January 04, 2022 5 min read

Spending time exploring the outdoors on public land is one the best ways to connect with loved ones and the natural world.

Whether you are a beginner hiker, or getting back out there for the first time in a while, this guide will give you some simple steps to enjoying hiking safely. 

Hiking is for Every Body

Hiking - the act of walking for a generally unspecified amount of time, usually on unpaved trails on public lands - can be for almost every body.

In fact, accessible trails and adaptable programs in many communities andtools that will assist you in your goal of enjoying public lands and spaces through hiking even if walking is not possible or poses a challenge for you or a loved one. The important thing is to plan ahead, be safe, and stay within your comfort zone.

You don't need to live near a park or public forest to hike. 'Urban hiking', which is the act of walking through a city just for the sake of walking through a city, is also an option!

Getting Started is Easier than You Think

Never considered yourself a hiker but ready to give it a try? Maybe you haven't been in the woods in decades but want to get back out there, or you are more hesitant to get outside without a group of experienced friends? This guide serves as a reminder that hitting the trails can be easy with just a little bit of planning.

Hiking these days can also certainly be serious business - with long distance hiking, thru hiking and speed hiking all regularly in the outdoor recreation news.

Most of us are still just out for a fun afternoon walk or weekend wander, loving the chance to disconnect, get some exercise, reconnect with the natural world, and just take a closer look at the real world with our family. 

Hiking 101

Step 1: Pick your Place

Finding the right place for your first hike is the first step. Ask around in your local online community about great places for beginning hikers to explore, check out our Purple Lizard Adventure Blog or contact your local outdoor shop or outfitter for some suggestions. You may find that state or local park websites are a good place to find useful information (State Parks often have accessible trails perfect for beginners). As you look for your hiking location, it is a good idea to choose a place with several options so if you get to your destination and it seems too busy, you can head on down the road to the next trailhead until you find one without a crowd.  Finding a trail without lots of other people is not only a good idea in a pandemic, but makes for much more pleasant hiking in general.  Your Purple Lizard Map will always be a great help - it's basically Plan B in your back pocket.

Pennsylvania Hiking Trails

Step 2: Decide whether to hike with others or alone

When you are just getting started, it's always best to go with a friend. If you decide to hike alone, let someone know your plans, and have an agreement to let them know you finished your hike safe and sound.  

Beginner Hike Overlook

Start with short hikes to popular areas within your fitness level and where you can easily get help if you need it. Remember, walking in the woods is more challenging than walking on flat surfaces, and mileage is not a measure of difficulty. Some short hikes go straight up the side of a mountain, so study your map and choose wisely.  

Step 3: Give Yourself Plenty of Time and Notify Your Front Country Buddy

Take your time! Don't hike on a tight schedule. Part of the beauty of being out in the woods is creating some spaciousness in your life. Be sure to leave yourself a few hours cushion so you can stop and smell the roses during your hike, rest as needed, and enjoy the experience.

Michaux State Forest Pennsylvania

Let someone know where you are:Every outdoor enthusiast needs a 'front country buddy' - a reliable and trusted friend who doesn't go out on adventures with you, but will notice if you don't come home in time - and will call the proper authorities if needed. Always tell your front country buddy when you're leaving, where you're going, and when you're expected to return home. 

Step 4: Gearing Up - Keep it Simple

Clothing and Footwear

Serious long distance thru-hikers these days are shattering speed records every year; and tons of fancy, high-tech, ultra-light hiking and backpacking gear is available to keep these folks breaking records. With all of this kind of media attention, one would think that everyone is a hardcore thru-hiker with hundreds of dollars in high tech gear.

Black Moshannon State Park Pennsylvania

But don't be fooled by all the gear hype, while there are lots of great technical advantages to hiking clothing these days, you don't have to go out and spend hundred dollars on your beginning hiking wardrobe. You already have everything you need.

Keep it simple and follow these general guidelines to start. In winter, wear layers and carry a small pack so you can remove some when overheating but continue to stay warm by adding layers during breaks. Shorts and a t-shirt will work fine for some hikes in summer, but long pants and long sleeves are even better at protecting you from the sun, insects, and thorny plants.

Wet Trail, Laurel Fork Wilderness West Virginia

You will definitely want a pair of comfortable shoes with good traction. Street shoes in winter or flip-flops in summer may be fine for a walk in the park but out on the trail it's better to have more protection for your toes and a sturdy sole with some tread for stability for walking on loose surfaces.

Step 5: Bring a Map and Some Essential Safety Gear

Grab a backpack that is comfortable - nothing fancy is needed - an old schoolbag will work just fine to start. Even for relatively short hikes, the safe way to hike is to bring along some basic supplies. Fill it with a bottle or two of water (staying hydrated is very important), some snacks, a flashlight, and any first-aid gear that you may need (think prescription meds, band-aids for blisters and an epi-pen if you have a serious allergy to bees).

Most importantly, bring a mapof your local area and know how to use it! 

Red Moshannon Creek Allegheny Front Trail PA

Hikers use real maps for a reason.

Remember, your cell phone is usually not the best and certainly not the only tool to rely on when it comes to hiking. Cell phones don't work everywhere, and even cell-phone map apps that don't rely on data won't help you if your phone is lost, wet, or dead. 

What kind of map do you need? Many state parks provide paper maps, and paper maps work fine on sunny days (be aware they will quickly disintegrate in the rain), guidebooks work great as long as they're not out-of-date (note: trails tend to change every few years and guidebooks are often out of date).

Accurate, waterproof maps are, hands down, your best resource. That's where we come into the equation. Although no map is perfect and the natural world is constantly changing, Purple Lizard Mapsare updated frequently, and they are completely waterproof, so you can use them to get out of the woods quickly when that unexpected summer rainstorm starts to dump on you. Don't forget, no matter where you hike or with whom, pull out your mapto verify your location frequently - especially at all trail intersections.

Remember: Keep it Fun!

One of the best things about getting outside is slowing down and appreciating where you are, and having some fun! Taking your journey into the world of hiking step by step and enjoying yourself is always the best way to go. 

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