A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking and Nature Walking at Minimal Cost

About two years ago, I wrote a pretty well received article on how to get started with eight great frugal hobbies. I had a lot of fun writing the article because it gave me a chance to talk about some of my own hobbies and how someone might get started in them at minimal cost.

Over the ensuing two years, I’ve seen occasional follow-up questions from readers that (I think) were inspired by this article. People asked deeper questions about the various hobbies involved and what they could do to really dig into those hobbies without investing a lot of money up front.

My belief about hobby spending is this: your spending should be budgeted and should roughly reflect your time invested. If half of your hobby time in a given month is spent on a particular hobby, then it’s reasonable that half of your hobby budget (roughly) goes toward that hobby going forward. The catch with this, of course, is that if you’re trying out a new hobby, you didn’t spend any time on it the month before so, in theory, you shouldn’t be spending any money on it.

That’s why I find strategies for trying new hobbies for free or for a very low cost to be so useful. They let you dig into what’s enjoyable about a hobby without investing any money and then, once you’ve figured out if this hobby clicks with you or not, you can invest more money into it. You’ll have a better understanding of what you enjoy, what you want to do, and what you need to do it.

Let’s start by looking at my favorite fair-weather hobby – hiking and nature walking. I love walking on trails and exploring nature. I love going off trail in appropriate areas. I love going on day hikes and even multi-day hikes (though that’s pretty hard with young kids and I haven’t done such a thing in many years).

I love being in nature. I love the calmness of it. I love the beautiful views and the fresh air. I love the feeling of gently sore muscles after a long day of hiking. I love how I sleep like a baby after a day in the forest. I love taking lots of pictures of what I discover along the way. I love reaching a far point and getting a completely different view of a natural landmark. I love all of it.

(To be clear, I distinguish between hiking and nature walking by elevation: a hike is essentially a nature walk with an elevation change, meaning you’re going up hills and down hills, while a nature walk is on relatively flat ground. Both are walks through nature, but hiking implies some additional physical exertion. In general, if I use one term or the other, the statement is true for both unless it strictly involves something you need to do for going up or down hills.)

The best part is that hiking and nature walking can be a very inexpensive hobby to dip your feet into. There’s almost no expense at all if you have some typical items around your house.

Let’s get started and look at what you can do to dabble in this hobby.

What You Need

First of all, let’s look at what you need to actually get started and dip your toes in the water. It’s very likely you have all of this stuff around your house.

A backpack You’ll want a backpack for any hike or nature walk that lasts longer than a mile or so, or at least someone on your walk should have a bag (if they don’t mind carrying a couple of things for you).

A water bottle A filled water bottle should go along with you on any trip. Fill it before you leave the house or at a water fountain before you start. I recommend using any old reusable one that you have in your cupboards.

First aid supplies A simple first aid kit is useful to have on a hike in case you cut yourself or have another minor injury. This is definitely a “better safe than sorry” item.

A small snack You may get hungry on the hike. Have a small snack along, just in case. Your first few walks or hikes shouldn’t be epic journeys so there’s no need to bring along a ton of food.

Comfortable shoes that you won’t mind getting a little dirty Again, your first few nature walks and hikes shouldn’t be anywhere that would cause you to get filthy, but you may get some dust on them or a bit of mud on the bottom of your shoes.

Sturdy clothing with long pants that you won’t mind getting a little dirty I generally recommend wearing long pants, long sleeves, and a hat when walking in the woods as it minimizes tick potential. If you shortcut on any of those, a short sleeve shirt is probably where you’ll do it. I’d be hesitant to go on any significant hike or walk without a hat and long pants, though. Just make sure the clothing is sturdy and won’t rip or something if you were to slip.

A cell phone It’s a good idea to have a cell phone along in case you run into any kind of difficulty along the way. It can also help with finding your way via GPS.

A printed map A printed map makes for a very good backup for GPS in case your device’s battery runs dead. You can usually pick up a printed map of the park which highlights your trail from the park office or at the trailhead.

A camera (optional) If you happen to have a camera, you should definitely bring it along. There are often many things well worth taking pictures of when you’re out in the woods.

