Looking to enjoy the great outdoors and get more fit, but unsure where to begin? Hiking is one of the most accessible, straightforward answers for you. Requiring no equipment except a decent pair of shoes, the outdoor world is your oyster when you decide to go for a hike.
Whether you live in a city or suburbs, there are options for places to hike. From stairs by the beach to hills and mountain ranges, it takes only a slight incline for a walk to become a hike.
Ahead, we enlisted the help of two trainers to review everything you need to know to get ready for hiking. These tips will improve your hiking game, whether you’re an expert or a novice.
MEET THE EXPERT
What Is Hiking?
Most people know that hiking means taking a walk outdoors. There is more to it than just that, though. Tucker says that hiking occurs “usually on some sort of nature trail, involving an incline or change in elevation.”
Tucker notes that “whether or not you are hiking with the intent of the exercise, hiking is exercise. The intensity of your hike changes based on the grade of incline and the speed at which you walk. ” She tells us that “you can also add intensity to a hike by adding more resistance. Examples of this would be wearing ankle weights, a weighted vest, or in my case (as a new mom), a baby.”
Rusu adds that hiking doesn’t require other people, telling us that “it can be a social outing with friends or a meditative solo workout.” He adds that in “either case, you will connect deeper to the world around you.”
Type of Exercise: Cardio and Strength
Hiking is a cardio activity, but because it involves walking on an incline and more vigorously than a stroll on the sidewalk, it’s also a strength-building exercise. “Hiking is an aerobic exercise that helps to improve cardiovascular health,” Tucker says. “Hiking can also be a challenging muscular workout, primarily strengthening the lower body muscles (glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves). The core is also activated while hiking to help stabilize the body, especially on trails with rocky or uneven ground.” She adds, “Trails with a greater incline offer a more challenging lower body workout, and flatter trails offer less of a lower body challenge but still provide cardiovascular benefits.”
Best for: Low Impact and Endurance
If you enjoy running, but your joints do not, hiking is an excellent alternative. That’s because it doesn’t require any impact beyond lifting and lowering your legs as you walk. Also, hiking is a cardio activity and is great for endurance, which means you can gradually build up your tolerance for it, progressively hiking further and longer distances.
What to Expect During A Hike
As with any form of exercise that’s new to you, always start low and slow with hiking. Rusu advises, “Start with a shorter hike in lower elevations, and be ready for your legs to sculpt and fire up.” Tucker suggests two miles or less for beginners and tells us that “If you are new to hiking, you might notice some fatigue in the backs of your legs if hiking a steep trail. You may also feel some soreness in your glutes, hamstrings, calves, or quadriceps in the days following your hike.”
Because hiking is walking, you can start and end anywhere you’d like. Some people hike a short ways on a trail, then turn around and go back, which is the perfect way to ensure you don’t overextend yourself too quickly. Other people take longer trails that loop around and drop them back off somewhere near where they began. When you go for a hike, look ahead of time at a map to ensure you will end somewhere that won’t leave you stranded.
Benefits of Hiking
- It’s free: You might encounter a park that costs money to park in, but for the most part, hiking is a completely free exercise.
- It’s great for your mental health: Tucker tells us that hiking has been proven to reduce stress and negative thoughts of self, which can lead to depression and positively affect one’s mood. A 2015 study done at Stanford University measured brain activity in two groups of people; the first group took a 90-minute walk in nature, and the second group took a 90-minute walk in an urban setting.1 Brain scans conducted on the group who walked in nature showed reduced neural activity in the area of the brain associated with negative thoughts of self. The second group experienced no change.”
- It promotes our “feel good” chemicals: Rusu notes that “a dose of Mother Nature stimulates the feel-good chemical hormones of adrenaline and endorphins that boost your mood and energy levels.”
- Hiking is good cardio: because you’re walking at an incline and/or vigorously, hiking benefits our overall cardio health.
- It’s good for strength: walking on an incline stimulates muscles throughout the lower body.
- Know your surroundings: It’s important to not land in an unsafe situation by hiking somewhere too remote. Tucker suggests, ” Do your research and be aware of your surroundings and potential dangers. If you’re hiking in an area where there may be wild animals, bear spray is always a good thing to have on hand.”
- Sunburn is a risk: You’ll be outside, so using an appropriate amount and the right SPF of sunscreen will help prevent burning.
- You can get lost: Rusu advises that “it’s best to let someone know where you will be. One wrong turn and you might end up in a horror movie. Be sure to map out your hike beforehand and stick to the path.”
- You need water: be sure to pack it with you to prevent dehydration.
Hiking vs. Walking
It’s jokingly referred to as “spicy walking,” and that’s essentially what hiking is. “Hiking is essentially walking outdoors on an incline. The incline gives hiking a physical advantage over walking in terms of improving fitness levels,” Tucker says. She adds that “your legs have to work harder to propel you up the hill, which means your heart has to pump faster, making hiking a more challenging cardiovascular workout than walking. The increased heart rate means you will burn more calories during a hike than on a walk of the same length.”
Rusu adds that elevation, distance, and terrain make hiking more challenging than walking. He notes that you’ll improve your muscle strength more with hiking than just walking.
What to Wear On a Hike
Most hikes don’t require special attire, but of course that’s dependent on where you go. If you’re somewhere more rural, Tucker advises that “some trails can get slippery so having shoes with a lot of traction and potentially hiking poles can help,” noting that “some trails require more of a hiking boot with extra traction while others are just fine in tennis shoes.”
Rusu recommends hiking boots as well, and says, “I like to wear long socks too as an added protection from any poisonous plants.” He notes that you should “wear comfortable, breathable clothing,” as “there’s nothing worse than being stuck in the heat with skinny jeans on.” Whatever you normally wear to exercise is likely fine to wear hiking, provided it offers enough protection from the elements. If hiking in a sunny or warm area, you also may wish to add a hat, sunglasses, or sun visor.
The Final Takeaway
Hiking is a free and easy form of exercise. It’s essentially just walking, but to hike means that you’re walking outside, often on an incline. To start hiking, you’ll want to pick out somewhere to go, making sure you won’t get lost. Wear comfortable clothes, and protect yourself from the sun with accessories such as sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, and/or a sun visor. Start slow with hiking, choosing to begin with a couple of miles, then gradually work your way up to longer hikes. Hiking builds both your cardio endurance and muscle strength, making it an excellent exercise accessible to most people.