Beginner’s Trail Guide: West side of Rocky Mountain National Park

Seeing some meese (yes, I know that’s not actually the plural of moose) has been on my outdoorsy bucket list for well over a year. It first started when I was working in Vermont and realized that was prime meesey habitat. After leaving without seeing so much as a squirrel, I shelved my moose ambitions and thought I’d wait until next year.

Until I moved to Colorado. Seeing moose was now a real possibility again, and when my boyfriend returned from REI with a trail that all but guaranteed a moose sighting, I was thrilled. We were going camping for the weekend just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, and the lovely volunteer at REI had pointed out a few trails just inside the park that were extremely meesey.

After breaking camp at Shadow Mountain Reservoir (learn more about the campground here), we headed into the park for the day with our fingers crossed to hopefully spot a moose. I have a slight huge obsession with animals, so I was on the edge of my seat with my head swiveling around in hot pursuit of a moose.

And then I saw him. At first, I thought it was a large horse, but upon realizing it had antlers and was most definitely a moose, I let out a high-pitched shriek for my boyfriend to pull over. His ear drums were a necessary casualty. It was a REAL. LIVE. MOOSE.

Ultimately, we ended up seeing five moose all from the safety of our car – except for the last one that came casually charging out of the woods just as I stepped out of the car to look at a moose I thought was far away.

Where To Find Moose and Not Get Trampled – Beginner's Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park

We entered on the west side of the park in Grand Lake, off of Route 34. The drive is gorgeous and a pretty easy two hours from Denver, especially if you incorporate camping into your weekend (which I highly recommend!). We explored the Kawuneeche Valley area, which offers a ton of great trails and obviously great moose watching! Most people enter the park on the eastern side in Estes Park, but Grand Lake and the western entrance are still pretty convenient to Denver and definitely worth seeing.

To find the secret moose trail our REI friend recommended, continue approximately four miles into the park. After passing the Onahu trailhead on the right, there will be an unmarked dirt road to the left. Turn left and you will find a small parking lot right on the bank of the Colorado River. The trail goes off to the left over the river (there is a bridge, don’t worry) and continues west towards the mountains. The volunteer at REI says he has never taken that trail without seeing moose, so if you want to do some exploring, go for it! One thing – when you get to the fork in the trail early on, continue straight. Going to the right takes you to someone’s private residence (whoops!).

In the off chance you don’t see any meese, you’ve got these awesome views!

Keep in mind that moose can become aggressive without much warning, so if you ever run into one in the wild, get a safe distance from it as quickly as possible. They can cover ground at the speed of a galloping horse, so do not get close to them! For more moose safety tips, go here.

We did a little trail-hopping for the rest of the morning and afternoon, which was a blast! We attempted to reach the Alpine Visitor Center, but the drive up (VERY high up, few guardrails, lots of wind) proved to be too daunting. We did get out of the car to take in the vista and immediately realized that being above the treeline would not make for a very fun hike. It was freezing and extremely windy, although very beautiful. If you’re not big into heights, this is your warning that the drive gets very intimidating once you’re through Milner Pass.

Officially in the alpine tundra
Officially in the alpine tundra

Milner Pass does serve as an excellent place to stop though, especially if you want to see some bighorn sheep! The pass is also a good stopping point because it’s located on the Continental Divide, which makes for a great photo op.

Hiking around the area was still difficult even though it was almost July – there was still a ton of snow in the area. It’s a lot of effort for not a lot of views, so I would suggest stopping to see the sheep and going back down to one of the trails you passed on the way up (also north).

Photo Op! Yes, this picture was taken in JUNE. That is snow behind me.
Photo Op! Yes, this picture was taken in JUNE. That is snow behind me.

Irene Lake is a great little trail just below Milner Pass. This trail could be challenging for some, since it is uphill on the way back (although this could mean it goes down to something cool!). We did a quick taste test of this trail and then decided to try out the Colorado River Trail since we were determined to see the river.

Quick FYI – it gets a LOT warmer in the area of the Colorado River Trail. After hiking all bundled up like you see in the above picture, we stripped down to shorts and t-shirts and were sweating! It was also right around noon by then, but regardless it will always be warmer since you’re lower down and less exposed.

