It’s easy to dismiss hiking as something reserved for those who live in wild places, or for the super fit and adventurous. However, one of the greatest benefits of hiking is that it’s actually really accessible, inclusive and easy to do, regardless of your fitness levels. You don’t have to walk a million miles, you don’t need fancy gear, and you don’t even need to travel very far from home to do it.
As well as it being an excellent activity for those new to adventure in the outdoors, there are also loads of health benefits of hiking, both physical and mental. Plus, there are some social benefits of hiking, if you want them! Or you can enjoy the meditative effects of solo hiking, if you’d rather. Either way, there’s very little that is negative about embarking upon a hike, and you’ll almost always finish it feeling like a better human being than when you started.
If you are totally new to hiking and don’t know where to start then read our hiking guide for beginners.
- The benefits of hiking
- The health benefits of hiking
- Social benefits of hiking
The benefits of hiking
Before I get onto the health and social benefits of hiking, it’s important to note these other reasons why taking a hike is a great idea.
01It’s free to do
You can take a hike almost anywhere without having to pay money to do it. Sure, some national parks charge an entry fee. However, there are thousands of trails of all distances that are totally free of charge.
02You don’t need much gear
Unless you plan on hiking in adverse weather conditions and on challenging terrain for prolonged periods, you don’t need much gear to go hiking. A solid pair of sneakers or running shoes will be just fine for short, easy hikes. Comfortable sportswear is fine to wear, and you’ll need something comfortable to carry your water, food and other items in. Of course, there is loads of great hiking gear available to make your time on the trail more comfortable and safe. But to start out you just need a few hiking essentials.
03It’s great to do with the family
Hiking is an excellent family-friendly activity that allows your little ones to get closer to nature and encourages exploration and adventure. If you’re worried they’ll get bored then chose an interesting route with lots of features (streams, trees, boulders etc). Or print a scavenger hunt for them to do.
04You can tailor the distance to your fitness
You don’t have to be mega fit to go hiking. In fact, many people start hiking to get fitter. Start by doing short and easy hikes and slowly make them longer and more challenging as your fitness improves. Soon you’ll be hiking the PCT!
05You can do it on your own
Many people like the social side of hiking. However, if you like time on your own then hiking is ideal, so long as you make sure you take the right safety precautions and tell someone where you are going. Plus, there are times when no-one else is available to go adventuring with you. So head out hiking on your own to get your nature fix.
The health benefits of hiking
The list of health benefits of hiking is endless. Have you ever read a report on the negative health effects of hiking? Thought not. More and more research is being done on just how great this simple pastime is for our health, and not just our physical health. The health benefits of hiking are so significant, in fact, that doctors have even started prescribing hiking to patients with chronic illnesses.
The mental benefits of hiking
06Improves mental wellbeing
Getting closer to nature has many proven positive effects on mental wellbeing. So much so that in 1996 the term “ecotherapy” was coined. Also known as nature therapy, ecotherapy is a formal therapeutic treatment that aims to improve the mental wellbeing of those suffering from depression and anxiety.
Disconnecting from devices and technology is an excellent way to tap into our creative sides as it allows our brains to become idle, even bored! But there is also research suggesting that time in the wild can boost creativity. Whether that’s as a result of limited screen time and an increase in spare time is yet to be proven. Whatever the root of it, however, the results are clearly beneficial to those wanting to access their inner Picasso!
In our world of growing over-stimulation, getting away from it all and switching off is becoming more and more essential. Taking a hike is the perfect way to unwind and quieten a busy mind. A recent study found that hiking reduces repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self (rumination). Plus, the rhythmic motion and repetitiveness of walking can be an excellent way to practice walking meditation.
If taking a hike feels like too much of a challenge right now then start small by simply getting outside and interacting with nature. Try creating a list of things to do each month in your local area, like this calendar.
The physical benefits of hiking
09Builds leg strength
Hiking on flat terrain is a good way to slowly gain endurance in your legs and maintain strength. Start hiking on steep terrain, however, and you’ll also build strength in your legs. Hiking up and downhill is like doing hundreds of lunges. It’ll be tough going to start with, but as your strength improves you’ll be able to climb for longer and with more confidence.
10Activates your core
Whether you realise it or not, every step you take on the trail will engage the muscles in your core. Sure, you won’t finish a hike with sore abs or anything. But you’ll activate the small, deep muscles of the core in a subtle and natural way. The more challenging the hike, the more you’ll have to engage your core. And if you’re carrying lots of gear on your back then all the muscles around the torso will get a very good workout.
11Improves cardio fitness
Just like running, cycling or swimming, hiking gives your lungs an excellent workout that can be sustained over a number of hours. Hit the hills and you’ll feel the benefits of hiking for fitness sooner than if you stay on the flat. But if you are new to hiking then you may find that a short, flat hike is plenty tough enough to get your lungs working hard.
12Stabilises joints and improves balance
Hiking on uneven terrain is one of the most natural ways to help stabilise the joints of your lower body. Unlike walking or running on the treadmill, every step on an outdoor trail is different, with your feet hitting the floor at a different angle each time. The result is that all the tiny supporting muscles that surround the joints have to fire up. The more they fire up, the stronger and more stable they become. This in turn helps to improve your balance on the more tricky sections of the trail and prevents injury.
Hiking is a superb activity for people who want to lose weight. Firstly, the idea of it doesn’t feel as daunting as going for a run and a short hike is manageable even for those starting with very low fitness levels. Secondly, it’s the sort of fitness that doesn’t always feel like fitness! Sometimes it can be tough, of course. But most moderately fit people can maintain hiking for many hours without really feeling like they’re ‘working out’, as such. Add some weight into your backpack, and choose hilly hikes and the calorie-burning potential will soar.
As mentioned at the start of the health benefits of hiking section, the evidence supporting hiking as a positive choice for a healthy lifestyle is so strong that doctors are prescribing it! Regular hiking lowers the risk of heart disease, improves blood pressure and stabilised blood sugar levels. New research also indicates that exercise may be the key for preventing Alzheimers. Get hiking everyone!
Social benefits of hiking
15Meet new people
The simplicity of hiking means that there are loads of social groups in existence that welcome new members and are open to anyone. Join a hiking Meetup group near where you live and have the added benefit of exploring your local area. Plus, joining a group means that you can share transport to and from the trail, if needed.
16Time to talk
If you want to really get to know your friends and family, take a hike with them! There are very few other scenarios in life where you spend several hours at a time with a person without the distractions of everyday life. Think of all the things you could talk about on a 6 hour hike! Plus, because you’ve ditched your devices and given your brain time to de-stress, your creative juices will start to flow encouraging all sorts of interesting things to talk about.
Whether you want to get fit or lose weight, or need some downtime away from everyday life, taking a hike is guaranteed to make you feel great. And with the benefits of hiking effecting so many areas of your life, including disease prevention and mental wellbeing, it’s hard to justify NOT getting out on the trail.
Happy hiking, healthy hikers!