Hiking gear for beginners – Paul Besley's guide to walking boots, clothes, backpacks and dog walks
May 31, 202310 min read
A confession. I used to be a gear ambassador but I wasn’t exciting enough, so they let me go. I guess one person’s mountain boots are another’s slippers.
That’s the thing with gear, it’s very subjective, some people swear by Gore-Tex, others swear at it. I have worn Gore-Tex and Paramo clothing systems, and both have performed well. Walk into an outdoor shop and the choice goes on and on, floor to ceiling, famous brands, bright colours, men’s, women’s, the prices going from, ‘that’s not bad’, to eye watering, to ‘who would ever spend that?’ Hiking clothes aren’t even niche any more; they are part of our fashion culture seen in every local pub, football ground, and office space.
It’s in the manufacturer's interest to sell and keep selling more stuff. Each year brings new iterations, new colours, new fits, the styling futuristic or vintage retro (straggly beard not included). In days of old, hikers and climbers made something out of necessity on kitchen tables in damp terraced houses. Now it’s about keeping the money rolling for that vast factory in China, and the banks happy. Manufacturers sell a dream of epic landscapes, populated with athletic, toned, people with hard eyes and smiling faces, in pristine perfectly fitting kit. And where it hardly ever rains.
So, what to buy when you begin hiking? By which I mean walking that requires greater effort than popping down to the pub.
The first thing is don’t buy. Not yet. Keep your plastic in the wallet. If you have not hiked before, try it for a few hours, somewhere local, woodland or country park. Pick a fine day. Wear comfortable shoes and clothing, take a waterproof, the kids' rucksack with drink and food. Next time, buy a guidebook of day walks with clear route descriptions, a feature to visit. Try one of the shorter walks, maybe with unpredictable weather, perhaps you even get wet, or get too hot, see what it feels like. Notice what hikers are wearing, ask what works for them. And most of all, see if you like hiking. If you don’t, you have saved money. If you do, great.
Think of gear in terms of function, fit, price. Think of gear for seasons, autumn/winter, spring/summer. Do not think of how you look in the shop mirror (and you probably will).
Hiking gear is an investment. The kind of hiking you do will change as the years go by as will your body shape and that will change your gear, the older clothing making its way down to younger members of the family, dog walking, shoved in the car boot in case of a breakdown, dropped in the recycle bin.
You can buy a jacket for less than one hundred pounds or spend upwards of one thousand pounds. Leaving aside fashion, this really means function. A one-hundred-pound jacket might serve you well hiking through lowland landscapes, woodlands, country parks, dog walking. Cope easily with the odd shower. A deluge? You are probably going to get wet. On top of Ben Nevis in the depths of winter? There is a high probability you would not survive. Similarly, the latest bombproof, high activity, winter season jacket, priced somewhere north of five hundred pounds will be just the thing to keep you safer in that winter storm, but way overkill for a spring amble by a river with the sun shining, birds tweeting, and the smell of wild garlic filling the air. The perfect jacket, or any item of hiking gear, lies somewhere along a spectrum of cost, activity, and personal choice.
Buy the best quality clothing that is appropriate for your activity, season of use, and that is affordable. Read 1001 Walking Tips for guidance. Read gear reviews. Ask the shop for advice before buying.
Layering clothing, base layer/mid-layer/waterproof outer, gives you flexibility in staying dry and comfortable. Try the clothing on in the shop for fit. Does it allow movement easily, is there room for other layers? Does it continue well below your waistband? Are pockets accessible? Does the hood form a peak or does it flop down obscuring vision? Is legwear the right length, will it accept a belt or suspenders if needed? Do the zips run smoothly? Does the garment show signs of weak seams?
My personal preference is Paramo. I have a Velez smock that is ten years old, I use it autumn and winter; proof it regularly. It is comfortable to wear, a little heavier than other tops, but that isn’t an issue for me. It has kept me dry and warm in winter conditions. In terms of price, it’s cost me about three pounds per month over its life. So far. That’s pretty good going. In winter I carry an additional insulating jacket to provide warmth for when I stop and wear a warm mid-layer between my base and waterproof outer.