Despite the very steep grade when you first begin, the Colorado River Trail is relatively easy. There are several stopping points at varying distances – we almost made it to Shipler Cabins, which is 2.3 miles one way. If you’re up for a big hike (keep in mind you’re at 8,000-10,000 feet), the trail that goes to Lulu City (an old mine) and through Little Yellowstone is supposed to be stunning. It is definitely on our to do list for the next trip!

On the banks of the Colorado!
On the banks of the Colorado!

If you just want to do a couple miles, you’ll still get plenty of bang for your buck. You go through a gorgeous clearing, have plenty of views of the surrounding peaks and forest, and an up close and personal look at the Colorado River.

On all the trails I’ve mentioned, keep in mind you need LOTS of water. You’re hiking at elevation, so make sure to pack plenty – bring a few gallons with you to stay on the safe side. You can also read my hydration tips here. All of the trailheads do have vault toilets (better than just a port-o-potty, but still no flushing).

You will see plenty of elk in addition to regular deer (deer are so boring at this point!) while enjoying some of the best scenery Colorado has to offer. There are also plenty of short, easy trails like the Adams Falls Trail in Grand Lake (you hike into the park), so there is really something for everyone in the area.

The trails are very well-maintained and usually nice and wide, but this is a place that will definitely make you appreciate a good pair of hiking boots (learn how to pick out your first pair here).

To get into the park, you have to pay a fee, but remember these fees help make our fantastic national parks possible! Fees help pay for up-keep and improvement of the park, and I have absolutely no problem with giving parks my money.

A day pass is $20 and is good for seven days, but an annual pass for Rocky is only $40, which is really the better deal. If you see a lot of national parks in your future, I would suggest shelling out the $80 for an America the Beautiful pass. This gets you into any national park in the country for an entire year. It’s also free for active duty military and only $10 for a lifetime pass for senior citizens (62 and over).

Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park is an experience I recommend to everyone, regardless of whether you live in Colorado or are just visiting. You will be hard-pressed to find better scenery or wildlife spotting, and there are nearly endless amounts of trails to explore – the ones I talked about are only a small part of this massive park. I look forward to working my way through the rest of the park – hopefully I’ll see you out there!

More Information
What do I wear hiking?
What snacks should I bring with me?
How do I make sure I stay hydrated?
How do I pick out good hiking boots?

How to pack for your first camping trip

So you’ve gone hiking, and you didn’t hate it. In fact, you kinda sorta fell in love with the outdoors (it’s easy, don’t be afraid to fall hard).

Now, you want to go camping.

Pinterest will lead you to believe that you must either buy a ton of stuff or bring half your kitchen with you. Not so.

Download the printable for this post here >>

But I don’t have a tent and don’t want to drop a bunch of money.

Worry not! Your essential equipment – a tent, sleeping bag(s), and sleeping pad(s) can be rented. If you’re camping somewhere warm, you won’t necessarily need a sleeping bag, though. More on that in a second.

If there’s an REI close to you, start there (members get an extra discount!).  As of November 2019, it’ll run $68 to rent a sleeping pad, four-person tent, and a sleeping bag from REI for a one-night trip. Obviously still not what I would consider cheap. But it’s certainly less then buying it all! To find out what you can rent from your local REI, go here and find your state.

If you don’t have an REI – don’t worry you still have options! Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) has stores in the Northeastern United States as well as the Mid-Atlantic region. EMS doesn’t publish their prices online, so call ahead to find out more. This post from the Dyrt has a larger list of stores to rent from as well.

You can also rent online from places like Lower Gear that will ship gear to you wherever you may be – the same three pieces of equipment will run you $61 plus shipping. They’re based in Phoenix, so if you happen to live there, you can avoid shipping costs and simply pick up your gear in-store. Another online option is OutdoorsGeek.

No matter where you rent from, do not go without the three essentials: tent, sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad. 

What size tent do I need?

Tents are pretty liberal with their estimations of how many people can fit in them. A two-person tent is in fact VERY snug for two people. A good rule of thumb is to get a tent that is rated for at at least more person than you will have in the tent with you. Most tents come in even-numbered sizes (e.g. two-, four-, six-person, etc). If it’s just you and a friend, or you and a partner, a four-person tent will be ideal.

What is car camping versus backpacking?

Car camping is the most beginner-friendly option. It means you’re driving your car right up to a campsite (maybe walking 10-20 yards) and camping there. You can bring as much as you want and it doesn’t matter how much it weighs because everything is being packed and carried in your car.

