I wrote the following reasons explaining why hiking is essential with beginners in mind. Although I am wary of the increase of tourists and ‘non-outdoors’ people trampling through our National Parks and treasured lands, I believe that enjoying nature is natural to everyone — even if someone isn’t aware of it yet. I try to motivate anyone to get outside and explore, provided they ask good questions and act according to guidelines of outdoors responsibility.
Whether for yourself or your friend who watched WILD last weekend on HBOGo and wants to do the PCT now, here are 10 perfect reasons to get outside and start hiking immediately:
1. Hold yourself accountable with real-life workouts
Although this is fairly self-explanatory, the fact that you can’t go for a trek in the living room or around the block is a really important aspect of hiking. In most cases, you will usually have to travel some amount of distance to get on a trail. This act of committing means you are more likely to finish exercising than if you had simply started a home workout or hopped on the treadmill. Even if you get halfway into a hike and decide you don’t want to continue, you are still going to have to turn around and walk back to where you started if you want to go home. By making you commit and making quitting more difficult, you are doing yourself a favor and ensuring you’ll get a solid workout in for the day.
2. Improve mental health and decrease stress
Have you ever heard the term “nature deficit disorder?” Although not a defined condition, a majority of the Earth’s population lives in urban areas with a lack of exposure to nature and so-called ‘green spaces.’ Researchers have long suspected that a lack of exposure to nature can significantly affect mental health. In multiple studies during the last decade, including a 2015 study at Stanford Univeristy by Gregory Bratman, participants in the study’s positive emotions increased significantly in short and long-term measurements simply by incorporating a daily walk. In another study, Bratman and fellow colleagues measured decreased levels of rumination (negative reflection or brooding) in participants walking in green space versus those walking in urban areas. While experimenting on the effects of nature and green spaces, researchers from Finland found that even short walks in nature decreased stress levels in participants significantly more than those walking in cities. Behavioral researchers are starting to deliver decisive proof of the long-suspected theories on nature deficits in humans, but most results point towards the same thing: time in nature is good for your mental well-being!
3. Focus on your endurance training
Whether you’re hiking for two hours or backpacking for a week, the act of hiking is a great way to increase your aerobic endurance capacity. Hiking uphill or downhill, high above sea level or in baking heat, your body is moving at a steady pace for a long distance. Elevation changes on trails work your muscles both concentrically and eccentrically, providing balanced training. Depending on the altitude (distance above sea level) you are hiking at, your body’s aerobic capacity will be forced to grow due to availability of oxygen. The benefits of consistent, long-term walking/hiking on an incline are well-documented, so get out there and start reaping the benefits from pushing through a tough hike!
4. Restore creativity and problem-solving ability
With the overabundance of stimulation and connectivity in urban society, it’s easy to feel as if your brain is numbed and your ability to deeply focus drained. Constant stimulation can decrease attention levels and make moments of isolation and non-stimulation tough to experience and enjoy. Time spent hiking and experiencing nature can directly counteract these issues. Through several preliminary experiments, David Strayer, a professor at University of Utah, has found that participants’ ability to problem-solve creatively increased drastically after spending several days hiking in nature. While most of your hiking might not be for multiple days, spending regular time in nature is an excellent way to give your brain a break from the constant stimulation of everyday life, and can benefit the way you approach solving challenges and projects in your daily routine.
5. Create time for socialization and companionship
Let’s face it: working out can be boring. There is no way around it, some days you just don’t want to work out or feel like you can’t properly focus on your exercises. Hiking takes care of that issue by making it easy to bring along a few friends to provide some engaging conversation as you head down the trail. Unlike weight-lifting or taking classes (where people may do different exercises or can’t talk in a room full of other people), everyone is doing the same exercise while hiking and there’s plenty of time to talk. Experiencing nature together with close friends is excellent bonding time, and a friend could be just the motivation you need to crush those last tough miles. Make a plan with some buddies for your next free weekend, and enjoy social time well spent while staying healthy.
6. Customize your workout intensity
This is one of the best arguments for making hiking a staple of your lifestyle: it’s as tough (or as relaxed) as you want it to be. There are any number of ways to make your hike tougher or easier, including picking a steeper/longer trail; hiking in midday heat or across rocky trails; taking a shorter loop instead of the long one; bringing a backpack with extra water to add 5–20 pounds of weight; or setting a time limit for completing the trail. No matter what your fitness level or goal is, you can find ways to change up your hike to increase or decrease the intensity. (If you don’t have access to many trails, try doing your favorite jaunt in reverse — new views, different pacing and a whole new challenge right at your feet.)
