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Getting Started With Hiking (Beginners Hiking Guide)

Many people think hiking is just walking on wilder, more challenging terrain through pretty scenery.

And to some extent, it is.

That is hiking at its most basic definition.

But the basic definition of hiking often leaves people ill-prepared for hiking’s impact on the body.

That wilder, more challenging terrain uses considerably more muscles than walking on flat, concrete or asphalt surfaces and uses those muscles differently and more intensely.

So, while hiking really is just walking through more demanding landscapes, those landscapes make a big difference in the kind of preparation, effort and recovery required.

What is hiking?

low shot of person hiking in woods

Hiking is taking long, demanding walks, typically on trails through forests, hilly countryside, or in mountainous terrains.

A hallmark of hiking is that it is done for recreation or fitness, not for transportation or another purpose.

Benefits of Hiking

The benefits of hiking are similar to walking or running, but go deeper into both the mind and muscles.

Some benefits of hiking for those who can hit the trail semi-regularly include:

  • Improved strength (especially the lower body and core)
  • Improved flexibility
  • Improved balance (hiking is typically done on uneven terrain)
  • Improved joint health (over time)
  • Improved heart health (including lower blood pressure)
  • Improved blood sugar levels
  • Improved respiratory rates (including relief from some respiratory diseases)
  • Improved sleep
  • Enhanced immune response
  • Weight loss
  • Fresh air and quiet time in nature, which in itself can:
  • Decrease stress
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Enhance immune response
  • Bolster self-esteem
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Reduce aggression
  • Improve overall mental health

Is hiking hard?

How hard hiking is depends on what type of hiking you’re doing and the terrain/trails you’re hiking on.

There are many forms of hiking, including day hiking, overnight hiking, out-and-back hiking, which is hiking to a point along a trail and then returning to your point of origin, and thru-hiking, which consists of hiking continuously forward on a longer trail.

These categories of hiking vary substantially in their levels of difficulty and how much preparation you need before setting out.

Hiking trails themselves also vary in difficulty. (In state and national parks, the difficulty level of trails is typically noted on park trail maps and may be indicated on trail markers as well.)

But even easy hiking trails are more difficult than walking on flat ground, and may be more difficult than you expect if you are not a regular hiker.

So, maybe the best answer to the question of whether hiking is hard is that it is definitely harder than walking on a street or paved path.

Is hiking bad for your knees?

Hiking hills (especially steep ones) puts a lot of pressure on your knee joints, mainly when you’re coming down, so overall hiking is harder on your knees than walking over a flat surface.

While your knees will get stronger through hiking and build up some durability over time, starting out with strong knees is the best defense against knee pain while hiking.

Exercises that strengthen the knees and leg muscles which support the knees, such as squats, lunges, wall-sits, and step-ups are good to incorporate into your fitness regimen to create a strong base for hiking.

Dangers of Hiking

Hiking is not an inherently dangerous activity, but it does carry more dangers than sticking to well-trod territory.

When hiking in nature, you can encounter wildlife, inclement weather events, such as floods or rockslides, and have a much greater potential for getting lost.

The biggest risk involved with hiking, however, is getting injured or dehydrated away from civilization.

Hiking Safety

You can eliminate (or at least reduce) many of the potential dangers of hiking by being prepared, carrying necessary supplies, checking weather reports, never hiking alone, and making a plan for emergencies.

Safety isn’t hard to find on the hiking trail, as long as you recognize that safety is in your hands.

For our tips on how to stay safe on a hike, see Hiking Safety Tips for Beginners (and Reminders for Experienced Hikers!)

How Often Should You Hike

If you want to keep the benefits gained from hiking through hiking, you should try to get to the trails at least once a week.

We realize this isn’t feasible for a lot of people.

The good news is, there are other ways to keep in hiking shape without having to get to a trail quite so often.

If you keep up a good fitness routine that maintains the strength and flexibility of your lower body, and includes some off-pavement and hill walking, you should be able to hike whenever your schedule allows.

You’ll probably be a little sorer than if you were hiking more regularly, but hitting a trail on vacation won’t lay you out for days either.