Backpacking means you’re carrying everything you need in a backpack and hiking (usually multiple miles) to a random place to camp along a trail. For this reason, camping equipment labeled “backpacking” just means that it’s lighter and, in the case of tents, smaller.

This post is for car camping. If you’re interested in trying backpacking, I highly recommend this book. Beyond that I can’t help you!

Okay. So what clothes do I bring?

If you’re going camping in the mountains, never underestimate how cold it can get at night. I made this mistake my first trip – 40 degrees didn’t sound THAT cold, so I brought no hat, yoga pants, and a light jacket to sleep in. It did not go well.

Alternatively, if you aren’t camping in the mountains and the lows are in the 70s or above, you probably won’t need a sleeping bag and could just bring some blankets from home to sleep in and normal pajamas/leisure wear/underwear.

Regardless, layers are key.

I always pack more than I think I’ll need because it’s way better to shed layers when you’re hot than to be shivering wishing you brought more. I make sure to always have a thick pair of socks, a beanie, and long underwear for sleeping.

In general, when it comes to packing, being a car camper is great because you just drive up to your campsite and have your whole car accessible to you. You can bring as much as you want and leave what you don’t need in the car, so don’t be afraid to overpack while you figure out what works for you!

One last thing – make sure to bring a change of underwear as well as a few pairs of socks since (spoiler alert) you most likely won’t be showering.

If I’m not showering, what toiletries should I bring?

Well, some campgrounds do have showers. These are typically at big national parks like Yellowstone or at KOAs/other places with of facilities. Most Forest Service campgrounds, and many less popular national parks, won’t even have running water. Make sure to check beforehand (learn how to scout out a campground here).

This post assumes your campground does not have running or drinkable water. First, make sure to bring some with you to dunk your toothbrush in. (In general, you should bring water with you for drinking purposes. More on that shortly.)

I have acne-prone skin (one adulthood secret that no one told me….acne follows you after puberty!) so I never go anywhere without face wipes. Other than that, I throw some moisturizer, deodorant, and sunblock in my duffle bag and call it a day.

Ladies, Pinterest tells you there are a lot of other “essentials” to bring. And if you really love make-up, you go girl. But the best part (for me) about camping is that you get a break from all the beauty standards of regular life and just get to be. So I leave all that at home. But if you’d prefer to swipe on some mascara, you should live your truth. There is no one definition of what makes you outdoorsy.

A weekend of no make-up is a liberating experience that I recommend for everyone.
A weekend of no make-up is a liberating experience that I recommend for everyone.

I need to bring more gear though, right?

Yes! But nothing too involved.

Make sure everyone in your group has a light source (phone, headlamp, or lantern). Make sure that light source has fresh batteries, a way to charge them, and an extra set of batteries (the last one is not applicable for your phone).

Also essential – chairs. If you’re a sports fan, soccer mom, or tail-gating college student, you probably already have some sort of folding/camp chair. If not, they’re pretty cheap at REI and Walmart. In general, Walmart has great cheap camping stuff.

Firewood and a way to light it. Sometimes, you can buy firewood at the campground with cash. But that varies wildly. If you’re a worrier like I am and want to arrive with firewood, any gas station or grocery store within a 50-mile radius will do. Don’t forget a lighter!

Do not bring wood from home. It can bring in funky plant diseases if you live far away from where you’re camping, and obviously that’s not cool to do. One large bundle is enough for two people to have a decent s’mores and beer sesh for one night, but if you plan on having the fire going for several hours, grab two.

But what about food?

I have a post all about that! Read it here >>

Basically: Make it easy on yourself. It’s impossible to botch making hot dogs and camping is the perfect excuse to eat like a ten-year-old.

Anything else?

– Bug spray and anti-itch cream, in case the former doesn’t work.

– A small first-aid kit. Read my post about making your own DIY kit for cheaper >> 

– Water: get gallon jugs to cut down on plastic waste. Two gallons should be plenty for two people to camp over night and hike. If you’re not planning on hiking, you’re probably safe with one.

– Ice and a cooler of any size. If you are in the market for a new cooler, you can’t go wrong with this one.

– Kindling for your fire. Cheat and use ultra-cheap wooden skewers.

