Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hiking for outdoors fitness - basic tips for getting started safely

Hiking is an outdoors fitness activity with growing popularity around the globe. Hiking is a great exercise to to help you lose weight, get fit and stay in shape. Plus, it is appealing to many in today's age who may be seeking to escape from the buzz of the technology-driven modern world we live, even if only for a couple of hours.

Outdoor fitness is a great way to reconnect with all that is real. It gives the feeling that we, as human beings, can still somehow live in balance with the natural world.

Hiking is a great outdoors fitness activity - but plan ahead to hike safely!
Taking to the trail, though, requires planning and preparation. Here in Southern California, the rash of mountain rescues for hikers suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration - not on wilderness trails but on hiking trails close to urban populations - seems to be rising along with the increase in hiking's popularity. Is this evidence that even fairly fit people may not be putting enough thought into what is needed when exercising in the great outdoors?

Don't be one of the statistics. If you're a novice hiker or someone who is interested in getting started with an outdoors fitness routine that includes hiking, these five tips will help you stay safe while setting out on the trail.

1. Know what you're getting into

Not all trails are the same, and distance is not the only factor to consider when selecting a suitable trail for your outdoors fitness hiking. The lesson here is, do your research. There are lots of free resources online, but the best information on your local trails can be found locally. Go online and find a detailed guide book for trails in your area. Or better yet, go to a local small bookstore to look for a guide book that might not be available online.

Check with the local business, like outdoor outfitters, or the chamber of commerce. Call local government offices, like the parks and recreation or conservation management office, to see if they can provide you with detailed trail maps. If you are lucky enough to live near wilderness areas, check with your local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or U.S Forest Service office.

Look for resources that include mileage as well as elevation gain. And seek out trail descriptions, too. Once you know the name of the trail just Google it.  You'll find many resources, like my blogs HikeyHikey! and Man of Merit, that include stories and helpful hints from hikers who have already trod the same trail you're planning to take.

2. Assess your physical condition

Another thing to do before setting out on the trail is to consider your physical condition. You don't have to be in perfect shape before hitting the trail. Overweight and obese people can - and do - hike. So you don't have to reach a certain weight before you head out on the trail. But know your limits, and start off slowly.

More than anything, a strong core will help you no matter what your current weight. Strong legs are important, but the core helps you maintain balance and footing over rocky paths. Personally, I had been working out with a medicine ball for more than a year before I started hiking, so I was confident that I had the physical wherewithal to handle a two-mile hike with only moderate elevation gain, which is what I started with. Within two months, though, I was hiking my first mountain!

The key is to work your way up to the hike by walking progressively distant routes - and doing some strength training wouldn't hurt. For tips on getting started using the medicine ball, check out this MyFitLife2Day post on my basic medicine ball workout.

Before that first hike, I was also concerned I might not have the respiratory endurance to handle the hike I was planning. If you are worried that you haven't been doing lots of cardio, remember you can take frequent breaks when you're on the trail, and don't be afraid to do so. If the guide book tells you it's a one-hour hike, you might want to tag on an extra hour if you plan on taking your time. That's what I did - and I still do. Just plan accordingly and don't get caught out on the trail after dark. It's best to go early in the day when you're just getting started.

3. Get the gear you need

Knowing you have the right gear is just as important as knowledge of what you're getting into and what you're capable of. For most hikes of less than five miles, low-top trail shoes are sufficient. You don't want to use your regular running shoes or cross trainers - you need something with grip, especially if you live in an area where trails are rock-strewn, which most of the good trails are. And if you're carrying a heavy pack or are more 75 pounds overweight, I would recommend a hiking boot with more ankle support and stiff soles. You'll also want a backpack that distributes the weight of what you're carrying well. It should ride with most of the weight on your hips and fit snugly to your back. This will help you maintain balance and reduce the risk of back injury.

4. Hydrate!

Before you hike you should chug some water even if you're not thirsty. And no matter how far you're planning to hike, you definitely need to carry water with you. For a two-mile hike one liter of water should be enough, unless you live in a desert region, in which case you should carry two. For longer hikes you might want to invest in a backpack that holds a water bladder with a sipping tube. This way you don't have to stop every time you need a drink - which is often on the trail. Dehydration can lead to dizziness and exhaustion, and it can diminish your capacity to think clearly and make good decisions. I typically carry three liters of water for any hike of five miles. I will carry a fourth liter if I do a ten mile hike. Water is heavy to carry, but in my opinion it's better to be safe than sorry. Plus, I figure the more weight I carry the more calories I burn!

5. Fuel your body

Speaking of burning calories - you would be surprised by how many calories you burn while hiking. For more information on that, click here. This being the case, it is important to up your caloric intake before, during and after the hike to ensure your body remains fueled. I usually take along a banana and an apple, two carrots and a stalk of celery as well as a granola bar.

I don't always eat all of the food on the trail, but I know it's important to have it in case I need it. I usually have my next meal pre-cooked and waiting for me in the fridge at home, too, so I don't go into binge mode when I get back to the house. This happens especially if I'm being frugal with my food intake before and after a hike. Remember, food is fuel, so eat before you need it, not once your body is starved for nutrition.

Ready? Then, get out there and do it!

Are you ready to join the thousands of new hiking enthusiasts taking to the trails around the globe? Are you ready to engage in hiking as the phenomenal outdoors fitness activity is? Are you ready to stay safe while getting great exercise to to help you lose weight, get fit and stay in shape? Then get out there and do it! Just make sure you're prepared and you'll be fine.