The story behind hiking

Hiking has to be the most natural workout out there. It combines some of the best elements of several workouts while allowing you to scale mountainsides and roam across picturesque fields, forests, and seascapes. Advanced hikers may trek through treacherous terrain for many kilometres. Beginners can enjoy wandering on a leisurely stroll off the beaten track.

You may choose to get all geared-up, with special hiking boots, backpacks, and walking poles. Or you may just hoof it along a short creek-side trail clad in jeans, t-shirt, sneakers, and a fanny-pack. So, if you're tired of the treadmill's endless walk to nowhere, hit the trail and cover some real ground.

The benefits of hiking

Cresting cardio. Walk across variable terrain for more than 20 minutes or so, and you're bound to break a sweat or at least get your heart pumping. A trail with changes in elevation will offer up even more of a cardiovascular challenge. If you were to hike briskly for half an hour and for several times a week, you could significantly reduce your risks of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. You can even stop and enjoy the scenery every now and then and still enjoy the same benefits.

Get in peak form. Regular hiking tones muscles, strengthens bones, improves circulation, and keeps joints mobile and flexible. Folks who hike regularly can enjoy the benefits of stronger leg muscles, which in turn will support the hip and knee joints. Add walking poles to your routine and you'll get your shoulders, chest, upper back, and arms in on the action.

Sticks and stones may build your bones. Walking improves bone density and slows down calcium loss. So, while trails strewn with errant twigs could be a hazard, the hiking path may actually lead you to stronger bones.

Tension trails off. You can leave your worries at the trail-head. If you trek along at a good clip, your brain will begin releasing feel-good endorphins. At the same time, your body will discharge some of its pent-up adrenaline and free you from feelings of anxiety and muscle tension. Combine these effects with the tremendous terrain and awe-inspiring vistas, and your feet may lead you farther and farther away from your worries.

The warnings about hiking

Mother Nature. She's lovely, but she can sting you, bite you, burn you, and twist your ankle around a knotted stump along the trail. A good hike can be impromptu and surprising, but it helps to plan ahead to avert the usual hazards, including allergies, sunburn, dehydration, and insect bites. Look around and savour the setting but keep an eye along the trail for things like poison ivy, poison oak, or gnarled roots emerging from the soil.

Get lost, but not too lost. Even on a reliable, well-maintained trail, you can ramble a bit too far out and become disoriented. If you're hiking in a large and contained area, take a look at a map before setting off to get your bearings. A compass and map would be good to pack in your kit. Along the way, spy landmarks and stash them in your memory in case you reach an uncertain fork in the trail.

Friction and fatigue. Track your body's signals and heed its warnings. You may be halfway into a 10 km hike and feel a painful blister begin to form on your heel. Or you could be midway up a mountain path and notice a wheezing in your breath. Take breaks when you need it, as walking too fast or too far can lead to fatigue.

What you need for hiking

Protection from the elements. Dress for the weather, but expect the unexpected. To be best outfitted for whatever the skies bring, wear light layers that keep most of your skin covered to minimize the area where the sun and bugs can get at. A hat and sunglasses will shield you from UV rays, and sunscreen is a must no matter how cloudy or sunny the skies.

Hiker's etiquette. You may be out in the wilderness, but it doesn't mean you leave your manners behind. Respect the natural surroundings, and follow the global rule of trekking: leave no trace. Observe any signs or warnings along the trail. Yield to other hikers along the trail, and greet them with at least a friendly, quiet hello or nod of the head.

The gear to get you there and back. If your hike is a short, well-defined circle of a campsite or your neighbourhood park, you won't need as much gear. Out in wider and wilder territory, bring along as much food and water as you'll need for the time you'll be out, plus a little extra in case of emergency. Wear appropriate footwear that comfortably and properly fit your feet to prevent foot injuries such as blisters. Pack a map, compass, and a whistle to send out a signal in case you get lost or injured. Even if you don't plan a night hike or a camp-out, stash a flashlight, first aid kit, and a fire-starter.

Inspiration to get you going

  • "When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the shoe leather has passed into the fiber of your body. I measure your health by the number of shoes and hats and clothes you have worn out." -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." -John Muir

Amy Toffelmire