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The Hiking Gear Guide

Hiking is a fantastic way to spend time outside, enjoy the fresh air, get some exercise and explore fantastic outdoor destinations. From incredible national parks like The Grand Canyon and Yellowstone to easygoing local trail systems and state parks, there are countless locales worth discovering. Best of all, hiking is a very accessible outdoor activity that requires very little special gear or skills to get started.

Whether you’re just getting into hiking for the first time or you’ve already planned a summer trip to Yosemite, we’ve put together this hiking guide with information on footwear, clothing, gear, safety and, of course, a few helpful hiking tips. Just looking for a hiking checklist? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered!

Hiking Boots vs. Hiking Shoes

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When determining what style of hiking footwear will work best for you, start by considering distance, pack weight, type of terrain and potential weather conditions. If inclement weather could be on the forecast, a pair of waterproof hiking boots or shoes is worth the added investment.

HIKING BOOTS

Most hiking boots from brands like Asolo and Columbia Sportswear range from midweight nylon and suede types to heavyweight backpacking or trekking boots made of full-grain leather. Because they provide additional support, cushioning and foot protection, hiking boots are best suited for longer distances, trekking with a heavy pack and rugged terrain. Mountaineering boots are ultra heavy-duty and intended for tackling tough alpine terrain. Hiking boots offer:

  • Additional foot and ankle protection, cushioning and support
  • More durability and weather protection than hiking shoes
  • Thick, aggressive rubber outsoles for all-terrain traction

HIKING SHOES

If your ideal Saturday includes a four-hour hike and lunch on a patio with your hiking buddies, a pair of hiking shoes should work fine. Hiking shoes, also called trail shoes, are usually more than adequate for day hiking trips on shorter, less difficult trails, but may not be ideal for very rugged terrain, backpacking and extended treks. People who hike fast and light tend to prefer lightweight, low-profile hiking shoes or trail running shoes. Hiking shoes offer:

  • Moderate support with added breathability and flexibility
  • A lower profile than hiking boots
  • Less weight
  • A sturdy, all-terrain outsole

Hiking Boot Fit and Break-In

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Hiking boot fit is extremely important in order to avoid discomfort, foot fatigue and potentially blister-causing friction. When choosing a pair of hiking boots from brands like Keen, Patagonia and Hanwag, you can always consult our Shoe Fit Guide as a starting point.

Sizing Up: Many people prefer a hiking boot that is a half or full size larger than their normal shoe size. This will help accommodate thicker hiking socks without discomfort. If possible, try on your boots with the socks you'll be wearing when you hike. When sizing a pair of boots, lace them up and slide your foot all the way forward, as if you were on a decline. If your toes are jammed up against the front of the boot, you need a larger size. Of course, your foot should also feel secure inside the boot once it’s snuggly laced.

Avoiding Hot Spots: Some hiking boots will not be 100-percent comfortable out of the box, and may feel stiff or restrictive. On the other hand, your new footwear shouldn't cause excessive discomfort, friction or "hot spots" either. In most cases, you'll be able to tell if something in the boots’ construction is causing you discomfort, a condition that could plague you even after breaking them in.

The Right Stuff: Footwear manufacturers create boot lasts based on average foot shape, but let's face it: Every foot is unique. Some people require more or less arch support than others. If your new boots are lacking in arch support, consider purchasing a pair of replacement insoles designed for high arches.

Boot Break-In: Always wear your new shoes or boots for a few shorter walks or while running errands around town before talking them for an extended hike. Most new footwear requires some break-in time. Heavier backpacking, trekking and mountaineering boots require more break-in time than lightweight trail shoes. All-leather boots usually require the most break-in time, but typically last the longest.

Hiking Socks and Hiking Clothing

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As with any outdoor sport, hiking is much more enjoyable with the proper footwear, clothing and apparel.

HIKING SOCKS

Those white cotton socks, although great for everyday wear, are usually sub-optimal for the trails. Hiking socks from brands like SmartWool, Bridgedale and Lorpen are constructed of breathable, moisture-wicking fibers like merino wool, alpaca, nylon and high-performance polyester. Hiking socks are typically available in three styles: lightweight (for day hikes and hot summer conditions), midweight (for moderate terrain and distances) and heavyweight (exta cushion for long-distance treks, heavy pack loads and rugged terrain).