– Lighter (the big kind with the long neck)

– Skewer for marshmallows and hot dogs. They’re cheap and worth it. Even if you decide you hate camping, you can always use it for a backyard fire pit.

– Pillows and extra blankets.

– A roll of paper towels.

– A garbage bag. If you went to the store to pick up any food on the way, just reuse the grocery bags!

– Hand sanitizer. Most campgrounds don’t have a place to wash your hands.

– Cash money. Once you’re out in the woods, less places take credit cards. And, cash can just be faster where the internet connection is slow!

Bring whatever entertainment you deem necessary. Hiking and a campfire are usually enough for me. It’s totally cliche, but conversations around the campfire are really some of the best you’ll ever have. Partially because of the good conversation, but also because I have the sleep schedule of a 90-year-old woman, I don’t really bring anything else.

You can bring a book (make sure you have a reading light) for bedtime, a deck of cards, something to play catch with, etc. I strenuously object to bringing any technology with you besides a phone. First, you probably won’t have service and you definitely won’t have wifi. But like with makeup, camping is my time to unplug from “normal” life and all its demands. Try it.

But what about all those cool gadgets Pinterest and the rest of the internet says I need?

Keep it simple for your first camping trip, particularly if you’re not sure whether you’re going to like it enough to go again. Plus, there’s plenty of time to spend all your money on things at REI, so stick to the basics for your first outing – and don’t forget to have fun!

Oh, and if you need help picking out and reserving your first campsite, read this next.

I can smell the s'mores from here.
I can smell the s’mores from here.

What to wear the first time you go hiking

Editor’s Note: Most of you get here by Googling some form of “Can I wear sweatpants to go hiking?” The answer is absolutely yes. 

Despite what Pinterest will tell you, if you want to try out hiking, you don’t need much. If you’re on a well-maintained trail and go on a day with mild temperatures, you probably already have everything you’ll need.

Quick vocabulary note: “day hiking” is what the outdoor industry refers to what you and I just think of as hiking, going for a walk, or wandering around for a few hours. This post is for day hiking, not a full-on backpacking trip (you’re on the wrong website altogether if that’s what you’re in search of).

Ok, let’s get into it.

What shirt do I wear?

Throw on an old t-shirt. Moisture-wicking fabric is really only important on either end of the weather spectrum.

You may have read the phrase “cotton kills” which I find to be a bit dramatic, particularly if you’re just going to be out for a few hours in the daytime. However, if it’s cold out and you get sweaty, you want something wicking your sweat and keeping you as dry as possible to make sure you stay warm, particularly if you’re in the shade or the sun starts going down.

The same goes for hot weather. It’s not as bad to be sweating your booty off if your shirt is helping you stay dry so your sweating is more effective. But, not the end of the world to just wear a regular t-shirt.

If you want to get something made of technical fabric on a budget, then hit up Target or Walmart. I love me some Target for cheap, comfy, and cute stuff to get sweaty in. They have the basics as well as ~trendier~ tops, so it’s impossible to find something you won’t like.

My fellow people with boobs, you will want to wear a bra without a wire. You will sweat. And you will curse yourself for wearing a bra with an underwire. Target’s sports bras are also awesome, plus come in a million fun colors and styles. Plus, if you’ve got nice underwire/not sports bras, you don’t want to get them all stinky from hiking. (Breastfeeding people, these nursing bras from Amazon were my go-to!)

Layers are important. In general, I bring one more layer than I need since you the weather can always change by the time you arrive at the trailhead. Just stuff the extra layer in your backpack (take a look at my packing list here).

Look up the location on ahead of time to get an idea of what to expect. Make sure you go to the website (on a computer if possible) since for some reason parks don’t come up on the app. Look at the hourly forecast and the radar to see if any weather is coming your way. Pack or re-schedule your trip appropriately!

What pants are good for hiking?

Any athletic shorts will do. I actually even just wore regular shorts from Loft the first few times I went hiking because they were brown and a sturdy fabric so I thought, “Surely, THESE are hiking shorts!”

Keep in mind these were not booty shorts. There is no place for booty shorts in hiking. This is no shade to anyone who wears booty shorts. It just means a lot of chafing. If you feel more comfortable in booty shorts, I highly recommend some sort of anti-chafing balm.

If it’s cool enough to need pants, go for something stretchy with pockets. However, if you’re more comfortable in jeans/Dickies/etc, go for it. If you get wet, they will take a while to dry out, but if you want to wear them, get after it.

