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Hiking for beginners: how to get started

The gear you need, safety tips and choosing the best places to go.

Man hiking in forest - Illustration by Stephanie Howden

Illustrations: Stephanie Howden

Hiking has been described as an art form. It’s not just a way of getting outside and appreciating the natural world, and it’s not just a form of exercise. Somewhere along the way, the fusion of the two elevates this activity to something very special.

Hiking offers you the chance to explore and experience parts of the world that aren’t accessible by any other means. Living in Australia gives you access to a wonderful selection of hikes, and serious enthusiasts will also find that hiking holidays are a great way to get a new perspective on another country.

Simple hiking safety

As you start out, it’s important to build your confidence, fitness and experience by choosing beginner-appropriate day hikes. Don’t be tempted to challenge yourself with a hike that’s above your experience level. No matter how fit you are, it takes time to gain an understanding of safety and respect in a natural environment. It’s not unusual to hear about hikers being rescued in a dramatic fashion and this is often due to inexperience or being ill-equipped for the route.

It’s best to get started by hiking with more experienced people. You may wish to consider engaging a guide for the first few tracks you try, joining a group, or asking a kind friend to take you. When you’re a bit more experienced and are hiking without a larger group, it’s important to always make sure there is someone who knows where you are and what time you’re due back and will raise the alarm if this doesn’t happen.

Scary stories aside, with the proper preparation, gear and understanding, hiking can become a rewarding hobby that you can share with friends and family. As your skills grow, you’ll gain access to different walks, and discover new vistas, perhaps trying a multi-day trek and camping along the route.

Hiking jacket - Illustration by Stephanie Howden.

Hiking gear: the essentials

Because hiking means that you’re vulnerable to the elements, getting your gear right is imperative. However, you’ll discover that hiking gear can get very expensive, very quickly. When you’re starting out you don’t need to spend a lot of money, but there are some essentials that you will need to pay attention to:

Hiking boot - Illustration by Stephanie Howden.

Boots

Your feet should be your priority. When you’re getting started, a durable and supportive pair of running shoes will be all you need. Once you decide to invest in a pair of boots, it’s a good idea to head in-store to make your purchase, rather than shopping online. This will mean that you get the expertise of staff, and can try on a selection of brands and styles to find the pair that will best fit your feet and ankles.

Hiking backpack - Illustration by Stephanie Howden.

Backpack

For the shorter day hikes you should be starting with, a daypack is all you’ll need to carry. If you don’t own a small, light backpack, consider borrowing one from a friend. If you decide to buy one, make sure that you consult the staff in-store, and try a selection on to make sure you’ll be able to carry it comfortably.

Remember not to try a pack on empty – put a selection of different items inside the bag to make sure it remains a comfortable fit. The staff should also be able to help you to adjust the straps, including the chest strap, to make sure you’ve got the right one.

Hiking shirt - Illustration by Stephanie Howden

Layers

While you already know not to hike if the weather looks uncertain, it’s still important to make sure that you’re prepared for anything unexpected, while remaining comfortable throughout your hike. This means wearing layers, and carrying light wet-weather gear.

Do not choose jeans for your hike. These will be too heavy in hot weather, and can be dangerous to wear if they get wet. Instead choose a combination of good quality exercise gear, and clothing designed for the outdoors. Ensure that you have at least one layer of thermal gear, as it can quickly become cold while you’re on a trail.

Hiking poles - Illustration by Stephanie Howden.

Poles

If you’re starting from a lower fitness level, or have issues with your knees or other health issues that could affect your balance, consider hiking with poles. Rent or borrow these to begin with to see whether you find them helpful.

Where to go hiking

Finding the right hike will determine how enjoyably and safely you proceed. That’s where Left Foot, Right Foot comes in. The brainchild of Melbourne-based designer and hiking enthusiast Max Blackmore, the website brings together information on different hikes all around Australia and the world. The guides are contributed by users, giving insight into what to expect and how to prepare, and a glimpse of the stunning scenery you could encounter.

In starting the site, Max aimed to make the information relatable and easy to digest. “There’s an abundance of information out there that explains every detail of the topography or longitude and latitude, but none offered a bare bones accessible and beautiful representation of the areas,” he says.

Each guide is accompanied by beautiful photography, letting you really get a feeling for the experience of a particular route. Through using Left Foot, Right Foot, Max hopes that more people will discover his favourite thing about hiking: “The first stumble out of a tent to start a fire and the coffee at first light by that fire – if the season permits.”

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