I started hiking in my 40s - these are the most common mistakes to avoid as a beginner

It's normal to make hiking mistakes when you first take on the trails. Writer and hiking enthusiast Susan Griffin here reveals the most common ones to avoid and how

Susan Griffin, writer and hiking enthusiast, on a hike with beautiful background of rolling green hills and blue sky after learning about the top hiking mistakes to avoid
(Image credit: Susan Griffin)

There is no doubt hiking is an effective form of exercise. It helps build muscle and bone strength, lowers the risk of heart disease, and improves mental wellbeing. Hiking is also easily accessible and free, which is why you can mistakenly think all you need is the initiative to simply get up and go. This urge to be spontaneous, however, is often where people make mistakes, especially beginners. Believe me, I speak from experience. 

Although I went hiking for the first time a few years ago, I have become a hiking convert this year and regularly extol its virtues to all and sundry. My new-found passion has not been without incident though. I have hobbled with blisters, trudged in drenched clothing, forgotten essentials, and freestyled routes because I was winging it. 

You are exposed to the elements when you're hiking, which can be incredibly invigorating, but also potentially hazardous if you don’t wear the right clothes, plan your route or prepare for all eventualities. A little forethought goes a long way to helping you enjoy - rather than endure the experience - and of course, it is safer, too. Here, alongside outdoor experts, I share my advice on how to avoid the most frequent hiking slip-ups, whether you're looking to do walking as a workout or just take in the fresh air as part of the new soft hiking trend.

Top hiking mistakes

1. Only dressing for the current conditions

When you are planning your hike, don’t simply look to the skies and presume you have it figured out. Temperatures can plummet and rise; you can have sunshine one moment and torrential rain the next. If you don’t wear or pack adequate layers, it can leave you shivering, sweating, or soaking wet, which isn’t just uncomfortable but possibly hazardous.

“When hiking, you need to be prepared for adverse conditions and the material of clothing is important,” notes Dr Raj Joshi who leads hikes and expeditions all over the world. 

“Wearing cotton is not the best idea. It can become damp when you sweat and if the weather cools, the dampness can make you cold. Instead, opt for base layers that wick away moisture quickly, such as polypropylene or polyester. During cooler months, start with a base layer, then a mid-layer, such as a fleece jumper, followed by a soft-shell or down jacket as an outer layer - and don’t forget waterproofs.”

2. Not carrying enough water

Don’t make the common error of not packing enough water or skipping it altogether. Hiking is not the time to scrimp on fluids, even if you don’t think you are going to be out that long or that it isn’t that hot. One of the many benefits of hiking is that it can be a serious workout, so it's important to stay hydrated. 

“Water is important when hiking otherwise dehydration can occur and you can become tired, dizzy, and confused. You may become slower and less able to hike, and in severe situations, it could stop you from finishing the hike,” explains Dr Joshi, who is also a director and expedition leader at The Adventure Boutique. He suggests drinking water before your hike to ensure you are well hydrated and taking two to three liters with you for a full day.

“You can sip regularly or glug occasionally, whatever works for you, but the key is not to feel thirsty (at this point you are already 2% dehydrated).” And don’t worry about needing a ‘wild wee,’ he says. “It likely means you are well hydrated and you’ll have a great view.”

Woman holding stainless steel water bottle looking out at view across the sea on a hike, avoiding some of the most common hiking mistakes

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Forgetting to eat before the hike

Where food is concerned, the focus is often the picnic with panoramic views you’ll enjoy once you are underway, but it is so important to fuel your body ahead of the hike. Not eating before you head out is definitely one of the biggest hiking mistakes you can make. 

“If you don't eat properly before or during the hike, glucose levels in your blood may drop to a dangerously low level causing you, as with dehydration, to feel weak, dizzy and confused,” says Dr Joshi. He advises having a meal of complex carbohydrates between one to three hours before starting a hike to allow your body to absorb the nutrients and energy.

“Oats or muesli with fruit for breakfast, are a good idea source of fuel. Or wholewheat sandwiches or pasta, grains, vegetables (especially starchy ones) and fruits as they provide slow-release energy and are more easily absorbed than proteins and fats.” 

During the hike, he recommends a simple snack of nuts and fruits or an energy/protein bar. “And remember to have some protein soon after you finish your hike to help replenish your muscles.”

4. Neglecting your feet

Our poor feet, we put them through so much and rarely with enough care and consideration.

Aside from the danger of wearing footwear that doesn’t provide the right grip and support, whether you opt for walking boots or a pair of the best walking shoes, there is the potential discomfort of blisters, bruising and even bleeding toes to consider. 