If your pants/shorts don’t have pockets, make sure something does – a jacket, a backpack, anything. You need somewhere to put your keys and phone, after all!

How do I protect myself from the sun?

As the proud owner of a fivehead, I’m never outside without a hat on since that baby is prone to sunburn. Wearing a hat also keeps your hair out of your face and shields you from any low-hanging plants or branches you may run into!

Sunglasses keep you from squinting AND protect your eyes (particularly important for those of us with lighter eyes) from the sun. You don’t need anything fancy – I have single-handedly kept Target’s sunglasses section in business after losing pair after pair each year. It can be nice to use croakies to keep your sunglasses from falling off your face and possibly a cliff and/or to buy a sportier pair that hugs your face.

I used to be a huge proponent of slathering yourself in sunblock, but as more information comes out about the potential harm sunblock is actually doing, I encourage you to first wear clothes, a hat, sunglasses, and try to not be out during the middle of the day when the sun’s rays are strongest.

However, if you’re going to get burned without sunblock, use this handy site to help you find one that is safer. Normally I’m all for the generics to save money, but this is one product where spending some extra cash can be much safer for your health!

If your skin is a problem child like mine, try a sunblock specifically for your face. I also use this sunscreen on Baby OB and really like it, but if you have darker skin (honestly even if you’re super pasty white already) it leaves a lot of white since it’s mineral-based.

If you have darker skin, I’m obviously very white so I’m not a fountain of knowledge for you, but several Black bloggers that I follow recommend this sunscreen (which also scores well on the 2020 Sunscreen Guide site!).

What shoes do I wear hiking?

If you are going on a short hike on a trail without a lot of rocks, wearing your grippiest sneakers is totally fine. I completely understand not wanting to shell out the cash for hiking boots before you even figure out whether you like hiking. If you do want to find your first pair of hiking boots, click here for help.

Keep in mind that you will not have as much tread or ankle support as hiking boots give you, so just be careful. That being said, I survived the Billy Goat Trail in Maryland in sneakers:

One of the tamer sections of the BG Trail. These guys were much more prepared than I was! Photo from Howard County Sierra Club.
One of the tamer sections of the BG Trail. These guys were much more prepared than I was! Photo from Howard County Sierra Club.

Please please PLEASE get some non-cotton socks so you don’t get blisters. You can find them cheap at Target or Walmart, don’t worry! You can also1 consult my guide to socks to find your perfect pair.

Anything else I should bring?

Bug spray. Even if it’s cool out! I’ve been camping in 50 degree weather and still mobbed by mosquitoes. Get the backwoods/deep woods edition of your preferred brand. If you hate the greasy feel that bug spray leaves, try OFF’s dry feel spray.

WATER. Any water bottle will do – just make sure you bring a full one! Getting a reusable water bottle not only saves the planet, but is a million times cheaper than buying single-use bottles all the time.

What about the bebé?

Hiking with Baby OB has been a real trick trying to keep them from getting sunburnt!

They currently pull off all hats and sunglasses, so we’ve been using this hooded swimsuit from Coolibar. However it is 1) expensive and 2) not breathable enough for hiking that’s not in the mountains. It’s ideal for 65-70 degrees. Anything above that gets too hot and sweaty. I do love that it has a hood and is UPF 50.

One hot tip I got from a fellow mom was having the person carrying the baby (if they’re on your front, not your back) wear a giant floppy hat, which will generally also cover the baby up. You can also use aforementioned baby sunscreen!

If they aren’t currently pulling off anything you put on their head or face, these sunglasses worked really well for us before entering this current phase!

The best socks for hiking and running

For a long time, I lived life completely unaware of the glorious world of sock options. I thought that white cotton ankle socks were as good as it got.

But during my first-ever trip to REI, I was informed in no uncertain terms that cotton socks were not going to cut it. Cotton doesn’t wick moisture or dry quickly, which leaves you with swamp feet in the summer and numb toes in the winter. Both set you up for a one-way ticket to Blister Town.

What do I want instead of cotton?

Either synthetic (polyester, rayon, etc) or merino wool. Synthetic is less expensive, but merino wool is SO soft and nice. Plus they stink less (nice for multi-day camping!).

