If walking quickly is too uncomfortable for you as a fitness program, consider learning how to hike. Hiking allows you to opt for longer walks at a more moderate pace. In terms of energy costs, a day-long hike up hills and down winding paths is similar to running a marathon. But when it comes to taking in the sights, smells, and sounds as you go, hiking is tough to beat.
Where you choose to hike will depend, in part, on your interests. If you enjoy watching birds, for example, you may want to pack your binoculars and head for a swampy area like the Everglades National Park, which is known for its ornithological richness.
If you're interested in plant life, you may want to plan a spring or summer hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where you'll find a brilliant display of rhododendrons and azaleas. If you just want to get out into nature, you may want to join the 20 million hikers and backpackers who put the national and state parks to good use each year.
Chances are you'll find a national, state, or local park in your area that offers scenic trails for hiking. Trail maps are often available to guide you; some show estimates of mileage and may indicate the degree of difficulty of the trails.
Even if you live in an urban area, you'll probably be able to find forest or wildlife preserves nearby that you can roam for a few hours. It's a healthy and inexpensive way to escape the noise and traffic of the city. It's also a good way to prepare your body for lengthier hikes across rougher terrain.
Your state board of tourism may be able to provide you with information about state and local parks. Local chapters of hiking groups and environmental organizations may also be able to assist you. To find out more about national parks in your area, contact the National Park Service.
This article has essential information for learning how to hike, including how to prepare for a hike, what to wear, what to pack, and how to stay safe. First, let's look at how you should prepare for a hike. Continue to the next section for the details.
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Preparing for a Hike
Before you head out on the wilderness trail, you'll need to prepare yourself for the greater intensity of hiking. Once you've completed the Starter and Basic Walking Programs, you should be able to walk comfortably on level ground for four or five miles at a time.
Rarely will you find a hiking path that's smooth and level. So you'll need to condition your body for tackling hilly terrain. To do this, choose a four- or five-mile route near your home that has plenty of inclines. Since walking up and down inclines takes more energy than walking on level ground, you may have to begin at a pace that's slightly slower than your usual walking speed. Walk the entire length of this route three or four times a week for several weeks, until you can manage it comfortably at a moderate pace.
Your next step is to practice walking on hilly terrain with weight on your back. Even if you'll be sticking to short day hikes, you'll probably need to carry a few things with you. So fill your hiking pack with items you're likely to take, including a filled water bottle or two, a small first-aid kit, insect repellent and/or sunscreen, a raincoat or poncho, a sweatshirt, and some snacks. Then walk that four- or five-mile hilly stretch a few times a week for several weeks while carrying your filled pack.
Once you've completed this round of conditioning, you should be ready for a day hike. You'll need to successfully complete a few day hikes -- and practice walking with a heavier pack -- before you'll be ready for an overnight trip. For your first hike, choose a well-marked trail that you can cover at a moderate pace in less than a day.
As you hike, choose a comfortable pace. You'll be walking for several hours, so don't race through the first mile. Be sure to give yourself rest stops, too. You may want to try stopping for about ten minutes each hour. More frequent breaks may cause you to lose momentum. If you absolutely need to rest a little more often, however, by all means do.
Take advantage of the information in the next section to make sure you dress appropriately for your hike.
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What to Wear on a Hike
When you start out on a hike, it's better to be wearing too much than too little. You'll want to be prepared for the worst, even if the weather is beautiful when you begin. Of course, you probably don't need to carry your snow gear for a mid-July walk through low altitudes. You will, however, want to wear or carry clothes that will protect you from rain, winds, and a sudden drop in temperature.
Dress yourself in several thin layers. This way, you can strip off layers if you feel too warm. Choose a soft material that absorbs sweat for the layer next to your skin. For your outer layer, try a light, breathable windbreaker. Also, toss a sweatshirt into your pack.
Even if rain doesn't look likely, it's best to come equipped with rain gear. In wet weather, a wet hiker can become frostbitten and hypothermic, even if the temperature isn't all that low. Bring along a large, foldable poncho for protection.
You'll also need a sturdy, comfortable pair of hiking boots or walking shoes designed for off-road terrain. Be sure to break them in gradually by wearing them around the house before you take them on the road. Invest in a good pair of socks to protect your feet from blisters. Nicely padded Orlon socks or wool socks with nylon liners work well.
Get more preparation tips by reading the next section of this article. It details the other items you should pack for your adventure.
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What to Pack for a Hike
Use these guidelines to determine what to pack for your hike. The first item on your list of things to carry is water, even if you're taking a short hike. It's all too easy to become dehydrated during a hike, especially in warm weather. So you'll need to drink plenty of water as you go, even if you don't feel particularly thirsty.
You can't count on finding drinkable water along your route, so you'll need to carry enough for your entire hike. If you're planning a short hike, you may be able to get away with one bottle of water. For longer hikes, try filling three or four containers so that you can distribute the weight evenly in your pack.
The next item on the list is food. Hiking takes a lot of energy -- at least 300 calories an hour (more if you're hiking at a brisk pace or on rugged or uphill terrain). Even if you eat an extra-large breakfast before you begin, you're likely to get hungry on the trail.
Because you'll probably have to carry all the food you'll need, try to choose foods that are nourishing yet low in weight and bulk -- and easy to prepare in advance. Particularly in hot weather, avoid bringing perishable foods, such as milk products and raw meat, that can spoil easily.
