New to National Forests? Intimidated by the super-prepared hikers and other well-equipped folks at the trailhead? You don’t need to be. Here are some tips for those new to adventuring off the beaten path.

Start small.

Photo by Abbey Dufoe

Tackling the Pacific Crest Trail as a novice may have “worked” for Cheryl Straid, but it’s not a good strategy for most of us. Start with a small two or three mile hike or just try to hike up a trail for 20 minutes and then turn around regardless of how far you go.

Use trekking poles.

Pick up an inexpensive pair of trekking poles (or even old ski poles from a used gear store) and they’ll make a huge difference for knees and preventing falls. Upgrade your set once you realize how much you love hiking.

Buy a field guide or download a field guide app.

Knowing a bit more about your surroundings can add a lot of fun and variety to your first adventures in the wild. You may end up so immersed in identifying the plants that you encounter that you’ll look up an hour into your hike and realize you can still see your car. Don’t put any pressure on yourself to learn all the plants, animal tracks, trees and birds you may see. Start with one type of plant, like flowers or fruit (berry) bearing shrubs – they don’t run away from you and they’re easier to identify. Also, you’ll help assuage that nagging fear that every plant you see is poison ivy or poison oak.

Join a group.

Photo by Annie Nybord Photography

Sure it can be intimidating to join a hiking group, but there’s a good chance they have outings appropriate for beginners. After all, they are generally set up to encourage more people to get out and explore, and everyone has to start somewhere. [] has a ton of hiking groups all over the country.

Rent gear before you buy it. 

Photo by Tim Kuehn

Going camping for the first time? Want to try out kayaking on a pristine lake? Don’t run to your closest store and spend hundreds of dollars (or more) on all the gear you think you’ll need. Find a local gear shop (REI rents to members) and try out a night under the stars or a mellow paddling trip before you jump into the deep end.

Learn some basics. 

Prevention is key to safety. At the least, have a pack with the 10 Essentials, carry a map (and at least familiarize yourself with how it works), and bring extra food, water and clothes. Nothing turns away a novice faster than getting being hungry as it pours rain. There are dozens of websites devoted to the outdoors so finding this information is as simple as a few google searches.

Call a ranger. 

Every National Forest is divided into districts and each district has a ranger on staff (along with loads of other helpful personnel). Find their number online and give them a call. Ask for easy beginner activities or see if they have any programs where you can hike with a ranger or some other staff.


Volunteering is a great way to gain some experience and meet new folks. Local groups across the country offer volunteer opportunities. September 30, 2017 is National Public Lands Day and there are hundreds of volunteer opportunities across the country on that day alone.

Wait for good weather. 

Feel free to wait until the weather is nice before you head out for a day in the woods. There’s nothing better than a nice hike in 70 degree sunshine.

Share your experience. 

Pretty sick scenery hiking down from Pearl Lake to Heart Lake. Such a good day!

A post shared by Hannah (@hannahettema) on

Let your friends and family know about your new passion for getting outside. Maybe they’ll be inspired and join you. Maybe they’ll just be jealous of the beautiful scenes you’re posting to Instagram. Take tip four into the social media world and join a group or network. You’ll likely find new partners and a great, encouraging community.

Don’t get discouraged. 

Taking in the view at the Rough Creek Waterfall on the Rio Grande #nationalforest #CO #ItsAllYours #OptOutside | photo by @Erinoldfieldart

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Even the most intrepid adventure doesn’t gain every summit he or she attempts. It’s ok to turn back. It’s ok to bail at the trailhead and go to a spa instead. Be flexible and you’ll have more fun and be ready to come back another day.

What tips would you share to a newcomer to National Forests?

National Forest Foundation