Hiking is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the world. People everywhere are getting out on the trail near where they live and/or traveling to embark on world-class hiking vacations in national parks and wilderness areas around the globe. Hiking clothing, footwear, backpacks, trekking poles and snacks are some of the best selling items at outdoor retail stores. So what’s the big deal about hiking and why should you get into it?
I’d like to start with an amusing anecdote. I’m one of the owners of Wildland Trekking, America’s largest and highest rated hiking company, and I’ve been hiking my entire life. I’m now a middle-aged man who is as in love with outdoor adventure as I’ve ever been. So it made sense that when my daughter was born I would do everything I could to share my passion with her. It was one of my biggest parenting goals.
One day, when she was three, we were getting ready for a hike in the Catalina Mountains outside Tucson, Arizona. She was sitting there pulling on her boots, and I noticed that she looked very unhappy. Trying to figure out what was going on, I asked her if she liked hiking. She stopped, took a deep breath and with an impressive amount of exasperation half said, half yelled “It’s just walking!!!”
I was taken aback. It actually hurt my feelings a little bit – in the way that some new parents get their feelings hurt by trivial things. I worried she wouldn’t fall in love with the outdoors like I had. But once I got past all of that, and really thought about it, I actually had to hand it to her. Fundamentally hiking is just walking. It’s true. And yet it’s also so much more than that for so many people. So let’s get into it – why is hiking more than just walking and why does it have the power to change your life?
1. Connecting with Our Roots
Walking was humanity’s first and most basic form of self transport. What we now call “hiking” has been a basic function of homo sapien existence since the beginning, but in our modern world it means something far different than it did to our ancestors.
Until relatively recently humans lived in and as part of the natural world. Today most of us live in towns and cities, separated from nature by walls, buildings, roads and massive amounts of private land. In our modern context, hiking offers reconnection with nature, with our past, even if just for a couple hours. The chance to move unencumbered through forests, deserts, coastlines, meadows, river valleys and more offer us a taste of what daily life was like for our ancestors. This connection is a vital one, and offers many seen and unseen benefits to our bodies, minds and souls, which we elaborate on below. We are listing this as the first reason to start hiking because more connection to nature is something many people benefit from in very significant ways.
2. Holistic Physical Exercise
The body fuels the mind. Many of us exercise our minds all day but do little for our bodies. Or maybe we hit the gym for a couple hours per week. The gym – as great as it is – is an artificial, mostly lifeless environment. That’s not to say gyms are bad or not worth it; they offer tremendous value, but they pale in comparison to the invigorating energy a couple hours out on the trail can generate. Fundamentally, we weren’t meant to get our exercise on treadmills. Humans evolved getting our exercise in nature, surrounded by the dynamic life systems that comprise the miracle of life.
Our recommendation is to use the gym to stay in shape during the week – it’s great for that! But when you have time, or when you can make time, get out on the trail for 4-12 hours and cover some serious ground. Half way through your hike stop, sit on a rock and soak up the beauty that’s all around you. Breathe in the fresh oxygen being produced by the trees. Listen to the birds. Watch the water flow by in a creek. Just exist as part of the web of life for a brief time, then continue your hike and notice how you feel if you do this 2-3 times per month.
3. Almost Anyone Can Do It
Let’s face it, many outdoor adventure activities are limited to certain demographics. Kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, mountaineering, skiing…these are all amazing sports. But they aren’t very forgiving. Young people in their 20’s and even 30’s can get away with some tumbles, but for people who are older or have physical limitations, a bad crash or accident can mean months or years of recovery.
Hiking on the other hand is something people of almost any age can do, and it’s conducive to many physical limitations. Walking and hiking is easy on your joints (most of the time – some downhill hikes can be jarring), good for your back, healthy for your bones and great for your heart and lungs especially if there’s some uphill. These characteristics make hiking an outstanding activity for a majority of people who want to get out more often and be more active.
4. Train Local, Travel Afar
Hiking is the perfect sport for training locally and then traveling to tackle some major accomplishments. At Wildland Trekking we recommend our guests train for our hikes with a combination of frequent gym workouts and occasional long days of hiking. Many of our guests live near state parks, national parks, forest service land, private reserves, big city parks or other forms of open land where they can get in their local training hikes. Then it’s off to life-list destinations like the Grand Canyon, Kilimanjaro, The Alps, Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains and many others! What we hear from our guests over and over is that the training was far more fulfilling than they expected. The training hikes end up being a major source of satisfaction, in addition to their big trip, and the entire package is in many cases life-changing.
5. Meaningful Adventure
Hiking offers the opportunity for true adventure, especially if you’re willing to travel. Many people don’t have high adventure destinations near them, but with a little bit of travel they can make it to some unforgettable places. The USA and the world are full of stunningly beautiful, wild hiking options. From crossing the Grand Canyon on a Rim to Rim hike to summiting Half Dome in Yosemite to circumventing the Mont Blanc Massif in Europe, there are a dizzying number of spectacular treks to choose from. And you can pick your flavor: do you like summiting peaks, exploring canyons, thru-hiking sections of long trails like the Appalachian Trail or Continental Divide Trail, discovering cultural sites, embarking on coastal hikes or something else?
Adventure is something missing from many people’s daily lives. It brings a feeling of aliveness and awareness that sharpens our senses and helps put life in perspective. Also it doesn’t mean you have to go out and start skydiving or mountain climbing – hiking can bring plenty of adventure with minimal risk.
