Beginning and experienced hikers make hiking mistakes. I know I’ve made my share. My worst happened when hiking in unfamiliar areas of the country. Hikes in different regions often require different gear and skill sets.
As a beginning hiker, you’re likely to make one or more of the following mistakes due to lack of preparedness, lack of knowledge, or sheer negligence.
Whenever you can learn from the mistakes of others. You don’t want to learn the hard way if you don’t have to and if you’ve made any of these mistakes, I’m sure you’ve learned from the experience.
Let’s look at the common beginner hiking mistakes and how they can be avoided.
Choosing the Wrong Hiking Trail
Beginning hikers and experts alike can pick the wrong trail. It’s essential that you research your hike to make sure it’s within your capabilities. Capability not only includes the physical capacity to complete the hike but the knowledge, skills, and gear required as well.
For example, hiking up Pike’s Peak is not within the capability of most beginners.
Picking a hike that pushes you to the point of exhaustion can put you in danger. Be realistic. Hiking is a workout but you shouldn’t overdo it. Start out on short, easy rated trails and work your way up to more difficult hikes. This allows you to gain strength, knowledge, and skills as a hiker.
Personal factors to consider when picking a hiking trail:
- Strength and conditioning
Trail factors to consider when picking a hiking trail:
- Elevation gain
- Equipment needed
These trail factors and more can be found on park websites and in trail guidebooks. I find trail guides invaluable for picking tails, especially in areas I’m less familiar with. Consider picking up a trail guide for hikes in your area.
Getting Started Too Late
When planning your hike, it’s important to get an idea of how long it will take you to hike the chosen trail. Park websites, trail guides, and phone apps can all help you plan your hike. I usually check one or more of these when hiking unfamiliar trails.
Maps not only guard against getting lost they help you track your progress. Knowing when to pick up the pace or head back to the trailhead can prevent you from getting caught on the trail after dark.
Caught in the Dark
Most hikes are best accomplished during the daytime. It’s safer! It’s easier and it’s far more enjoyable. If you get started too late, you risk getting caught in the dark.
Hiking after dark can be accomplished if you’re prepared but if you aren’t and it’s not in your skillset yet, you risk some terrifying outcomes. Wandering off the trail and getting lost might be the least of your worries.
Knowing how long your hike should take is the best way to judge your best start time. Always err on the side of caution. Allowing for extra hiking time is always best. The discomfort of a blister or worse could slow you down. Or the hike might be taking longer than expected due to overestimating its ease, weather conditions, trail conditions, distracting view… You get the point.
Even if your plan is to be done before dark, you should pack a headlamp like this one at Backcountry. It’s much like the one I carry in my pack.
Things to remember if you’re caught out on a trail after dark:
- Your risk of injury increases. Even if you have a headlamp. It’s harder to see your surroundings after dark.
- It’s easy to miss trail blazes, wander off the trail, and get lost.
- Nightfall often brings rapidly falling temperatures that can lead to hypothermia.
- Many predators and other wild animals come out after dark.
- You might alarm others who are expecting your return. Always tell others where you’re going and when you should return.
- Many parks close at dusk.
- Many parking areas at trailheads have gates that are locked at dusk when the park closes.
If you get started late in the summer months, the hot afternoon temperatures can lead to loss of energy, overheating, and dehydration. The heat can really take it out of you and make for a miserable hike.
In many areas of our country, hot afternoons are accompanied by nasty, pop-up storms that often bring wind, rain, flash flooding, and lightning. Don’t get caught in these storms. They can be very dangerous. Plan to be done with your hike before these storms roll in.
Always keep an eye on the weather and get started early in warmer weather.
No Parking at the Trailhead
Many parking areas at popular trailheads can fill up. Sometimes you can adjust on the fly and pick a different trailhead. Other times, you have to turn around and go home.
Get there early so you don’t miss out on a parking place.
Related Content: Trailhead Safety Tips You Need To Know
Ignoring the Weather
Beautiful, blue, sunny skies with moderate temperatures and a refreshing breeze make for great hiking but the weather doesn’t always give us what we want. There’s always the chance of oppressing heat, bitter cold, wind, rain, snow, hail, and lightning.
It’s no fun hiking in bad weather. You should always consider the weather when you hike.
