Whether you’re just out for the day, or you want to spend a week backpacking, going for a hike is a well-loved pastime for many people. Between the fresh air and natural beauty, it’s no wonder why 50 million Americans laced up their boots and hit the trails in 2019.
But aside from the scenery, there are plenty of lesser seen and lesser known benefits of hiking. In case you needed an extra excuse to get outside, here are a few top reasons why hiking is great for your wellbeing.
As a physical activity, it’s unsurprising that hiking will benefit your physical health. From stamina, to strength, to more silent diseases like hypertension, here are just a handful of ways that the benefits of hiking will impact you physically:
Like any form of exercise, hiking is a great way to help you lose some weight, and it can even work to stabilize your cholesterol levels. As a general rule of thumb, you can expect to burn roughly 100 calories for every mile that you walk – a number that quickly adds up, especially on long backpacking trips.
You can also think of calories burned in terms of how fast you’re walking, too. Moving at a pace of 2.5 mph, you’ll end up burning about 200-250 calories in one hour; if you’re going 4.5 mph, that number jumps up to 500 calories burned in an hour. Add in the various inclines you’ll experience while hiking, and you can imagine how the number of calories you’ll burn would skyrocket quite a bit!
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. In fact, about 659,000 Americans die from it every year, accounting for a quarter of all annual deaths. Many of us either have heart disease right now, or we run a high risk of developing it later in life, so it’s important that we do what we can to stay healthy.
Exercise has been proven to reduce the development of heart problems, cutting your odds of getting coronary heart disease in half. And of course, hiking is one of the best forms of exercise out there, so you can be sure it will positively impact your heart health.
Also known as high blood pressure, hypertension can be found in about a third of the population. It’s a silent killer, because symptoms are practically invisible, and it’s a common precursor to heart attack and stroke.
Hiking can reduce blood pressure a number of ways. Exercise is great for your cardiovascular health, which naturally reduces hypertension, but it also works to lower stress levels. And when your stress goes down, your high blood pressure goes with it.
Diabetes is up by about 50% in the last 40 years, a trend that’s been widely attributed to the increase in obesity and lack of exercise that’s pervaded America. Since we know that hiking is a great source of exercise that helps with weight loss, it follows that it would also benefit people who have diabetes.
If you have Type 1 diabetes (insulin dependent), hiking may lessen the amount of insulin you need to take in a day. If you have Type 2 diabetes (non-insulin dependent), hiking may reverse the disease altogether, especially when paired with diet and weight loss.
Weight-bearing exercises are one of the best ways for you to strengthen your bones. That means any activity that requires you to fight against gravity will help keep your skeleton strong and healthy, so you have fewer problems as you age.
Battling a steep incline is one way to accomplish this, but if you’re backpacking, you’ll have that extra weight on your back helping you out too. You might be surprised that your bones can get stronger this way, but it makes sense when you remember that they’re also living tissue. Like your muscles, your bones will also get stronger with use.
Your ability to balance is dependent on your eyes, your ears (specifically, the vestibular system in your inner ear), and your muscles. If you’re like my wife, and identify as a “clumsy person,” chances are you wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to improve your balance!
There’s not much you can do about your eyes and ears, but your muscles can be trained. In particular, hiking is the perfect workout for strengthening your legs and core, which are key muscle groups that promote your sense of balance. As you navigate rocky and uneven terrain, you’re forcing your body to adapt and strengthen itself, so that some sense of stability can be maintained.
It’s important to enhance these muscles beyond your sense of balance, though. If they’re weak, it will be a lot easier for you to roll an ankle or twist a knee, potentially leaving you out of commission for a few weeks. You’ll also be a lot more likely to experience a fall, which is dangerous in its own right.
I think it goes without saying, but hiking more will increase your stamina as well. As you strengthen your muscles, and build out your heart and lungs, you’ll find that you can go on harder treks for longer amounts of time. While there are plenty of ways to gain stamina, such as through weight training, cross training, breathing more efficiently, and improving mental strength, I find that hiking is the most fun way to improve in this area.
Stamina is one of those things that you take with you everywhere you go. If you’re a parent, you know the importance of endurance when it comes to wrangling your kids. People with physically demanding jobs will also benefit from building their strength, as will those of you who enjoy playing sports. Stamina is a trait that you take with you wherever you go, which is why it’s so important to expand your capacity as much as possible.
Get Better Sleep
In need of a good night’s rest? Exercise in general is great for improving sleep quality, and hiking is one of the best ways to do it. I find that all the fresh air will make you drowsy earlier in the day, and spending time in the sun will help regulate your circadian rhythm. Not to mention, you’ll use so much energy while hiking that you’ll be wiped at the end of the day, whether you like it or not!
There’s a reason why so many people escape to the outdoors when life gets stressful. Aside from the release of endorphins that you experience when you exercise, there are plenty of other ways that nature (and hiking in particular) can help improve your mental health.
