You may decide some environments are so fragile it is best to avoid them all together. In most places, you can minimize your impact by staying on the trails and carrying everything back out with you.
18. Who you’re hiking with
You may choose to hike alone. If you do, always let people know where you are going and when you get back and talk to fellow hikers, so they can report meeting you if need be. Or you may choose to hike with family or friends.
If you are hiking with young kids, there are things you will need to consider. Check out some useful tips for hiking with kids. You may end up hiking with kids who go different speeds. It’s also worth considering online resources for planning family hikes.
For Beginner hikers
Are you new to hiking? I am hardly a hard core expert, but I have fallen in love with hiking and have hiked in many places around the world and have created some useful resources for novice (and perhaps even some more experienced) hikers:
For a comprehensive list of hiking tips, check out my Beginners Guide to Hiking.
Read essential basic hiking etiquette here.
Get a list of the hiking gear that beginner hikers need for safety and comfort.
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James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents. He is passionate about experiential travel, i.e. meaningful travel that actively engages with the environment and culture. He helps people have similar experiences that involve active participation in activities and festivals; engaging with the local food and handicrafts through lessons and food tours; and interacting positively with environment by hiking, riding, rowing, diving and low/no impact animal encounters.
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