What You REALLY Need to Start Hiking

Two of my employees approached me last week with a bunch of questions about local hiking trails. Once I gave them some suggestions, we ventured into gear chat since they know it’s a topic I love. Both of them are just getting started with hiking and quite honestly, don’t have a ton of money to throw into a new activity (Who really does, right?!) They had visited a local REI and the sales guy had launched all sorts of purchases at them: compass, GPS, boots, backpack, hydration bladder, hiking pants, etc. In short, he suggested an entire new wardrobe. Now, I completely understand the need for every single tech hiking item out there, and honestly, most of them are useful. However, since most of the world doesn’t have tons of extra cash to throw at every passing hobby, I helped them narrow it down.

Hiking Gear

Hiking Boots

Straight out of the gates, I know people will argue with me on this one, but I stand by my claim! Sure, you can use running shoes but they really aren’t ideal for true hiking. First of all, typical running shoes won’t have the tread that hiking boots will have. That tread is clutch when walking up sandy or slippery slopes. Additionally, most hiking shoes have more supportive soles than other shoes which protect your feet while hopping around on pointy rocks or tree stumps. Lastly, hiking shoes/boots have more ankle support to help prevent ankle rolling. Again, this may not be immediately necessary if you’re hiking on a mild, flat trail, but it is a common injury on rougher terrain.



To err on the side of caution, you will always be hiking with extra water, food, and clothing. Obviously, you’ll need something to carry that all in (unless you’re like that character in Labyrinth who carried all of her belongings tied to her back…but I doubt it!) We all have backpacks from our school days, but those typically don’t have any type of waist belt or shoulder padding which are two of the main criteria in technical hiking packs. Waist belts are especially important since they cinch on your hip bones, allowing the weight of your pack to sit on your hips instead of your back or shoulders. If you’re only out for 30 minutes, this may not sound like a lot, but if you’re hiking for an hour or more, you’ll definitely appreciate the strain-free hike!

Waterproof Shell

Most of the suggested hiking clothing is nice (e.g. hiking pants, base layers, etc.) and you’ll definitely want to invest in it at some point. After all, I’m sure you’ve all heard that cotton is a disaster in the backcountry and wick away base layers are great for their wicking properties that help keep you dry. However, all of this stuff is expensive and I’m guessing most people want to acquire it gradually. A waterproof hard shell should not be optional though because it will save your ass in so many situations!


In Colorado, we almost always hike above tree line where storms are the norm. Temperatures drop, rain and hail move in, and the winds pick up like whoa. In fact, I think I have pulled my shell out of my pack on at least 75% of my hikes, including the summer adventures. Even if you’re hiking below tree line, it’s a good idea to always carry a shell for survival purposes. God forbid you get stranded out there, but that shell will protect you from the elements and could work as a quasi-shelter in a pinch.


I get there are tons of other items that are pretty awesome for hiking (I never go without a hat to keep the sun off my face!), but these will be what you need to get started.

What would you add to the list?


  • Reply Miz at

    Id not add but ECHO how I love my Patagonia shell….

  • Reply Eric at

    I am one of those people who disagree with #1 – I have not used hiking boots in years – I spent an entire week with nothing more than masterfly or Fila Skeletoes on my feet – I have however felt that a shoe like the Columbia Conspiracy is an amazing mid ground and used it a ton on this years ADK trip. The rest – spot on, I couldn’t agree more – You got your boots – I got my feet 🙂

    • Reply Heidi Nicole at

      I’m with you on this one Eric – I prefer my trail running shoes over hiking shoes/boots. However, if I’m headed out to less traveled trails I will use my hiking shoes just because they are water proof!

      A map is a must!

      Having a pack with a water reservoir/camelbak set up is something we are really glad we have – makes staying hydrated easier! But you are right, Heather, you don’t need every single thing REI offers!

      • Reply Ingunn at

        Put me on the trail running shoes list! I’ve never rolled my ankles in my Merrell Pace Gloves, but sprained them countless times back when I used hiking boots. I do wear my boots if I’m on snow most of the day (for warmth) or if I’m doing something heavily off-trail (for protection against rocks falling onto my feet).

        • Reply Beth at

          Like @Ingunn, I use hiking boots for situations where I’m in a lot of scree to protect my ankles or if it’s really muddy, otherwise trail runners it is!

