Oh, the great outdoors. It seems as though everyone’s finally starting to understand how great Mother Nature actually is. Or at least, young people are. According to this recent report, 12.5 million kids, teens, and young adults in the U.S. are stepping away from screens and into the wilderness (that's up 1.7 million from the year before!).
But LBH, not all of us are hardcore hikers, and the idea of sleeping in a tent, on the hard ground, with the risk of bears and other wild creatures sniffing around isn’t exactly appealing. (Nor is the idea of waking up at the ass crack of dawn, because you know that tent doesn’t have blackout shades.)
That’s where day hiking comes in. It’s basically blending all the things you love: fresh air, Insta-worthy views, and a car or train that takes you back home to your gloriously comfortable (and clean) bed when you’re all done. We turned to the pros for answers to all your burning questions, so you'll know what you're doing before you hit the trail.
What Is Day Hiking, Exactly?
You already know you get to go home at the end of the day—that’s important fact No. 1. Because day hiking, in essence, means it doesn’t last overnight. “Day hiking can simply be described as a walk in a natural environment in which the person doesn’t intend to spend the night outdoors,” says Wesley Trimble, communications manager at the American Hiking Society. “[It] can range from a short walk in an urban nature park or preserve to a full day trip into a wilderness environment.”
That brings us to important fact No. 2: You don’t have to drive hours to get there. Heck, those in major cities can technically consider an adventurous walk in the park a day hike. Still, most looking to day-hike want to escape the city and immerse themselves in nature. And the good news is: You can, even if you don’t have a car. That’s what’s known as a transfer hike. It’s basically a subsection of the day-hike category, and it simply means you hop on public transportation, like a train, to get to and from the trailhead. Many trails even start and end in close proximity to a train stop, meaning once you hop off you’re ready to go.
Regardless, day hiking is not backpacking, which is heading out for one or more nights carrying everything you need on your back and is generally not recommended for beginner hikers. Can you work your way up to it? Absolutely. But it’s all about baby steps, and for those who are just starting to hit the trails, day hikes are the safest (and easiest) way to start.
Do I Need to Buy a Ton of Gear?
Or in other words, "How much dough do I have to drop?" The answer is that day hiking really doesn’t require that much equipment because, again, you won’t be sleeping overnight. Still, that doesn’t mean you should head outdoors all willy-nilly. Hiking in some areas can be a dangerous activity for those who aren’t prepared, and you never want to find yourself in a situation that puts you in danger or requires emergency assistance.
Trimble says there are 10 essentials you shouldn’t leave home without, but before you freak over a double-digit number, take a deep breath; most people already own the majority of the items on the list. “People often think they need to buy specialty gear in order to be prepared for a hike, but that’s not always the case,” says Trimble. “For example, people can use a standard school backpack instead of purchasing a pack specifically for hiking. Specialized gear is often more comfortable and better tailored for a long day hike, but by no means is it required to get out on the trail.”
Still, if you’re looking at that list and thinking there’s no way you’re going to drop cash on all of the above (at least not at the same time), Lindsay McIntosh-Tolle, an REI Outdoor School instructor, says you should never hike without a headlamp or flashlight with fresh batteries, extra clothing (dress in layers), a printed trail map, extra water and food (even if it’s just a granola bar or beef jerky), and a first aid kit (you can get small ones like this specifically made for day trips).
Trimble also emphasizes the importance of appropriate footwear. “The choice of shoes can make or break the entire experience,” he says. “New people out on the trail should find a shoe that has a supportive and protective sole that also has some traction. Again, beginners don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on hiking shoes or boots for their first trips—a pair of cross-trainers that have some tread are often sufficient for easy, well-maintained trails—but high-tech hiking boots are great for steeper and more technical terrain.”
If you haven’t owned a pair of hiking boots before, it’s tough to know what to get. Other than asking the sales clerk at a specialty outdoor store for pointers, Trimble says to focus on the fit. “If shoes are too small and tight, hikers will be especially uncomfortable when hiking downhill because their toes will hit the end of the toe box,” he explains. “If [they’re] too loose, they won’t provide a good sense of firm footing and problems with blisters will arise.” He adds that it’s best to err on the side of having a shoe that’s a bit larger rather than too small, as people’s feet swell after extended amounts of time upright. The best time to get the closest fit? After noon, after spending the morning walking around, so you have an idea of how much your feet swell.
Oh, and speaking of sales clerks, generally the best time of year to hit sales is late spring and mid- to late-summer, says McIntosh-Tolle. But don't just look for a bargain when it comes to outdoor gear. “If a piece of gear doesn’t meet my needs, I’m then tempted to buy more gear to compensate for the shortcomings,” Trimble says. “I’ve found that [buying] one piece that’s more expensive but serves my needs well is often cheaper in the long run than repeatedly buying bargain deals that only partially meet my needs.”
What About When I Take On Tougher Trails?