I started at Target for an affordable synthetic option. In the last few years, they have majorly upped their sock game. Before, I relegated Target socks to household chores or working out. But now (2020), these stretchy black ankle socks rarely leave my feet. They hit right at my ankle, are synthetic fabric, and dry out quickly. I love them for hiking in sneakers, road running, and trail running. Plus, $11 for a six-pack is a pretty good deal!

Wait, but you also recommend wool?

Yes, wool. My husband insisted merino wool would “change my life” and to be honest he was right. But buying something that was wool seemed totally counter intuitive at first. Wouldn’t they be itchy? Scratchy? Stiff?


Merino wool is stretchy, soft, and also retains its warming ability even when it’s wet. Case in point: I ran through ankle deep snow and even though my socks were totally soaked and it was in the 20s, my feet stayed warm the whole time.

Ok, so I want to splurge a little on merino socks.

REI now makes a merino wool option, which will be your best bet for less expensive merino socks. I haven’t personally tried them, but I’ve had great success with several other REI Co-op brand purchases, so they’re worth a shot. (They’re 25% off for Labor Day 2020, too!)

Smartwool is a very popular merino wool brand. They’re also well-known for their super thin, light socks. I do think their socks are exceptionally comfortable. However, all of mine have worn out very quickly (less than a year), so I don’t think they’re worth the price. It’s a Colorado company, so I want to love them, but I just can’t.

Instead, my heart lies with Darn Tough. They are also 25% off for Labor Day, but I love them even at full-price thanks to their lifetime guarantee. If I’m paying double digits for ONE pair of socks, they better last forever. I got my first pair in 2014 and have used and abused them regularly since then, but only the dye has rubbed off in a few spots. I also love Darn Tough for their slightly shorter crew sock height, and of course, the merino wool. Darn Toughs aren’t quite as thin as Smartwool, but I haven’t been bothered by that.

Should I get crew socks or ankle socks?

Your socks should come up a little higher than whatever shoes you’re wearing. This keeps your sweaty skin from rubbing against your shoes and getting blistered. For running, ankle socks do the trick. For hiking, you may want to consider crew height socks.

Yes, I know most people think they are super dorky (although I think the youths wear them now as a fashion thing?). But if you’re hiking in boots, you’ll want socks that hit above the top of your boots.

Darn Tough’s are slightly shorter, which I think looks a little better (at least on me). If you want the classic crew sock hike or to spend less money, REI’s Ultralight Hiking Crew socks are an affordable option when Darn Toughs aren’t on sale. Darn Tough also makes ankle socks, which are my husband’s favorite running socks. I didn’t personally love them, but I can’t really pinpoint why.

Another reason to consider crew socks is trail running. You keep up a lot of rocks and dirt while you run, which can end up in your shoes and socks.

The thought of wearing crew height socks with shorts and sneakers horrified me (because I’m SO fashion forward). But trail runners that I thought were cool wore them…and I was getting a lot of rocks in my shoes.

If you find yourself getting uncomfortable because you’ve got rocks in your socks (is that a Dr. Seuss book?), try a crew height sock. Save Our Soles makes excellent options in merino wool that’s a little lighter than Darn Tough, making them better suited for running.

What weight socks should I get?

If your hiking boots are waterproof, they’re also going to be quite warm (even in winter). I recommend looking for socks that are labelled ultralight or microlight to keep your feeties cool.

If your feet run cold, you can always try lightweight or midweight socks to see if those are a better fit, particularly if you’re doing a lot of winter hiking or running.

Save Our Soles are merino wool socks that are a happy medium between ultrathin and the slightly thicker Darn Toughs (even the “micro” weight). These are my go-to for winter trail running if its snowy enough that my feet will get wet.

What are other running sock options?

I do love my Target socks, but it can also be nice to treat yoself and get some nicer, running-specific socks. I like a bit of padding, so my first try was Thorlo. They had plenty of padding on the heels and toes, but the arch of the sock was really thin and the contrast felt weird. It could’ve been coincidence, but my feet started cramping a lot when I ran in them. So it was on to the next.

Maybe I just needed something uniformly thin. I tried Feetures and immediately hated them. They didn’t fit right on my feet and the fabric felt scratchy and uncomfortable after just a few washes.

On a whim, I bought some socks from a brand I’d never heard of called Stance. Mostly, I just liked that they had a topographic design on them. But I ended up falling totally in love with them, particularly for the higher back.

