A comprehensive beginner's guide to walking and hiking

By: Andrew Forrest - May 2023

Mick and Alfie on Whernside looking towards Ingleborough

Whether you're a complete beginner or just want some additional advice, our comprehensive guide to hiking for beginners sets out many hiking tips and will help you navigate your walks with ease and confidence.

Table of contents 

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Are you ready to embark on an exhilarating journey through the great outdoors? Walking and hiking offer the perfect opportunity to get out in the fresh air, connect with nature, challenge your body, and create unforgettable memories. So, lace up your boots and let's get started!

What we will cover in this beginner's guide to walking and hiking:

  • Gain confidence by understanding the basics of walking and hiking
  • Prepare for a safe and enjoyable experience by packing essentials, assessing your fitness level, and selecting proper footwear & clothing
  • Learn how to choose routes that are suitable for you
  • Connect with fellow walkers through local clubs or meetups to explore nature together!

Early morning walk looking back towards Keswick and Derwent Water

Early morning walk looking back towards Keswick and Derwent Water - you don't have to go too high to get fantastic views!

Understanding the basics of walking and hiking

As a beginner hiker, it's essential to understand the basics of walking and hiking to fully enjoy your experience and stay safe out on your walk.

The level of knowledge, fitness and amount of kit needed will vary depending on how long your walk is, the terrain you'll be in, the weather you're likely to encounter and the time of year.

What is the difference between walking and hiking?

Hiking is generally defined as going for long walks in the countryside, whereas walking generally occurs on flat paths. Some definitions of hiking say that it only occurs in areas of high elevation on footpaths or trails.

As a long walk for some may be a short walk for others, the words really are interchangeable, but just remember that in the main most guidebooks/routes that you follow describing a walk will generally be shorter along defined paths or roads, whereas most hikes will generally be longer and involve some element of elevation and the paths used may be rougher underfoot, requiring more effort to walk on them.

Health benefits of walking and hiking

Walking and Hiking offer numerous health benefits, but if you do not already exercise, your doctor may need to advise you if it's safe to start especially if you are unstable on your feet, have dizzy spells, have any chronic health conditions etc. If you are unsure get checked out - always better to be safe.

That said, most people can safely take up walking. Just remember to go at your own pace, you do not need to become an expert hiker overnight.

There are many known health benefits of walking and hiking, which include:

  • Helps reduce the risk of heart disease
  • Increased heart and lung fitness
  • Helps lower blood pressure
  • Helps combat diabetes
  • Helps tackle obesity
  • Improves sleep
  • Helps strengthen bones and build muscles
  • Helps reduce anxiety and depression
  • Helps improve arthritis
  • Helps with balance
  • Helps boost your immune function


When it comes to how quickly you may see some of the benefits, it's all unique to each individual. The NHS says adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week and strength exercises on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).

A brisk walk counts as a moderate aerobic activity. If you are walking, you'll get more of a lower-body workout. But if you have a rucksack on, or maybe use hiking poles, you'll get more of a full-body workout.

As with most exercise, if you are inactive before you start, even with the smallest amount of effort you start to see and feel the benefits. As your body starts to adapt and you become fitter, to keep seeing increasing gains, you need to increase the stress on the body by increasing either the duration, intensity or frequency of your walking.

Overall, walking and hiking are great ways to get some exercise in, no matter how short the walk may be and comes with these added benefits.

Walker enjoying a sunset stroll along the beach

Walker enjoying a sunset stroll along the beach

Types of walks and hikes

There are numerous types of walks and hikes to explore, catering to a wide range of interests and abilities. From a short stroll around a local park to half-day hikes and on to full-day longer hikes in the hills taking on some of the more mountainous areas the UK has to offer.

Walks don't have to be in the countryside, many people prefer walking around towns and cities looking at the sights or visiting and walking around historic buildings and ruins - the National Trust and English Heritage have many properties where you can incorporate a walk.

Or many peoples' favourites are beach walks - they are especially enjoyed by your 4-legged friends. For an example of a beach walk with a historical building (well a ruin) check out our Dunstanburgh Castle and Embleton Bay Walk from Craster - you can see just how relaxing it is to walk along the sand with waves crashing beside you.

Walking along the beach looking towards Dunstanburgh Castle

Walking along the beach looking towards Dunstanburgh Castle

Walks don't always just have to have the exercise element - whilst you do not want to be stopping at too many pubs and cafés on your walk (as that will start to outweigh the health benefits!), there is not too much better than a pleasant countryside walk finishing at a pub or café for some lunch. In our walk videos, we do try to include where you can eat and drink after (or during) your walk.

