Three people on a day hike

Day hiking for beginners

When it comes to getting outside, nothing beats a hiking daytrip. Walking along forested trails or setting out to see a nearby waterfall doesn’t need to be a major undertaking, but to beginner hikers, it might appear deceptively simple (especially with all the hiking pics shared online).

Some hikes can be as easy as putting one foot in front of the other and following a well-marked trail. But other hikes involve a lot more navigation skills and challenging terrain. Before you set out for a day hike, here’s how to start:

  • Choose your hiking buddies
  • Do some pre-trip planning
  • Bring the hiking essentials
  • Learn more hiking skills

Choose your hiking buddies

Three hikers posing for a photo on a rock

If you’re new to hiking, the best way to start is to find other experienced hikers you can join. Check with any hiking friends or family members if you can set out on a beginner-friendly trail with them, or search for local hiking groups or clubs in your area.

If you’re thinking of joining a group on a hike, take a look at the route they have planned to make sure it matches your fitness and experience level. Not sure if it’s right for you? Reach out to the hike organizer to ask questions before you show up at the trailhead.

Do some pre-trip planning

If you’re a beginner hiker, choose a route that’s right for your level of fitness and outdoor experience. A short out-and-back route not far from home can be a great option. Elevation, the time of year, and the length of the hike are all things to consider.

Know the trail before you go

The biggest challenge for any hiker can be making the correct turns at each trail junction and keeping your bearing. Carefully examine a topographic map or guidebook before you set off. You should familiarize yourself with where your route goes, and try to anticipate the conditions you’ll find. For example, in spring, many trails will be muddy or possibly snow-covered. By late summer, water sources may have dried up. Pay attention to things like stream crossings, elevation changes, and other trails that intersect your route.

Share this information with each person in your party, so that everyone has an idea of landmarks in the surrounding terrain. And when you’re on the trail, look behind you after you pass key landmarks or intersections so you know what to look for on your return route home.

Estimate how long a hike will take

The amount of time a hiking route takes depends on a few main factors:

  • Total distance
  • Elevation gain
  • Type of terrain
  • Fitness level and size of your group

On flat ground, a hiking speed of 4–6km per hour is average to speedy. For every 300m of elevation gain, add an extra half-hour. Hiking times will vary a lot depending on the terrain. Smooth, dry trails are easier going (and faster) than rough, wet trails, or ones that involve loose rock or bits of bush. A trail with many ups and downs will not only slow you down but also make you more tired.

“For longer hikes, water bladders are more convenient to hydrate frequently, rather than stopping to pull out your water bottle.” – MEC staffer Brittany M.

Group of hikers looking at a trail sign

The number of people in your group and the fitness level of each person are also important things to think about when estimating time. Be prepared to move at the speed of your slowest member and to turn back if necessary. Don’t forget to build in time for lunch and bathroom breaks.

The easiest way to increase the amount of daylight hiking hours is to start early in the morning. If in doubt, be conservative and choose destinations that are closer to a half day than a full day for your first few trips.

Before you go

Check the trail conditions and weather forecast in advance, as well as the morning of your hike. You might need to adjust your plans or what you bring as a result. Know that mountain weather can change rapidly and without warning.

Always tell someone you trust where you’re going and when to expect you back. Leave a note or a trip planning form that explains exactly where you are going, the names of the people in your group, and your intended route (both to and from). Remember to contact this person when you’re done – many search and rescue operations have been launched for people who were never actually lost.

Finally, check out these 7 tips for hiking responsibly so you can leave the trail as wild as when you started.

What to wear and bring hiking

Hiking boots near the edge of a cliff

Part of what makes hiking such an easy way to enjoy the outdoors is that you don’t need a ton of gear to get into it.

  • Start with a comfortable backpack. For day hikes, a 20–30L pack is usually the right size for what you need to carry.
  • Bring the 10 essentials for hiking, even if you’re only planning a short day hike. The purpose of the 10 essentials is to help you deal with an accident or emergency, which could happen on any trail.
  • Wear sturdy footwear (leave the flip-flops at home). For flat, smooth trails and dry conditions, a pair of trail running shoes can do the trick if you don’t have hiking footwear. If you’re tackling more technical routes, longer trails or rough weather, hiking shoes or hiking boots help support your ankles and your feet.
  • Ditch the cotton socks. Blisters can ruin a day hike – wear synthetic or wool/wool-blend hiking socks to keep your feet dry and happy.
  • Wear quick-drying layers. You’ll heat up on the uphills and cool down when you stop for lunch, so layers are key. Learn about what to look for in clothing layers, and always bring extra clothing as part of your 10 essentials.

“Bring a bandana that you can dip in streams or lakes and wrap around your neck for some instant cooling in hot weather.” – MEC staffer Kim B.

Learn more hiking skills

Want to know how to use a compass? Baffled by your GPS? Not sure what hiking boots to buy? Sign up for a hiking clinics at MEC stores to learn from friendly, experienced staff who are ready to answer your questions.