Hiking is one of the most popular fitness activities for all ages - here's how to do it safely.

Hiking: A Beginner’s Guide

Spring is prime hiking season, with wildflowers blooming, creeks and waterfalls brimming, and trails finally drying out. But if you’re new to hiking, you may be unsure where to start or what to bring.  And with Spring’s changeable weather, even experienced hikers can be caught unprepared. Here’s what you need to know to venture out safely.

1. Choose Trail-Worthy Wear

Don’t be fooled, hiking is exercise, and you want to be able to move as freely as you do at the gym or in a dance class. That means lightweight, stretch fabrics with plenty of give. And don’t forget pockets – you’ll want at least two to stash keys and phone unless you’re going to carry a pack.

2. Cover Up

If you’re going to be anywhere with poison oak, mosquitos, or ticks, long pants are best. A lightweight, long-sleeved shirt is essential for sun protection if you’re going to be on exposed trails for lengthy periods of time.

3. Heed Your Head

A hat is a good idea for a hike of any length, both for protecting your skin and shading your eyes. Choose one with a wide brim that’s sturdy enough not to blow up in the first breeze. If you prefer to wear a baseball cap, make sure you have plenty of sunscreen on your neck!

4. Choose the Right Shoes

If you’ll be walking only smooth, well-maintained paths, your regular walking or running shoes will do. But trail shoes provide more protection for your feet and have lug soles to improve traction — important for rocky or slippery routes. For long or steep hikes, hiking boots or high-topped trail shoes are best, as they help keep your ankles stable.

5. Carry Plenty of Water

Ask any park ranger and you’ll hear that carrying too little water is the number one mistake hikers make that gets them into serious trouble. How much water you need depends somewhat on the temperature, hiking conditions (shade or sun), and your pace. But the rule of thumb is one quart per hour you’ll be on the trail. Even if you’ll be hiking along a river or stream, don’t count on drinking the water, which may carry bacteria. Long-distance hikers may carry a water purifier but unless you want to do that, plan to carry what you’ll need.

6. Pack It In, Pack It Out

Whether you’re bringing a few snacks or a gourmet lunch, you’ll want a pack to carry it in. (And please be prepared to carry out all your trash, too.) A daypack is a popular choice; if you’ll be carrying a lot of weight, consider one with a hip belt to distribute the weight. And if backpacks give you back or shoulder pain, a hip pack may be more comfortable.

7. Power Up with Hiking Poles

For even more stability and overall body fitness, consider using trekking poles, which can reduce the stress on your legs, hips and upper back by as much as 50 percent.

8. Be Prepared for Changing Weather

Carry a light jacket or sweatshirt unless the weather is so hot that even a temperature drop of 20 degrees wouldn’t give you a chill. Because that’s how much cooler it could be on the top of the mountain you’re climbing, or if the wind comes up, or if your hike extends into the late afternoon. And if there’s any chance of rain, a lightweight waterproof shell is a good choice. Some are packable enough to be stuffed in a pocket.

9. Be Trail Savvy

Hikes are rated both by distance and by elevation gain, meaning how much uphill and downhill you’ll be doing. Start out with shorter, easier hikes and see how you do before tackling steep climbs or rugged conditions. And find out ahead of time whether the trail is clearly marked – if not, carry a map!

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.