Choosing the right route for your ability

When you start walking or hiking, you need to decide where to go. Selecting the right route or trail for your ability is essential to ensure a safe and enjoyable walk.

When selecting a route, beginners should take into account their fitness level, the amount of time they have available, how easy the route is to follow and their navigational ability, the elevation gain of the route and the expected weather to make that first hike an enjoyable experience.

Remember that an easy hike in the summer can become a dangerous challenge in the winter due to icy conditions. Bad weather, low cloud, mist and fog can make navigation much harder.

Mick and Alfie on Whernside looking towards Ingleborough

Mick and Alfie on Whernside looking towards Ingleborough

Assessing your fitness level

To select the appropriate route, it's important to evaluate your skill and fitness level. Reflect on your current physical activity, past experience with walking or hiking, and any physical restrictions you may have.

If you have low levels of fitness, start by building up the walking slowly. Hiking beginners should try just heading out for 10 minutes to a local park or shop. Then keep building that up over a period of time to 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, a few hours etc. Try getting off the bus a stop early or parking a little further away from the shops - it all helps.

Once you have improved your fitness levels, you can then start trying some longer walks - try flat ones at first before slowly introducing elevation and hills.

Recording your walks will help you be able to look back at your progress and assess what types/lengths of walks you are able to do. Many apps on phones and GPS watches now have the ability to track and record your walk, showing time taken, elevation and distance amongst other metrics.

Improving your fitness levels will help you complete your walks with more confidence and ease, but do not attempt any walk that is beyond your abilities.

Route features and conditions

When selecting a route, consider factors such as distance, elevation gain, terrain, time of year, popularity, ease of navigation, and current conditions. It's essential to choose a route that matches your fitness level and you are able to navigate your way around it to help ensure a safe and enjoyable hike.

To start with, choose routes that are popular, well-signed and easy to follow. Many online mapping apps have graded routes, so you can start with an easy hike or a short hike before moving on to moderate, hard or difficult ones, where you will need to be very confident in your fitness levels and navigational skills.

If you watch the videos of the walks on our website, you can see what the whole route is like, whether the paths are suitable for you and assess whether it is within your capabilities. The videos help with seeing whether paths contain gates or stiles in case you or your dog may struggle with certain stiles.

Remember though, our walk videos are filmed in good visibility, you need to assess what the walk would be like in low clouds or fog.

Finding routes near you and route planning

There are a few different ways to find and plan routes. I always used to use paper maps and guidebooks but with the advent of mapping apps on your phone and desktop, I've become a convert as they are easy to use and provide accurate route information in terms of distance, elevation gain and estimated times to do the walk.

Alternatively, you can for example with Ordnance Survey uncover hidden gems by asking locals for their favourite walks or joining local hiking clubs or hiking groups for a chance to explore with like-minded walkers.

National parks also offer a wealth of information on walks and hiking trails within them on their websites and local information signs. They often indicate the level of ability needed for the walks and whether they are beginner hiking trails or longer more difficult walks.

Whilst I don't use guidebooks as much now, for the Lake District walks, my Wainwright books are probably the most thumbed books in my bookcase. 214 Lakeland peaks are described in great detail by Alfred Wainwright in his seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. He later published The Outlying Fells of Lakeland, which included a further 116 summits. The books are a must for every walker! Other guidebooks are available...

Finding routes near you with mapping apps

If you want to find hiking trails, discovering exciting new routes, paths and trails near you is easier than ever with online resources such as the Ordnance Survey Mapping App, Outdooractive and AllTrails.

The mapping apps generally have a free offering with basic maps, but for around the price of a coffee a month, you can upgrade to get OS Explorer and Landranger mapping, import and export routes, save maps offline and print A4/A3 maps to take out with you on your walk.

On the apps, you generally just click 'Find Routes', enter where you are or zoom in on where you want to look on the map and away you go. Having grown up using paper Ordnance Survey maps, I now use both a paper map and the OS mapping app and can highly recommend it.

We are a recommended Route Partner on the OS mapping app, so the routes for all our walks can be found there - just look for Walks4all. Downloads for the routes usable on other mapping apps are available on our individual walk pages.


