Walking is medicine. It’s not just a convenient form of exercise; walking is good for almost anything that ails you. There is something about leaving your house, unplugging from the internet, shedding the things that cause you stress, and escaping for 30 minutes or so that is truly unbeatable. Whether you walk alone, a friend or man’s best friend, walking is soothing for the soul and a tonic to the body!
Hiking then, is like walking on steroids. While walking is very healthy, it’s not especially challenging and that’s part of the reason it’s such good exercise. Hiking, on the other hand, is much more purposeful and demanding and really takes your walking up a notch. If walking is big medicine, hiking is REALLY BIG medicine!
[quote_right]Hiking is like walking on steroids[/quote_right]What’s the difference? Walking is the sort of thing you can do after dinner, at lunch time to break up your day, a means of getting to and from work or the store, or simply as an alternative to driving. Hiking however is all about the journey, probably involves getting off the beaten track, exploring somewhere new, carrying some supplies and, if you are feeling especially adventurous, maybe an overnight stop for a bit of camping.
Hiking delivers a great lower body workout and, if you have to shoulder a heavy load in the form of a kit-laden rucksack, you’ll find your upper body and core get a good workout too – especially when you hike up hills.
It goes without saying, hiking requires some equipment and as, potentially, you could be using this equipment for hours if not days at a time, make sure it’s the right equipement for your hike (taking weather, route, duration, into consideration).
There is nothing to stop you hiking in your running shoes but, as you will hopefully be venturing off-road, you will be better served by wearing walking shoes or boots. Boots offer greater ankle support while shoes tend to be lighter so go with whatever suits you best. Shoes and boots are made using a variety of materials – both man-made and natural. Choose a material that is breathable but also water resistant. Waxed leather or GORE-TEX lined nylon is usually best. Before you set off on your first hike, make sure you have spent a few days walking around your home and local area breaking your boots in and checking for hot spots. Blisters can reduce even the hardest hiker to his knees and are best avoided.
SOCKS & UNDERWEAR
When choosing socks, stick with ones with no obvious seams that could rub and cause blisters. They should fit well and not move around on your feet but also not be so tight that they cut into your ankles. You can spend $20 a pair on technical hiking socks or $2 a pair on regular cotton socks. All that matters is your comfort – financial as well as physical. Replace your socks if they begin to wear, get threadbare or lose their elasticity.
Socks for hiking must fit especially well as you could be in them for many hours at a time. Your hike will be more enjoyable and comfortable if your socks have padded heels and forefeet.
As far as underwear goes, your most comfortable undergarments might be okay when strolling around the supermarket on a Friday evening but could turn into an organ constricting torture device when hiking, or they might not provide you with the necessary support you need. It’s worth buying good quality sports underwear that will hold your bits and pieces in place! So make sure you’re supported during exercise as unfettered dangly bits are not just uncomfortable but can also lead to injury!
Whatever your preference for leg coverings, it’s important that they aren’t restrictive. In the grand scheme of things, it’s up to you whether you wear long trousers or shorts when hiking but it is vital that you can move freely and you aren’t cold or get overheated. Cargo trousers or shorts are useful so you can safely transport your car keys, wallet, and mobile phone and maybe even a map, compass and energy gel.
Whether you prefer to wear a T-shirt, vest top or polo short, it’s important that you can “vent” as your body temperature increases so choose tops that have large zips or wear a couple of thin layers so that you can avoid getting overheated. Hiking can be hard enough without having to contend with overheating and dehydration, plus remember, the temperature will change throughout the day, as your climb and descend and according to the weather so be prepared for all weather eventualities.
Many modern technical hiking tops are made of wicking material which means moisture, specifically sweat, is drawn away from your skin for easy evaporation. This means you won’t end up weighed down by a sweat-soaked T-shirt. Wicking tops cost more than a basic cotton T-shirt but may be a good investment if you sweat a lot!
Inclement weather is one of life’s unavoidable annoyances. If you put your hiking on hold every time the weather is less than ideal, you might find yourself only hiking a few rare days a year – unless you live in California. Rather than avoid poor weather, you can equip yourself so that you can hike IRRESPECTIVE of the elements. A lightweight Gortex or other similarly waterproof but breathable rain suit can make hiking in a torrential downpour much more tolerable. Fleece tops and thermal leggings can stop cold from being your enemy. Hats and gloves will keep your extremities dry and warm. A wide-brimmed or peaked hat can also be useful for keeping the sun out your eyes and off your head.
When hiking, you will need something to carry your waterproofs, first aid kit and trail food and the most comfortable way to do it is in a backpack. Backpacks are available in a variety of sizes which are normally described in terms of liters of capacity.
– A small “day pack” will usually be between 15 and 25 liters in size and should be ample for a few hours out in the wilds of your local park.
– If you are intending to go further afield, a larger pack may be necessary so look for sizes in the 30 to 40 liter range.
– A full-size pack suitable for overnight camping can hold 60 to 80+ liters.
If in doubt, buy a bigger pack rather than a smaller one as you can always partially fill a big pack but if you have too much kit to fit in a small pack, you will have to spend more money and buy another.
Another consideration when selecting a backpack is the storage area arrangement. Some packs consist of a single storage compartment while others have multiple compartments and pockets so you can spread your gear around and have easy access. Also consider is how the pack fits you. A badly fitting backpack can make hiking a miserable experience. Narrow straps cut into your shoulders and if the pack is does not fit snugly to your body you may find it moves around and rubs your skin. A waist belt can help keep the back firmly in place and also takes some of the weight off your shoulders. A good pack should last you many years so think of this purchase as a long term investment.
HIKING: SAFETY FIRST
Ninety nine times out of one hundred, hiking is a perfectly safe and enjoyable activity but, like a good boy scout, it always pays to be prepared. Taking a few precautions before and during your hike can all but eliminate even the low risk of mishap…
Plan your route
Even if you only intend to hike for a few hours, you should have a pretty good idea of where you are going and what time you’ll be back. Make sure you share this information with someone who knows what time to expect you to be back and also knows what to do if you are a no-show back at base. A broken ankle isn’t usually life-threatening unless you are in the wilderness and no one knows where you are. Make sure you tell your safety contact when you get home so they don’t mistakenly call out the search party when you are safely home and soaking your worn-out feet!
Set check points
If you are doing a multi-day hike, check in with someone once a day so they know you are okay and are roughly where you are. Update them with any route changes. If you were unlucky enough to have an accident on day three of a week-long hike but no one noticed your absence until day seven, it would be hard to establish your location. Daily check points help make it easier to pin point your position.
Carry a survival pack
While this might sound a little alarmist, it’s merely meant to ensure that if things go sideways, you have a rudimentary survival kit to get you though minor to major mishaps. In your pack, which you should have with you even on a short day hike, you should have:
- First aid kit
- Large plastic emergency sleeping bag/shelter
- Large silver “space” blanket
- High calorie food e.g. energy gels
- Small plastic bags for collecting water plus water purification tablets
- Mobile phone – switched off if you value your hiking privacy but fully charged
- Spare compass and map/GPS
- Spare boot laces
Pack this stuff up in a waterproof Ziploc-type bag so you know that everything will be serviceable even in the event of a storm. This equipment could literally save your life and won’t take up much space at all so get into the habit of keeping it in your rucksack whenever you head out into the great outdoors.
Hiking is an awesome way and a great excuse to commune with nature, slip away from the hustle and bustle, create some amazing memories with friends or family and, all the while, improving physical, emotional and mental fitness.