Hiking for Fitness

HIKING FOR FITNESS: How to Turn Your Trek into a Workout

By ANNIE RITCHIE / April 26, 2023

Are you tired of the same old gym routine? Can’t even imagine yourself at gym? Looking for a way to connect with nature while getting a killer workout?

 If any of that resonates, hiking might be exactly what you need. The absolute best thing for me about hiking is that the enjoyment in the outdoors is the primary goal, but at the same time I am getting fitter and healthier. So, keep reading if that sounds like a good fitness option for you.

Understanding the Physiological Benefits of Hiking

Your Heart

So, first off, hiking is a fantastic way to get your heart pumping and improve your cardiovascular health. When you’re hiking up those inclines or traversing uneven terrain, your heart has to work harder to pump blood and oxygen to your muscles. This helps to strengthen your heart and lungs, and can improve your overall cardiovascular endurance over time.

Your Muscles

Chat to a group of hikers relaxing after a solid day’s hiking and they will tell you about muscle workout! In the morning as they trekked uphill, leg muscles were put to work. Quads, calves and glutes worked together to get them to the summit. Scrambling across rocks and even gravelly pathways requires balance and that’s where their back and core muscles were used for stability. Those who used trekking poles will also tell you about the upper body workout they feel they have had. Trekking poles are great for toning your upper arms.

Joints Ligaments and Tendons

Hiking also helps improve your flexibility. The constant movement and varied terrain of hiking require your joints and muscles to move in different directions. This can enhance your flexibility and mobility over time. I find if I warm up properly before I leave the house, I can manage my knee injury quite well. Over time I found the little, but often principle worked for me.

Mental Health

I find hiking in the countryside works wonders for low mood. I walk every day and the days I miss are the days I struggle with low mood and anxiety. There is something about the process that just sets me up for a good day.

How To Make Your Hike A Killer Workout

Choose the Right Trail for your Fitness Level

It’s important to pick a trail that matches your fitness level and experience. If you’re a beginner, start with a shorter, less challenging trail and gradually work your way up. As you gain more stamina and strength, you can tackle more demanding trails to amp up your workout.

Hydrate and Fuel Properly During your Hike

It’s important to stay hydrated and properly fueled during your hike, especially if it’s a long or strenuous one. Bring plenty of water and snacks like nuts, fruits, or energy bars to keep your energy levels up. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink water; sip water regularly to stay hydrated throughout your hike.

Warm up and Stretch before your Hike

Just like any other workout, warming up before your hike is crucial. Spend a few minutes doing some light exercises like brisk walking or gentle dynamic stretches to get your muscles warmed up and ready for the hike. And don’t forget to stretch your major muscle groups like your legs, back, and shoulders to prevent injuries.

Incorporate Interval Training into your Hike

To really turn up the intensity of your hike, try incorporating interval training. Alternate between periods of brisk walking or even jogging with slower-paced sections to challenge your cardiovascular system and increase your calorie burn. For example, you can walk at a moderate pace for a few minutes, then pick up the pace to a faster walk or jog for a minute or two, and then return to a moderate pace. Repeat this pattern throughout your hike for an added workout boost.

Utilize Proper Hiking Techniques for Maximum Workout Benefits

Pay attention to your hiking technique to make the most of your workout. Engage your core muscles by keeping your back straight and your abdominal muscles pulled in as you hike. Take purposeful steps and use your arms to help propel yourself forward, especially when going uphill. This will help you engage more muscles and burn more calories.

Add Weight to your Backpack for Resistance Training

If you’re up for a challenge, (and have no medical reasons like back or knee pain) consider adding some weight to your backpack. You can start with a few pounds of extra weight and gradually increase as you get stronger. Carrying the additional weight will increase the intensity of your hike and provide resistance training for your muscles, making your hike a true full-body workout. Be very careful on downhill slopes though and take care to use trekking poles to relieve the pressure on your knees.


Monitor your Heart Rate during your Hike

Keep an eye on your heart rate during your hike to make sure you’re working at an appropriate intensity. You can use a heart rate monitor or simply check your pulse manually. Aim for a heart rate that’s within your target heart rate zone, which is typically around 50-85% of your maximum heart rate, depending on your fitness level and goals.

Cool down and Stretch after your Hike

After your hike, take the time to cool down and stretch your muscles. Slow down your pace in the last few minutes of your hike to gradually lower your heart rate. Then, spend a few minutes stretching your major muscle groups to improve flexibility, reduce muscle soreness, and promote recovery.

