By Tom DiChiara
Here's logic that's hard to argue with: If aerobic exercise is good for your health (it is) and the wonders of nature are myriad and beautiful (they are), then it follows that experiencing these marvels together would be a pretty desirable scenario (oh yes). As luck would have it, there's a very simple way to achieve this miracle: It's called hiking. So turn off your Blu-ray of Planet Earth, get over any of the excuses you may recognize from the list below and experience the majesty of Mother Nature firsthand.
But... I'm WAY out of shape. This is actually a reason to hike, not an excuse not to. Hiking, which can include everything from walking a flat nature path to climbing Everest, enhances cardiovascular fitness and can lower blood pressure. "Going up and down hills gives the heart a great workout," board-certified family physician and avid hiker Dr. Ray Sahelian tells WebMD.
And the benefits don't stop there: According to WebMD, hiking can help stem the negative effects of osteoporosis and arthritis by increasing bone density and loosening up stiff joints. Like other forms of aerobic activity, it helps manage weight and combat obesity. Hiking can also lower blood sugar levels for those who have or are susceptible to type 2 diabetes. It can even have positive psychological effects: A UK study published in 2011 found that hiking and other "green" (read: outdoor) exercises help reduce anxiety and improve mood. Notes Sahelian, "There's a feeling of relaxation and enhanced well-being that comes on after a few-mile hike in the woods."
But... I'm too inexperienced. "The great thing about hiking is that anyone can do it," says Leigh Ann Saperstone, who lives in Fairfax, Virginia, and has been hiking since childhood. "Everyone starts somewhere, and at their own pace." In other words, don't knock yourself out trying to be an expert trekker your first time out. Try walking some easy trails first -- or even the paved paths at a park -- before gradually graduating to more challenging hikes.
But... there are no good hiking spots near me. You may not be walking distance to the world-famous Appalachian Trail or the Old-Faithful glory of Yellowstone National Park, but chances are there's some form of a park in your area, hopefully with one unpaved walking paths and some beautiful scenery. AmericanTrails.org offers a state-by-state database of national recreation trails in the U.S. to help you find the best hiking spots. Going to one and actually hiking is up to you.
But... a bear or other fearsome beast could maul me. Even experienced hikers like Maryland resident Matt Piven, who's been hiking for as long as he can remember, worry about close encounters of the feral kind. "A few years ago, my wife and I were hiking in Redwood National Park when a Roosevelt elk approached us and waved its antlers as if it was going to attack," remembers Piven. "It was scary. This summer, we plan to visit Glacier National Park, where we hope not to get too close to any grizzly bears!"
But while Piven's sentiment is shared by many a hiker, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that attacks by domesticated animals -- like your neighbor's Rottweiler -- are far more common than attacks by wild creatures. To wit: In 2012, there was only one fatal bear attack in North America, compared to 38 human fatalities resulting from dog attacks. In fact, the odds that a bear will eat you while you're out hiking are one in a million. Literally! Still, it's probably best to refrain from feeding Doritos to a cute bear cub if you happen to run into one on the trails. Warns the CDC: "Animals tend to avoid humans, but they can attack if they perceive threat, are protecting their young or territory, or are injured or ill."
But... I could fall off a cliff or waterfall. According to hiking expert and Hike Smart author John McKinney, most hiking falls can be directly attributed to poor judgment or improper footwear (and sometimes both). So ditch your four-year-old leather sandals in favor of some good hiking boots or trail-running shoes (Vasque has some great options), which offer much better support and grip on precarious terrain. If hiking to a waterfall is on the docket, McKinney advises that you not channel your inner Cliffhanger-era Sylvester Stallone and avoid climbing slippery stones to the top. "Enjoy the view of a waterfall from the bottom," he says. "Take inspiration from the scene, and take the trail back." Also, be smart about when you go hiking, avoiding days after heavy rainstorms or snowfalls, when trails can be especially slick and unpredictable.
But... I could get lost. While many hiking paths are clearly marked, always be sure to bring a map of the trails (most parks will offer them), a compass (if you know how to use it) and a fully charged mobile phone (just in case). If you're still worried about getting lost, Saperstone has this very straightforward digital-age advice: "It's 2013. Buy a GPS."
But... I'll get eaten alive by insects. Insect repellent sprays will help fend off mosquitos, gnats and Lyme-disease-carrying ticks, but they're far from foolproof against those pesky little buggers. On his blog Section Hiker, Philip Werner, a hiking and backpacking leader for the Boston Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, suggests wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants -- yes, even in summer -- as an effective alternative. The key to not sweating your butt off? "Wear very thin, long nylon pants," says Werner, who recommends Railriders' Eco-Mesh Pants for their cooling mesh side vents. ExOfficio's BugsAway pants, long-sleeved shirts and hats are also a fine choice; they're breathable, provide excellent coverage and pack the added punch of the built-in insect repellent permethrin. (Just try to) suck on that, ticks and mosquitos!
- Gear up. You're more likely to enjoy hiking if you have the proper clothing, footwear and accessories.
- Start slowly. For your first few forays into hiking, stick to familiar places, go for short treks and pick days when the weather forecast is exceptionally pleasant. No need to tackle the Monte Fitz Roy trek in Patagonia or go all Bear Grylls with a solo mission to Antarctica. Save those hikes for next year!