Fitness & Exercise

Ready, set...Hike: The game plan

How to trim down by becoming one with nature.

The benefits           The game plan          The workout

At its most basic level, hiking requires nothing more than a trail. But as you travel longer distances, increase elevation and put additional miles between yourself and civilization, you’ll need to improve your gear, fitness level and preparation to stay safe and get the most out of your hike. Our experts offer a few tips to keep you on the right path.

The gear

Invest in boots. You can probably avoid heavy-duty hiking boots, which are designed to support the weight of a heavy backpack rather than the daypack you’ll be carrying. The beefiest of boots can weigh more than 3 pounds, compared to 1 to 2 pounds for a low-cut lightweight boot. “The extra weight on the foot is like carrying several pounds on your back,” Szczech says.

Buy the right socks. Try finding a pair of wicking socks designed specifically for hiking, which will provide extra padding in blister problem areas. A favorite brand of Szczech's is SmartWool.

Plan for the weather. If rain or chilly temperatures are possible, Szczech cautions not to chance it with cheap, low-quality outerwear.

Add poles to your hike. Poles can be a bit pricey, but they let you use your upper arms and offer added balance on steep climbs and descents, Szczech says.

Track your steps with a pedometer. It’s a simple way to measure your progress and to know when to turn around. About $30 will get you a basic model.

Don’t splurge on gadgets. It’s easy to drop $300 on a GPS unit and other pricey electronics, but Szczech says you’d probably be better off investing that money in high-quality gear and learning to use a map and compass. Where’s the satisfaction in exploring the wilderness with a GPS barking orders at you? All that technology can get distracting. “You might spend all the time doing what you were trying to get away from,” Szczech says.

The preparation

Research local trails. The Internet has made finding nearby trails a breeze, but spending a few bucks on a hiking book can be worth the money (remember, books don’t require an Internet connection). Hiking associations and local clubs are also a valuable resource.

Break in those boots. The trailhead is not where you want to be putting on new boots for the first time, for obvious reasons. “If you get a blister in the first hour, it’s going to make the rest of your day horrible,” Gotsdiner says. Lose that new-boot stiffness by wearing them during errands.

Hike with others. Head to your local outfitter or search online on sites like Meetup.com to look for hiking partners. Not only will buddying up make it harder to blow off the hike, but it’s also far safer. “If you hike for 5 miles and break your ankle, you're kind of screwed,” Wood says.

Tell someone your plans. If the unexpected happens and no one knows you’re in trouble, rescue crews won’t know you need rescuing. (If you still need convincing, just watch the movie127 Hours.) Szczech says to tell someone your planned route and hike duration before you leave.

Get help. If you’re feeling lost, a professional outfitter or guide will know the best trails in the area, can help you navigate them and may even offer shopping advice, Szczech says. As an alternative, ask a friend or coworker who has hiking or backpacking experience.

On the trail

Take baby steps. When starting out, Szczech recommends staying in your comfort zone. “Someone used to walking 6 miles on a treadmill will try a 6-mile hike on a mountain and find it’s a whole lot different,” Szczech says.

Keep food and water flowing. Don’t wait until you’re parched to have a drink. Sipping water and eating a few small snacks during your hike will keep you hydrated and prevent your blood sugar from dropping, Szczech says.

Take plenty of breaks. If you’re tired, rest. Stopping for a few minutes will give you time to catch your breath and enjoy the scenery, and can also help you avoid overexerting yourself, Gotsdiner says.

Pay attention. “I see people all the time — they forget to look around, and that’s how people get lost, miss trail intersections,” Szczech says. “It’s also how you twist your ankle because you didn’t realize the trail got loose and rocky.”

Mind Mother Nature. Thunderstorms, wind and rain can creep up on you in an instant, so Szczech recommends planning ahead by checking the weather reports and keeping an eye on the sky. “People forget sometimes that our normal civilization has so much safety and comfort,” he says. “All that drops away in the woods, so you have to be prepared to make up for it somehow.”

Nature dos and don’ts
  • Respect the route. Trails don’t appear out of thin air; building and maintaining them require huge amounts of resources and volunteer time. Keep them in good shape by staying on the designated path.
  • Leave no trace. Everyone knows you shouldn’t litter. What people don’t often think about are the little things, such as tiny bits of foil from the edge of an energy bar and — though it’s a bit gross — toilet paper you’ve used while hiking. “We teach a pack-it-in, pack-it-out philosophy,” Szczech says.

Next: The workout