Hiking for Specific Fitness Goals

Weight loss

I debated whether to add this to the list, as I find if you approach hiking with a view to losing weight it can detract a little from the experience. But I also know that if I miss a few days of walking, I see the difference in terms of weight gain. So, I am aware its a useful tool and hiking can be a fantastic way to shed those extra pounds. It’s a low-impact cardiovascular exercise that can burn a significant amount of calories, depending on the intensity and duration of your hike. Trekking long distances may be your thing, or you may prefer shorter more energetic hikes. By choosing challenging trails, incorporating interval training, and adding resistance by carrying a weighted backpack, you can boost your calorie burn and accelerate your weight loss journey. Taking care to refuel with appropriate food stuffs is another vital ingredient.

Cardiovascular Fitness

Hiking is an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise that can improve your heart health and endurance. The varied terrain and elevation changes of hiking can challenge your cardiovascular system, making it work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood to your muscles. Over time, regular hiking can help improve your cardiovascular fitness, making your heart and lungs more efficient.

Muscle Strength and Endurance

Hiking regularly using sensible hiking techniques is fantastic for muscle strength. We discussed how the uneven terrain common to hiking trails engages a variety of muscle groups. By gradually increasing the difficulty of your hikes (carrying a backpack equates to resistance training) you will notice your muscles getting stronger and your endurance increasing. And you get to do this in the fresh air in beautiful surroundings!

Flexibility and Balance

Hiking requires a good amount of balance and stability, especially when navigating uneven terrain. This can help improve your balance and proprioception, which is your body’s awareness of its position in space. Additionally, hiking often involves stepping over rocks, roots, and other obstacles, which can help improve your flexibility and mobility as you navigate through different terrains.

Mental well-being

Hiking can help reduce stress, improve mood, and boost mental clarity. Hiking can also be a great way to practice mindfulness and improve your mental focus as you navigate the trails and soak in the natural beauty around you.

Remember, it’s important to set specific fitness goals that are realistic and achievable based on your fitness level and experience. Consult with a healthcare professional or a certified fitness instructor before starting any new exercise program, including hiking, especially if you have any health concerns or medical conditions.

Safety Considerations for Hiking as a Workout

Wear Appropriate Gear

Choose sturdy and comfortable footwear with good traction to prevent slips and falls. Dress in layers to be prepared for changing weather conditions, and wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water to stay hydrated, and consider using trekking poles for added stability.

Plan your Route

Before hitting the trails, make sure to research and choose a hike that matches your fitness level and experience. Check the trail conditions, weather forecast, and park regulations. Let someone know about your hiking plans, including your expected time of return. It’s always a good idea to carry a map, a compass or a GPS device, and know how to use them.

Warm-up and Stretch

Just like any other workout, warming up and stretching before you start hiking is essential. Take a few minutes to do some light exercises, such as walking or gentle stretching, to loosen up your muscles and prepare your body for the hike.

Pace Yourself

It’s so tempting at the beginning of your hike to stride out, confident you’ll conquer the trail! But if you are not careful you will run out of steam before you can complete your hike. Start at a moderate pace and gradually increase your intensity as you gain more fitness and experience. Listen to your body and take breaks when needed. It’s okay to slow down or turn back if you feel fatigued or uncomfortable.

Specific Health Conditions

Hiking can be a wonderful form of exercise, but it’s important to consider your specific health conditions before hitting the trails. If you have any pre-existing health conditions or concerns, such as heart or respiratory issues, joint or muscle problems, or other chronic health conditions, your healthcare provider can provide personalized recommendations based on your individual health needs and help you determine if hiking is safe and suitable for you. It’s always better to be cautious and seek professional advice to ensure that you can enjoy hiking safely and minimize any potential risks or complications. Having said that, with careful monitoring hiking can be an invaluable tool in your arsenal against certain chronic illnesses, where inactivity can exacerbate the problem.

Be Mindful of the Environment

Respect nature and follow Leave No Trace principles. Stay on designated trails, avoid disturbing wildlife, and pack out all trash. Be aware of any potential hazards, such as cliffs, river crossings, or slippery rocks, and use caution when navigating through them.

Be Prepared for Emergencies

Carry a first aid kit, a whistle or a signaling device, and know how to use them. Familiarize yourself with the emergency procedures of the park or trail you’re hiking, and know the location of the nearest emergency services.

Check the Weather

Weather conditions can change quickly in outdoor environments, so always check the weather forecast before heading out. Be prepared for rain, snow, extreme temperatures, or other weather-related challenges, and adjust your plans accordingly.

Listen to Park Officials and Signs

Pay attention to any posted signs, warnings, or closures along the trail. Follow the instructions of park officials or rangers, and be aware of any safety guidelines or regulations in the area.

Ready to Unlock the Fitness Magic of Hiking?

Sounds appealing doesn’t it? A workout outside in the sunshine in the fresh air. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced hiker, get ready to lace up your hiking boots and embark on a journey to a healthier, fitter you! So, strap on your backpack, grab your water bottle, and let’s hit the trails!