How To: Day Hiking 101

Whether you're new to hiking and need help getting started or just want a refresher with the basics, we're here to help. Learn about gear options, selecting hikes, Leave No Trace, and more in this Hiking 101 blog, so you can enjoy the outdoors with safety and confidence.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
June 15, 2019
How To: Day Hiking 101

Hiking is a great way to appreciate our lush forests, mountains, and rivers in the Northwest, especially if you’re just starting to explore the outdoors. Learn about how to choose gear, select hikes, practice trail etiquette, and more, to make the most of your time on the trail.  


Technical Clothing

Technical clothing can be cost prohibitive, and is not required to get outside and enjoy all that the northwest has to offer. That said, many people choose to invest in gear that makes them more comfortable on long days on the trail. If you’re new to hiking it’s best to start with what you have and slowly build on it as you develop an understanding of the types of hikes you prefer. Conditioning hikes call for a different type of clothing than more leisurely trips, warm weather needs are different than cold weather needs, etc. As gear can be expensive, it’s best to determine your long-term needs before making purchases.

However, it is generally accepted that cotton is not appropriate for any kind of outdoor activity with a risk of hypothermia. Because cotton holds a significant amount of its weight in water, it doesn't dry quickly or insulate when wet. It will also chafe when wet, and wearing damp cotton in the cold can will result in discomfort and potential injury.

That said, cotton can be appropriate for casual excursions. If you are new to hiking and starting off on well-established, popular trails where there is little chance of getting lost, your usual weekend clothing should work just fine.


Knowing how to layer is key to staying dry, warm, and happy in cooler temperatures. A base layer is the first layer you wear, wicking sweat away from your body and offering some insulation. Your mid-layer goes on next and provides the bulk of your insulation. This can be multiple items, like a fleece zip-up and a puffy jacket. Outerwear is your final layer, designed to block wind and rain, and has varying levels of breathability (how much moisture it lets in and out). Outerwear is not always worn, but a good idea to have around even if you don’t anticipate precipitation.

For more information on layering, check out our blog on how to layer in the backcountry. Though it was written with backcountry skiing in mind, it applies to any outdoor activity where you can expect cold weather.


Though many people are eager to reach for waterproof jackets in northwest winters, it’s important to keep in mind that moisture can appear under a jacket too. When you'll be sweating, you want to dress so that the moisture can escape to keep you dry. Jackets which are more waterproof often have a lesser ability to breathe and let moisture out, so choose a jacket that is appropriate for the expected level of exertion and precipitation. A conditioning hike on a chilly, dry day will call for a breathable layer, while a slow hike with a chance of rain may require a waterproof layer.


How long your hike is, the supplies you are bringing, and personal preference all determine the best backpack for a hike. For a day hike, a bag between 10 and 25 liters is generally preferred. Be sure to have a pack that is large enough for your Ten Essentials.

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles can be excellent tools if you want to relieve some of the burden from your knees, especially on the downhill. Read more in our blog about trekking poles to decide if they would be a good fit for you.


Choosing the right shoes is important to avoid rolled ankles or blisters. The type of footwear you need is typically dependent upon the length of your hike, the type of terrain, and your body’s needs.

If you’re just starting out and don’t have hiking boots, your usual walking shoes will work fine on shorter, well-established trails. For most people, that would be a hike at or under 6 miles with less than 1,500 feet of elevation gain. If your shoes aren’t waterproof, check to see if there will be any mud or stream crossings by looking at recent trip reports for the trail, especially in spring when the rivers are full. If you’re moving toward more extended hikes or starting to backpack, choosing a quality boot is a good idea. But be sure to try them on before committing – a poor fit can result in hot spots or blisters. There is a wide variety of trail shoes to choose from, and many long-distance hikers opt for hiking sneakers over boots. Select footwear that’s right for you and your activity level (learn more in our Low Impact Recreation Hiking video).

Socks often have just as much impact on comfort and performance as shoes. Padding, insulation level, material, and more will impact how your feet feel after a long day. You can sweat as much as half a pint a day out of your feet, and moisture and chafing lead to blisters. Cotton socks will often cause blisters on longer hikes, because they are unable to wick moisture away from your feet. Experiment with different sock types to determine what’s best for you, and keep in mind that a pair of socks that work great with one pair of shoes or boots may cause blisters in another.

