Starting out hiking it can be a hard to try and figure out what you actually need, what you can make due with and what you can probably do without. This guide will walk you through some of the basics of what you need and what you can live without to get you outdoors with the minimum investment.
Boots are semi optional, kinda. In perfect weather conditions on well maintained trails and shoes that have at least some kind of tread on them, you'll probably be fine with ordinary shoes. If you're alright with your workout shoes getting a bit dirty you shouldn't have a problem if you're sticking to dry trails that get lots of traffic. That being said there are a few times when you'll really want good boots.
- When it's wet – Your sneakers aren't waterproof. If it's hot out crossing a river in sneakers is probably OK because they'll dry off. On the other hand if it's cold once your feet get wet they will probably stay wet. You will hate your life a little bit more for the rest of that hike. Also, when it's muddy boots are going to have better traction to keep you from slipping or even getting stuck in the mud.
When it's cold – Many boots are insulated which helps fight the cold. Good socks can go a very long way but.. if they get wet…
When you're going a long distance – If you're doing something a few miles or less it probably won't matter. Lots of people walk a couple miles just going to lunch and back… and they do it in dress shoes. Keep in mind how much abuse your feet normally get into consideration because hiking boots are more likely to be designed with long distance comfort in mind.
A backpack is usually a good idea but it certainly doesn't have to be a hiking backpack. It's a good idea because water, snacks and safety gear are hard to fit in pockets. If you're doing a very short distance on a popular trail it doesn't matter much but the further you're going, the harder it will be bring along the things you'll need.
A good hiking backpack will generally offer better ergonomics, a dedicated spot for a water reservoir and tougher materials. Little touches like lots of pockets or loops for trekking poles are also common. As great as those features are, however, just about any backpack will do for short to medium length hikes as long as you're not carrying too many pounds.
The short answer on if you need trekking poles or not is no. They are nice, in certain situations or distances but for the beginner they are not usually needed. They are good for going very long distances, going downhill and for balancing yourself in rough terrain.
Generally something other than jeans is recommended, but not required. Jeans pose a problem when they get wet or when you need a good range of motion. If getting wet or climbing up a big giant hill are part of the equation it's best to wear something else. Quick drying fabric that stretches is ideal. In the summer shorts will do just fine as long as they aren't thick cotton. In the winter you're going to be most comfortable with something designed for outdoor use, especially if it's wet.
Good hiking socks are made of materials that will keep you warm and will dry quickly. It's always a good idea to have quick drying socks. You don't need expensive wool socks for this, though. In perfect conditions it won't matter much but even a cheap pair of quick drying socks can mean the difference between a fun hike and a miserable one. Just look for athletic or outdoor socks without cotton.