Last week, on a quest for a healthy, active summer vacation, I found myself at the foot of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the northeastern United States. At 6,288 feet, its summit is famous for breathtaking views of four states, the Atlantic Ocean, and Canada—on clear days, at least; more often the mountaintop sits in clouds, with foggy, obstructed views, chilly weather, and high winds.
Though I work out several days a week, I'm still pretty unfamiliar with hiking, at least at such an incline. But hey, it's just walking, I figured; what could be so hard about that? After a warm-up day of smaller hikes along the Appalachian Trail, I was ready for the challenge of climbing all the way to the top.
Well, I made it—but it was certainly not the cardio cakewalk I'd imagined. Though there wasn't any technical mountain climbing involved (with ropes or axes or special equipment), there was a good deal of scrambling up and around big boulders. Even on the relatively clear dirt paths, the incline alone was enough to get my heart racing and leave me gasping for breath and in need of frequent breaks.
But the views from the top (pictured above), the mental workout I got from concentrating on each individual step, the fresh air and great outdoors, and the feeling of accomplishment all made for the most memorable event of my trip.
When I arrived home, I contacted Marie Dacey, EdD, assistant professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences and a certified personal trainer. She's also an experienced hiker; I interviewed her fresh off a week-long excursion in Montana's Glacier National Park. Here are her tips for getting involved.
Be ready for a workout
Anytime you change activities, your body gets stressed in a new and different way; even if you do regular cardio workouts on flat ground, walking and climbing on uneven terrain will make for quite a different exercise experience and can work various muscle groups that you're not used to. And any type of incline will really intensify the aerobic workout—and will burn significantly more calories.
Prepare with yoga, cardio, and strength training
The uneven surfaces and varying terrain you'll experience on the trails bring all kinds of challenges and rewards, including helping the body with balance, strength, and flexibility. Squats and other lower body strengthening can help you fortify the supportive muscles and tendons that surround your knees, ankles, and other joints, and can reduce your chances of muscle soreness afterward.
Yoga and stretching are also great ways to practice for this type of exercise, especially the Vinyasa or "flow" style of yoga. Step aerobics or the stair-climber at the gym can replicate a lot of hiking moves and get you geared up for a long weekend walk. And for cardio fitness, Spinning classes are a great way to push yourself when stuck indoors.
Carry a water bottle and sip frequently, and eat small, protein-rich snacks—such as nuts, yogurt, and fruit—along the way. Always check the weather before going out on a long hike, and be aware if you're in the mountains or other areas where weather may change suddenly. Finally, invest in a good pair of hiking boots (they'll offer better protection from the elements and from rugged, ankle-twisting terrain than regular sneakers), and break them in ahead of time, starting with short jaunts.
Try finding a local hiking group or class run by the American Hiking Society, REI, or the Appalachian Mountain Club. Going out with friends can be safer, more fun, and more educational, and you're more likely to stick with it.
Not ready to scale boulders or climb a mountain? Don't push it: Any type of walking at a brisk rate—aim for a 15-minute mile—has aerobic and health benefits. Start there, and work your way up to hills or trail walking. It's more important to do something you'll enjoy, whether it's an uphill battle in the woods or just a walk in the park.