A Novice Hiker's How-To Guide

July 26, 2001 -- Hiking can be a fun workout that lets you enjoy the outdoors with your friends. But if you are not prepared, all the fun can drain out of a hike. Here are some things to remember that will help ensure you have a great time on your next trek outdoors.

"You want to be able to enjoy the beautiful scenery and the company of friends that may be with you," says Richard Ray, EdD, an avid hiker, professor of kinesiology, and athletic trainer at Hope College in Holland, Mich. "You don't want to be so darn tired when you're out there or at the end of the trail that you're no good for anything."

When planning a hike, your first task is to pick a trail suited to your abilities. If this is one of your first hikes and you're not in the best shape, pick a relatively short and flat trail that's not at a high altitude. Unfortunately, you can't rely on trail labeling because it's not consistent. Read up on the trails you'd like to hike and consider getting a topographical map of the region to make sure it's not too rugged or steep.

Ray says you'll need to get three of your "critical body systems" ready for hiking:

  • Your feet;
  • Your legs;
  • Your cardiovascular system.

Protect your feet with good hiking boots. Be sure you have "broken them in" by walking around the house or neighborhood in them. Pick a good midweight, high-top, hiking boot with a good sole that's going to support your foot. Talk to people who sell high-quality hiking products to help you find boots that are right for you and to be sure that they fit you properly.

To strengthen your legs for a hike on flat terrain, walking or jogging every day for 6-8 weeks before the hike is a good preparation. Start with about 20 minutes a day and try to work up to about 40. If you're going to be hiking over hills and valleys, a stair machine can help you prepare. If you're going to be wearing a backpack on your hike, wear it while training, too.

Norris Tomlinson, ACE, ACSM, also recommends specific leg exercises like squats and lunges as well as weight training to keep the leg muscles in good condition. He is a personal trainer and group exercise specialist who is national director of Group Exercise in Chicago.

To build up your cardiovascular system, any aerobic exercise will do, including walking, jogging, or biking.

Ray says that it takes 6-8 weeks to make noticeable improvements in your cardiovascular system and leg strength. "But that doesn't mean you shouldn't start even if you only have a few weeks to go," he says. "If your hike is 3 weeks away, and you haven't done anything, get out there and get started. Anything is better than nothing."

And be sure you are properly outfitted. What you bring on your hike depends on where you're going and for how long, but some key items include a map, compass, knife, matches, rain gear, water, and a water purification system. Even on a short hike, you should bring some food, such as crackers, cheese, dried fruit, candy bars, or trail mix.

Also, make sure someone knows where you're going and when you plan to return. Steer clear of terrain that makes you uncomfortable. Stay hydrated and keep dry. Don't hike at a high altitude until your body has become accustomed to it. And remember that it's best to have others hike with you.

And finally, if the idea of an outdoor workout with your friends makes hiking attractive to you, remember that the slowest person in your group will set the pace. If fitness is your goal, make sure your hiking partners are well matched to you in terms of fitness level and goals.