If you’ve ever advised someone to “go for a walk,” you might want to heed your own suggestion and explore the trails. The outdoor activity is amazing for both your mental and physical well-being — and you don’t have to be an extreme adventurer to reap the numerous benefits of hiking, either. “Think of hiking as simply going for a longer stroll in nature; you can hike at any speed, at any altitude, and for any number of miles, hours, or even days,” says Alyson Chun, assistant director of adventure sports at Stanford University and instructor for REI.
No matter how challenging (or easy) your trail, each hike has its advantages. First, even a moderate one-hour hike is an excellent way to get a cardio workout while strengthening your core and lower body. And as the altitude increases, so do the benefits of hiking. “The more difficult the hike, the more calories — and stress — you’ll burn away,” notes Chun.
Vital Hiking Equipment
The best part: You don’t need much to get started. If you’re beginning your hiking journey with a one-mile hike around the local park, you won’t require any special equipment (aside from a refillable water bottle, which you should always bring with you!) Once you start exploring longer and more challenging trails, there are some items that you should definitely bring on your hike.
- Hiking boots or shoes
- Lightweight backpack or day bag
- Long-sleeved shirt
- Hiking pants
- Map or navigation tools
- Sunscreen or protective clothing
- Water and snacks
- First aid kit
- Flashlight or headlamp
- Trekking poles (if needed)
Unlike other outdoor sports that require a lot of equipment and often necessitate travel and instruction, the entry barrier for hiking is minimal. Along with plenty of water, “you really only need two essential items: proper footwear and a day bag,” says Chun.
Elevate Your Hiking Experience
If you already take short excursions on your local trails, perhaps it’s time to elevate your experience to the next level with a daylong hike.
Discovering New Ground and Enhancing Fulfillment
“Engaging in extensive treks offers an array of unexplored landscapes, invigorating your fulfillment,” clarifies Chun. Prepare a hydration container, a selection of nourishing refreshments, alongside your fundamental belongings, and embark on a journey to unlock these mighty advantages of hiking.”
If you’re a novice, begin with a novice trek. Discover a path nearby by utilizing the AllTrails App or at Hiking Project, which showcases GPS and elevation information as well as user-generated advice for approximately 80,000 beginner to advanced trails. (Simply remember to save your route from the app to have it available for when you lose cell reception, as frequently happens in the wilderness.)
Works Your Legs From All Perspectives
Most treks involve ascending a substantial hill or even a mountain, then descending, a combination that’s an excellent exercise for your legs and one of the foremost advantages of hiking. “Ascending a mountain is quite similar to climbing the stairclimber or repeatedly performing lunges, which fortifies your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves,” states Joel Martin, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of exercise, fitness, and health promotion at George Mason University.
However, descending is what truly leaves your legs achy and robust. “To descend, your glutes and quads necessitate considerable slow, controlled effort to stabilize your knees and hips in order to prevent falling,” elucidates Martin. “These forms of contractions [referred to as eccentric contractions; the same type your muscles undergo when you gradually lower a weight at the gym] inflict the most damage on muscle fibers because you’re resisting the force of gravity against weight, which, in this case, is the weight of your body,” he expounds. This signifies that while you may not be out of breath during the descent, your muscles aren’t given a moment to relax.
Every Stride Reinforces Your Core
Maneuvering challenging terrain also necessitates the involvement of your abdominal muscles, obliques, and lower back to maintain the stability and upright position of your body — especially if you carry a backpack. “A more substantial bag — around eight to 10 pounds — imparts greater instability, thus compelling your core muscles to toil harder,” remarks Martin. Visualize it in this manner: You are effectively transporting weight on your back, effectively combining cardiovascular exercise and strength training in one activity. (You acquire comparable benefits from incorporating a weighted vest into your workouts, by the way.)
Cross-Training That Counts
Whether you’re preparing for a race or you simply want to diversify your cycling regimen, incorporating some hikes into your routine can enhance your fitness level in ways that elevate your running and biking performance. “Cyclists tend to have robust quadriceps but underdeveloped hamstrings, and runners tend to have weak hamstrings and glutes,” remarks Martin. “Hiking helps fortify these muscles to rectify these imbalances,” he further explains.
Moreover, if you frequently hike at higher elevations (meaning 4,000 feet and above), you will become accustomed to exercising in an oxygen-depleted environment, as Martin points out. Consequently, your body will adapt to utilizing less oxygen, which may result in enhanced VO2 max performance in your next race.
The evidence lies in the scientific research: The journal Sports Medicine highlights how athletes have employed altitude training to boost their speed and performance, while a study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science concluded that there were notable improvements in endurance performance when runners completed a 10-day altitude training camp. However, there’s a catch: “A solitary hike won’t yield significant results; consistency is paramount,” advises Martin. So, by forming a habit, you may enjoy the benefits of hiking.
