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Hike Yourself Fit

The Rules of the Trail
  -- By Liza Barnes, Health Educator
I was watching a rerun of "Sex and the City" the other night, in which Carrie is visiting a new boyfriend, David. They’re enjoying a nice picnic on the grassy hillside, and David mentions that there are beautiful hiking trails all around the property. When Carrie, ever the city girl, confesses that she’s never been much of a hiker, David says he recently discovered that “hiking…is just walking”. On my couch in Ohio, I joined the collective groan of avid hikers everywhere (or the imagined collective groan, since avid hikers were probably out hiking instead of watching "Sex and the City" reruns). Sure, hiking involves walking, and both usually happen outside, but the similarities end there.

The term “hiking” implies an activity that occurs in the midst of nature, specifically on a trail, in a creek bed, on a mountain, or through the woods. Because of the terrain, hiking is almost always more physically challenging than walking, and burns more calories (around 350-400 per hour) as a result. Hiking can be a reward in itself, a means of transportation, or a purifying spiritual journey (more on that later). It can be fun, tiring, exhilarating, or challenging, and it’s always good exercise. To ensure that your hiking experience is safe and enjoyable, here are some tips to prepare you for your trek.

These Boots are Made for Hiking
One of the most important items you’ll need is a good pair of hiking boots that fit you well. Blisters and cramped toes can quickly turn a wonderful hike into a miserable event, so this item is worth a splurge. There are many styles of boots to choose from, from hiking sandals to steel-toed mountain boots. You’ll probably want to start somewhere in the middle. For hiking on well-maintained trails and smooth terrain, “hiking shoes” will be your best choice. These resemble heavy-duty cross-trainers, are easy to break in, and are comfortable to wear. For slightly more rugged hiking, choose “cross hikers”, which look like the quintessential hiking boot. They are built to withstand more abuse than hiking shoes, and are intended for rougher terrain, but you’ll need to wear them around for a few days to break them in.

What you wear on the rest of your body is important too. Most experts recommend that you skip the cotton and don the high-tech synthetics, which have the ability to wick moisture away from your skin while still being breathable. In the cold months, layer for warmth, and in the warm months, wear light-colored fabrics to repel bugs.

On your skin, bug repellant and/or sunscreen may be necessary in certain months and regions. Consider a repellant made from natural essential oils, such as Green Ban or Herbal Armor. The latter earned "Top Bug Spray" honors in 2006 (Camping Gear Awards), and boasts a National Home Gardening Club’s Seal of Approval for both effectiveness and consumer value. Many hiking experts recommend a wide-brimmed hat and loose-fitting, lightweight, breathable clothing if you’re worried about sun exposure.

Excess Baggage
If you’re just hiking a loop in the city park, you’ll probably have enough room in your pockets for all of your essentials (keys, ID card, cell phone, etc.). But if you’ll be hiking for hours, you might need a carry-on. Use a hip pack, which consists of a zippered compartment attached to a wide belt, when you’re on a short hike and just need a few small items. Day packs will hold slightly more and have shoulder straps (like a backpack), and are suitable for a full day of hiking. The downside is that they aren’t as comfortable as hip packs.

Watered Down
No, you can’t just stop and drink from the creek. Carry water with you always—even in cold weather—to prevent dehydration. For shorter hikes, a small water bottle that holds 24-32 ounces will work well. Attach it to your belt with a carabiner for easy access, or keep it in your backpack. If you’ll be out for hours, consider a hydration pack, which is commonly used by endurance runners and cyclists. A backpack with a built-in “bladder” (water bag) that is connected to a “drinking tube” (long, flexible straw), hydration packs make it easy to drink without stopping to open the backpack or even slowing down. Camelbak, The North Face, and Deuter are common brands.

Mother Nature Rules
Considering everything that Mother Nature is offering to you, the least you can do is to be considerate of her. Follow the golden rule of hiking: Pack out whatever you pack in (i.e. don't leave anything behind). If you’re hiking on a maintained trail, stay on the trail, sparing the vegetation. And if you’re bring food, snacks and drinks along, make sure the only critter you feed is yourself.

The Places You'll Go!
Now that you know what to wear, what to bring, and how to behave, all you need to figure out is where to go. First, check out nearby state parks. You can get information about their trails (and potential fees) on the web. If you live in a city, don’t forget about your nearby city parks—many have hiking trails through wooded areas. For a comprehensive list of trails near you, check out these websites: And while you’re mapping out your journey, make sure you know how to find your way home. Stick to your route, and bring a compass or GPS device.


In addition to all of the physical benefits it offers, hiking can also be a profound spiritual experience. Hiking gives us the chance to reconnect with the natural world, and ourselves, during a much-needed break from the daily grind. Hiking supplies the space to ponder, contemplate, and dream while awake. For all of these reasons, everyone should try hiking at least once. So, I mean it in the nicest way possible, when I say, "Go take a hike!"

Learn More
10 Things to Take on a Hike
7 Good Reasons to Try a Trail Workout