By Pure Matters
Despite misconceptions fueled by Hollywood and endurance athletes, hiking doesn’t mean getting your arm pinned under a rock or trying to set a land-speed record on the 2,000-plus-mile Appalachian Trail. In truth, hiking remains one of the most-user friendly fitness activities. At its heart, it’s really just…walking…outside.
But to the uninitiated it can feel overwhelming. In an effort to demystify the experience, here are a few tips to make hiking part of your routine.
1. Don’t Be Intimidated
It bears repeating: Hiking is walking -- just swap sidewalk for narrow dirt paths and avenue canyons of the city or rolling lawns of suburbia for old grown forests, waterfall-fed ravines, and scenic overlooks. But if the outdoors has always felt daunting, outfitters like REI Adventures and LL Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools organize guided hikes.
2. Find the Right Trail
First, be honest with your fitness level and your skill set. Then, turn to the experts. Falcon Guides publish guides on local hikes around most cities, while sites like Trails.com, Backpacker.com, and GORP.com provide trail profiles along with user reviews and photos. Regional sites like Mid-Atlantic-specific HikingUpward.com are also great. Trail descriptions include turn-by-turn directions and mileage and elevation profiles. They also rate trails by difficulty, levels of solitude, and attractions like waterfalls or overviews. If it’s your first time out, start with shorter, less-difficult trails. Then slowly increase the distance, elevation, and difficulty level. And please tell someone where you’re going -- and when you expect to return.
3. Have the Right Gear
As REI demonstrates, your budget is the only the limit to the gear you could acquire. But realistically you only need a few things. Go with trail runners or light hikers; boots are overkill unless you’ve got weak ankles. Pair those with merino wool hiking socks; they wick sweat, add a some cushion under foot, and won’t retain body odors. For apparel, avoid cotton; it takes forever to dry and won’t keep you warm if it gets wet. Instead, go for performance apparel (either synthetic or merino wool). You’ll also need a backpack spacious enough to carry two liters of water along with a light rain jacket and an extra layer of clothing. And don’t forget to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, a few snacks, and a basic first-aid kit.
4. Follow a Few Simple Rules
Most of national park trails are reserved for hiking, but other parklands open the trail to mountain bikers and horses. If you run into them, offer wide berth by stepping off the path. As for other hikers, the slow-moving typically make way for the faster, and those hiking uphill have right-of-way over those heading down. And be sure you stay on the correct trail. Follow the directions, and keep an eye out for the blaze -- color-coded markers that line the trail, often painted on trees or rocks.
5. Go at Your Own Pace
You might start hiking with a handful of enthusiastic friends, but don’t be discouraged if you’re not together after the first mile. Part of the allure of hiking is going at your own pace, and spending time outside. If you end up hiking by yourself, enjoy it. They’ll be waiting for you at the next overlook.
6. Listen to Your Body
As with any other fitness activity, drink before you get thirsty, add a layer if you start to feel cold, and take breaks when you need them -- nature offers wonderful solace to soothe those aching quads. Also, when you encounter tough terrain, find your lower gear, that slow-n-steady pace that keeps you moving without utterly exhausting your resources.
Follow these few guidelines, and you can tackle a five mile trail your first time out. After that? There are over 50 national parks within the U.S… –Nathan Borchelt