Hiking is a healthy outdoor activity for the whole family - and a fun way to experience nature, too.

Hiking: A Beginner’s Guide to Easy Outdoor Fitness

You see them in parking lots everywhere – groups of hikers getting ready to hit the trail. But perhaps you don’t know how to get started, where to go, or what to bring and wear. And those are good questions –  “be prepared” isn’t just a motto for Scouts of America, it’s an important rule for hikers everywhere.

Never head out alone without the gear you need to stay safe, and without letting someone know where you are. Some specific tips to help you enjoy this healthiest and easiest of outdoor sports:

  1. Don’t Get Lost. This might sound obvious, but as the headlines attest, people do it all the time, sometimes with dangerous results. Make sure you have a map and good directions before you set out. Don’t plan to rely solely on your cell phone – what happens if you lose service? Also, many trails don’t appear on cell phone maps. When venturing somewhere unfamiliar and less-traveled, a GPS device is a very good idea.
  2. Pack Plenty of Water. Hydration is essential both when it’s hot and when it’s not. Three quarts per person per day is a general rule of thumb.
  3. Dress in Layers. You may get hot on the uphill climbs, then find yourself freezing when the wind hits you on a mountain top. Wear a base layer such as a tank top with a medium weight mid-layer and jacket on top.
  4. Pants or Shorts? Many hikers solve this problem with convertible hiking pants that zip off above the knee. When in doubt, go for covered up.
  5. Carry a Pack. You may be tempted to travel light, but a backpack or hip pack gives you somewhere to stash your map, snacks, and water bottles (if you’re not using a water pack), freeing up your hands for stability. Here’s REI’s guide to choosing a daypack.
  6. Use trekking poles – or not. The use of hiking poles is largely a matter of personal preference, though they do add stability and distribute weight. However they’re a safety must if you plan to hike on very loose or slippery slopes.
  7. Go with a group. If you’re a beginner, there’s no need to try to figure this out on your own; there are group hikes everywhere that are simple to join and a fun way to make friends. Search on Meetup.com, join your local chapter of the Sierra Club, or sign up for a guided hike at your local sports outfitter.

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.