A Beginner’s Guide to Day Hiking in New England
Northern New England and the greater Northeast as a whole, is without a doubt, hiker country. From the wilds of Vermont’s Green Mountains to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Maine’s Mahoosuc Range, the opportunities for trail exploration are endless. If you’re new to the sport, there’s so much to see and love—rich forests, deep caverns, powerful waterfalls, seemingly perilous fire towers, and even crashed planes await your discovery. And let’s not forget about the views, oh, the magnificent views, they’re sure to become the second-greatest romance of your life (or the first—hey, I don’t judge!).
This guide will get you ready to hit the trail and fall in love with hiking in New England.
Planning A Hike
Hiking Trail Selection
With easy-going walks for young and old to relentlessly steep hikes to torture the fittest of hikers, New England provides something for everyone. To avoid getting overly fatigued on your first expedition, significantly increasing the risk of injury, it’s important to be honest and realistic about your fitness level and work your way up from easier trails to those of increased difficulty. At Northeast Hikes, we have fun with our trail ratings, putting day hikes into the categories of Nature Walks, Family Hikes, Weekend Warriors, Pack the Aleve and Sign the Will.
Sadly, Northeast Hikes only scratches the surface of potential hikes. There are plenty of other websites to garner hike ideas, see our helpful links page, along with guidebooks galore. The Appalachian Mountain Club provides the gold standard for guidebooks and maps, its White Mountain Guide is often referred to by hikers as “The Bible.”
When reviewing trail guides, pay attention to the round-trip length of the hike, the estimated “book time” it should take to complete the hike, and the elevation gain (not the total elevation), to determine the overall difficulty of a trail. It’s also important to carefully read the trail descriptions and look at pictures to understand the hike’s physicality. Are there switchbacks, or does the trail go straight up steep sections? What about rock scrambles? Any brook or river crossings? All of which can significantly impact the trail difficulty.
Check Trail Conditions
Before hitting the trail, check recent trip reports on websites such as New England Trail Conditions, Trails NH, and Views from the Top. This is especially important in the spring and fall when icy or muddy conditions can create hazards and other challenges.
Watch the Weather
Weather in the mountains can be volatile and significantly different than what’s forecasted for the lowlands. To dress/pack accordingly, plan to lose about three degrees in temperature for every thousand feet gained, but also review the National Weather Service’s high-elevation report and the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast. In addition to precipitation and wind reports, pay close attention to the chances of thunderstorms.
What to Pack
You need one. Some manufacturers have made a killing in this category (ahem, cough, Beans) marketing what people think they might need on the trail as opposed to what is actually useful. Your day pack should not have more zippers than Michael Jackson’s Beat It jacket. You don’t need all the extra pockets and gizmos. One external pouch for trail maps and other small, quick-grab items, along with a water bottle holder, is sufficient. Here’s what you should look for when evaluating a day pack:
- Weight isn’t as important with day packs as it is backpacking, but still, why carry unnecessary pounds? You should be able to get a quality pack that weighs between 1-2 pounds.
- Volume (space inside for stuff): For day hiking, a 20L pack is likely sufficient; for more room/flexibility in fall/spring, you could go up to 30L.
- A hydration sleeve with an opening for the tube is helpful if you like using a Camelbak.
- While I’m a negative Nellie on gizmos when it comes to packs, features that alleviate other gear needs such as a built-in whistle are helpful.
- Fit: Most packs come with adjustable shoulder, sternum and hip straps, but when possible, it’s still a good idea to try a pack on in the store. Unfortunately, you won’t truly know how the pack fits you until you start logging miles, so a good return policy can’t hurt either.
Hyperlight Mountain Gear out of Maine is a company that “gets it” when it comes to packs.
Food and Water
Always pack at least two Nalgene bottles worth of water per person. I typically plan on needing 100 oz. for every ten miles. Using a Camelbak or Platypus bladder allows you to carry more water than bottles, as well as drink on the go without having to fish a bottle out of your pack. If you’re looking to cut pack weight, and there are water sources on the hike, the Sawyer Mini makes a great filter/water bottle combo.
The rule of thumb for backpacking is two pounds of food per day. I try to abide by that day hiking as well…just in case. However, with day hiking, you’re far less concerned with pack weight, which means more food flexibility. Unless I’m hiking with kids, I typically don’t pack a sit-down lunch with a sandwich (though I might still pack a PB&J); instead, I try to eat something on the go every 1-2 hours to keep my energy levels up.
The key is to select high-calorie, high-energy foods. Meal/energy bars are a good option if you can stomach them, as are granola bars, GORP (granola, oats, raisins, peanuts), chocolate bars (Snickers really does satisfy), jerky, cheese/sausage, bananas, dried apricots, dried mangos, etc. On long hikes, I might pack GU gel or gummies for an extra boost, but your favorite candy can also provide a kick in the rear when bonking (gummy bears are usually in my pack).
While it’s important to watch the weather report before hiking, it’s equally important to ignore the report when packing clothes. In short, this is New England we’re talking about—plan for anything. This means layers, and by now it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: cotton is not your friend.