Is it OK to hike every day?

As long as you’re not overly taxing your body, most people should be able to hike every day.

Hiking, for the most part, uses basic movements you perform on a daily basis in smaller ways anyway.

Intense climbs and descents, however, do put strain on the body.

You’ll feel them in your knees, calves, hips, core, and likely even your feet.

When you feel those hills, you need rest days.

Yes, there are people who go on expeditions/treks that require long daily hikes (up to 20 or more miles per day), but these people train for these expeditions to be in the best physical shape possible to help minimize soreness and damage to their bodies.

For the rest of us, simple, less difficult hikes are okay every day, but we shouldn’t try powering up a new mountainside five days in a row.

How many miles should a beginner hike?

Hiking is harder than walking, but it uses the same basic principles.

So, if you can walk it in a day, you can probably hike it in a day.

Studies on how many steps people take per day have shown people walk vastly different amounts daily depending on age, sex, occupation, and even which country they live in.

You may also walk less than you think.

On average, Americans walk fewer than 5,000 steps per day, which for most people is the equivalent of two and a half to three miles.

If you want to know how much you should hike in a day, it’s a good idea to first know how much you walk in a day.

You can bump this number up slightly, a hike after all is supposed to be challenging, but don’t jump in with some wild mileage if you’re used to walking very little.

For all new hikers about five miles per day is the upper limit no matter how much you walk in a day. (I’m talking to you, mail carriers.)

Five miles on an easy to moderate trail is plenty when you’re still getting a feel for how much food/water you need to carry and how your body responds to the demanding terrain.

You should also be aware of your time limit.

Hikers average about two mph on trails, which is considerably slower than the average walking speed of three to four mph.

When you first start hiking, you may go even slower than that.

So, when determining your hiking distance, make sure you factor in time.

Is hiking good exercise?

Hiking is great exercise. What’s more, it’s great exercise that doesn’t require the kind of explosive output most great exercise requires.

While it’s comparable to walking and running, hiking uses muscles differently and requires a lot more effort from the core and leg muscles.

Which means you can go slower and get greater benefits.

The majority of hiking’s work comes from balancing on and climbing difficult terrain, not moving fast.

This makes it ideal for people who struggle with faster, more explosive movements, whether due to age, injury, or a chronic condition.

Is hiking good cardio?

As much as the terrain slows you down, hiking remains surprisingly good cardio.

And, once again, the terrain is the reason.

Though you move slower, uneven terrain and hills keep the muscles in the lower body, core, and even some in the upper body almost constantly engaged.

That takes a lot of energy and a lot of blood flow.

Is hiking good for weight loss?

Hiking is excellent for weight loss for a couple of reasons.

One is that is hiking sheds calories. You move slower, but you burn more.

The other is that hiking is an enjoyable activity for a lot of people.

It’s a workout that definitely feels like a workout physically, but not as much mentally.

And when it comes to losing weight, finding an exercise you enjoy and can stick to is half the battle.

Calories Burned Hiking

Like any basic exercise, how many calories you burn hiking depends on how fast you go, how much weight you carry, and the terrain, specifically how hilly and uneven it is.

On average, though, a 150-pound person walking the average hiking rate of 2 mph in hilly terrain can expect to burn around 8 cal./min.

That’s almost three times the calorie-burn of walking the same speed on a flat, paved surface.

In fact, it’s more calories than walking at a pace of 5 mph, which is really more of a jog.

Does hiking burn fat?

Yes, hiking burns fat.

Hiking raises your heart and respiratory rates (is a cardio/aerobic exercise) AND builds muscle.

Put those two things together and they equal fat-burn.

Does hiking burn belly fat?

Yup, hiking burns belly fat. But not in a direct way.

Hiking burns the overall fat on your body, and as you lose overall fat, you’ll lose belly fat too.

Does hiking build muscle?

Yes, hiking does build some muscle.

Building muscle requires only one thing: resistance.

Like with any weight-bearing exercise, the weight of your body alone provides some of that resistance in hiking.

But hills and uneven terrain provide even more.