We all experience a lot of stress on any given day. Illness, job security, and deadlines are a few of the bigger ones, but even little things like misplacing your keys or getting caught in traffic can compound over time. When your body experiences stress, it releases adrenaline to trigger the fight or flight response. If you don’t release this adrenaline, your muscles will get tense and your anxiety will skyrocket.
Hiking (and walking in general) releases this tension almost immediately, regardless of how fast you’re moving. You’ll feel your anxiety decrease and your spirits will rise, thanks to the endorphins created by your body in response to the workout.
Strengthen Bonds with Others
For many of us, hiking is a solo activity. It’s a chance to unplug and escape from other people, and the demands that they place on us. However, for safety purposes, most outdoor experts (myself included) recommend that you always hike in a group.
When I was working in health care, my boss at the time was an avid hunter. He would often go off to Colorado on his own, cowboy camping his way through the wilderness, while chasing elk. On one such excursion, he ended up slipping and falling into a ravine, breaking a few ribs and tearing quite a few ligaments in his shoulder. He was stuck down there for a few hours, before he was finally able to claw his way out and hike back to civilization. Needless to say, it’s very possible that he could have died down there before help arrived.
It doesn’t matter how much experience you have as an outdoorsman – you should always hike with at least one other person. If that isn’t possible for some reason, at least let someone know where you’ll be, so they can call for help if you don’t make it home by a certain time.
There are other benefits that come from hiking in a group too, such as:
Strengthening bonds. Any work that you do in the wild will involve some amount of problem solving, which is considered a primary characteristic of a healthy relationship. Whether you’re trying to navigate the trail, fix a broken pole, or figure out how to manage the weather changes, there’s a lot to work through together.
Motivation. If you’ve ever worked out alone, you know it’s really easy to slack off when there’s no one else holding you accountable. Having an exercise buddy is one of the best ways to help you stay motivated and achieve your goals, especially when you’re hiking a killer trail. In addition to that, they may even push you to go hiking more often than you were planning on doing already! Which is obviously something you can’t complain about too much.
More photos. The more people you bring, the more pictures will be taken. It’s always fun sharing batches of photos after a hike, and you may even be surprised by a shot you wouldn’t have thought to take!
Many hands make light work. You’ll all want your own water and snacks, but there are plenty of other items that you only need one of (a map, compass, and first aid kit, for example.) Spread these out among your friends to lighten your own pack weight, so you can bring other knickknacks to set the mood for a great picnic.
Maintain (Or Improve) Mental Acuity
The extra blood flow that comes from exercise is just what your brain needs to stay sharp and focused. Certain studies have shown that staying active can significantly improve your cognitive functioning and memory. By getting more nutrients (especially oxygen) to your brain, you’ll be able to keep firing on all cylinders much later into life.
Of course, some of the other benefits that we’ve mentioned above will help improve your brain health. A reduction in stress and anxiety is crucial for both your mental and physical wellbeing, as is getting better, more productive sleep. But hiking also fortifies your mind by forcing it to work through unique problems, while giving it plenty of new and exciting information to process.
New to Hiking? Here are Some Tips
If you’ve never gone hiking before, hopefully you’re a little more inclined to pick it up, now that you know there are so many benefits! And if you do go hiking from time to time, perhaps you’ll feel motivated to hit the trails more often.
However, as great as hiking is, it’s never a good idea to go unprepared. Here are a few tips you should take to heart the next time you want to go on a hike:
Bring food and water. You’ll likely be far from civilization, burning more than a few calories, so make sure you have a way to replenish your fuel supply. Granola bars and trail mix are some of my favorite things to snack on, but you can bring anything you’d like to eat on a day hike. I just usually suggest people take things that are high in calories, low in sugar, and fairly shelf stable.
And water should be a given. You’ll be sweating and peeing out a lot of fluids during the day, so make sure you bring more water than you think you’ll need (without weighing yourself down too much). Add a touch of salt to the water, or grab a few vitamin waters to replenish your electrolytes.
Wear comfortable and supportive shoes. You’ll be on your feet for quite a few miles, so make sure your footwear is up for the job. Close toed shoes with a sturdy sole are necessary, and getting boots with ankle support can be nice to have.
Check the weather. Depending on where you are in the world, trails might be prone to flash flooding. So if it looks like rain on the day you wanted to hike, you may consider rescheduling it for a drier day. Sunshine is the way to go, if you can afford to be flexible. Just make sure you layer your clothes properly, and don’t forget to lather on the sunscreen!
Follow the 10 essentials. You’ll want to have a light source, like a headlamp, wherever you go. But on top of that, you’ll need some navigation tools, and perhaps even a way to start a fire or make an emergency shelter. It depends on where you are, but it never hurts to be prepared.
Read More: 10 Essentials for Safety in the Wilderness
Let someone know you’ll be gone. Hopefully nothing happens to you while you’re out, but accidents do happen from time to time. Let a friend know you’ll be gone, and where you’re going, so they can call for help if you don’t check in with them by a certain time. In case of an emergency, it might just save your life!