Looking to change up your walking route? Sick of the scenery at the gym? Hiking will boost your health while exciting your senses. Hiking is a low-impact, low-cost way to exercise, reduce stress and enjoy the great outdoors. A one-mile hike can burn up to 150 calories, and you don’t have to be a mountaineer to hit the trailhead. Follow these simple safety tips for beginner hikers and consult with your local Department of Parks and Recreation to find the best hike for your fitness level.
Know the Trail
There is no universal metric system for trail levels—but they’re usually labeled beginner, intermediate or advanced, depending on how challenging the terrain is. (Sometimes trails are numbered, or colors are used, to differentiate levels.)
In general, experts consider the difficulty of a trail—its elevation gain, the steepness of its inclines, its length—to determine what level it is, says Randy Kinkade, Outdoor Sports Manager at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. Potential hazards, such as rocks, roots and water, may also factor into a trail’s difficulty rating. If you are unsure about what level you can tackle, talk to your trainer at the gym or another expert who is familiar with the trails you’re considering. You can use the info below as a way to gauge what level might be right for you:
- Beginner trails are suitable for all fitness levels, even if you rarely exercise.
- Intermediate trails require a solid fitness base: You should work out vigorously a few times a week and be able to walk several miles comfortably.
- Advanced trails are for people who don’t have knee or ankle problems (because the terrain is often rocky and uneven)—you should exercise five days a week and have a high fitness level.
Sneakers are OK for flat, well-manicured trails, but for challenging terrain, or hikes that last more than a few miles, you’ll need comfortable and waterproof hiking shoes or boots, ideally with ankle support. (You can minimize foot discomfort and blisters by breaking in your hiking shoes before your first trek: Wear them around the house, for an hour at a time on at least three occasions, with the socks you plan to hike in.)
You should also apply insect repellent and sunscreen 15 minutes before you hit the trail, and bring sunglasses, a hat and layered clothing appropriate for the weather. For longer hikes, stash a first aid kit, flashlight, maps, a compass and a pocket knife in a comfortable backpack.
Check the Weather
The morning of your hike, check your local weather to ensure that you won’t be caught in dangerous weather conditions. Even if the forecast is clear, it’s a good idea to take rain gear if you’ll be out most of the day.
Pack a Snack
Exercise dehydrates the body, which can lead to dizziness and muscle cramps. If you’re hiking on a sunny, hot day, the effects can be more intense. Bring enough water for you to consume 8 ounces (that’s one cup) for every 15 minutes you’re on the trail. If you’re taking a longer hike, make a point to stop and refuel with a healthy snack like fruit, nuts or a granola bar every 60 to 90 minutes.
Before you begin your hike, try this seated stretch to warm up tight ankles, suggests James MacDougall, a personal trainer at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. Sit on a bench or rock and raise one foot a few inches off the ground. Rotate it from the ankle in a clockwise direction for about 10 seconds. Repeat counterclockwise, and then do the same stretch with the other foot.
Consider the first 10 minutes of your hike your warm-up, and then gradually increase your speed. Listen to your body—you should always be able to comfortably carry on a conversation as you hike.
Protect Your Joints
Downhill hiking can be hard on the knees and ankles. Instead of rushing or jumping down hills, commit to taking declines slowly and focus on soft footsteps. Hard foot strikes and rapid, repeated twisting of the knee (which can occur when you go downhill too fast) can cause irritation, swelling and injury. If you have knee or ankle issues, be sure to stick to easy, small hills or gentle inclines, and consider hiking with poles for extra support.
Don’t Go Solo
It’s especially important for novices to hike in pairs or small groups. Take your cell phone and let someone know when you plan to return from your hike.
Respect the Trail
For your own safety and the protection of our wilderness areas, stick to designated paths and trails. Follow the rules and guidelines provided by the park you are in. Don’t litter, pick flowers, remove other natural items or be overly noisy when hiking. Use this time to enjoy the beauty around you, allowing nature to speak to your senses—and your spirit.
Avoid Plants and Animals
Familiarize yourself with any poisonous plants in the area, never eat wild plants and keep your distance from any wild animals you encounter on the trail.
Beginner hikers commonly overestimate how far they can go—and it’s not only unpleasant to run out of steam mid-hike, it’s also a safety risk: Tired legs and feet are more susceptible to twists and sprains. Start with an easy trail and limit the distance to two miles. As you become more confident and your endurance improves, you can gradually extend the distance you cover and increase the difficulty of the terrain.