Stance’s Uncommon Lite socks have the perfect amount of rear tab (that’s a technical term). They shrink pretty badly in the dryer, so my first pair is a little too snug. I sized up for pair two and they fit like a dream. They also have glitter on them, which is pretty fantastic. (Stance also makes hiking socks. I haven’t tried them, but you can find them on sale at REI right now)

I was arrogant enough to think just because *I* had never heard of this brand, they clearly were new and unknown. Since I loved the socks so much, I went to their website to see if they had brand ambassador opportunities. They did…for Rihanna. Safe to say they were doing just fine without me.

As you may guess from a brand with enough money to pay Rihanna, they aren’t cheap! So I tried out Balegas because Boulder Running Company carried a bunch of them, they were on sale, and I had a gift card.

These are like wearing soft, silky bunnies hugging your your fit (without, you know, any bunnies being harmed in the process). Plus, some of the pairs have cute messages on them like “Be The Light.” I have narrow feet, and they’re nice and snug on them and have just enough padding. I also liked that they had a just-over-the-ankle height in addition to no-show ankles and crew socks.

What’s the bottom line?

In general, you’ll want something lightweight for summer and maybe one heavier pair if you’re planning on really getting after it in the cold weather. Merino wool is the best, but there are lots of synthetic blends that will work too.

The ideal height for socks will vary based on your personal preference and footwear. When it’s a million degrees out in July, I run in ankle socks, but taller ones have honestly been really nice for keeping the rocks out of my shoes when I trail run.

If you’re hiking in boots, you’ll want something above the ankle or you’ll be pretty uncomfortable. Darn Tough’s crew size is a bit shorter than other brands and is perfect for hiking boots. If you’re on a budget, Target works for running and REI is great affordable bet for hiking.

Happy sock hunting!

Gear Guide: How to pick out your first pair of hiking boots

I define hiking as walking outside on an unpaved surface. Which could be why I have an unpopular opinion about hiking footwear.

My hot take on hiking boots: 90% of people getting outside probably don’t need hiking boots in the first place. They’re expensive. And most hikes the average Outdoor Beginner goes on don’t require that level of grip or ankle support.

If your regular sneakers aren’t cutting it, first try Brooks Cascadias to see if they’re comfortable. And then wait for last year’s model to go on sale and snag them for under $100.

As a general rule of thumb, you do not need the newest model of anything. So if you find a brand and model of any footwear that fits for your hiking needs, wait for them to go on sale or see if last season’s model is already on sale. (I actually have a whole blog on saving money on outdoor gear if you want to more of that information.)

But if Cascadias aren’t comfortable. Or you want more ankle support or a waterproof shoe (BUT Cascadias also have waterproof models!), you could consider hiking boots.

What makes hiking boots different than sneakers?

As you may have guessed by now, ankle support. If the trails you’re hiking on (or want to hike on) are rocky or otherwise irregular terrain, the stability of hiking boots can be a welcome relief to rolling your ankle every time you hit the trail.

Hiking boots also have really excellent grip, which again comes in handy when you’re on rocks or slick surfaces. If you’re hiking on smooth dirt, you probably don’t need to worry about having better grip. Vibram soles are sort of the gold standard of grip (you’ll recognize that name from the barefoot shoes that were all the rage for a while). I have Merrell hiking boots with Vibram soles an do love them, but rarely *need* them.

Hiking boots typically have a bit more cushion than regular shoes. This makes walking over rocks or roots more comfortable, but mostly only matters if you’re hiking all day long or for multiple days in a row. If a product description includes a “rock plate” or “rock shield” or “rock barrier,” this is what it means.

Finally, most hiking boots are waterproof, which is really handy for muddy conditions or crossing water. If you hike in muddy, rainy places a lot (I’m looking at you East Coast), this could be helpful. But most hiking boots/shoes are breathable enough that if you wear non-cotton socks and get your feet wet, the water drains out quickly and you’ll be fine without waterproof footwear.

I think I still want hiking boots. But I hate how they look.

Totally get that. First of all, hiking boots have come a LONG way. Even since I first wrote this blog, companies like Merrell (and others) have really upped their design game and come out with really cool looking boots. So don’t immediately discount boots without taking a look.

