Whether you’re looking to lose weight, reduce stress, or simply clear your head and get out into nature, hiking delivers almost immediate rewards.
It’s also a sport that doesn’t tolerate procrastination or excuses for very long. Assuming you haven’t been leading a totally sedentary life, you can follow a few basic steps and begin hiking right away.
And if you’re looking for some motivation to get off the couch and onto the trail, consider these reasons to start hiking.
It’s Healthy. Is it ever! While there is a growing amount of hiking-specific research, studies of the benefits of walking are equally applicable to hiking.
According to the International Hiking Society, hiking delivers a remarkable range of health benefits with comparatively few risks. By using hiking as a way to stay physically active, you can potentially lose weight, reduce heart disease, decrease hypertension, and slow the aging process. It also offers mental health benefits by reducing stress and anxiety.
It’s Simple. As you hike more frequently, you’ll begin to develop additional stamina, skills, and comfort on the trail.
But let’s face it, what activity is more fundamentally human than walking upright on two feet?
The beauty of hiking is that unlike, say, land luge, it’s an extension of something we all do naturally and every day. You will improve over time but the initial learning curve is almost non-existent. It’s easy to stick with hiking because the frustration level for beginners is low and you can control the intensity of your workout and find the pace that works for you.
It’s Cheap. Compared to just about any other sport, your upfront spending for hiking essentials is minimal.
Good boots, a few pieces of the proper clothing, a comfortable pack, and you’re pretty much ready to go.
As you get more into hiking, maybe you will decide to try a hiking vacation halfway around the world. But most of us have easy access to parks and natural areas with trails, so you don’t have to spend a lot of money (or time) to head out on a hike.
It’s Real. We all spend too much time on computers and indoors under fluorescent lights.
Or texting and watching TV. Hiking encourages you to step away from your desk and step back out into nature.
It’s a chance to experience the world directly and without a filter, and to rediscover the rhythms of the day and the seasons. Hiking is an unscripted experience where spontaneity is the rule. Even a trail hiked many times before will deliver surprises that keep boredom at bay.
I just got back from a hike on one of my favorite trails. I spotted a baby rattlesnake, probably large lizards, brown pelicans, hawks, spring wildflowers, rabbits, and dolphins riding the surf. All in less than an hour.
What can I say? Reality beats reality TV any day.
It’s Forever. As much as hiking is a great way to introduce kids to the world of the outdoors, it’s also a sport that they’ll be able to enjoy their whole lives. So can you.
A lot of activities and sports have limited life spans for participants, either because of injuries or logistical challenges.
But because hiking is low impact and you can anticipate and control the intensity and duration of your workout, it’s something that you can keep doing long after your teenage days are finished.
As you get older, you may not get up a mountain as quickly. Or cover 20 miles in a day. But in many ways, you’ll be a better hiker. Your understanding of the environment will improve and you’ll pick up more details and nuance along the trail.
Few Tips for getting more out of your hike:
Don’t Overwhelm the Trail: Group hikes can be a lot of fun but not always for other hikers. If you organize a large hike, try to reduce your impact by splitting up into smaller groups. That will make it easier for other hikers to pass and reduce your group’s presence on the trail.
Clusters of fewer hikers are also less likely to scare off wildlife.
Silence is Golden: It’s a hike, not a rave, right? Whether you’re in a large group or just hiking with one other person, there’s no need to speak loudly, shout, or sing. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “Hell is other people.” And when you call too much attention to yourself, you can quickly become “other people” to your fellow hikers.
Follow Basic Trail Etiquette: Many trails are open to a variety of users, including equestrians and mountain bikers. As a hiker, you yield to horses.
Stay to the right and pay attention to faster hikers coming up behind you to make it easier for them to pass.
Uphill hikers have the right of way so that they can maintain their momentum, although there are plenty of times when they’ll gladly step aside for a break and allow downhill hikers to get by.
When meeting other hikers, a quick hello is a nice touch. And definitely alert other trail users about skunks, rattlesnakes, trail obstructions, and other problems you’ve encountered. They’ll appreciate the heads-up.
Stay on Designated Trails: Shortcuts can lead to increased erosion and also destroy vegetation. In arid regions, cryptobiotic soil crust, a living groundcover, takes years to form but can be ruined in an instant. Tundra, both wet and dry, is also extremely vulnerable.
Nobody wants to get muddy boots, but tough it out in wet conditions rather than going off trail. Once a side path starts forming, other people will begin to use it and before long you have two trails instead of one. On narrow trails, try to walk single file to avoid inadvertently widening the path.
Don’t Approach Animals: It’s not good for them—or you. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists all sorts of nasty diseases that you can pick up from wildlife.
Your well-intentioned curiosity can create stress for animals and cause them to flee, which may leave their young vulnerable to predators. You should never feed wildlilfe because it’s unhealthy for them and animals may also become a nuisance by associating humans with food.
Leave Things Where You Found Them: Nature offers plenty of potential keepsakes but resist the temptation to pick up rocks and flowers in the forest, or driftwood and shells on the beach. It always seems harmless at the time. But especially in heavily visited parks, the accumulated impact can be severe. You should also show the same respect for human artifacts, such as arrowheads and pot shards.
But Collect Any Trash You Find: Everybody can do their part. Carry some sort of bag to gather garbage you find along the trail, then dispose of it properly when you return from the hike.
Clean Up After Yourself—and Your Dog: It’s not always convenient when nature calls when you’re out in nature. You’ll want to find a spot that’s away from heavily trafficked areas and at least 200 feet from water sources.
To minimize impacts, try to urinate on rocks or gravel. The best approach for solid waste is to dig a cathole that’s 6-8 inches deep. Once you’re done, refill the hole and cover it with leaves, needles, or other natural materials. That’s the basic plan but there are additional specifics to consider depending on where you’re hiking.
And be sure to pick up after your dog. Nobody wants to step in dog poop on the trail and it can be unhealthy for wildlife and degrade water sources.
Respect Closures and Private Lands: Officials sometimes close parks and trails to protect nesting birds or for revegetation projects. While frustrating, these closures typically try to limit impacts on recreational users. You can avoid potentially more lengthy and extensive interruptions of trail use by obeying any posted signs.
Be sure to avoid trespassing on private properties. Some public trails abut or cross private lands and nothing will shut down access faster than trespassing.
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