What’s better than sipping a steamy cup of freshly-plunged coffee on a crisp winter morning? Spending the rest of the day hiking the hills, dales, and trails of wild woodlands near your neighborhood—or taking a road trip to do so.
Hiking is one of the fastest growing sports in the nation, according to a study done by the Sporting Goods Association. Attracting nearly forty-five million Americans annually, it’s not only a heart-healthy way to spend the day with Mother Nature, it also sculpts the body, builds endurance, and burns 354 calories per hour (for a 130-pound person). And all you need for this sport is a solid set of shoes, a sturdy backpack, and stamina!
Gearing Up While walking may be part of your daily routine—with your pooch, around the mall, to and from the market—hiking with a loaded pack over uneven and hilly terrain requires a whole new set of muscle groups. Your body must learn to lift extra weight while maintaining balance, for a full day—up to six hours—on the trails.
Backpacks The first step is finding a proper-fitting backpack with a built-in hydration system. All backpacks are not created equal. Seek out women-specific packs, which are designed more for our shorter torsos with narrower shoulders and wider hips (ah, the birthing bottom) than standard packs (typically made for men). Remember, you’ll be toting the pack and its contents up and down the mountains all day, so find one that comfortably fits your torso. If it’s too short, the hip belt will ride up around your waist, restricting breathing. A pack that’s too long will become a shoulder-strap fit nightmare, creating a gap between the pack and your back that can result in back pain and pack rash. The waist belt should sit snuggly on your hips and the chest strap should lie flat across your sternum—not inhibiting breathing or irritating your breasts or throat. A chest strap equalizes the weight, so make sure it’s on the “must have” list.
Camelbak makes two women-specific packs—L.U.X.E and Day Star. The L.U.X.E has a 100-ounce bladder, while the Day Star’s holds 70 ounces. Both are designed with a woman-specific shaped frame and waist-belt. L.U.X.E (500 CU): $85, Day Star (873 CU); $80.
Socks You would never think you could put so much thought into sock selection. Choose a synthetic sock (no cotton!), such as Smartwool or Coolmax. These materials wick moisture away from your feet, offering serious defense against the dreaded “b” word—blisters! One tiny blister can prematurely end your hiking day. Make sure socks fit snugly, hug your heel, and have flat seams that won’t irritate feet.
Shoes Running shoes are fine for easy-footing paths, but you’ll want a trail shoe or a beefy boot for tree-lined, tricky terrain that can wreak havoc on ankles. I prefer women’s models, which have narrower lasts than men’s models. Regardless of your fashion choice, properly break shoes in before hitting the hills. Wear them around the house; when you feel they are ready for more action, don proper socks, lace up, and let’s go train!
Training: Step-by-Step The best way to prepare for a long hike…is to, well, hike. Even though hiking is a relatively low-impact activity, your body needs to adapt to its demands. Gradually building up from your current fitness to an all-day trek (5 to 6 hours) is an excellent strategy for gaining strength, skill, and remaining injury-free.
Set aside three to five weeks for a progressive training program that will build your endurance on the flats and hills while increasing your capacity to carry comfortably a weighted backpack. While some training can be done indoors on the treadmill (increase the incline for hills), the “long” walks should be done outside. Striding up steep hills and over rutted terrain is very different from sauntering smoothly on a treadmill. Also, do not underestimate downhills. You will feel any descents the next day just walking down stairs. Consult a certified fitness expert to build an intelligent training program.
The Layered Look Weather in the woods can change from warm and sunny to cold and stormy in a snap. Bring multiple layers of clothing to shield you from the elements. Togs that touch your skin should be made of synthetic materials like CoolMax, Capeline, or DryFit, that wick away moisture from your body. Just say NO to cotton! Cotton absorbs moisture, leaving you feeling as wet and clammy as a leftover oyster from the summer raw bar. Middle layers can be a midweight polypro or a lightweight fleece; the top layer should be a waterproof jacket (preferably with a hood). Carry gloves, a warm hat, and extra socks.
Be Prepared and Go For It! When you’re ready to hit the trails, join a local hiking club or bring along a pal or two. Hiking alone is not recommended. Take a trail map, compass, cell phone, at least 70 ounces of water, and 32 ounces of an electrolyte drink like Gatorade carried in a leak-proof container (like those from Nalgene). Lunch and trail snacks are essential, as is a watch to keep track of time, and a flashlight or headlamp (with extra batteries/bulbs) in case you get lost.
Safety Packing List Sunscreen, lip balm with SPF, sunglasses with 100% UVA, bug repellent, whistle, compass, map, extra socks, rain jacket, fleece, antihistamine tablets (such as Benadryl), Band-Aids, tweezers, knife, hat with brim, warm cap, lighter, headlamp, food, snacks, space blanket, ZipLocks for personal trash, duct tape, blister-fix covering, AquaTabs, and toilet paper or baby wipes in a small ZipLock.
Trail Nibbles Don’t wait until lunch to munch! Nibble along the way to keep energy pumping.
- GORP: the good old raisin and peanut mix. It’s nice to add dried papaya and peanut butter M&M’s
- Hard fruit, such as apples and pears
- PowerBars are easy to carry and are big bang-for-your-buck energy treats
- Yachana Jungle Chocolate: a vegan bite-size delight made from pure crunchy Ecuadorian cocoa bits that don’t melt. Available in four munchable trail flavors: Jungle Chocolate With Dried Pineapple, Jungle Chocolate With Brazilian Nuts, Jungle Chocolate With Coconut and Raisin, and Jungle Chocolate With Java Beans.
Hikarrific Websites America’s National Parks: Over 12,000 miles of trails The United States Geological Survey (USGS): Source for topographical maps. The American Hiking Society, The Hiking and Walking Homepage, Appalachian Trail: the Appalachian Trail, 2174 miles long, starts in northern Georgia and continues through South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and ends in Maine at Mt. Katahdin, Baxter Peak, Baxter State Park.