Literally Everything You Need to Know About Hiking

Beginners: Get ready to become one with nature!
Published December 5, 2015

The benefits           The game plan          The workout

Even if you don't reach the summit, with its beautiful views, the breathtaking photos you’ll be able to share with friends and the joy of spending time surrounded by nature, still make hiking a winning proposition. It’s got all the health benefits of walking, the muscle toning you’d get from an intense session on the StairMaster and — when you feel like throwing in the towel — that unstoppable urge to get to the top of the mountain.

Work out your whole body. Think of a trail as a real-world gym, and every rock and log you climb on or step over as the gym equipment. “You’re balancing on one leg, you’re working your quads and glutes, and doing lots of step-ups,” says Michael Wood, CSCS, chief fitness officer at the national fitness center Koko FitClub. And it’s not just going to work your legs. “If you have poles, it’s working the shoulders, the arms and the back,” says Wood, who also blogs about fitness.

Lose weight and keep it off. Bree Gotsdiner, former public relations consultant at Fitpacking, a group that organizes backpacking trips to help people lose weight, was overweight years ago before she started regularly hiking as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. “Not only did I lose fat, but I got healthy — it’s constant cardio and constant strength-building,” Gotsdiner says.

Burn calories. The average 180-pound person burns about 610 calories per hour when climbing hills with 10 to 20 pounds on his back, about the weight of your average car tire. You can sweat off some serious pounds, so long as you go easy on the trail mix.

Conquer peaks and find scenic vistas. Breathtaking views are out there: The challenge (and the fun) is getting there on your own. “You get to see things you can’t see from a car or anywhere else, because you have to be on foot to get there,” says Chris Szczech, a manager at the Colorado Trail Foundation Trekking Program, where his guided tours can reach elevations higher than 13,000 feet.

Find a trail for every workout. Your first hike doesn’t need to — and shouldn’t — be a six-hour climb to the highest summit in your state. Instead you can slowly build up intensity, either by walking shorter distances or finding less demanding trails. As you improve, you can add intensity by moving faster and hiking longer.

Escape stress. Can’t escape a flood of emails and work phone calls? Hiking, with its limited phone reception (or at least, that’s what you can tell everyone), is the perfect solution. “Hiking’s good for mental health because it gets people away from stresses from everyday life,” Gotsdiner says. 

Learn the lingo
Switchback: When the slope gets steep, the trail will turn nearly 180 degrees to “switch back” on itself. On a map, a series of switchbacks will look like zigzags. 

Scramble: Hiking uneven, rocky terrain, sometimes requiring hands for stabilization.

Blazes: Visual markers (usually a combination of colors and shapes) found on trees, rocks and intersections that designate the route.

Cairn: A pile of stones that mark the trail, commonly found when there are no trees to mark with blazes.

Hot spot: An area on your foot that, left unaddressed, will likely become a blister. Friction from a poorly fitting boot is usually the cause.

Day hike: A hike that doesn’t involve an overnight stay in a tent. The big benefit of having less gear is that you can move swiftly and conquer more miles.

Backpacking: It's like hiking, but with the addition of carrying the food and gear you'll need for multiple nights of camping.

10 essentials: The 10 basics you probably shouldn’t hike without: water, rain gear, first aid kit, extra food, compass, map, knife, fire-starter or matches, flashlight and sun protection.

Next: The game plan