OS Mapping App
Explore further and sign up
for the OS Mapping App


When you choose 'Find Routes' on the mapping app, these are the predefined routes that you can see. These mapping apps also have the ability for you to plot your own route.

You simply click on a start point, then click on further points around the walk and the mapping app creates the route. If you have your average walking speed entered in the app, the app will tell you how far the route you created is, how much elevation gain is involved and taking into account that elevation, how long it will take you to do the walk. You can do this on your desktop computer or mobile phone.

As a word of caution, a GPS device or mapping app on your mobile phone can be very useful, but a paper map cannot run out of battery and will always be there for you, which is why I always take one. You must know how to read and use a map and compass though.

1 to 25,000 maps and compass

1 to 25,000 maps and compass

Also, do not always blindly follow a straight route created from A to B if along a straight line and not along a footpath. Always look at your surroundings, a straight line may be the shortest route, but it also may be over the edge of a cliff!

Finding routes near you with paper maps

Before the advent of mapping apps, most people simply planned their routes using paper maps and using walking guidebooks.

In the UK, Ordnance Survey have maps that cover the whole country. The ones used in the main for walking are their OS Explorer and OS Landranger maps.

The main difference between the two is the scale of the maps - OS Explorer uses a 1:25,000 scale, whereas OS Landranger uses a 1:50,000 scale. The Landranger map, therefore, covers a bigger area, but in less detail, which is why I always use the OS Explorer for walking.

What the scale means is that one unit of length on the map represents 25,000 of the same unit on the ground. So, 1cm on the map equates to 25,000cm or 250m on the ground. 4cm equates to 1km etc.

On the Ordnance Survey maps, footpaths and bridleways are shown using dots or dashes as shown in the map key on each map. Using a paper map, I would take a piece of string and then lie it along the footpaths I wanted to walk on, then once I'd laid it around the whole route, I'd remove the string and place it against the scale on the map to see how far my walk was going to be.

To get an idea of the amount of elevation involved you can count the number of contour lines to be crossed, which gave a rough indication of the elevation gain involved on the walk. The mapping apps both desktop and mobile phone versions make this much easier now.

Understanding how to read and use a map is outside the scope of this article - but these are key skills. There are many articles and videos online that show you how to do it. We will be publishing our own guide in the future and will update this guide with a link to that once we have done it.

Preparing for your walk or hike

Proper preparation is key to a successful and enjoyable walk or hike. Once you have a suitable level of fitness to undertake your chosen walk and you have selected your route, what you wear and take on your walk can help ensure a happy and memorable hiking experience.

To start with, beginner hikers don't need a lot of fancy gear to explore the outdoors - just a few essentials, a spirit of adventure, and you're all set! As you move on to longer walks, more remote walks, winter walks etc, you can then adjust your kit list and clothing accordingly.

What to wear on your walk or hike

What you need to wear on a walk or hike depends upon the type or length of the walk, the time of year, how remote the walk is, and the expected weather, but being prepared and wearing and taking the right hiking kit is essential for your comfort and safety.

There's an old well-known adage... 'There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing', so use the list below and enjoy your walk without worrying about what nature can throw at you.

If you are going for a short walk around your local park, then training shoes or walking shoes will be fine and a jacket if it's cold or wet.

Dress according to conditions and ideally in layers, so you can remove layers when putting in more effort and add layers when stopping on hills or summits. Summits can be cold even in summer, so leave your hat and gloves in your rucksack all year round.

When choosing hiking clothing, it's important to select materials that offer comfort, breathability, and durability. Avoid cotton and other heavy fabrics, as they can become uncomfortable when wet.

If you are setting out on a longer walk out into the hills then you will need more clothing. We have set out below what would be suitable to wear for a half-day or full-day hike. You can adjust if you are going for a shorter or longer walk according to the conditions.

  • Footwear - Walking/hiking boots or walking shoes.
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Base Layer - Moves sweat away from your skin
  • Mid Layer - The layer between your base layer and your outer waterproof shell, usually a fleece or an insulated jacket
  • Walking trousers or shorts
  • Walking socks
  • Waterproof overtrousers
  • Gloves
  • Hat or cap - For warmth in winter and shade in summer
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Buff
  • Walking underwear


If not all of the above is being worn, they can be stored in your rucksack.

What to take on your walk or hike

As with what you wear, what you need to take on a walk or hike depends upon the type or length of the walk, the time of year, how remote the walk is, and the expected weather.

