When we were kids, hiking was not called hiking. We called it exploring or heading out on an adventure or a quest! It wasn’t a planned event. Our parents told us to play outside, and we always ended up in the woods.
As we grew up and became adults, our lives became busier. Now most of our time is spent working or resting at home. We rarely have free time to just randomly go walking in the woods. However, you could argue that hiking is even more important for adults than it is for kids.
As kids we just knew we liked being out in nature. We enjoyed the sunshine on our skin and the breeze in our hair. We liked getting messy in the dirt and tromping through the creeks. The fresh air and exercise made us happy, but we never knew why. In this article, we will cover many of the ways that hiking can be beneficial for you and your family.
Appreciation of Nature
It is difficult to truly appreciate the beauty of our natural world without enjoying it in person. There is so much beautiful countryside out there that most of us have never seen. I have always been a sucker for landscapes. With a photography background, I am always looking for that perfect countryside view. I love snowy mountain caps, rushing rivers, and vast deserts.
No matter how you believe that our planet was formed, you cannot deny that it is pretty incredible. When you stare out over a canyon or catch a glimpse of a waterfall, it forces you to recognize the greatness we can all find in nature.
Hiking also teaches us an appreciation for the plant life found all around us. There are so many unique plants in nature that it is rare that I go on a hike without seeing something new to me. I constantly discover new flowers, mushrooms, and berries that I’ve never seen before. I also love watching the seasons affect plants. It always makes me happy to see the blue bells bloom in springtime, to see the leaves turn the color of fire in fall, and to see ice coat everything in the winter.
The other aspect of nature that hiking exposes us to is wildlife. On almost any hike you will see small animals like lizards, squirrels, and birds. It is not uncommon to see larger animals like deer, turkeys, and bear or at least the signs of these animals. Being up close with wildlife is thrilling and beautiful. This just adds to your hiking experience. If you bring children hiking with you, they will carry that appreciation with them for the rest of their lives.
As we get deeper into our discussion, you will notice that many of the benefits of hiking are health related. Within this subtopic, there is nothing more important than heart health. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the US. Hiking as a form of exercise reduces bad cholesterol, improves circulation, reduces hypertension, and reduces the risk of diabetes. These will be discussed in detail later. All of them contribute to your heart health.
The key is finding a medium to high intensity aerobic exercise like hiking on inclines or with a pack on your back. When compared to running for exercise, hiking reduces stress and anxiety while improving your mood. It also provides a safer form of exercise. Runners are much more likely to experience joint or muscle injuries versus hikers. This combined with reducing the risk of heart attack make hiking a super healthy activity.
Back to Basics
One fun aspect of hiking versus going running or going on a camping trip is the simplify mentality. The goal when hiking long distances is to keep your pack light so you can maintain a steady pace without taking breaks all of the time. If you bring every piece of gear you have, that is impossible.
When I go camping, I often like to bring plenty of gear to keep my family and I comfortable. This is easy to do when you plan to pretty much stay at camp the whole time. On the other hand, there isn’t really much gear needed to run on a treadmill or on a track. Hiking requires that balance that adds another challenging aspect to your outing.
I like to see how small and how light I can get my pack for hiking trips. Sometimes I even just carry my everyday carry kit which all fits in my pockets. This can make the miles go fast but be sure you are skilled with the gear you bring if you are packing light. Hiking in the wilderness does give us the opportunity to test some of our survival skills like navigation, water purification, tracking, and many others.
Obesity, High Blood Pressure, and Diabetes
There are several additional health reasons why hiking should be part of your exercise program. Roughly one in three Americans suffer from hypertension including myself and most of my friends. There are many factors that contribute to high blood pressure, but regular exercise is one of the biggest. Just the steady exercise can lower your blood pressure by 10 points and losing weight can lower it by 20 points or more.
Diabetes is similar in that steady physical activity can prevent and reduce the effects of the disease. If a person already has Type I diabetes, they can reduce how much insulin they need by hiking on a regular basis. For a person with Type II diabetes like my father, exercise and weight loss can actually reverse the path of the disease.
Obesity is one of the biggest reasons for people having any of these medical issues. I am a bigger guy and running hurts my joints. Stationary bikes are also quite uncomfortable, but hiking works just fine for me. Burning calories through low impact exercise will help you maintain or lose weight which reduces the chances of these other medical concerns.