Sandwiches as well as snacks of nuts, dried fruits, and dry cereal are favorite choices. They'll provide you with the carbohydrates you need for energy. A variety of dehydrated foods are also available, but these require water to make them edible.
Another essential item is a small first aid kit. This kit should contain bandages or sterile pads and tape, antiseptic, and aspirin or another painkiller. In addition, you may want to carry a pocket knife or a small pair of scissors, matches, a small flashlight, biodegradable toilet paper, insect repellent, and a good sunscreen. You may also want to bring a compass along. If you have a map of the area, be sure to keep it handy.
To carry all these items, you'll need a pack. The type you choose depends on the length of the hikes you intend to take. If you plan on taking short hikes, a fanny pack or day pack should be large enough. If you go on overnight hikes, however, you'll need a backpack that's a little roomier.
Packs come in a variety of models, sizes, materials, and colors. Some have internal frames, others have external frames. To find a pack that's right for you, visit a sporting goods store or outdoor gear store that has knowledgeable salespeople. Discuss with them the type of hiking you'll be doing, the supplies you plan to carry, and the amount of money you're willing to spend.
Be sure, however, to try the pack on before you purchase it. You'll be the one carrying it around, so you'll want it to suit your body frame and feel comfortable. The pack should conform to your back. It should also have adjustable, padded shoulder straps and an adjustable waist belt that will allow you to distribute the weight of the pack to your hips as well as to your shoulders.
Once you've taken several day hikes, you may want to try an overnight hiking or backpacking trip. For these trips, you'll need to carry more supplies, including extra food and water, a sleeping bag, a powerful flashlight, a change of clothes, and perhaps even a tent and a small camping stove. This collection of necessities can add up to a heavy load.
Government researchers have found that carrying more than 25 pounds of weight for long periods can do more harm than good by straining the shoulders, back, and knees. This research grew out of complaints from soldiers who had to carry heavy packs during long marches. So it may be best to limit the load you carry on a hiking trip to 25 pounds, if it's at all possible.
To cut down on weight, try choosing nourishing foods that don't need to be cooked, so you won't have to carry cooking utensils. If you're purchasing a sleeping bag, tent, stove, or other equipment, choose lightweight models.
You know that a first-aid kit is an essential safety item to take along on your hike, but there are other ways to protect yourself from harm while hiking. These are explained in the next section.
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There are several safety issues associated with hiking. Part of the pleasure of hiking is the opportunity it gives you to explore wild areas and experience the wonders of nature. Even if you're hiking a trail for the second time around, you'll discover many new sights and sounds. But you can prevent some unpleasant surprises by taking a few precautions on the trail.
As a general safety precaution, it's best to walk with a companion, especially on long treks. Before you venture out, it's also wise to let someone at home know where you're going, which trail you intend to follow, and when you intend to return.
When you're on the trail, avoid drinking water directly from springs, streams, or lakes. No matter how clean and clear it looks, the water may be contaminated with a host of parasites and bacteria introduced by people or animals upstream.
Boiling the water for at least one minute may help destroy some of these organisms. Portable water treatment kits are also available to help you purify water in an emergency. However, the best way to avoid illness from contaminated water is to pack and carry your own drinking water.
Poisonous plants are another trailside hazard. To guard against getting rashes from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, wear clothing that covers as much exposed skin as possible, particularly on the feet and legs. Wear long pants, socks, and shoes or boots.
When you return home from a hike, remove your hiking outfit and toss it in the washing machine. Use care when removing your hiking boots or shoes: The plant oil that triggers the rash can easily stick to the bottom or sides of your boot where it has come into contact with one of the offending plants. So try to remove your footwear without handling those areas, or you could inadvertently touch the lingering oil, spread it to your face or other parts of your body, and end up with a nasty rash even after you've left the woods. If you do develop a rash from one of these plants, try applying an over-the-counter remedy, such as calamine lotion, to relieve itching.
Don't panic if you've been bitten by a tick. Not all ticks carry Lyme disease -- a tick-borne illness that can cause chills, fever, headache, and other serious complications. Generally, a tick must remain on the skin for 24 to 48 hours in order to transmit the organism that causes Lyme disease.
If you remove a tick from your skin, save it in a small container of alcohol, so that if a suspicious infection develops, the tick can be analyzed for Lyme disease. There is no need to see a doctor for a tick bite unless you notice any signs of swelling or redness around the bite (a sign of infection), a bull's-eye-shaped rash (often a symptom of Lyme disease), a fever, or a skin rash.
If you're going on an overnight trip in the wilderness, you can protect your food -- and yourself -- from wild animals by stringing your food up at night. Place all food, as well as toothpaste, lotion, and other pleasant-smelling items, in a corded bag or your pack. Then string the bundle up high between two trees.
If you'll be hiking in an area that isn't off-limits to hunters, be sure to wear something bright, especially during hunting season. Orange caps are very popular for this purpose and are available in waterproof and breathable materials.
Finally, before you head out, be sure to do research on how to prevent conditions like heatstroke, frostbite, and dehydration while you're on the trail. Combine that with the information in this article to make your hiking experience pleasant and problem-free.
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Peggy Norwood Keating, MA, Contributing consultant
Rebecca Hughes, Contributing writer