Finding a Good First Nature Walk or Hike

Your first consideration when dipping your toes into hiking or nature walking is to find a place to walk or hike. There are several things to consider when doing this.

First, look for county or state parks near you. In general – though this is not perfectly true in all localities – you can access county and state parks without paying an admission fee and they tend to be reasonably well maintained with clearly marked trails, which makes them perfect for your first hikes and nature walks. They were also often built in areas with very nice vistas, so you’ll get some nice views as well. National parks tend to be very well maintained and have amazing views, but they also have an entrance fee, so hold off on a national park.

A great place to start the search is Discover the Forest, which is a database of parks and nature preserves that you will definitely want to use in your search. Look for ones close to you, ideally well within an hour. Where I live, there are two wonderful state parks within thirty minutes and quite a few more if I spread that radius to an hour, so I feel very lucky in terms of the hiking options around me.

Make a list of the parks listed on that site that are within an hour or so of you, and then check each of them out and see what they have on offer. Do they have a lot of trails of varying difficulty? Is there a map available on their website? Does it look like it might offer interesting terrain and natural features?

Pick out a park from that list and plan a weekend day to visit it. Identify one of those parks that sounds the most exciting to you and make plans to spend at least part of a day there. I recommend using the park’s website to select a trail or two that looks interesting to you. I would stick with hikes or walks that feature an easy difficulty and a relatively short distance that you’re sure isn’t beyond your fitness level. DO NOT overdo your first walk. The last thing you want to do is go out there and try something that’s above your skill level. Remember, the more advanced trails are there to provide a challenge to people who have done this for years. Be patient – if this hobby clicks with you, you’ll get there.

Make sure the weather is good. While I don’t mind hiking on a mildly rainy day, it’s generally not a good idea to do so if this is your first time out there hiking or trail walking. Watch the weather and if there’s a good chance of rain, postpone the trip. It’s generally not worth your while to go out there in a rainstorm and feel drenched and miserable unless you know what you’re getting into, you know what optimal conditions are actually like, and you’re expecting it. Avoid bad weather until you’re more experienced.

On that day, I recommend packing up a picnic lunch, getting the other gear mentioned above, and heading out to that park. Again, to this point, you shouldn’t have spent anything on this beyond just using things you already have, other than maybe a bit of gas to get to the park.

Once you’re there, stop by the ranger station to see if they have any preprinted maps or other materials. It’s a good idea to do this just to grab a map and see if there are any notifications of special events or trail closings or guided walks or other things going on at the park that day.

Park close to the start of the trail you selected. This enables you to return to your car conveniently if you get tired on the walk or need to leave quickly for whatever reason. This is a pretty obvious thing, but I’ve been to our local state park and witnessed people parking multiple miles from where they intended to hike with little kids in tow so I know that sometimes such sense is lacking. (More on children in a bit.)

Walk! That’s what you’re here for! Head off down the trail and see what you find. Go at a pace that’s comfortable for you – don’t worry if people pass you or if you pass others. Don’t hesitate to stop and look at things that are interesting. Take lots of pictures, but also give yourself time to really appreciate the moment.

You’ll find that many trails, especially in local and state and national parks, are centered around a destination vista, like a waterfall or the top of a hill or an enormous redwood tree. That destination is usually one of the highlights of the walk or hike, but not the only highlight. Look for things that you appreciate, even if no one else seems to be interested in that thing.

My favorite part of trail walking or hiking is the sound. I love the sound of rushing water, of birds chirping, of insects chattering, even of other families talking to each other. The sights are beautiful, but the sound really brings things to life for me, so I encourage you to make an effort to appreciate the sounds around you.

Again, as I mentioned earlier, don’t overdo it. Don’t take on a trail that’s beyond what you think you can handle and if you’re concerned at all about overdoing it, turn back. One of the worst things you can do when you’re on a walk like this is to overdo it and find yourself returning to the car in misery, out of breath, sore, and so on. Different people have different levels of fitness and you shouldn’t expect to be a park ranger if you’ve never been on a hike or nature walk for the last ten years (if ever). Take it easy and if you’re trying to estimate what you can handle, estimate low. You are far better off leaving a trail and wanting to do more to do than leaving a trail feeling miserable. A feeling of misery is negative feedback which will discourage you from ever trying it again.