Not Considering the Weather
Failure to check the weather in the days before your hike is a rookie mistake.
Knowing the weather will help you avoid days that bring bad weather and the dangers those days can bring. Flash floods, blizzards, lightning, and more bring incredible dangers.
Knowing the weather also helps you know how to dress, how to pack, and what gear you’ll want.
Not Checking Weather Reports While Hiking
Weather reports aren’t infallible and they change often. Check the weather report on the day of your hike, at the trailhead, and during your hike. Above all, trust your instinct and keep an eye out for the signs of an impending storm.
Ignoring Storm Signs
Pay attention to and respect the signs of an impending storm. If you see the signs before the start of your hike, reschedule your hike for another day.
If you’re already hiking, try to get off the trail before the storm hits.
Storm Warning Signs:
- Increasing winds especially if they are from the south
- Increased cloud cover
- Clouds that are tall and flat at the top
- Darker bases in the cloud cover
- Sounds of thunder and lightning
- Dropping in barometric pressure
I was once out with a hiking group when an isolated thunderstorm popped up and sat over us on the trail. The flash flooding it caused turned the trail turned into a fast-flowing stream with waterfalls and the once calm stream we hiked beside turned into a river that was impossible to cross. On top of that, the rain was freezing cold.
Tip: Carry a cheap disposable poncho for those times you get caught in the rain. I carry two at all times. On the day I mentioned above, I wore mine and gave another to a boy in the group that began showing signs of hypothermia. Cheap plastic ponchos help hold in heat and keep out the cold rain… The boy stopped shivering after being in the poncho for a bit.
You can pick up inexpensive heat-reflective ponchos. They are well worth the investment.
Not Bringing Enough Water
Not bringing enough water on your hike is a beginner mistake that’s easy to avoid. It’s imperative that you have enough water and avoid dehydration. Always carry more water than you think you need.
You can carry a water bottle or two on day hikes but I prefer a hydration backpack. My wife and I have hydration backpacks. It holds more than enough water for most day hikes.
If you’re using a filtration system instead of carrying your water, make sure you use it properly to avoid waterborne diseases like giardia.
Prehydrating before your hike helps prevent dehydration. This is especially true for hikes that begin in the morning. Water is lost overnight as we sleep and should be replaced before your hike.
Drinking 16 to 24 fl. oz. of water, juice, or electrolyte drink a few hours before your hike will help prevent dehydration.
Not Eating Enough
To maintain energy on your hike, make sure you eat breakfast and bring lunch and snacks rich in protein, carbs, and healthy fats. You’ll burn a lot of energy hiking and need to replenish your energy storage and electrolytes.
Sooner or later most hikers will get lost though beginners are far more susceptible.
No Map or GPS
Having a physical trail map will greatly reduce your chances of getting lost. With a physical map, you don’t have to worry about losing signal or running down your battery when using a map on your phone.
Physical maps, however, can be lost or damaged, so having a photo backup on your phone and even a free hiking app with GPS like AllTrails is great insurance.
If you insist on relying solely on your phone or another device while hiking, it’s important to have a portable power bank for recharging.
Have you ever driven someplace and zoned out? Did you wind up at a different location than you intended or take a wrong turn?
Losing focus while hiking can get you lost too. The physical motions and monotony or even distractions of some trails can cause hikers to miss trail blazes, signs, and trail splits. To stay in the present, take plenty of hiking breaks, water breaks, and snack breaks.
Related Content: Should You Wear Earbuds While Hiking?
If you’re hiking alone, you won’t have the insight of your fellow hiker(s) to help you find your way.
If you’re new to hiking and relying on fellow hikers to guide you along the trail, don’t fall behind. Getting separated from your group can be disastrous. Ask them to slow down and take more frequent breaks if you can’t keep up.
Not Sticking to the Established Trail
Blazing your own trail, taking shortcuts, and cutting switchbacks are a good way to get lost. Stick to the established trail and follow the trail blazes and signs.
Forging Ahead When Lost
If you become lost, do not forge ahead. Doing so can make your situation worse. It’s best to make note of where you are and retrace your steps.