HIKING CLOTHING

Hiking shorts and pants from brands like Columbia Sportswear and Mountain Hardwear offer great features like inseam gussets for freedom of movement, cargo pockets and lightweight-yet-rugged fabrics. Hiking shirts may feature additions like built-in UPF sun protection, mesh vents for breathability and fast-drying fabrics. Convertible pants with zip-off legs are another great option for adding versatility and convenience. Other items worth adding are a brimmed hat for extra sun protection and a lightweight, weather-resistant shell for potential bad weather.

Backpacks and Daypacks

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The length of your hike and the conditions will determine whether you need a simple, lightweight daypack or a full-sized backpack. Backpacks from brands like Gregory and Mountain Hardwear typically range in size from about 20 to 60 liters, with 30L (about 1800 cubic inches) being one of the most popular sizes for day hikes. If your plans call for a summertime day hike, you'll likely only need a medium-sized daypack to carry the essentials. Most packs beyond 40L are designed for alpine climbing and backpacking. If you plan on traversing mountainous terrain, heading into the backcountry or experiencing adverse weather, a larger pack may be needed to stow the necessary gear. Check out our Backpack Guide for more detailed information on sizing and fitting a backpack.

Trekking Poles and Walking Sticks

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Over the past few years, trekking poles have started to become standard equipment for many hikers. Trekking poles and walking sticks can help maintain balance and stability, especially during ascents and descents. They may also reduce strain on legs and joints, as well as aid in stream crossings and navigating slippery terrain, ice and snow.

TYPES OF HIKING POLES

Anti-Shock Trekking Poles feature a special spring mechanism inside the shaft that compresses slightly as weight is applied to the pole. This helps dampen shock and reduce strain on wrists. Usually the shock mechanism can be switched off when needed.

Standard Trekking Poles are usually lighter and somewhat less expensive than anti-shock poles. Even though standard poles do not absorb shock, they still provide the same level of added stability.

Walking Sticks and Hiking Staffs are single poles designed for hiking and walking over moderate terrain. Some also feature a built-in camera mount hidden under the pommel.

Compact Trekking Poles are designed for shorter individuals and sometimes feature a smaller grip. Compact poles are lighter and often collapse down smaller than full-size trekking poles.

HOW TO SIZE TREKKING POLES

Check out our video, Trekking Pole Basics, for information on sizing your poles.

Video Guides

Check out our trekking poles video:

Hiking Navigation

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Anytime you plan on hiking away from civilization, navigation could come into play. Becoming lost can happen to anyone, even when following designated trails. Before starting a hike in an unknown area, consider getting a topographic map of the area and a compass, or carry a GPS device. Of course, a map and compass or GPS unit won’t help if you don’t know how to use them properly. At the very least, consult a trail map and sign in on the trail log (if available) before setting out, and pay close attention to your surroundings and any divergent trails. The Golden Rule: Always tell someone where you are going and when you are expected to return before a hike, especially if you’re hiking alone. For great information on backcountry navigation, check out BackcountryAttitude.

First Aid and Survival

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Obviously, hiking on a local trail within city limits won’t require nearly the same level of preparation and capability as a 2,000-mile through-hike of the Appalachian Trail or an excursion into the slot canyons of southeastern Utah. Knowing your boundaries is a big part of hiking safely. Of course, if an injury or survival situation arises, it’s still important to be prepared with a first aid kit from brands like Adventure Medical Kits, as well as a well-purposed survival kit. The classic mint tin survival kit is a good starting point. You can also check out RedCross.org for info on first aid training or an organization like The National Outdoor Leadership School for courses in wilderness survival.

What to Bring on a Hike

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MAP & COMPASS OR GPS

It's always a good idea to carry a map of the area you're exploring. The brochure at the trailhead will do (unless you're headed into true wilderness in which case a topographical map will be a lifesaver.) Even if you think you know the trail, take a map.

HYDRATION PACKS & WATER BOTTLES

Hydration packs are a great option because you don’t have to stop and open a water bottle every time you need a drink. Of course, water bottles are always a budget-friendly choice. How much should you drink? A good rule of thumb is to drink one liter for every four miles hiked.

RAIN GEAR

It's always wise to bring a waterproof jacket with you on a hike. Staying dry is a big part of remaining comfortable. If you're expecting major rain, a pair of waterproof pants would be a smart addition to your pack as well.

LAYER UP!

Dressing in layers is a smart thing to do on any outdoor excursion. Your body warms as you hike and you'll probably shed a layer or two as you power up the trail. However, as you gain altitude, temps are likely to drop and you might want to put your layers back on. See the Layering Guide for tips.

WOOL OR SYNTHETIC SOCKS

You'll definitely want a good pair of wool or performance synthetic socks. Check out the section on hiking socks above for more info.

