The very act of lacing up her boots for her daily hike brings back fond memories for Michele Straube. Her parents, German immigrants, took the family on long, meandering walks in the woods nearly every Sunday afternoon. (The Germans even have a word for such walkabouts: wanderung.)
Michele does her wanderung these days in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains near her Salt Lake City home. It’s about fitness, sure, but it’s also a form of release. “Out in the open spaces, hiking takes you to beautiful places,” the 57-year-old says. “It’s a walking meditation. I’m a very Type A, anxious person, and after walking an hour or two my mind wanders, and I can let all the daily issues drift off.”
Day hiking is a minimalist’s dream. You don’t need to learn anything, and—aside from a good pair of hiking boots—you don’t have to buy anything. Planning is a cinch: You just go when and where the spirit moves you. As for fitness, this low-impact sport also just happens to be a powerful calorie-burner—a vigorous hike consumes nearly as many calories as a 5-mph jog.
And, if you’re new to fitness, you can start slow and go at your own pace until you build up more stamina. The point of the exercise is experience, not a race to the finish. “The good thing about hiking is that you can always slow down and rest,” says Peter Olsen, spokesperson for the American Hiking Society. “If you’re not having fun because the hike is too hard, sit down and look around. That’s also when you’ll actually see things like deer and birds.”
Hiking on the Cold Spring trail near her home in Santa Barbara, California, Melissa Keyes soaks in the changing seasons, making frequent stops along the way to observe flowers and a chubby, iridescent-yellow banana slug. The air is scented with bay leaves and sage, which grow wild along the path.
Where Michele is a hiking soloist, Melissa prefers company on her excursions. She began hiking about 20 years ago with her son. “We’d discover plants and animals together,” says the 54-year-old. “It was a way to get outdoors and introduce him to nature.”
With her son now grown, Melissa hits the trail with a group of new friends she met through meetup.com. It’s a supportive cluster of fellow outdoors-types that makes newcomers feel right at home. “Our hiking group is about being all inclusive,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what your fitness level is, we make sure everyone has a good time. Hiking helps us put life in perspective.”
“I wasn’t a hiker or an outdoor person until I retired,” says Norm Kleifgen, 74, of Cumberland, Indiana. Norm got his hiking start out of sheer restlessness: “I spent my entire life in an office and didn’t want to sit around the house all day.”
He’s since become an avid bird watcher. Unless the weather is severe, Norm hits the trail seven days a week. He brings a camera, binoculars, and a notebook so he can jot down his sightings. He has several trails he likes to follow, but his favorite local hike is at Fort Harrison, a former military installation converted to a state park. There, especially in the spring months, he watches for migrating warblers along with the usual suspects—robins, cardinals, and the like. Over the years, his hobby has taken him on hikes throughout North America where he’s snapped photos of moose and bears.
For Norm, hiking is about the magic of the wildlife—but it’s also more than that. “When I’m outside, I just feel stronger,” he says.
A beginner’s guide to gearing up for your first hike.
Ready to try a day hike? The key is to start slowly, says Mark Fenton, author of The Complete Guide to Walking: For Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness. For a first hike, don’t plan to be out more than a few hours. And remember, it’s not a competition. Don’t push yourself: Olsen suggests using “the talk test” as a gauge for pace and intensity. That is, you should be able to carry on a conversation as you trek along. (If you can’t, slow down.) And be sure that your clothes are comfortable. “All your gear—shoes and clothes—should have been worn before and broken in,” says Fenton. Here are additional suggestions from the experts:
Find the right shoe
The key is to buy a hiking shoe that suits your activity level. Olsen recommends cross-trainers or running shoes for level paths and hiking boots for rougher terrain. If you can spare the time, he suggests buying boots at an outdoors specialty shop where you can be fitted by trained staffers.
Don’t skimp on socks
While at that specialty store, pick out some hiking-specific socks. The best are made of synthetic material that has strong wicking action to keep your feet dry.
Always carry water. As much as you can. People tend to underestimate their water needs. Experienced hikers often tote a few extra gallons in their car to the trail head so they can drink immediately after the hike.
You shouldn’t expect to get lost—but no one who gets lost plans to do so. Bring along a daypack with a whistle, map, compass (or GPS), flashlight, matches, first aid kit, knife, and flashlight.
Select a few tools
Beyond basic safety equipment, what you’ll need depends on where you plan to hike. Saul Staten, for example, a regular hiker at South Mountain Park in Phoenix, Arizona, always carries needle-nose pliers. “If you brush up against a cactus, the needles go right through your clothes,” he says. “Each needle has little microscopic hooks, and you have to pull them out carefully.”
This one’s optional, but Olsen suggests using trekking poles on rugged, natural trails. The lightweight poles ease the impact on knees and help maintain balance. Look for adjustable poles because one size doesn’t fit all.
Dress the part
On trails with scrub or thistles on underbrush, wear pants. On wide trails or rail trails—a network of trails from former rail lines—shorts are more comfortable. Newer specialized hiking clothing—shirts, shorts, and pants—is designed with built-in high-tech properties such as bug repellent and sunscreen.
Looking for a place to hike? The following websites are loaded with useful information.
Americantrails.org: Nonprofit dedicated to maintaining trails for hiking, bicycling, skiing, and other activities. Posts information on National Historic and National Recreation Trails as well as trail planning and facilities.
Americanhiking.org: Lists clubs throughout the country promoting foot trails and hiking experiences.
Trails.com: For $49.95, you can access maps of more than 49,000 trails, driving directions, and more.
Localhikes.com: Site lists local trails in your area complete with information on length, hike time, and difficulty—and reviews from hikers.
Trailsource.com: Find more than 1,500 trail descriptions, maps, GPS downloads, and more. Offers free information, but—for an annual fee of $29.99—you can get access to unlimited premium content and information.