Enhances Your Overall Mobility
Many traditional exercises—such as running, walking, performing lunges, and engaging in squats—primarily focus on forward and backward or up and down movements. On the other hand, hiking compels you to move in various directions, as you navigate over fallen trees and maneuver around slippery rocks. “By participating in activities that require multidirectional movement, you strengthen the stabilizing muscles that activate to prevent common injuries,” explains Martin.
Consider this: Most everyday injuries occur when individuals rapidly transition from one plane of motion to another, such as reaching over to lift a heavy object and straining their back muscles. If you’re not accustomed to moving in this manner, other muscles will attempt to compensate for weak stabilizers, resulting in poor form and potential strains, tears, or fractures.
Enhances Your Happiness
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Experience that delightful feeling you get when you encounter a magnificent waterfall or gaze out from a mountaintop? Research indicates that such encounters have a positive impact on your emotional state: Individuals who engaged in a 50-minute walk through natural surroundings reported reduced anxiety and an increased sense of happiness that promotes good health, in comparison to those who walked near busy traffic, as evidenced by a study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. “We are aware that even looking at photographs of nature can alleviate stress,” affirms Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (Witness the familiarity of seemingly ubiquitous desktop backgrounds.)
Even a mere five minutes spent in nature can enhance your mood and boost your self-esteem, according to a study featured in the Journal of Positive Psychology. Moreover, since physical exercise triggers the release of endorphins (also known as the hormone of happiness), engaging in physical activity within a natural environment takes the rewards of feeling good to a whole new level. “Hiking creates a delightful fusion of diminished stress and heightened happiness,” comments Whitbourne.
Excellent Method for Establishing Connections
Collaborating with others to achieve a shared objective, such as navigating through the woods, serves to strengthen relationships and foster deeper bonds. “Hiking typically involves resolving minor obstacles together [‘Uh, did we take a wrong turn?’], which instills a greater sense of accomplishment as a group,” shares Dustin Portzline, an American Mountain Guide Association–certified rock guide. “What I remember most are the people I hiked with, above all else,” he adds.
Lacking a hiking companion? Worry not. Check for hiking groups in your vicinity on Meetup or participate in a class or excursion with REI to join experienced individuals and reap the benefits of hiking.
Reduces Your Worries
A study featured in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that adults who engaged in a 90-minute walk within a natural setting reported less rumination (commonly known as brooding) compared to those who strolled through the city.
In addition, they demonstrated reduced blood circulation to the area of the brain linked with overthinking, while the urban group remained unaltered. Investigators theorized that nature supplied an attention diverted from pessimistic and self-referential cognitions.
As onlookers seek to identify the specific qualities of nature that contribute to its status as a “positive diversion,” the encouraging news is that you can easily experience this immersive green environment by taking a stroll along your local park’s pathway.
Boosts Stamina — Without Exhausting You
By now, it is likely evident that embarking on a hiking adventure offers numerous physical advantages and enhances your strength — yet these perks of hiking won’t leave you drenched in sweat. “Engaging in outdoor exercise has been found to be more manageable, as it reduces fatigue and discomfort while enabling you to move faster and endure longer compared to exercising indoors,” explains Dr. Eva Selhub, a co-author of Your Brain On Nature.
Additionally, the inherent challenges of maintaining balance and confronting inclines during a hike contribute to building your physical resilience for other endeavors. “Hiking is an excellent approach to increasing endurance without subjecting your body to excessive strain,” says Jax Mariash, a professional ultra runner who includes hiking as part of her cross-training routine. “The slower-paced miles also aid in fortifying your stamina, so when you engage in long, flat runs, your legs effortlessly adjust and even gain extra speed,” she remarks.
In need of mental clarity? Hiking is the ultimate remedy. Research indicates that exercise alone significantly improves your mental equilibrium, enhances your overall well-being, and mitigates stress levels. “Experiencing the great outdoors provides twofold benefits,” states Dr. Selhub. “Walking amidst the wilderness has been likened to injecting a drop of morphine into your brain, resulting in a decrease in the stress response, as well as elevated levels of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins,” she elaborates.
This advantage of hiking can be partly attributed to the sense of awe that nature elicits in most individuals. A diminished stress response also translates to reduced inflammation within the body, and as Dr. Selhub explains, “we are aware that inflammation is closely tied to a decline in mood.” In summary, adopt a routine that embraces the green surroundings as a means to combat stress.
Hiking Destinations Across the Nation
Once you’ve gained assurance hiking your local trails, you may desire to explore some of the most exquisite hiking trails in the United States. There’s no superior place to start than the national parks. Many of the parks have hiking trails for all levels from effortless through arduous (or exceedingly challenging), so you can discover a hike that’s suitable for you. If you’re seeking an authenticwilderness expedition, Alaska provides matchless natural splendor and an extensive network of trails. Keep in mind that you don’t have to journey far to relish a hike — every state in the United States has trails.
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