          Other than that, you nailed it: basic pack with water and snacks. (A camelback is nice but I didn’t have one of my own until last week so def. not required.) A jacket. Comfortable, supportive shoes (hikers OR running shoes). And GO.

      • Reply heather at

        The only catch is that y’all are saying trail running shoes which are different than the regular ol’ running shoes that I mention above. Obviously, I’ve got a trail runner following here 🙂 But, not everyone owns trail running-specific shoes, but almost everyone owns regular sneakers. Regular sneakers are what I’m talking about!

        • Reply Logan @ Mountains and Miles at

          I’m also on the trail running shoes band wagon for hikes..I go more minimalist and hiking shoes are PAINFULLY clunky and stiff for me.

          That being said, I have worn regular (non-trail) running shoes on hikes before and I haven’t had problems. I think a lot of it has to do with the hike and the type of the trail. If there’s a lot of scree or slick rock, I would always prefer trail-specific shoes, but if it’s just regular dirt trails, then I think that normal running shoes are just fine.

      • Reply Mark at

        Heidi, I was just gonna go there. No mater where you’re hiking you need to stay hydrated, so WATER is definitely a must. Also, spot on about the map. Heaven forbid something happens, ie; Weather, Fire, you need to know the quickest most direct rout to get out of harms way. I have to agree with Heather on the hiking boots, only to help in case you stumble upon an unseen poisonous snake. I know that they won’t help if the strike is above 2 inches from the ankle, but I’ll take that chance. Afterall you can’t prevent all mishaps.

  • Reply Justin Fricke at

    Bug spray should definitely be on the list. Went for an impromptu evening hike on Friday and got lit up by some mosquitoes.

    • Reply heather at

      You know, I totally think this one is a matter of where you live– I hardly EVER take bug spray but I can imagine you have to have it!

      • Reply eric at

        i rarely use spray – doesnt help with black flies anyway

      • Reply Justin Fricke at

        If you live in Florida or most of the southeast, you definitely need some bugspray.

  • Reply Kaitlyn at

    Alongside that I think that comfortable shorts, pants or even a skirt are a must. I am still waiting to find something that I truly love to wear while hiking

    • Reply heather at

      That’s interesting because I would put this on the bottom of my list 🙂 I’ve hiked tons of 14ers in regular yoga pants and been fine. Having said that, try the Kuhl Kaya convertible hiking pants– my all-time favorites. So comfy, they dry quick and wick away, and honestly, they are super flattering.

  • Reply Amanda @runtothefinish at

    awesome break down!! I think it’s easy to feel like it’s out of reach if you see well amazing hikes like yours, so this is great to show folks it doesn’t take a lot to just start!

    • Reply heather at

      It really doesn’t although I think people get so used to having specific gear that they forget you don’t really need it (see all the comments). It’s all nice to have, but that can be so intimidating to people just getting started!

  • Reply misszippy at

    Great list. I love, love, love hiking! It is my second love to running. We did three mountain climbs on vacation last week and enjoyed every last second of it. (I did do them in my minimalist trail shoes, oops!)

  • Reply Art at

    I don’t have the expertise to issue many recommendations. As I do most of my hiking in the very warm DC area, I will echo a wick-away base layer as crucial.

    And also, kudos on the Labrynth reference! LOVE that movie.

  • Reply Rochelle at

    I absolutely have to agree! The only other items I’d add to the list would be the 10 essentials. These don’t have to be fancy, expensive versions either, just basic cheap versions will get you started. In fact, I’ve honestly been impressed by how well some of the cheap Walmart gear performs, like their headlamps. Inexpensive, pretty decent lighting, and relatively durable makes them great for a person just getting into the sport.

    • Reply heather at

      Yes! I was excluding these because they are a given and I don’t really consider them gear, but you’re 100% right.

  • Reply Alison at

    Beautiful pics and great pics!

  • Reply Axel (@apkussma) at

    Perfect. A simple straightforward list.

  • Reply Ingunn at

    I always tell newbies to bring a headlamp no matter what time of day they go out. It’s crazy how many people have to get rescued because they get stuck with no light at night, panic, and get into a bad situation. I’ve had to help some lightless people hike out myself!