7. Train your grit and determination
Hiking can be rough. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Sometimes you read about a trail described as “moderate” by a professional hiker; to you, it feels like you’re climbing Mt. Whitney. Other times, it rains out of nowhere or the temperature is 10° and you have to grind through. Sometimes it’s simply difficult to adjust to the silence. No matter what the challenge is, learning to surmount those difficulties and push through tough spots is great training for fitness and for life. Fitness isn’t always fun (nor should it be), as great results come from great effort. Forcing yourself to look inside for the determination to finish a steep trail or beat a previous time record teaches good discipline and toughens you up for future challenges.
8. Combat obesity, diabetes, arthritis and more
If you’re at all tuned into health and wellness issues, you’ll know that the US is in an obesity and health crisis. Americans are increasingly sedentary in today’s society, and the obesity epidemic leads to other health issues (such as diabetes). Hiking actively combats all of the above issues, starting with burning an average of 200 cal/hr at a moderate pace of 2 miles/hour. Those calories burned can increase drastically with an quickened pace, trail incline or extra weight carried. Consistent exercise can decrease the likelihood of developing Type 2 Diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels, and the regular movement and impact on your bones from hiking can fight off onset of arthritis and osteoporosis. Also, since a majority of hikers try to get outside in good weather, ten minutes in the sun will give you almost all of your daily Vitamin D requirements. (Wear sunscreen!) Whether you’re concerned about any or all of the above issues (or just want to stay heart-healthy), a few hours of hiking a week is an amazing way to stay fit and well.
9. Measure your achievements
This is something I personally place high value on. Workouts and challenges that have tangible, measurable goals are an efficient and satisfying way to track your progress and continue to self-motivate. The feeling of knowing you pushed through X amount of miles in sweltering heat up and down a steep mountain, never quitting when you really wanted to, is an amazing one. In the moment, a tough hike might have you asking why you did this to yourself, but, upon completion, you’ll most likely be filled with pride at conquered the trail and ready to get out there and do more! Keep a journal or log of all your miles pounded out on the trail; you’ll be amazed at your list by end of the year, and that feeling of accomplishment will only push you to do more!
This one is self-explanatory. Faced with jogging 10 miles on a rickety treadmill facing a wall or hiking 10 miles up and down a narrow trail with incredible views of jagged mountains or deadly gulches, I’ll take the outdoors every time. Having a sense of adventure is something that I value highly, and being outdoors can always bring something new. Many great hiking trails are minutes away from major roads, but feel as if you’re out in the wilderness due to steep cliffs or thick forests. Finding interesting wildlife, glowing lakes or nerve-wracking cliffs along a trail can be exhilarating, which increases adrenaline and may give you more energy to push forward.
These are just a few reasons to get outside and get hiking. Hiking can range from an hour stroll in your local park to week-long backpacking trips in the wilderness. If you are struggling with finding good hikes, Google ‘best hikes in’ your local area. Remember, if you have any knee or back issues (or any large-scale health issues), you’ll probably want to consult your doctor to make sure you’re fit to hike, and ease into your hiking routine as well. Below are five quality tips to remember for any hiker:
- Always bring enough water with you. If possible, prehydrate (drink extra liquid before heading out).
- Wear sunscreen. (Don’t forget, you can get burned even if it’s cloudy outside.)
- Don’t get lost. If you’re checking out a new or isolated trail, make sure to buy a map or print out instructions from a trail guide online. Don’t rely on cell phone service if you get lost…because service tends to disappear right when you want to use it.
- Bring a buddy. Many hikers do multi-day trips solo, but there are inherent dangers to hiking alone. If your route is challenging, dangerous or you aren’t completely comfortable with it, make sure to bring a friend or two so you can all take care of each other.
- Enjoy! Hiking is an amazing hobby, usually with beautiful views and a great sense of satisfaction. Don’t ruin that by pushing yourself too hard. If you need a break, take one. Better to make it through the hike at a slower pace than to hurt yourself or burn out.
Happy trails everyone!