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Take a Hike

By Angela Arsenault
Posted On Aug 12, 2016
Take a Hike

By Angela Arsenault

One of my favorite places to be on a crisp, fall day is a hiking trail. With the heat of the summer fading into the brightly colored leaves on display, I enjoy layering up for an invigorating trek through the forest. Without fail, I find that my mind and body adopt a naturally calm pace. Even when my heart is racing over the steepest terrain, my mind remains calm and clear. It doesn’t happen quite like that anywhere else.

Dr. Paul Auerbach, professor of Emergency Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of Medicine for the Outdoors: The Essential Guide to First Aid and Medical Emergencies, feels a similar joy when hiking. “I absolutely love it,” he says. “There’s no place I’d rather be than outside. I think it makes people feel better, I think it elevates mood.”

If you’re feeling the pull to venture out and up, start by simply walking in a park with a few hills, and the option to traverse terrain versus sidewalks, says exercise physiologist Neal Pire of HNH Fitness in Oradell, New Jersey. This helps you adjust to uneven surfaces—an important step before tackling a proper hiking trail.

When it’s time to transition to a trail, Pire says pick a popular one, “where you won’t be the only person on it for any length of time; where there’ll be other people in case you need directions.” (Or, less likely, medical attention.) And if you choose to hike alone, be sure to let someone know where you’re going and how long you expect to be gone.

hikingPire also stresses the importance of evaluating and honoring your current fitness level. He suggests getting feedback from friends or others who know the trail well and might be able to offer insight as to which route would be best suited to your current capabilities. Once you’ve identified the mountain or hill you’d like to conquer, direct your attention to those two masterful workhorses who will help you reach the top: your feet. Proper footwear may just make or break your time in the wilderness by helping to prevent one of the most common of all hiker’s maladies: the dreaded blister. “People need to use all of the tricks they can, like liner socks, properly fitted foot gear, and trying out foot gear before you go on the big hike,” says Dr. Auerbach. Pire agrees: “I don’t care what kind of shoes they are, whether they’re hiking sneakers, climbing shoes, whatever they are, make sure they’re not new.” You can break in your hiking shoes by first wearing them around the house, then on shorter walks or while out running errands. Pire also says it’s not necessary to opt for the most technical—and likely stiff— boot. Instead look for “some nice trail walking shoes that have some grip to them… something that will keep your feet warm and dry.”

With your feet properly outfitted, it’s time to consider your clothing. As with so many outdoor pursuits, the key here is layering. Let the weather “dictate at least your outer shell and how many layers you wear,” says Pire. And keep in mind that the weather at the summit may be dramatically different than the weather where you start out. I always wear a comfortable sports bra and a tank top in warm weather, followed by a mid-weight long sleeve, a warm fleece or hoodie, and a rain-resistant shell. I usually throw a beanie in my day pack if there’s a chance of snow or near-freezing temperatures at the top of the mountain.

While I do appreciate the idea of traveling light, I’m always thankful for that extra layer when a chill rolls in.

If you’re dressed for the weather and your feet are comfy and dry, all that’s left to do is get out there! While you’re enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of nature, don’t forget that your body is reaping a laundry list of incredible benefits. Pire cites the obvious cardiovascular benefits, and adds that it’s the variability of hiking that makes it a standout exercise medium. “The beautiful thing about hiking versus being on a track or walking on a pathway or even jogging, for that matter, is the fact that it’s uneven ground. You’re walking, you’re climbing, you’re leaping… You’re doing all sorts of things. It’s a little bit of an interval type of workout,” he says.

Dr. Barbara Kennedy, a pediatrician and avid hiker who lives in Shelburne, Vermont, lists increased strength, stamina, and coordination as a few of the top physical rewards of hiking. She also enjoys the myriad mental-health benefits that are tied to being active outside.

“Mentally, it’s huge… What a wonderful time to think things out when you’ve got a lot on your plate.”

Perhaps best of all, in our modern age there is the fact that hiking takes you away from the ubiquitous screen—in the form of your phone, computer, or television at the gym. Give your eyes and mind a much-needed rest. “I love my email, I love using it, but it’s so nice to balance your life and get away from that,” says Dr. Kennedy. “That physiologic, mental balance of thinking about something other than what’s on your screen is very beneficial.”

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EAT, DRINK, & HIKE MERRY

Hydration and nutrition are key to the expertly packed pack.

Stacie L. Wing-Gaia, Ph.D., a specialist in sports dietetics and director of the Sports Nutrition Master’s Program at the University of Utah, says for a day hike, you should “start out properly fueled” by eating “a meal within two to four hours before hiking that has plenty of carbohydrates and some protein and fluid.” Then pack a hydrating sports drink, which contains both carbs and electrolytes, or water and a sports bar (i.e., Clif bar or PowerBar). “Also, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich works pretty well for hiking. It has the right nutrients and is easy to pack,” she adds.

And don’t forget the time-tested trail mix, which Gaia suggests you can make for yourself with dried fruit, seeds, and granola. Tasty and nourishing!

WHAT’S IN YOUR PACK?

Once you’re bitten by the hiking bug, the best gift you can give yourself is a properly, permanently, packed day pack.

Dr. Kennedy keeps a small pack at the ready “so I don’t have to think about it each time,” she says, which can mean the difference between making excuses or actually getting out the door.

Your own experience on the trail will inform your “must-have” list, but here are a few basic items that will always come in handy:

A Small First-Aid kit:

Sample lists of a proper first-aid kit can be found in Dr. Auerbach’s book, Medicine for the Outdoors, but generally speaking you should have:

? Bandages
? Blister ointment
? Allergy medication (such as an Epi-Pen for people with a known bee sting allergy)
? Ibuprofen
? Lip balm
? Sunscreen
? Tissues
? Insect repellant
? An extra pair of socks