In summer I have a Paramo Fuera lightweight top; it's windproof and can keep off a shower, but a storm is going to get me wet. A decision I am happy with as I am not going more than a few hours from civilisation. I wear Paramo waterproof legwear between autumn and early spring. Shorts or summer weight trousers the rest of the year. In late spring and summer, I am happy to get my legs wet in rain and not get wet from sweating.
I wear a technical base layer (merino in winter for warmth), I have found these are best at moving sweat away from my body, keeping me cool and dry. In summer I wear a long-sleeved shirt for sun protection. I like zips or buttons on mid-layer tops so that I can vent when I warm up. Regulating body temperature by unzipping or removing clothing is the best way I have found of staying dry and comfortable. It might be a pain to stop and put on extra layers, then take them off again thirty minutes later, but believe me it is a price worth paying. I always wear a cap to protect me from the elements.
Deciding on your personal level of acceptable discomfort is another way of looking at hiking gear. Are you willing to accept getting a little wet, being cooler? How miserable does the day have to get before you say enough is enough? Most people who are new to hiking will over-pack, it’s natural. I call it packing your fears. If they are still doing it after hiking a few years, I call it packing your ego. You can tell both because the pack is way too big for a day hike, and starting out hiking is, I hope, for the day and not the Pennine Way. The fear packers try and cater for every eventuality. There is nothing wrong in that; hopefully they learn and get sick of lugging around a first-aid kit big enough to treat a whole town, or that shiny multi-use Leatherman. The ego packers will have carabiners hanging from highly technical packs bulging with highly technical kit, including aforesaid shiny Leatherman, unused group first-aid kit, five pairs of gloves and three hats for a summer day hike, their knees and ankles crunching under the weight of the hoped-for onlookers.
My standard pack for autumn/winter and more remote areas is Lowe Alpine 35 litres which cost less than £100 ten or more years ago. It is fraying at the edges now but still perfectly useable and while it might not look the bees knees on the hill, it has never failed me and is very comfortable. It has a back system for stability and ventilation, a bladder and side pockets for drink. I carry all I need, including:
an emergency shelter
a head torch and spare batteries
food and drink for me and my dog, Scout
insulating clothing for me and Scout
spikes, if appropriate
a small first-aid kit, including blister plasters
a phone charger
a map and compass
a notebook and pencil
a sit mat
a collapsible dog bowl
Other than walking poles, there will be nothing outside the pack.
My standard summer pack is a Lowe Alpine 22 litres and cost £60. It has a back system that allows sweat to evaporate, keeping me cool and dry. Inside I have:
a windproof/showerproof jacket
head torch and spare batteries
food for me and Scout
plenty of fluid
a small first-aid kit including blister plasters
map and compass,
notebook and pencil
ide pockets for a bottle
a walking pole.
If the weather is a little chilly, I will add my insulation jacket and or emergency tent.
Inside either pack I use dry bags to separate things and keep stuff dry. For day walks I try to plan routes that can give me a chance of grabbing some food; either at the beginning, middle, or end. A nice dinner in summer with a good spot where Scout and I can grab a snooze is marvellous.
What I am aiming to do is walk in safety and comfort without destroying my joints or exhausting myself and having an unpleasant day. If water is scarce in summer, I will take the bigger pack, carry more fluids, and reduce the distance and amount of ascent. If winter conditions are harsh, I will choose a shorter or lower-level route.
If there is one thing that will ruin a walk, it is badly fitting footwear. Blisters are bad news. The best way to avoid this is to buy footwear from a shop where the people serving you can give you good advice based on experience. As with clothing, the price of footwear ranges enormously, but the first choice should be made on fit; after that comes durability, suitability, and price.