It’s true: More advanced trails tend to call for more gear. It’s not that you have to bring it, but doing so makes the entire experience more enjoyable and, honestly, safer. The first thing you’ll need to upgrade is, again, those shoes. For the majority of on-trail day hiking, you can get away with a good pair of trail-running shoes, says Trimble. “Trail-runners are normally more comfortable and weigh less; they are often light, durable, breathable, and have traction designed specifically for trails.” Once you get to chunkier, techier stuff, it'll be best to upgrade to boots for ankle support. We love Merrell Siren Sport Q2 Mid Waterproof ($130, merrell.com).
Consider tech-fabric clothing for those full-day adventures and avoid cotton. “[Cotton] takes a long time to dry when it gets wet from sweat or precipitation, and it doesn’t retain heat well when wet,” Trimble notes. McIntosh-Tolle says a hydration system with a water bladder and tube—like a Camelbak or Osprey—is a smart upgrade from water bottles, as are trekking poles for those who need added stability on steeper trails. (They also help relieve stress on your knees and other joints.)
As you move to more difficult terrain or onto trails that take you farther from an urban environment, McIntosh-Tolle says it’s important you’re educated in hiker safety, including navigational and first-aid skills. If yours aren’t up to snuff, places like REI offer a wide variety of classes in locations across the country.
How Do I Find Trails in My Area?
All Trails and Hiking Project are two popular apps, though Trimble says getting involved with local recreation and conservation clubs, or an AHS Alliance Organization, is another way to discover new trails. You can also check out the American Hiking Society's trail finder or search around the Find Adventure feature that The North Face launched with The Outbound Collective.
And don’t forget to chat up employees at your local outdoor retailer. Odds are, if they work at the store, they’re knowledgable about the area. Since many trails don’t make it into apps, they may hit you with some secret knowledge that only locals or the most dedicated know about.
As for trail conditions, that’s a trickier topic. “Some of the apps have trail conditions reports, but it’s hit and miss on how often those get updated,” says Trimble. More popular parks may have condition updates on their website, but if not, it’s usually a guessing game. Your safest bet as a beginner: Avoid less popular trails after heavy rain, as they may not be maintained well and the trail itself could be flooded or washed out. And always have a couple trails in the area marked as a backup plan so your day doesn’t totally go to waste, suggests McIntosh-Tolle.
What Do I Do Once I’m Out There?
First, look at all the factors when choosing your hike—not just mileage, as it’s not the only indicator of difficulty, says McIntosh-Tolle. Elevation changes will also alert you to how steep the trail is. Trust us, a four-mile hike with little-to-no elevation change feels a heck of a lot different from one with a drastic change.
Then, once you’re out there, start slow. “People have a tendency to start too fast [because] they are excited and energized to be out on the trail,” says Trimble. Just like other activities, pacing becomes easier with experience, but starting out slower than you think you need to go will help you conserve energy.
Melissa Arnot, the first American woman to successfully summit and descend Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and an Eddie Bauer mountain guide, agrees, adding that it’s smart to take frequent breaks to keep your pace in check. “I usually start out pretty slow to warm up, and hike for an hour and then take a 10- to 15-minute break, repeating that until I reach my [goal],” she says. “It tends to make even really long days feel manageable.”
While you’re moving, pay attention to how you feel, especially in your feet. Is there a lot of rubbing going on? Do you feel blisters forming? If so, take the time right then and there to apply moleskin (it’s usually in a hiking-specific first-aid kit, or you can buy separately). “It’s easy to say I’ll take my shoes off at the next snack break or when I find a great rock or stump to sit on, but it doesn’t take [long] for a blister to form and cause more pain for the remainder of the hike,” Trimble says.
And whatever you do, fuel up. It’s important to eat snacks and drink water in regular intervals to maintain your energy. It’s best to take in something every 30 to 45 minutes after an hour of activity, so if you’re the forgetful type, set a timer as a reminder. It’s easy to lose your appetite on more strenuous hikes, Trimble says, but it’s important to stay hydrated and fueled.
What’s This "Trail Etiquette" Everyone Talks About?
Basically, it’s a how-to for not being a total jerk to Mother Nature or other trail users. The biggest rule to follow: Leave No Trace. It’s a set of seven principles that provide clear guidelines for protecting our natural spaces when we visit them, says McIntosh-Tolle. Essentially, it means don’t leave anything on the trails that you brought with you. No garbage, granola-bar wrappers (even the tiny section you rip off to open the snack), used toilet paper—nothing.
Otherwise, honor the flow of trail traffic. If you're on a trail that's shared with both horses and cyclists, everyone yields to horses, but cyclists yield to hikers unless marked otherwise. Uphill hikers tend to have the right of way too, so if you’re heading down, you’ll want to shift to the side and wait for them to pass. And while it sounds like a good idea to bring your pup along, be sure to see if it’s allowed first. If it is, great, but don’t let them run wild and free. “Always keep your dog close,” says McIntosh-Tolle. “You may know your dog is sweet and gentle, but other hikers don’t.” And don’t forget to pack your poop bags, as it’s common courtesy to clean up any waste from them too.
Finally, if you’re a big music person and just can’t get on board with the birds being your soundtrack, Arnot says it’s best to have only one earphone in so you can hear other trail users around you. Other than that, happy trails to you.