Explore the park, eat lunch, try another easy walk or hike… the possibilities are endless! If you’re already in a state or local park, spend some time exploring it. Find some of the best features of the park and check them out. Eat the lunch you packed (if you brought one along) at a picnic area. If you feel up for it, identify another short hike or walk and do that one, too – and if you don’t feel up for it, that’s okay, too. Hiking and nature walking offers a lot of freedom and you can really make what you want out of it.

Next Steps

So, let’s say you’ve done this a few times and you’ve really enjoyed it. You’ve walked several easy hikes and nature walks in multiple parks and you can see yourself really getting into this. How do you slowly start ramping things up without compounding the costs?

Here are some of the things I recommend, depending on what exactly you enjoy about it.

Slowly start trying out more difficult walks and hikes, both in terms of length and terrain challenge. Harder trails usually mean longer distances, more uphill portions, and even some terrain challenges. If you slowly increase your difficulty, you’ll eventually start to bump into trails that challenge you quite a bit and leave you feeling overwhelmed when you’re done. That’s okay – that’s sometimes part of the experience. Don’t let it leave a bad taste in your mouth. Instead, back off and do less challenging trails for a bit. I generally find longer low-difficulty trails to be less problematic than shorter high-difficulty trails if you’re trying to decide what to do next. If you’ve done a two mile low difficulty trail, I’d suggest that a three mile low difficulty trail will be easier for you than a one mile medium difficulty trail, so I’d try them in that order.

Invest in good shoes specifically for hiking. This is absolutely the first thing I would actually buy if hiking starts to become a regular hobby. Good, comfortable shoes that provide excellent traction on trails and in the forest are the best thing that a person who enjoys hikes and nature walks can own. Spend your time shopping for these. Don’t be afraid to go to an outdoor store and try some on just to get a sense of what you like and what fits you before buying. I have been very happy with a pair of Keen Targhee II hiking shoes and would suggest them as a very comfortable starter pair, though you can sometimes find a better price if you carefully shop around and are patient.

Check out some field guides from the library. Field guides are a great way to enhance your appreciation of the natural environments in which you’ll find yourself when hiking. They can help you identify the trees, the birds, the rocks, other types of plant growth, and even the mushrooms you discover when hiking. If you’re interested in this, start at your local library, check out some of their various trail guides, and see how they click with you. Take one with you on a walk and try to identify trees or plants or rocks or wildlife or fungi and see if it’s something that clicks with you or if a different guide might click better. A good field guide that you’re excited to take into the woods with you is a worthwhile purchase, but find one that clicks with you first. I highly recommend the field guides from the National Audubon Society, for starters. I would seriously love to own all of these someday.

Make it social. If you have any friends that might enjoy this type of hobby, encourage them to go with you. Share this guide with them, then pick out a park with a great easy trail or two to go on. Remember, the goal isn’t to pick something that’s new and challenging and exciting for you, but to pick one that you’ll both enjoy. Keep in mind the trails you enjoyed a lot when you first started and revisit one of those with some friends. If you make the introduction friendly and fun, you may cultivate a trail buddy for yourself!

Plan a vacation in a national park. Yosemite. Yellowstone. Shenandoah. Acadia. Denali. I am firmly convinced that the national parks of the United States offer some of the best hiking and trail walking and natural views that can be found in our entire world (let’s be clear, I didn’t say all of the best, but some; I’d be shocked if there is anyone who enjoys the outdoors in this world who wouldn’t enjoy some of the best that our National Park Service has to offer).

Plan your next vacation around a national park. You can stay in a cabin if the idea of camping doesn’t seem enjoyable for you, or you can dive in and camp there.

Fill each day with lots of trail walks and hikes. Visit tons of park offices and learn more about the park itself. Fill yourself up with some of the most beautiful things to see that our world has to offer.

Get Started ASAP!

The best part about a hobby like this is that you can get started for nothing at all. Just visit Discover the Forest and find some interesting parks near you and then pick an easy trail or two at the park of your choice. Put on your most comfortable shoes and clothes and head out to that park for a few hours. It’s that simple to get started and you might just find a whole new world of enjoyment for yourself.

Good luck, and see you on the trails!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.