There are two kinds of footwear: boots, and shoes. Boots, leather, or textile, give ankle support, stop debris getting inside, and keep you a little drier. Boots with textile uppers have come a long way in the past few years and offer excellent fit, support, and wearability, while being somewhat lighter. Boots generally weigh more than shoes and come into their own in less than good weather, and winter. For the beginner, three-season boots are adequate; they will cope with wet and mud and dry summer paths, and a little snow. In winter they will be a little colder, and less stable due to the flexibility of the sole and upper. Four-season winter boots are much more rigid, weigh significantly more, and are consequently more expensive.
Shoes are generally much lighter and more flexible, making the legs less tired. In bad weather they can be less than suitable, but not unusable; it is down to your personal level of acceptable discomfort. Shoes can be purpose-made hiking shoes, trail running shoes, or barefoot fitting.
Hiking shoes are more rigid and have thicker and tougher uppers. They wear well and offer a good level of support. Whether leather or textile they can come with or without Gore-Tex liners to help keep your feet dry. Width fittings can sometimes be a problem, so try different brands.
Trail running shoes like Inov8 have become very popular with hikers. They can be expensive and not wear as well as traditional hiking shoes, so doing research is a must. They are extremely light, have good grip and almost always excellent ventilation, helping keep feet cool in summer.
Barefoot shoes are wonderful. Light and responsive. The body needs to become used to walking in these strange looking articles, so you need time to adjust. But the feeling of the grass and soil under your feet is a surreal joy.
Soles need to grip. Makes, such as Vibram have a long and well-deserved reputation at being good for hiking. I have never had an issue with Vibram soles.
Your toes need plenty of room, the heel needs to be firmly held, the foot does not need to be squeezed across its width. Footwear that is too big, will crease and crack and be too flexible, causing blisters, slips and trips. Footwear that is too tight can damage feet for a lifetime. Many manufacturers make footwear for men and women and in different width fittings, giving much more choice and comfort. It is particularly important to pay attention to fit for children’s footwear.
Good socks are essential. Purchase your socks before trying on a pair of boots. Think of them as one system, the socks adding comfort, moving sweat away from the foot, the footwear adding in safety and protection. Most people have one foot larger than the other. I do. I use a thin liner sock on the small foot to fill the void inside the boot. This stops my foot moving around and prevents blisters.
As with all footwear, go steady in the first few weeks and take shorter hikes until the footwear and your feet have become friends.
If you have a dog, you will have the best companion for a hike. No contest. As always, follow the countryside code to have an enjoyable day out.
I love to have specific hikes for seasons that I will visit each year. I use Day Walks in the South Pennines as my route guide. I try to fill my senses, sight, sound, smell, and touch. And aim to end with a cup of tea and some cake.
Beginning in winter, I follow the route from Hebden Bridge to Stoodley Pike p.65. The hike up to Heppenstall to see the amazing ruins of the old church and pay homage to Sylvia Plath. Then on through wonderful, wooded valleys and then the best bit, along the roof of the Pennines to Stoodley Pike and the views across the north of England, before dropping to the pub in Cragg Vale and home.
In spring, Haworth to Top Withens p.77. A picnic in the company of Heathcliffe with views across those famous moors, running fingers across that soft stonework of the derelict farmstead, before heading back to view the house where the Bronte sisters wrote their great novels and a hike back through time in the village.
At summertime I head for Holme and the hike up to Black Hill p.5. This stunningly wild landscape takes me to one of the highest points in the Peak District with expansive views of the big moors and hopefully plenty of Cottongrass bobbing in the breeze. The hike back via Ramsden Clough is truly awe inspiring.
In autumn, it must be Hardcastle Crags p.71. A hike up on to the moors following ancient packhorse routes to see isolated crosses, and abandoned farmsteads. Then a return through the golden leaf of Hebden Dale, the smell of autumn filling your senses, stopping off at the famous crags with the view from above the trees down into the valley, then on to tea at Gibson Mill.
Scout’s favourite hike is Dovestones to Ashway Gap p.11. A reservoir in the valley, and a reservoir on the very top of the hill, and Chew Brook connecting the two, gives him plenty of opportunity for diving and swimming. He loves investigating all the rocks that look out of the valley and trotting carefree along the trails. This is one of his best days out.