“Comfortable, well-fitting walking footwear is paramount and they need to be worn-in properly before going on a long hike,’ says Dr Joshi. “Help prevent blisters by taping up prone areas with thick zinc oxide tape or use blister plasters; wear proper hiking socks to help protect your feet and foot powder can be useful too, as it reduces friction on the skin.” In addition, don’t forget to ensure toenails are adequately clipped-and pack a spare of socks, too - just as back-up.

5. Putting unnecessary pressure on the joints

What goes up must come down and often the descent is more uncomfortable than the incline, especially for the knees. 

“One of the simplest and most effective exercises to keep your knees strong for hiking is static squats. Doing these regularly can strengthen the quadriceps, important muscles around your knees that help protect them,’ says Dr Joshi, pointing to the benefits of strength training for those looking to avoid the biggest hiking mistakes.

He also recommends zigzagging up and down a steep hill, rather than going in the steepest direct line to ease stress on joints, as well as using smaller steps. 

“Using a good set of walking poles can also reduce the pressure placed on knees and other joints by up to 30%,” adds the doctor. “Get ones that are spring loaded, as this can reduce the impact on your elbows, but be careful on rocky ground as the poles may not dig into the ground properly, causing you to lose your balance.” 

Front view of woman walking in hiking boots towards the camera with backdrop of hills and wooden pathway

Having the right shoes and working on improving your strength away from the trails can be a great way to get better at hiking. 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is hiking dangerous?

“Hiking, like any outdoor activity, carries certain risks, but it’s generally considered to be a safe and accessible activity when approached with proper preparation, precautions, and awareness,” says outdoor expert Pitt Grewe, who has almost 15 years of experience in the industry.

“The trail experience can vary depending on factors such as trail difficulty, weather conditions, personal fitness level, and individual experience. One of the best things about hiking is that you can usually find a route to meet your skill level,’ adds Grewe, who is also the head of public land partnerships at AllTrails.  

Just in case though, here are a few tips from Grewe on staying safe during your hike and avoiding more common hiking mistakes: 

  • Familiarize yourself with the trail and its conditions and check weather forecasts before you go.
  • Let people know your plans and share the trail you plan to hike and the estimated time of completion. 
  • Carry a backpack for your layers and remember to pack essential items like a map, compass, first aid kit, food, and water.
  • Consider joining hiking groups or seeking guidance from experienced hikers to enhance your knowledge and skills.
  • Know your fitness level and choose trails that align with your capabilities.
  • Stay on marked trails. Straying off the designated path can increase the risk of getting lost or encountering dangerous terrain.
  • Be aware of wildlife. Research any potential wildlife in the area and understand how to respond if you encounter animals. Maintain a safe distance and avoid approaching or feeding them.

How to get better at hiking

Like any fitness activity, you can improve your hiking stamina, knowledge, and technique over time by slowly incorporating new challenges. "Start with shorter, easier trails and gradually increase difficulty (through length and elevation) to build endurance and confidence. Try adding only 10% more effort to each hike to make sure you’re improving steadily and safely," says Grewe. 

Steadily increasing your backpack weight is another way to challenge yourself. "Practice walking with a backpack to simulate the weight you'll carry on longer hikes and gradually increase the load. Also, try adopting mindful breathing to help regulate your exertion level and improve endurance during uphill sections," he says. 

“Your mindset and approach can greatly influence the success of your hike, so it’s important to stay positive and motivated, especially during challenging sections or when facing obstacles.”

How to better enjoy hiking

  • Invest in a proper rucksack: A 15-liter pack is the perfect size for day hiking. Trust me, your shoulders and back will thank you for it.
  • Wear clothes that make you feel confident: It might sound trivial, but it lifts your attitude and your approach, in my experience. That means a pair of the best workout leggings in the winter and potentially a pair of hiking or running shorts in warmer temperatures, depending on your environment.
  • Mix solo and group hiking: As much as hiking is the perfect environment to have heart-to-hearts, don’t be afraid to enjoy quiet time, too.
  • Challenge yourself: Tackling different terrain and weather increases confidence in your own capabilities. Keeping things easy is as much one of the most common hiking mistakes as overestimating your abilities on the trails. 
  • Enjoy the journey rather than focusing on the destination: Take your time and stop when you want.
Susan Griffin

A journalist with two decades of experience, Susan interviewed A-list names in film and TV before going freelance and focusing on health, wellbeing, and lifestyle features. She has since spoken to world-renowned experts on the most innovative and effective ways to look after your mind and body; her work appearing in publications such as Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Metro, Fabulous and The Telegraph. When Susan isn’t working on her laptop, she is most content hiking in the Peak District or finding quiet camping spots to while away a weekend and knows first-hand the restorative benefits of being outdoors.