We've set out below what would be suitable to take for a half-day or full-day hike. You can adjust if you are going for a shorter or longer walk according to the conditions.

Items to take on your walk:

  • Rucksack or backpack - a 20-35 litre rucksack should be large enough to carry your gear for the day.
  • Drybag - needed if your pack isn't waterproof or comes with a rain cover.
  • Spare clothing - pack your spare items (extra layers/spare dry socks, etc.) into the rucksack.
  • Water bottle or hydration bladder
  • Food and water - and spare emergency rations
  • First Aid Kit - medicines, blister plasters, toilet paper, antiseptic wipes, insect repellent and any of your own personal medicines.
  • Map - of the area you are walking in
  • Compass
  • Mobile phone (with mapping app) or GPS device (fully charge before setting out). Remember, in many places in the hills there may be no mobile signal, so if you are using mapping apps, better to download your maps onto them before you set off.
  • Watch - if no mobile phone for telling the time
  • Power Pack - to recharge your phone or GPS device if they run out of power
  • Hat and sunscreen
  • Cash
  • Sitting mat
  • Whistle
  • ID


In addition to the above, also consider taking:

  • Guidebook/route map - this is in addition to a map of the area where you are walking
  • Walking poles - if you use them
  • Gaiters
  • Head torch - I always carry a small head torch and spare battery whatever time of year
  • Camera
  • Survival bag - I always carry a survival bag whatever time of year
  • Water purifier/chemical treatment - I always carry water purification tablets... just in case. Very small and lightweight.
  • Multi-tool


Remember though, don't pack more gear than you can safely carry for the whole day. There is a trade-off between what you can carry and what you need for comfort and safety.

If the hike is in very cold/wet weather or involves walking in the snow/ice, then additional equipment may be needed such as crampons, ice axe, bivvy bag, etc. along with a larger backpack, which is not covered by the above list. These are more specialist equipment and you must know how to use them as this is getting into serious hiking.

Selecting hiking shoes or boots

What you wear on your feet depends upon the type of terrain being walked over, length of walk and time of year. In summer you may prefer lighter walking shoes or even trail running shoes to keep your feet cooler and dry. Many people do prefer walking boots though for the additional stability given by their ankle protection.

If you are out walking in the hills in winter, you should buy an additional dedicated pair of winter walking boots, which will keep your feet warmer, they have a much stiffer sole, are more heavy-duty, and are generally crampon compatible.

Comfortable, stable walking boots do make for a happier walk, so if you are investing in new kit, spending money on walking boots or walking shoes along with a waterproof jacket should be your first investment.

Before embarking on a long journey, be sure to take your new hiking shoes on a few shorter test drives to ensure they're ready for the adventure ahead.

Hiking boots are only one element of how comfy and stable your feet feel on a walk. An average person takes about 2,000 steps for each mile walked, so a lot of friction is created between your hiking boot and your foot, which is why it's important to choose the best hiking insoles and best hiking socks for your feet to ensure that your hike is as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. If you still have any issues with your feet, how you tie your laces can also help alleviate many foot issues.

Selecting waterproof jackets

The waterproof jacket is 'the' all-year-round essential for your walks and hikes. I have two main jackets, a lightweight one I take on summer and lower-level shorter walks, and a more durable jacket that can cope with all 4 seasons and whatever the weather cares to throw at it.

The key things with any outer shell clothing are being waterproof (not just water-resistant) and breathable. They need to block the elements (rain, wind, snow etc.) but need to let you sweat and 'breathe' from the inside, so you can stay dry from the inside and well as out.

A high-quality jacket is essential for staying dry and comfortable on a hike. Look for features such as a hood, adjustable cuffs, and a drawstring waist, as well as waterproof zippers, taped seams, and a breathable membrane for maximum protection and comfort.

When selecting your jacket, ensure it fits perfectly, allowing for a full range of motion and providing ample protection from the elements. To keep your jacket in top condition, follow the manufacturer's care instructions.

Selecting backpacks or rucksacks

You'll have your backpack/rucksack on your back for the whole day, so comfort is the key here. Some rucksacks come in different sizes/back lengths and most have adjustable straps. The padded shoulder straps and hip belt should be taking the majority of the weight in the pack. Most backpacks come with a variety of pockets, compartments, and openings, some on the side, some on top, and some on the rear - the choice is yours.

