How to maximize the benefits of hiking and minimize the risks
Ah, the great outdoors! The fresh air, the panoramic vistas, the joy of communing with nature—and that twisted ankle or bout with poison ivy! Hiking offers so many benefits for your mind, body, and spirit, but it can also present some hazards. That’s why it’s well worth taking the time to do your homework before you go.
Hiking is a great way to exercise, and it offers some serious health benefits too. It provides excellent low-risk exercise for outpatients with coronary artery disease (CAD), report German researchers at the University of Freiburg. Another study, conducted on men with metabolic syndrome who participated in a three-week hiking vacation, indicated a significant improvement in metabolism and the ability to lose weight. For more sedentary people who seek a less strenuous outdoor exercise, researchers determined that even hiking downhill offers positive anti-inflammatory and metabolic effects, as well as helping to lower blood pressure.
Choosing Your Location
The world offers so many amazing trails with breathtaking views, wildlife sightings, unusual rock formations, and historic sites. Along with recommendations from friends, there is an abundance of information online through the National Parks Service, National Geographic, AllTrails, and other websites. Most provide information on the level of difficulty, distance, and variety of trails available, no matter what part of the world you want to explore. Gauge the level of difficulty by your fitness level, and get as much information as you can about your chosen location before you go. It wouldn’t hurt to get a physical from your doctor either.
Because it can take three weeks to three months to establish a level of fitness appropriate for the challenge, schedule your hike far enough in advance to prepare, especially if this is your first time out. Mental preparedness is also important. Focus on the personal benefit you hope to gain. You might also want to contact the trip leader if you are going with a group and obtain advice about the specifics of your particular trail.
Get in Shape
The first consideration is cardiovascular fitness. Try to get 30 to 45 minutes of cardio four to five days per week. Try swimming, cycling, brisk walking, or walking up and down stairs. For more challenging trails, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) provides both aerobic and anaerobic training. Add short periods of more strenuous exertion—30 to 60 second sprints every two to five minutes during your exercise session.
Strength exercises should be done three times per week. Gradually increase weights, repetitions, and/or distance.
- Lunges – Hold equal weights in each hand. From a standing position, step forward so both legs are bent at 90 degrees. As you straighten to a standing position, bring your rear foot forward. Repeat with the other leg. Strive for at least 10 to 20 repetitions per leg.
- Step-ups – Step onto a bench with one leg, bring the other leg up. Step down with the first leg and then the other. 10 to 20 repetitions. As this becomes easier, hold 5 to 10 pound dumbbells in each hand as you do this exercise.
- Resistance Band Walks – Place an elastic resistance band around your calves. Standing with feet hip-width apart, walk forward, maintaining tension, as far as you can. Gradually increase the distance you walk at each session.
- Crunches – Lying on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, hands behind your neck, roll your body toward your knees, keeping the tension in your abdominals and lower back on the floor, then roll back down. Start with 20 repetitions.
1) Walk heel-to-toe with arms out to the side at shoulder height and eyes looking straight ahead.
2) Stand on one foot for 30 to 60 seconds and then switch feet. Repeat.
Start with short hikes (up and down a nearby hill or taking a loop around a local walking trail). Over time, increase the speed and the duration of your mini-hike. Not only does this get you physically and mentally ready for a more challenging hike, it’s a great way to break in your new hiking boots.
Clothing and Gear
The Washington Trails Association suggests the following:
- Boots – Make sure they provide sufficient protection, support, and comfort for your feet and ankles on long trails and uneven terrain. Try on a variety of boots until you find the perfect fit.
- Clothing – Choose synthetic or wool materials, and clothes you can layer. For cold and wet conditions, opt for a well-insulated jacket, a waterproof layer, and thermal underwear. You may also want hiking or rain pants. For warm weather, layer your clothes starting with a synthetic t-shirt and shorts (and lots of sunscreen). Hiking-specific socks provide breathability, cushioning, and protection from blisters. Hats, usually with a wrap-around brim, will protect you from the sun. And don’t forget a good pair of sunglasses.
- Backpack – Look for a bag large enough to carry food, water, extra clothes, and items like a compass or map, a fire-starter, a multi-tool knife, a first-aid kit, insect repellant, sunscreen, gloves, and a flashlight.
You are now ready for the wild. And, if someone tells you to “take a hike,” you can thank them for caring about your fitness, health, and happiness.
Best Foods for the Trail
- Dried fruits and vegetables (preferably organic)
- Nut butters
- Trail mix (opt for a mix without added candy or sugar)
- Jerky (check label for undesirable additives)
- Whole-food protein or energy bars
- Warm up before you begin. Try jumping jacks or running in place.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the hike to stay hydrated.
- Keep your hat and sunglasses on to protect from over-exposure to the sun.
- Stretch afterwards.