Gear Care

If you do choose to invest in gear, taking care of those items is a good way to ensure that it continues to perform well for many years to come. Because many of the waterproofing treatments on jackets and boots will wear off, they need to be reapplied. Read about your gear’s treatments and what the manufacturer recommends. It helps to use sports wash on clothing with water repellant finishes, as this is gentler than traditional detergents while still getting the dirt and oil off a jacket that will inhibit its performance. Brush dirt off your boots and be sure to re-treat leather periodically to prevent cracking. If you get a rip in a puffy jacket or vest, learn how to patch it. If you have a leak in your boots, you can use seam sealer to close it up. Don’t be afraid to patch, sew, and glue your gear to keep it in working order.  

Choosing a hike

There are four key elements to keep in mind when choosing a hike. Those are:

  • Distance
  • Elevation Gain
  • Trail Conditions
  • Weather

Distance and Elevation Gain

All hike distances are measured round-trip, and should be considered when you think about your preferred difficulty and duration for a hike. However, elevation gain is often a more significant factor in a hike’s difficulty than distance. Elevation gain is the distance in elevation from the trail head to the highest point of the trail. Many people can walk on a flat trail for 8 or 9 miles with little issue, but a 5-mile hike with significant elevation gain can be difficult for fit hikers. Developing an understanding of elevation gain and what you prefer per mile is important as you explore more varied terrain. Keep in mind that how difficult elevation gain will feel is relative to the trail length; 1,500 feet of elevation gain is not much for a 7-mile hike, but will feel like quite a bit on a 3-mile hike. Generally, a hikes are classified as "difficult" when your gain is 1,000 feet per mile or more. Learn more about how ratings are categorized on our trip ratings resource

Trail Conditions and Weather

Trail conditions and weather should be checked close to the date of your hike, especially in rainy seasons when mud, streams, and washouts are concerns. Check road conditions as well, as there are many trailheads in the area that require passage across poorly maintained roads to access them. To check trail conditions, call the local ranger station or check the Washington Trail Association’s trip reports. They will be listed below the hike’s details and driving directions. Be sure to note the date on trip reports. 

Hiking Guide Resources

Mountaineers Books offers hundreds of guidebooks on hiking and backpacking, which offer a wealth of information on both remote and urban areas. Many hikers start with Day Hiking Snoqualmie Region, Day Hiking North Cascades, or Best Hikes with Kids: Western Washington. You can also use the Washington Trail Association’s hiking guide or hike finder map to find hikes.

The Ten Essentials

The Ten Essentials are a list of supplies and equipment to bring on outings to ensure that you stay safe and prepared. Formalized in our 1974 edition of Freedom of the Hills and updated in the 9th edition of Freedom, the Ten Essentials have become a standard across the outdoor industry.

Although you will not need every item on every trip, essential equipment can be a lifesaver in an emergency. You should tailor your supplies to the nature of the trip - weather, remoteness from help, and complexity should be factored into the selected essentials. See our blog on Ten Essentials for day hiking to help determine what to bring on your trips.

Trail Etiquette

It is encouraged for new hikers to become familiar with trail etiquette to ensure safety and civility on-trail. Some useful tips include:

Downhill hikers yield to uphill hikers. The exceptions are if there is a large group going downhill, or if someone is injured.

Stay on trail. Although it’s tempting to beat the crowds, cut corners, and go off-trail, this can have a significant negative impact on the surrounding environment. This includes erosion, disturbing wildlife, and damaging plant life. Avoid using “social trails” as well – those trails previous hikers have established off the main trail.

Obey leash laws and keep dogs on-leash if they have poor recall. Respecting leash laws and being a responsible dog owner helps ensure that the trails that allow dogs remain that way. If your dog does not quickly come when called, keeping them on-leash is considered appropriate as this helps ensure the safety of everyone on the trail.

Refrain from playing music out of a speaker. Many people seek out the woods for quiet and solitude. Be respectful of their experience and use headphones when on the trail.

For more information, visit the National Park Service’s page on hiking etiquette.

Leave No Trace

Being familiar with Leave No Trace (LNT) principles is a key component of being a responsible outdoorsperson. Learn how to to minimize your environmental impact and help ensure that our natural spaces remain happy and healthy.

Seven Principles of Leave No Trace

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

For more information, visit our page on low-impact recreation skills offering quick, educational videos for a variety of activities.

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Bill Cox
Bill Cox says:
Jan 23, 2023 07:38 PM

Good solid information, largely all common sense and common courtesy.