In the summer, my upper-body base layer is a moisture wicking t-shirt. Merino wool is the gold standard here (I’m a fan of Woolx)—it’s soft, wicks moisture, retains thermal qualities when wet, and has the natural antibacterial properties of wool that repel odor. The catch? Merino wool will leave a sizable hole in your piggy bank. Synthetic shirts are much cheaper, but these tend to attract odor. You’ve been warned. For layers, I’ll typically pack a thin fleece or wool item for insulation and a rain jacket. In cooler weather, stuffing a down jacket in the pack just in case isn’t a bad idea.
On the bottom half, I almost always start with running shorts. They’re lightweight, flexible, breathable (this is key), and the built-in underwear saves that step. In the summer, a pair of hiking rain pants (men’s/women’s – make sure to filter for hiking) is typically all I need for an added layer of cold/wind/rain insulation. In spring and fall when it’s too cold for the running shorts, a good hiking pant that zips off at the knees for shorts (men’s/women’s), along with dry-wick underwear (men’s/women’s) get the job done. L.L. Bean often provides good value in hiking pants.
When it comes to a hiking sock, I’ve worn and sworn by WRIGHTSOCK for years. These double-layer socks are specifically designed to reduce the friction that causes blisters, and they truly work! Another great option is Darn Tough socks, made in Vermont with merino wool.
Even in the summer, it’s often a good idea to pack a thin glove liner and hat for chilly/windy summit conditions. A good baseball hat and, while stereotypical, a bandana can be indispensable for sun protection and sweat absorption.
I typically don’t bring sunglasses hiking—one more thing to lose/break—but if you’re going to be doing a lot of above treeline hiking, you may want to consider it.
The options here range from heavy-duty backpacking boots to light and nimble trail running sneakers. As you might expect, there are pros and cons to each. Backpacking boots (men’s/women’s) are typically more expensive, but they’re also more durable. With this durability comes weight, however, which can quicken leg fatigue. Backpacking boots are often made with Gore-Tex® and advertised as being waterproof, which is borderline laughable. Water will find a way, and even if it doesn’t seep in at the laces or that large hole at the top, waterproofing sacrifices breathability, and once a “waterproof” boot is wet on the inside, it’s much more difficult to get the water out.
Most beginner hikers will be well served with a mid-weight hiking boot (men’s/women’s) such as Keens or Merrells as they provide a good mixture of support, breathability, and quality. Experienced hikers, or those who come into the sport as avid runners, often prefer trail running (men’s/women’s) sneakers. The Solomon Speedcross series is often the go-to in this category, but the market has no shortage of quality options. Trail runners are much lighter than hiking boots, helping to minify leg fatigue and extend mileage, and the tread is typically made of softer rubber that provides a superior grip on rocks and wet surfaces than traditional hiking boots. The downside to this tread is that it’s less durable and thus I typically burn through a pair of trail runners per year.
First-Aid and Safety
It’s unwise to go into the backcountry without basic first-aid items; however, it’s also unnecessary to go overboard with a commercialized first-aid kit. I typically pack a ziplock bag with the following:
- Alcohol wipes
- Vitamin I (Ibuprofen)
- Benadryl allergy tablets
- Pepto tablets
- Toilet paper
- Hand sanitizer
- Bag Balm — Vermont’s miracle ointment for treating chafing. On longer hikes, I’ll pre-apply Bag Balm in areas that are, er, prone to chaffing as a preventative measure.
- Epi-Pen (for those of us with severe allergies)
- Bug dope — I prefer the travel wipes because they’re lightweight, but I’ve also had a bottle rupture in my pack, and let me tell you, that’s no fun.
- Blister treatment — On longer hikes, I’ll pre-apply an anti-chafing product such as Sport Shield to my feet. Between this and the anti-blister socks, I typically don’t have any issues, but you may want to consider Moleskin if you do. Duct tape also works great, especially if you get blisters around your big toe. Simply wrap some tape around the toe to prevent chafing.
- Sunscreen — Sol Altitude Sunscreen is best for going above treeline.
Personal safety items you don’t want to leave the house without:
- Map and compass — Yes, yes, your phone has an app—but what happens if the battery dies, you lose cell coverage, or you drop the phone on a rock?
- Fire — Waterproof matches are cool, but a Bic also gets the job done. If you go with matches, pack a couple of birthday-cake candles to get a sustained flame going.
- Headlamp — Headlamps are preferable over flashlights to keep your hands free. Don’t waste money on the ballcaps with the built-in lights; these are fine if you are trying to read in a tent, but they don’t provide enough illumination to adequately light a trail.
- I don’t consider this a necessity for day hiking, but if you’re going to be doing a lot of solo hiking on backcountry trails, you may want to consider a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger. When there’s no cell coverage, SPOT enables you to send messages home and make SOS alerts.
The beauty of day hiking is that you don’t need a lot of gear. That said, the following items can help improve the overall experience:
- Trekking poles — For me, trekking poles are an absolute must. They provide a total body workout on the ascent by getting the upper body involved and taking pressure off your legs. On the descent, they soften the landing impact and shock absorbed in the knees. Trekking poles have saved me from falling too many times to count.
- Gaiters — Hiking gaiters help keep pine needles, dirt, and other debris out of your boots. Note: you want the low-cut ones for summer. There are even gaiters made for trail runners.
I hope you found this helpful.