Each time you step up an incline, pulling your bodyweight with you, you are working against greater resistance (gravity) than when you walk over a flat surface.

The same is true with uneven terrain, which can make you feel unsteady (again, gravity at work) and forces the muscles to engage.

Together, these things build muscle. But only up to a point.

Like any exercise that uses only bodyweight as resistance, you’re only bearing so much weight and muscle growth tops out pretty quickly.

You can continue growth by wearing a heavy pack or weight vest while hiking, but even then there’s a limit.

After all, there’s only so much weight you can safely carry.

What muscles does hiking work?

Hiking mostly engages the lower body.

The leg muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves) and glutes are engaged near constantly and take the brunt of the strain.

But the muscles of the hip flexors and lower abs also do quite a bit of work.

The hip flexors are where all the movements of the legs originate, and the abs are what keep you steady and upright on the trail.

Throw in trekking poles, and you’ll work your arms, shoulders, chest, and upper back as well.

Hiking for Beginners

For most people, getting started with hiking is fairly simple. (Though, it may not be as accessible for city-dwellers who might live some distance from good trails.)

If you are only used to walking flat surfaces (as most of us are in our day-to-day lives), you might be a little sore after your first hike, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to get started.

Hiking really is just walking.

So, pick an easy trail (around one to two miles is a good place to start) and head on out.

Just make sure there’s enough challenge to give you a feel for walking on uneven and hilly terrain.

And that’s about it.

Hiking isn’t really like other activities (though walking on sand and hill walking give you the best conditioning), so the best way to get started with hiking is just to do it.

Don’t worry, there are plenty of easy trails to get you started.

How to Prepare for Hiking

The best preparation for hiking is to walk (or run) on a regular basis.

When it’s time to hit the trails, the stronger your legs and core and the higher your endurance, the better.

That means getting plenty of weight-bearing cardio, and walking and running are too of the simplest, most effective forms of weight-bearing cardio (even better if you’re doing it on hills or uneven terrain).

For short, beginner hikes, walking (quickly) or running alone should be sufficient conditioning.

But, if you want to avoid soreness with your hike or be able to hike further or on a more difficult trail, you’ll want to put a little more effort into getting your lower body/core strength and stamina up to par.

Hiking Equipment for Beginners

For short day hikes near civilization, you don’t need much equipment.

Some good hiking shoes, appropriate clothing, a water bottle or hydration pack, and, depending on how long you’ll be out there, a backpack with a few snacks, sun protection, and a first aid kit will suffice. (This assumes you’ll be on a well-traveled path with no risk of getting lost.)

For longer hikes further from civilization, your supply needs become more far more extensive.

But, as a beginner, you should do numerous short day hikes on populated trails before heading out on longer hikes in the backcountry.

So, the simplest supplies should do.

For more on what to wear hiking, see What To Wear Hiking, What To Wear Hiking In Hot Weather, and What To Wear Hiking In Cold Weather.

For our list of the best hiking supplies to start with, see Essential Hiking Gear and Hiking Equipment (For Beginners)

Why Hiking?

Hiking is incredible exercise that doesn’t feel like incredible exercise.

Even more than the scenery, which can take your mind off the effort you’re putting in and make it all worthwhile, one of hiking’s major advantages is just how unhurried it is.

It’s not about putting your feet to the ground as quickly as possible.

There’s no need to do that. You can meander and still get the same benefits. 

Now, that’s not to say hiking is low-effort. It isn’t.

Even beginner trails can have you feeling the burn in your thighs and panting for breath.

And you can certainly up the intensity factor by moving more quickly over the trails if your goal is to get the best possible workout.

That’s kind of hiking’s whole deal. It’s just easy enough and just hard enough.

Easy enough that the vast majority of people can do it, but hard enough (and varied enough) that few people can do it without effort.

With hiking, there’s literally an entire forest of possibility.

And it sure feels more adventurous climbing a path through the woods or up the side of a mountain than doing incline on a treadmill at the gym.

Need some motivation to hit the trails? Check out Inspirational Hiking Quotes.

Want more yuks with your hiking content? Check out Hiking Puns To Give You LOLs On The Trail.

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