6. Get into Backcountry Hiking and Camping
Once you’ve been day hiking for a while, you may want to take it to the next level. Backpacking trips and llama treks (if you’d rather not carry the heavier backpacks) offer amazing opportunities to hike for days in a row, camp in the backcountry and truly immerse yourself in the wilderness. Regular day hiking can do wonders for your mental, emotional and physical well being. Backcountry hiking trips, as a next step, offer deeply meaningful, extended retreats into nature.
Being out for days at a time has a cumulative effect that exponentially increases the benefits of hiking and being in nature. And there’s something about evenings and mornings on multi-day trips that are truly magical, and that you miss out on if you’re only day hiking.
A Brief Description of a Backcountry Experience
The hiking is over for the day. From this morning’s camp to this one you covered about 7 miles. The hike took you over a mountain pass with views of towering, jagged peaks; along pristine rivers and creeks; and through beautiful forests and open meadows. You watched a rainbow trout treading the current in a remote mountain stream. From the mountain pass you saw a herd of elk grazing in a river valley far below. And eagles…you saw three eagles riding the wind currents, scanning for rodents.
Your temporary home is established in the middle of a vast wilderness, several days hiking from the nearest road. Dinner is cleaned up and the sun is setting. The soft murmur of a breeze in the trees and faded roar of a distant river are the only sounds. No cars. No horns. No sirens. Stars begin to freckle the blue-black sky as the twilight fades. The campfire’s flames and deep red coals draw you into a state of being humans have enjoyed for thousands of years. It’s meditative and calming. You can feel this experience is part of our collective human memory.
After a little while you stand up and walk away from the campfire to stretch your legs, which are sore from days of hiking. The silhouettes of the trees are flashing in the licking, strobing light from the flames. Walking a bit farther, the fire light fades and there’s a break in the forest canopy. The sky is now jet black with millions of stars sprayed across it like glitter. The Milky Way is swirling across space, a tornado of stars 100,000 lightyears away. You had no idea that’s what the Milky Way looked like without city lights drowning the stars. It’s mesmerizing. In this place all that matters is right in front of you. Your world is simple and peaceful. And beautiful.
This is an example of where hiking can take you.
7. Boosted Emotional and Mental Well Being
More and more research is being done on the effects nature has on people’s mental and emotional well being, and the results are extremely positive. There is also mounting evidence showing that exposing kids to nature on a regular basis positively affects brain development; that time in nature can boost your immune system and lower blood pressure; and that just looking at a tree alters brain chemistry.
Article About Effects of Nature on Emotional Well Being
One of our favorite articles on this topic was published by Harvard Medical School. In the article they say that “Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.”
They go on to explain that “It’s not clear exactly why outdoor excursions have such a positive mental effect. Yet, in a 2015 study, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination — defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.”
The growing field of wilderness therapy is also harnessing the power of nature to help teenagers and young adults break addictions, overcome depression and anxiety, and recalibrate their relationship with the world and themselves.
Bottom line is you don’t have to depressed or anxious to benefit from these effects. We can all use a little bit less stress and a little bit more positivity.
8. Connect with Others
Hiking is a fantastic activity to do with friends, family, kids, partners, or even people you don’t know. Because it’s something so many people can do, a friendly invite to go on a hike is often well received by most people. Even people on first dates are enjoying hiking these days! Out on the trail conversation seems to flow effortlessly and bounce around from topic to topic. And it’s a shared experience that people can build on to add more or bigger experiences, like traveling and doing a trip together at a major destination like Yellowstone, Peru, Iceland or many others!
9. The Freedom of the Hills
Freedom. It’s such an important piece of the human experience. Getting out into nature, unencumbered by the constraints of modern civilization, can be like a lovely breath of fresh air.
Many of us live in environments almost completely designed and built by humans. Where a building goes up, where a tree is planted, where a road turns, what kind of grass is grown in which lot, where the water flows, what you’re allowed and not allowed to….almost all of these things and many, many more are determined by people. There’s nothing wrong with this (in fact it’s necessary), but it creates an arbitrary reality that humans are almost completely in control of. Everything becomes human-centric.
On the other hand, in nature things keep going despite not having the attention of people. Animals find food, reproduce and raise their offspring. Plants drop seeds which germinate and grow into more plants. Trees fall over and stay where they fall. Creeks determine their own paths based on the natural laws of erosion and hydrology. The list goes on and on. When we’re hiking we can observe and appreciate these elements of nature that are not dependent on people (they are however dependent on people not destroying them.) And with this comes a feeling of humility and freedom. The space to be ourselves, to breathe, to feel free.
It’s worth noting that if this point does not resonate with you, we heartily recommend exploring it and seeing if over time you can get a sense of what we’re describing.
10. Boost Your Immune System
Science Daily says this about the connection between nature and our immune systems:
“Spending time in nature provides protections against a startling range of diseases, including depression, diabetes, obesity, ADHD, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and many more, research shows. How this exposure to green space leads to better health has remained a mystery. After reviewing hundreds of studies examining nature’s effects on health, an environment and behavior researcher believes the answer lies in nature’s ability to enhance the functioning of the body’s immune system.”
This is just one example. There are many more studies (albeit much more research needs to be done) that show a strong connection between nature and immune strength. However, let’s not wait for more studies to come out! Get on out there and see for yourself how you feel.
Wildland Trekking Hiking Adventures
As the world’s premier hiking and trekking company, Wildland believes in connecting people to fantastic environments in amazing ways. Wildland Trekking Company offers an array of incredible hiking and trekking experiences in 9 states and 11 countries. Read more about our world-class destinations.