Hiking is much more than exercise—it can be a communion with nature, and often a meditation on self and one’s place in the world. So why not do more of it? Many of us may feel that hiking opportunities are far away and a bit complicated to organize, especially for urban dwellers. A long car trip just for a day hike may sap the will before you even tie your shoes.
Yet there are a remarkable number of hiking areas near urban areas, and not just in California. Localhikes.com has listings of hikes near metropolitan areas across the U.S., including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Day hiking does not require specialized equipment: comfortable shoes and a backpack with water, lunch, and possibly a map and a cell phone is often all you need. I often hike in my Teva sandals and rarely use hiking boots unless backpacking, but if you don’t know the terrain you will encounter, always wear sturdy shoes and long pants to protect against contact with poison oak or ivy. A camera and/or binoculars can be nice to have along. For remote areas or long hikes during uncertain weather, the American Hiking Society recommends bringing the Ten Essentials of Hiking, including rain gear, matches, a whistle, and extra food and water. If you hike solo, it’s a good idea to tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back, just in case of an injury on the trail.
Hiking is good exercise and burns around 230–500 calories per hour at a moderate pace of 20 minutes per mile, depending on the trail. Walking on level ground gives the lower estimate for a 150–pound individual, while the higher figure is for climbing steep slopes. It is a good cardiovascular activity and both tones and strengthens the legs.
Yet exercise is only one reason to hike. Being in nature is what makes hiking a different kind of exercise, and the slower pace of foot travel for those of us used to moving in cars, airplanes, and on bicycles. Hiking is a chance to get away, even if it is just within a large urban park. It offers the excitement of reaching places that are otherwise inaccessible. Hiking with a “goal,” i.e. to reach a waterfall, lake, or summit, encourages both children and adults to keep going when they might otherwise want to quit.
One of the biggest benefits of hiking is the sense of peace it brings. Being out in nature tends to calm us and relieve the stress of daily life. At first you may find yourself thinking about work or relationships, but if you focus on what is around you those thoughts will eventually slip away. Hearing the wind in the trees, birds singing, or the sound of a creek takes us outside of ourselves. Think of hiking as a shortcut to meditation and a general sense of wellbeing. As naturalist John Muir so elegantly said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco-based yoga instructor.