Do you enjoy walks in nature? Hiking is going for long walks, especially in the countryside. Hiking lovers find peace in the calming forests and enjoy the breeze in the mountains. They experience the emotional and physical reflections of an age-old human activity — walking long distances. You'll learn the health benefits of hiking and the essentials you need to start and enjoy hiking.
Hiking is a great way to boost physical health. You can make personalized hikes according to your fitness levels. The difficulty of hiking varies based on terrain, elevation, time, and distance.
Being in nature has profound benefits on mental health. Hiking can improve your mood states and decrease depressive symptoms.
Day hikes can be done with minimal equipment — making them budget-friendly and convenient. It is easier to start with local hiking groups.
What is hiking?
Hiking is distance walking in various terrain, elevation gain, speed, and distance in the outdoors. It is a great way to increase fitness and relieve stress while being in nature. Plus, it's convenient and budget-friendly.
Hiking vs. walking
Hiking is walking through various terrain and elevation gain in nature. Still, they have some differences. Generally, hiking is done further distances and longer time, while walking is done shorter time or distances.
You also can walk on a treadmill, but you need to go outside to hike. Thus, hiking is more involved in places where elevation changes over the course.
Hiking vs. trail running
Trail running is an outdoor activity that combines running and hiking. Trail runners gain a distance running through unpaved roads uphill and downhill. The difference is the speed. Trail runners generally aim to finish the course in a shorter time, so they're faster, while hikers go at a slower speed.
Trail running can be done for short and long distances —100 miles (ca. 161 km) or even more — the same as hiking. They both need special equipment based on the difficulty of the trail run or hike.
You need minimal equipment if you're going on day hikes. Sport or hiking shoes, a backpack, water, and food for the day are enough. However, being cautious and taking a headlamp, first aid kit, and emergency blanket on every hike can be life-saving in case of unpredicted situations.
If you're planning to hike multiple days, you will need to take all the things above, plus proper hiking shoes and clothes, enough water, and food. You also need to arrange sleeping situations and logistics. Here is commonly used hiking equipment:
- Enough food and water
- Hiking shoes
- Appropriate clothes
- Navigation tools
- Emergency blanket and first aid kit
- Trekking poles
- Sleeping bag or tent
Health benefits of hiking
According to the WHO, 1 in 4 people is not as physically active as they should be. Lack of physical activity may cause chronic diseases.
The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity weekly for adults.
Hiking is not just exercising. People experience nature, discover new places and socialize while hiking. Being physically active in nature has been shown to decrease depressive symptoms and improve mood states, including anxiety, tension, sad and depressed states, anger, and hostility.
A study compared the effects of walking in nature, seeing nature views, and physical exercise on people experiencing stress. Results from ninety participants showed that all interventions improved cortisol levels. However, walking in nature lowered cortisol levels and improved mood more than other interventions. Cortisol is a hormone that helps regulate the body's response to physical and emotional stress. Healthy cortisol levels are important for mental and physical health.
Physical activity has enormous benefits for health. Hiking combines physical activity and nature. Hiking may help:
- Cognition. It can boost cognitive functions, including thinking, judgment skills, and learning.
- Mood. Improves mood states such as anxiety, tension, sad and depressed state, anger, and hostility.
Aerobic exercises such as cycling, dancing, brisk walking, and hiking have many benefits ranging from improvements in heart health to better sleep quality and duration. In addition to these, you have the added benefit of all that fresh clean air, which is great for your respiratory system.
Aerobic exercises such as hiking have been shown to improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Abnormal cholesterol levels and high blood pressure (hypertension) may cause heart attack, stroke, and other health problems.
Hiking can improve your circulation and prevent hypertension. A study showed the effects of 9 months of weekly hiking on older people. Elderlies with untreated hypertension showed improved systolic blood pressure.
Muscle and bone health
Having strong muscles and bones is vitally important for health, especially in older ages. Bone density decreases with age and increases the risk of fractures. Physical activity is essential to improve muscle and skeletal health.
Hiking engages both upper and lower body muscles. Being active regularly may increase your muscle mass and endurance.
Sleep quality and duration
Most people have trouble sleeping from time to time. A stressful environment can disturb your sleeping quality and duration. The mental health benefits of hiking can help with emotional stress and make falling asleep easier.
A study showed that two hours of forest walking on weekends for a month improved sleep time, self-perceived depth of sleep, and sleep quality.
Hiking can be an enjoyable physical activity that helps you reach and maintain your healthy weight range.
If you need to improve your fitness levels for longer hikes, you can start with 20 to 30-minute hikes three times a week on a more level terrain.
Hiking for beginners: what to consider
If you're a beginner hiker, there are things you should consider. Safety first, here are few tips for beginner hikers:
- Fitness level. When choosing the hiking route, consider your fitness level, the equipment you have, and logistics.
- Duration. Start with short hikes. Then you can increase the duration, frequency, or intensity of your hikes.
- Emergency equipment. Take all the necessary emergency gear with you.
- Friends. Find a hiking friend or attend local hiking groups.
- Tracking. Make sure a family member or friend tracks your location.
If you have a disease, it is best to consult your doctor before taking a long-distance and vigorous hike or similar physical activity.
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Hiking: A low-cost, accessible intervention to promote health benefits.
- World Health Organization. Physical activity.
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Psychological benefits of walking through forest areas.
- Environment and Behavior. Health benefits of walking in nature: a randomized controlled study under conditions of real-life stress.
- Zeitschrift für Gerontologie und Geriatrie. Effect of weekly hiking on cardiovascular risk factors in the elderly.