FIRST AID KIT

It’s a never a bad idea to bring a first aid kit on hikes. At the very least, throw some moleskin, Band-Aids and a few aspirin in your pack, just in case.

TRAIL FOOD OR ENERGY BARS

It's smart to carry something to keep your energy up if you're doing a half-day hike or more. Also, if you take a wrong turn, you’ll have something to sustain you as you find your way back.

WHISTLE

Carrying a whistle is just a good idea. If someone in your party is injured, gets lost, or if you need to make noise to scare a wild animal, a whistle is a lot more effective than your voice.

CELL PHONE OR 2-WAY RADIO

A phone or radio can be helpful in pinpointing your location if you get lost. It's a good idea to carry one of these in case you become lost, especially if you're backpacking in the wilderness.

SUNSCREEN

It's easy to get sunburned without noticing when you're having fun on the trail. SPF 45+ is recommended.

SUNGLASSES

You want to be able to see all the beauty around you and not have to squint from the sun. Look for 100% UV protection.

BUG SPRAY

With West Nile Virus in full swing, you don't want to forget bug spray! DEET is recommended for the best protection, but there are also many natural options that work well in all but the buggiest of places.

BEAR REPELLENT

The chance that you'll encounter a bear while hiking is low, but it has been known to happen. Bear spray can also be used to ward off mountain lions and other dangerous critters, too. Aside from carrying repellent, making noise during your hike (talking to your hiking partner for example) alert animals to your approach so they have time to get out of the way and won’t be startled into aggressive behavior.

BINOCULARS

A pair of binoculars makes getting a close-up view of wildlife much easier.

CAMERA

Snapping a few photos during your hike is a great way to share your experience with friends and family. Want a full breakdown of all the gear you’ll need for a hiking trip? Check out our comprehensive Hiking Checklist.

How to Plan a Hike

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There are a few things to consider when planning a hike, including the difficulty level, distance and time of day you’ll be hiking.

DIFFICULTY AND DISTANCE

Many designated trails will include a degree of difficulty and distance as well as a trail map and other pertinent information at the trail head. Some more remote trails may not have any visitor info, but maps and information about the trail could still be available online or in a guide. If you haven't done much hiking before, consider starting out on an easy or moderate trail for your first few outings. The most difficult trails are either very long, include challenging terrain or involve significant elevation gain. As mentioned before, it’s important to research beforehand, know your limits and be alert for changing weather, wildlife and other hazards. Avoid hiking difficult, remote or unknown trails alone.

TIME OF DAY

Especially in the summer or in hot climates, it’s often best to do most of your hiking early in the morning or in the late afternoon to avoid heat exhaustion. If you live where the sun is particularly strong, avoid hiking in exposed areas without shade between 10am and 2pm, when the sun is harshest. If the region you'll be hiking in is prone to afternoon thunderstorms, especially in the high country, make sure you're off the mountain by noon. Be prepared with enough gear to at least make it through one or two nights out in the wilderness, should you become lost or stranded.

Hiking Tips

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  • The Golden Rule: Always tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back, even if you aren’t hiking alone.
  • If your new boots have a measurably larger volume than your foot or don’t offer enough arch support, you may get a better fit with the use of replacement insoles from brands like Superfeet and Sof Sole.
  • If you’ve purchased a heavy-duty leather hiking boot and find your heel lifts slightly, this is likely to stop after some wear. Leather boots typically contour to the heel as the boot breaks in.
  • Always carry more water than you think you will drink. Dehydration can turn a hike deadly in a matter of hours. Four liters per day can serve as a baseline.
  • If hiking with dogs, keep them leashed for their own safety. Poisonous snakes, wildlife and other dogs can all be potentially dangerous to an unleashed pet. Many national parks do not allow pets on certain trails and areas, so be sure to check before your trip.
  • Always pack a small flashlight or headlamp in case you get delayed or stranded after dark. Pack a whistle to help signal rescuers in an emergency.
  • Snakes love to sun themselves on trails, so be sure to watch your step when hiking in snake country. Some areas of the US also contain other potentially dangerous wildlife, including bears, cougars, wild boar, deer and moose. Be aware of the risks before hiking in a new region.
  • Always research the trails you'll be exploring beforehand or talk with someone who knows the area, such as a park ranger or guide.

Leave No Trace

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In order to preserve our beautiful outdoor places for future generations, it’s important for all hikers to be considerate of their impact. Check out the following Leave No Trace guidelines, and learn how you can help do your part to ensure others will be able to enjoy your favorite trails for years to come.

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces (Stay on the trail!)
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors
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