The outdoors can be intimidating, but if you can walk, you can hike.
Sometimes, I’m in such a routine, I forget that I have a whole system of how to choose the right hiking trail. I have new friends and coworkers asking my suggestions for a hike to do over the weekend. Without being outside with them and knowing their ability, I find it better to provide some tips on how to choose a hiking trail and ask for feedback on the ones I do suggest.
Hiking is a great way to exercise while breathing fresh air. Not only do you get out and stretch those legs but some of my fondest memories have been hiking with friends. Depending on the trail, you can see various species of vegetation or wildlife. Every trail has its unique draw. The more you go, the faster you will be comfortable and learn what works for you.
Let’s start hiking to lakes, waterfalls, and vistas.
Access: Getting to a trailhead
Drive a car that will make it to the trailhead. While some trailheads are located off paved roads, some take you miles deep into National Forest land with rough dirt and washed-out roads.
You may think you need a car to get out of the city and to nature. Good news, some cities offer shuttles to popular trailheads, like Seattle’s Trailhead Direct. Other options would be to rent a car, invite a friend that can drive, or join a hiking meetup group. A pricey option would be to book a hiking tour or join an REI class or outing.
How to choose a hiking trail
Like any activity, hiking takes practice. Start slow. Pick a hike at a distance you feel comfortable walking. Check out the below factors on how to decide to choose a hiking trail that is right for you.
Understanding the terrain
Where are you planning on hiking? As you’re hiking through a wooded area, the trees start to decrease and the wind starts to pick up. The trail changes from an easy-to-follow dirt trail to a rocky boulder field away from the protection of trees. You climb higher up following the trail the best you can until you see small stashes of snow hidden in the shadows from the sun. Before long, the temperatures are cold and the damp trail sections become icy causing your feet to slide without the help of traction devices.
Understanding the terrain on the hike will help you prepare with what to pack for the trip and what to expect. Terrain can be easy to navigation, think a well-established trail, or hard, think bushwhacking. Below are more ways to research the trail that is right for you.
Distance and Elevation: Know what the trail statistics mean
Don’t only rely on online hike ratings. I’ve seen hikes marked as easy that I would not recommend for a new hiker.
Mileage isn’t the only factor to consider. Elevation, especially over short distances, means a good cardio workout, think climbing several flights of stairs. Divide the elevation gain with the one-way mileage (unless it is a loop hike) to figure out the vertical gain per mile. You will probably want to aim for less than 500 feet per mile as a new hiker.
Elevation Gain / Mileage = Vertical Gain
I suggest using Gaia GPS’s new Hike Search to find a hike near you or a quick online search.
Estimated time to hike
Estimate how long a trail will take you. Generally, when I talk to local rangers or visitor center staff, they overestimate the time it will take because they don’t know your experience. As a new hiker, I highly recommend using the suggested hike times.
As you hike more, track how fast you walk over uneven terrain by using tracking apps, like Gaia GPS or Garmin. Though not perfect, you can use your hiking statistics to calculate and average your pace by mileage and elevation.
Find recent trail conditions: Read trip reports
Often, trip reports can provide the best estimates while factoring in recent conditions. Below are some questions to ask when choosing a trail:
- Is the forest road accessible for all vehicles?
- Is the trail in good shape?
- Are there seasonal factors that make the trail more difficult?
- Has there been rain with large stream crossings?
- Does the trail have snow on it?
- Did someone recommend bringing traction devices for your feet?
- Did people turn around? Why?
Yes, trip reports can also be subjective, but you can gather more information than a rating. A difficult hike for me may be easy for others.
Let’s add another element to the hike: weather. My preferred weather resource is weather.gov. You can search for an area and then drag the map on the right hand side of the page to the highest elevation to prepare for the coldest, most exposed conditions. Take a screenshot of the forecast with the predicted highs and lows for the day, including the wind speeds.
Be careful of 3rd-Party ratings
Though helpful to a new hiker, many sites, like Gaia GPS, All Trails, and WTA.org, provide a rating on if the hike is easy, moderate, or difficult. Depending on the site, the rating may not mean much to you until you get a few hikes under your boots. An easy hike can still send you up 500+ vertical feet in under a mile.
Keep the rating as a resource but don’t solely choose the hiking trail until you get a feel for what you are capable of, both physically and mentally. Reach out to the online resource to see if they have a scale for what each of their ratings mean.
Call a ranger station or national park. They know the weather patterns and best trails for different times of the year. Not only do they know the popular trails but will be able to give you up-to-date information on trail and road closures.
Ask friends who hike
Hiking takes local knowledge. If you are new to a city, you may want to ask coworkers or friends for recommendations. I have learned most of my outdoor skills from friends or taking classes at local REIs or outdoor clubs.
Check social media
Local hiking Facebook groups or Instagram influencers are getting after it. Though, I normally don’t encourage just hiking somewhere because you saw a picture of a place because of Leave-No-Trace principles. I think it helps the discovery phase and inspiration for something to work towards, especially if you’re new to an area. Just remember to research the trail stats and conditions before you go if you find a hike from a picture.
Save for later
In the world of Pinterest and Instagram, you can save or pin pictures and reference them in the future. Resources, like WTA.org, allows you to save hikes to your backpack. I use the feature all the time when I’m scanning for new hikes to try. The criteria may not match my time constraints for the current trip but may be something I can refer back to when I start a new search.
Know before you go
You’ve selected the trail. Below are some final questions to make sure you’re fully prepared.
How populated is the trail?
As a new hiker, being around other hikers is nice. You can observe what other people are doing and learn as a bystander. However, some trailheads have little parking. Try checking out the trailhead by plugging in the coordinates to Google Maps on terrain mode. If the parking looks limited, make sure you get an early start. Nobody wants to drive over an hour to get turned around because you can’t park OR have a back-up option nearby just in case.
Can I bring my dog?
Most national parks do not allow dogs on hiking trails but national forests do. Know the rules, not only for you but for others on the trail as well. Even though your dog is in nature, pick up after them! Know the wilderness boundaries or land ownership and check out their website to see if dogs are permitted.
Do I need a permit?
My local hiking trails, in Washington, usually require a Northwest Forest Pass. My annual interagency national parks pass covers the cost of parking at trailheads within national forests, parks, and monuments. However, if you plan on hiking in state parks, a Washington Discover Pass is required.
Tickets are left on windshields of cars not displaying the appropriate pass. Check before you go or read the signs at trailheads to see if you have to pay for day-use, which you can usually buy at the trailhead but make sure you have cash with you.
What if something happens?
Share your plans. Create a plan and share which trail and how long you estimate being out of service with a friend or family member. It can be as easy as sending a text message saying you’re going for a hike (include where) and asking a friend if they don’t hear back within a certain time frame, to contact you and wait another hour or two for a reply before contacting the land management district.
Post hike: Give back to the hiking community
After the hike, you post some photos to Facebook or Instagram to share with friends. But here are a few other things you can do to pay it forward.
Be a trail steward: Volunteer
The hiking community may feel like a big one, but it is important to give back. Find a local organization that does trail work and spend a day volunteering so others can enjoy trail experiences like you.
Be a mentor
Another way to volunteer is to be a mentor. You can take classes with organizations and then come back and volunteer your time to teach aspiring outdoor enthusiasts.
Submit a trip report
Do you use trip reports to help plan your trips? Don’t forget to share the conditions of the trail and your experience after you return home. It takes a couple of minutes to write a few sentences to inform others on what to expect or what you learned. You can even give it a rating depending on the site to help the crowd-sourcing metrics for others.