It can help motivate you to calculate the calories that you burn while hiking. If there is any terrain to your trail, then 2.5 miles per hour is a good pace to aim for. This is roughly a 24-minute mile and will burn you about 250 calories per hour. This combined with a low-calorie diet can make a big difference in your health.
While I would never suggest a sprint up or down the rocky trails of the Ozark Mountains that I frequent, competition is fun. Most of the people I know that enjoy exercising in the mountains, in the deserts, and on the beaches of our country also enjoy some bragging rights. Otherwise, they would probably be on a treadmill somewhere.
When we have big groups, I like to have long distance competitions. For example, we might split up into two person groups. The first group to arrive at the checkpoint and start a fire for dinner does not have to cook or clean that night. This gives us all day to safely compete and talk trash while motivating each other to get to the checkpoint fastest. We have also created scavenger hunts and wilderness skills challenges for the group when we have kids with us.
Stress and Anxiety
This is probably the biggest reason why I enjoy hiking. We live in a stressful world. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, we stress about life. We worry about work, family, money, health, and plenty of other topics. This stress releases toxins that build in your body and increase feelings of stress. Anxiety affects the body in so many negative ways. It causes the muscles to tense up, it can cause joint pain, it can cause headaches, and it can lead to dozens of other conditions.
Let’s break down exactly how hiking helps your body and mind. In the simplest form, exercise releases endorphins that reduce discomfort and provide a sense of euphoria. In addition, built up toxins get released, metabolism is increased, and blood oxygen levels are higher. However, hiking is so much more than exercise. Sunshine on your skin provides vitamins that you would not receive otherwise.
Hiking on a trail requires you to constantly focus on the sights and sounds around you. If you do not dedicate this focus to your task, you will end up tripping on a rock and face planting in the mud. This level of focus often prevents you from worrying about the stresses of normal life. There are trips during which I spend days hiking without worrying about my job a single time. I am not sure if there is any science behind it, but just taking in the fresh air and the beautiful sights and sounds always makes me feel better.
I was a photography major in college and have always enjoyed nature shots. My photography professor was mentored by Ansel Adams, so you can imagine there were lots of black and white landscapes in my education. When I feel like bringing the gear, I pull out my old Pentax 35mm and take shots along the way as I hike.
Hikes are great for close-up shots of flowers and insects with a macro lens. They are also great for overlook shots of mountains and valleys that must be framed with a zoom lens. Sometimes I like to keep it simple and just take pictures with my cell phone. These days, it is tough to tell the difference in quality. The point is that hiking through nature allows you to capture images that you would never normally capture. I have pictures from hikes I took as a teenager that are still part of my portfolio.
Osteoporosis and Arthritis
As we get older, our bones and joints tend to have issues. Osteoporosis can actually be reversed, and bone density can be increased by hiking on a regular basis. The bones build up calcium and maintain thickness, so they are less likely to break. A recent study showed that just hiking three times a week can show a 6% increase in bone density over a nine-month period of time. Joint inflammation can also be a huge issue, and hiking can help. The more you move your joints and absorb the benefits of hiking, the less you will hurt.
If you are preparing for an athletic event or challenge of some kind, hiking can provide a unique type of training that could give you the edge. Hiking requires you to focus on your footing, your strides, your pace, and your breath control. You face going up rocky paths and skidding down steep slopes with loose gravel. This makes it easier for you to handle slopes long term and strengthens your muscles and joints to handle iffy surfaces. For many of my friends, hiking is a way to prepare for 5k races or marathons. For me, it is how I prepare for wilderness survival challenges.
It is hard to explain how it works exactly, but hiking creates a balance in my life. When I am out sweating and scaling slippery rocks, it makes me appreciate that couch I enjoy so much. When I am dehydrated and sun scorched, it makes me appreciate my car air conditioning and the sweet tea I have waiting on ice. When I am out in the middle of nowhere with nobody around, it makes me appreciate my friends and family and the relative certainty of city life.
On the other hand, I take all of my experience with me when I get back home. I remember the beautiful scenery and wildlife. I remember the cool breeze and the warm sun on my forehead. I remember the quiet and appreciate the relative serenity of nature. Any time I need to unwind and feel like life is getting the best of me, I lace up my boots and hit the trail. It is the perfect prescription for normal life.