Handy Navigation Tools for Hikers
The following tools can prevent you from getting lost or they may be a lifesaver if you get lost:
- Physical trail map
- A backup copy of the map on your phone
- GPS on your phone or GPS device
- Hiking app with GPS
- Compass app
- A headlamp. You don’t want to be lost on a trail in the dark.
- A satellite communication device if you regularly hike outside the boundaries of cell service.
Wearing the Wrong Clothing
Wearing the Wrong Shoes
I’ve seen people wear flip-flops on day hikes. Wrong! These and other inappropriate shoes should be avoided. Pick sturdy, comfortable, and preferably water-resistant shoes or boots with sturdy soles and great traction.
Wearing New Boots
Do not wear boots or other hiking shoes on a hike if they haven’t been broken in yet. They’ll cause you blistered sore feet. Break in your hiking boots for a few weeks first by wearing them for shorter intervals around the house, to the park, walking your dog, and other short outings like the grocery.
Layering your clothes allows you to make quick and easy adjustments to accommodate weather changes, temperature changes at different elevations, and changes in temperature as the day progresses.
It’s fine to wear cotton on day hikes, but cotton isn’t the best choice for multiday backpacking or trekking trips. Polyester clothes dry faster and don’t absorb as much of your stench. When it comes to socks, wool is best for keeping your feet dry and comfortable.
Jeans might seem like a comfortable choice but they aren’t good for hiking.
- They are most likely cotton.
- Jeans can cause serious chafing, especially in unmentionable areas.
- They absorb water and don’t dry quickly.
- When jeans hold water they pull body temperature in cold weather and can even ice up when temperatures drop below freezing.
Under Packing or Over Packing
Knowing what gear to pack and how to arrange gear in your backpack is a skill learned over time through the development of knowledge and practice. Your learning curve can be greatly reduced when coached by an experienced hiking buddy.
To prevent under or overpacking, make a list of the hiking essentials needed and pack your backpack at least one day before your hike. This will give you time to review your gear and pick up any missing items you need.
- Hydration backpack with water
- First-aid kit
- Food and snacks
- Clothing layers
- Sun protection
- Bug protection
- GPS app on your phone or some other GPS tool like a Garmin
- Portable power bank
- Trekking poles
- Garbage bag
- Disposable poncho
As they say, there’s safety in numbers. Whether you’re a beginning hiker or experienced, hiking alone is potentially unsafe.
Unfortunate things happen, even the fittest and most knowledgeable hikers encounter problems. Whether a much-needed item has been forgotten or an injury occurs, if you’re hiking with a buddy, you can be of help to each other in times of need.
Tip: Whether you hike alone or with a buddy, always let others know where you’re hiking and when you should return.
Forgetting to Stretch
Pre-hike stretching can reduce the chance of injury by improving muscle flexibility and stretching after your hike will loosen tight, sore muscles.1 Continue to stretch in the days after a strenuous hike to maintain flexibility and reduce the strain that tight muscles can put on your knees, hips, and lower back.
Not Leaving It Better Than You Found It
Don’t litter or damage the trails. Leave the trail better than you found it by practicing Leave No Trace.
I put a trash bag on the packing list above. I always carry one or more plastic grocery bags and/or a kitchen garbage bag for collecting litter along the trail. Sometimes things fall out of people’s packs but most of the time it’s just litter. There is no excuse for littering.
Related Content: Ways To Give Back To Your Hiking Trails
Poor Trail Etiquette
Ignoring proper trail etiquette can anger other hikers you encounter on the trail. There’s always a right and wrong way to do things.
If you don’t know who has the right-of-way, the hierarchy of hikers, horses, and mountain bikers, dog rules, Leave No Trace, and other trail etiquette, now is a great time to learn.
Improper Use of Trekking Poles
Proper use of your trekking poles will increase stability, protect your joints, and improve your hiking efficiency. Use the straps on your hiking poles and understand how to adjust trekking poles for your hike’s terrain.
- M. Iwata, A. Yamamoto, S. Matsuo, G. Hatano, M. Miyazaki, T. Fukaya, M. Fujiwara, Y. Asai, and S. Suzuki. Dynamic Stretching Has Sustained Effects on Range of Motion and Passive Stiffness of the Hamstring Muscles. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2019 February 11;18(1):13-20.