Do you enjoy being outdoors?  Have you been looking for a new way to stay fit? Have you ever wanted to “get away from it all” – the cell phones, electronics and every day stress? Then hiking may be for you!

Walking is known as the most universally appropriate form of exercise with a myriad of health benefits such as building bone health and cardiovascular fitness. It is convenient as well – just open your front door! People usually walk on level ground, in a neighborhood or urban/suburban setting that is close to home and other people.

Hiking, on the other hand, is usually done on rougher terrain with some elevation, in a natural environment and in more remote areas, away from other people, roads and buildings.

Physical benefits of hiking

Hiking offers the same physical benefits as walking, and more! It builds:

  • balance due to the rougher terrain that includes rocks, gravel, and roots
  • upper body, lower body and core strength, since hikers frequently use trekking poles, carry backpacks with essential gear, and navigate natural obstacles
  • endurance because most hikes are in more remote areas that require longer distances and duration

Mental health benefits of hiking

Hiking also offers mental health benefits too. Many studies demonstrate that hiking in nature can reduce stress and anxiety, and elevate mood. Hiking can reduce rumination (dwelling on negative thoughts), given the many positive distractions in a natural setting and the need to focus more on your route and environment. Also, since most hiking areas are without cell phone signal, hikers can truly disconnect from work, and the accountability that comes with electronic access.

Be safe while hiking

While hiking offers all these benefits, it’s important to remember that hiking requires specialized gear, education and knowledge, and safety items.

The right gear for hiking

  • Well-fitting hiking boots or trail shoes are needed for stability and support for rough trails.
  • Hikers avoid cotton clothing and instead use synthetic clothes to wick away moisture that helps keep you cool in the heat and stay warmer in the cold weather. Always bring extra clothing.
  • Because of New England’s unpredictable weather, always bring wind and rain gear, especially in the mountains.
  • Many hikers use trekking poles to reduce stress on their knees when ascending and descending in elevation.
  • A good fitting back pack is essential to avoid shoulder and back pain.

What to know before hiking

  • Plan ahead. Check weather forecasts and trail conditions.
  • Always have a trail map and a compass and know how to use them.
  • Let someone know where you’re going.
  • Know your limitations and when to turn back. That trail will be there another day.
  • Know how to rescue yourself. Don’t assume you will be able to contact someone or that you will be rescued.

Safety items for hiking

  • Plenty of water and snacks
  • Emergency supplies: first aid kit, blanket or bivy, matches, duct tape, knife and whistle
  • Headlamps or flashlights in case the hike takes longer than planned
  • Sun protection and bug repellent

Ready to hike? The best way to start is to find a hiking group that includes leaders with experience and training. Many wildlife refuges and sanctuaries lead short local hikes. So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and TAKE A HIKE!

More resources:

  •  is an online site that connects people with similar interests and is a safe resource for finding hiking groups
  • The Appalachian Mountain Club developed the list of “10 Essentials” – gear that is essential to keep you safe in the wilderness.
  • Hikesafe 
Kristin Matteson, MS, OT

Kristin Matteson, MS, OT, CHT

Kristin Matteson is an Occupational Therapist in the Vanderbilt Rehabilitation Center at Newport Hospital.