If you absolutely don’t want something coming up over your ankles, there are plenty of options! Hiking shoes and trail running shoes are also super grippy and come in waterproof styles. I’ll say it again: Brooks Cascadia trail runners are an awesome option frequently on sale.

There are hundreds of choices. How do I narrow it down?

During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s obviously much harder (and less safe) to be spending hours in a store trying on shoes on in person. Shopping online, or at least researching online, beforehand can be much safer or at least make your in-person trip more efficient. It’s an easy way to hone in on a few possibilities.

I recommend starting on a site like REI. There are tons of brands, plus they have an excellent return policy (use your gear for up to a year and return them if it doesn’t work out, no questions asked). Their curbside pick-up has been really easy, too.

When you click on the hiking boots section of their website, you’re met with hundreds of choices. First filter your results by your shoe size and the review rating. I wouldn’t bother looking at anything with under four stars. But on REI’s site that’s still 132 possibilities.

Are the boots waterproof?

I don’t think hiking boots are worth the investment if they aren’t waterproof. If you don’t need waterproof shoes for what you’re doing, save the money and just wear sneakers.

Your feet will be a little hotter in waterproof shoes or boots. Make sure to look for mentions of breathability (or lack thereof) in reviews.

A note for vegan readers: a lot of waterproof shoes have leather on them. If that’s an issue for you, REI has a handy “Vegan” filter you can apply to your search. If you’re on another site, just make sure to closely read the product description.

Are your feet wide or narrow?

If your feet are wider, Merrell’s Moab boots are a popular option (but one I haven’t personally tried). Unfortunately, your options are way more limited if you need a wide footbed.

If you have narrow feet, you’ll want to filter by Regular Width and then search reviews to get an idea of fit. I have narrow feet and Merrell boots also fit me well. So do, you guessed it, Brooks Cascadias.

But it all comes down to comfort.

It’s 2020 and a good hiking boot should feel comfortable right out of the box. If you put on a pair and think “ehh these will be comfortable after I walk in them and break them in,” move on! Don’t think that any weird pressure points will magically disappear. If they aren’t comfy right away, they’re not for you.

Don’t be shy about busting some moves in your boots. Try walking on your tip toes, walking up or down stairs, do some laps around your house or the store. REI has a handy-dandy faux rock to climb on. And with REI’s return policy, you can test them out hiking and then return them if they don’t fit right.

Comfort means more then cushioning, though.

Hiking boots also vary in weight, and unless you’re doing some really intense hiking (in which case you are reading the wrong blog) anything heavy is just going to be a chore to wear. If they feel heavy when you’re walking around your apartment, I gaurantee you they’re going to feel WAY too heavy when you’re hiking.

The bottom line

If you’re still overwhelmed by options, don’t be shy about just trying on a pair that you like the looks of. There’s no shame in wanting to have fashionable footwear in the outdoors! Once you’ve got a few pairs on your feet, go for the pair that’s the most comfortable (physically and financially). And don’t forget to look for sales!

Who Am I?

I’m a beginner, just like you.

Until a few years ago, I never even owned a pair of hiking boots.

I grew up in Maryland running around in the woods like a wild child, either on foot with my dog or on the back of a pony that I’m sure was wondering why the @#$* it was out past dinner time thanks to my ridiculous hijinx.

But then I grew up. 

I always wanted to be outdoorsy, but it wasn’t really part of the culture in the suburbs where I grew up. You do that stuff as a kid, but then you grow up and go to the mall. You know, to be cool. My friends didn’t want to go hiking (I was also too afraid to ask), and I was too scared to get outside my comfort zone and do it on my own.

When I met my now-fiance, his dating profile said he wanted to someone to hike the John Muir Trail with. I had no idea what that meant, but in the first year of dating he took me on my first real camping trip, taught me why I needed hiking boots, and introduced me to my new lord and savior, REI.

But not everyone has that someone.

And what I really wanted was information from other beginners.

I quickly discovered that none of the “beginner’s guides” I found were actually written by a beginner, so I thought I’d solve the problem myself.

And that’s why I started this blog. Besides my random reflections on being an outdoor beginner, I’ve got campground reviews, trail guides, gear reviews, and how-to’s like how to pack for your first camping trip and how to pick out hiking boots when you have no idea what you’re doing.

I’m still no expert, but I hope Outdoor Beginner is enough to help you get your own adventures started.

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