    • Reply heather at

      Another good one!

  • Reply Lynn at

    Besides what you said and others have mentioned (headlamp!) I would recommend always bringing blister band aids or moleskin or even duct tape. I have particularly blister prone feet, but there is nothing worse than getting to the halfway point, developing a major blister and then having to finish the hike.

    • Reply lynne @ lgsmash at

      when hiking this past weekend, my friend had exactly this issue – and the moleskin to fix his issue! i’ve never had a blister problem but am adding moleskin to my ‘essentials stash’ – not too big of a commitment but has great reward if needed!

      • Reply lynne @ lgsmash at

        …aaaaand i used issue twice within 1 sentence. dangit! 🙂

        • Reply Art at

          Haha, Lynne, I love that you pointed that out. Totally something that I would do.

  • Reply Michael Byrd at

    Great advice! Keep it simple – keep it light.

  • Reply Christine | Oatmeal Bowl at

    I love my Columbia hiking pants. plus they turn into shorts, when needed. Now what to put in that backpack brings out a whole new must have list. 😉 Mylar blanket, waterproof matches, snacks….

    And I am a trail runner shoe gal. or low profile hiking boots. Oh ya, and you need a camera. or is that only a must have for hiking bloggers?

  • Reply Natalie @ Free Range Human at

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on a good pair of boots. They make all the difference on certain trails. The only thing I would add to the list (and this is only if we’re talking backpacking rather than day hiking) is a water filter. Hydration is so important, and it’s so nice to not have to pack in a ton of water.

  • Reply Nichole at

    For me, hiking boots, a prepared pack, and a headlamp are the three things I make sure that I have on me while out and about!

    I always tell “Newbies” to keep on eye on Craigslist, or local gear-swaps. I’ve found some really expensive goodies for really cheap that way! I also barter for hand-me-downs from my older, yet more financially secure sister, who has the same expensive hobbies as I do. It’s very possible to own nice quality, expensive gear and clothing; you just need to keep an open mind about owning lightly used goods!

  • Reply Mike at

    Great start Heather. All of the comments above could probably be summarized with the 10 Outdoor Essentials (except the footwear debate).

  • Reply Katie Boue at

    Such a great post, and something I’ll definitely be sending to a LOT of people who always ask the same question! You summed it up well, and chose key items. I often struggle to narrow down the must-haves, because I bring so much dang stuff on the trail with me. One thing I will never go anywhere without: chapstick!

  • Reply Ryan at

    Good list my friend, and I totally agree with you on the waterproof shell. That’s one layer people too often overlook. In terms of the basics, the only other thing that’s a must is a quality first aid kit just in case! Always be prepared!

  • Reply A Few of My Favorite Things | the first edition | TheMorningFresh.com at

    […] to hiking? Heather from JustaColoradoGal.com offers advice about the gear you really need to get started. No fuss, no frills, just the […]

  • Reply Heather @ Better With Veggies at

    I love this list – thank you!! I had heard from others that getting hiking boots wasn’t a big deal, so it’s great to hear your thoughts on it. I also said on my last hike that I really want hiking poles, especially for slippery/steep descents. What do you think? And do you have a favorite store to shop for these? Is REI good or is there a better option?

    • Reply heather at

      I’m still adamant on my hiking boot opinion, especially in Colorado and if you’re hiking above tree line! Rolled ankles and bruised soles are terribly common on talus fields! Poles are great for backpacking in particular, but if you have cranky knees, I’d definitely give them a try for any hiking- they really help on downhill sections. Will hikes with them all the time since he’s torn his ACL so many times. You can definitely check out REI, but I’d also try some discount places like Sierra Trading Post. Lighter, collapsible poles are definitely better but they can cost a lot, so places that carry past year models (like STP) may definitely have cheaper options. I had a pair by Black Diamond that I really liked!

  • Reply Julie at

    To supplement the boots–athletic tape or duct tape! Blisters are pesky things and can be prevented with preemptive taping.

  • Reply Lilia at

    Late to the party but a Buff is an essential part of my gear for the same reason as the windbreaker: My ears absolutely hate windy conditions, they start hurting right away. I use the buff as a headband for ear protection.

    • Reply heather at

      Buffs are fantastic! good call!

    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.