Compression straps and loops on the outside allow additional equipment to be kept on the outside creating additional room if needed and easy access. Hip belt pockets are useful for easy access to items on the move without having to stop. Some packs also come in women's specific versions.

Choosing the perfect backpack for your hike is essential for comfort and convenience. Consider factors such as size, weight, and intended use when selecting a backpack. For day hiking, a pack between 20 and 35 litres should be sufficient, while a 50L+ backpack is more suitable for multi-day journeys.

Safety and etiquette on your walk

Whether you are new to walking or an experienced hiker, being aware of safety and etiquette on your walk is key for a safe and enjoyable experience. By following practical safety tips and good hiking etiquette, you can ensure a positive and enjoyable experience for yourself, the rest of your walking party and other hikers.

Hiking safety tips

To stay safe out on your walk, be sure to follow essential safety tips such as:

  • Plan your route in advance and with others in mind - plan for the slowest, least capable member to ensure everyone enjoys their hiking trip.
  • Check the weather forecast and plan according to the weather and local conditions and be vigilant whilst out on the hike - if the weather starts to turn nasty consider turning back or cutting your walk short - don't just continue regardless
  • If you are off solo hiking, tell a friend where you are walking - start and end points, the estimated time you'll be back etc, so someone knows if you are missing. That's good practice even if you are walking with your hiking buddies.
  • Always carry a map of the area you are walking in and a compass - and know how to use them! If you get lost hiking, you need to know what to do.
  • As set out above, wear suitable clothing and wear hiking footwear and take the right hiking gear
  • Eat and drink regularly before, during and after your hike
  • Know the dangers to avoid if you can: streams and rivers in spate, snow cornices, steep grassy slopes when frozen or wet, cattle, tocks etc.
  • Know how to attract attention (six short blasts on your whistle followed by a minute's pause is the UK standard signal for help) and know how to call for help.


If you enjoy this hiking for beginners guide and want to know more detail and additional safety tips, we've put together a guide to the Top 15 safety tips for hiking.

Hiking etiquette

Practising good hiking trail etiquette, sticking to the 'Leave No Trace’ principles and following the Countryside Code is essential for minimizing the environmental impact of hiking and ensuring a positive experience for all hikers.

As the much-quoted saying goes 'Please take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints'.

By staying on designated paths, taking home your rubbish, and bagging and disposing of your dog poo in designated bins, you can help preserve the beautiful natural spaces the countryside has to offer.

And don't forget your furry friends! Be sure to check if dogs are allowed on your chosen route, and always keep them on a leash.

Hiking with Others: Finding Companions and Groups

Hiking with others offers numerous benefits, including increased safety, companionship, motivation, and support. If you want to find hiking buddies, there are plenty of opportunities to connect with fellow hikers and join local clubs or meetups, broadening your horizons and enhancing your hiking experience.

Friends, family, and acquaintances

Hiking with friends, family, and acquaintances can provide a unique opportunity to explore new places, build lasting connections, and enjoy shared experiences in nature.

Local walking and hiking clubs and meetups

Joining a local hiking club or a local hiking group is a fantastic way to connect with fellow hikers and learn a few tips from experienced walkers.

There are a few national organisations that list all their local clubs and groups:

  • Ramblers ramblers.org.uk/go-walking
  • Walks with Wheelchairs walkswithwheelchairs.com
  • Rambling Clubs ramblingclubs.com
  • Walking for Health walkingforhealth.org.uk
  • Meetup meetup.com


By connecting with other walkers and hikers, you can expand your knowledge, pick up a few hiking tips and enjoy the camaraderie of shared outdoor experiences. There is no stress on navigation if you have a walk leader doing it for you and you can meet new friends.

Organised walking trips and holidays

There are quite a few organisations, small and large that run guided walks - some are self-guided and some have dedicated guides both here in the UK and overseas. They include:

  • Explore
  • Ramblersholidays
  • Exodus
  • Inntravel
  • Macsadventures
  • Hfholidays


Or you could maybe just arrange your own hiking guide.

Summary

Embarking on a hiking adventure is a wonderful way to explore the countryside, challenge yourself physically, and create lasting memories. By understanding the basics of walking and hiking, choosing the right route for your ability, preparing properly, selecting appropriate footwear and clothing, practising safety and etiquette on the trail, and finding companions and groups to hike with, you'll be well on your way to a lifetime of unforgettable hiking experiences.

So, lace up your boots, grab your rucksack, and let the journey begin!

May 2023