Walking 12, 20 or Even 50 Miles Is More Doable Than You Might Think

Hiking (or any other form of long-distance walking) is a great way to enjoy nature and your workout. (Image: Hero Images/Hero Images/GettyImages)

Long-distance walking can help you burn lots of calories, sure, but strolling for miles and miles offers more than just a good workout. It's a chance to be with your thoughts (or simply zone out), build up your physical and mental endurance and see some pretty cool sights along the way.

So what should you keep in mind before setting off on your great adventure? Here are the answers to some basic questions you may have on the benefits of long-distance walking, what kind of shoes you should wear, the best places to walk and more.

What Qualifies as Long-Distance Walking?

Unlike, say, a marathon, there's no official definition for what counts as a long-distance walk. But in general, it's a lot further than simply going around the block — or even the entire neighborhood.

"For me, 12 to 22 miles in one set is considered a long-distance walk," says Hike Across America founder TShane Johnson. For others, it's even longer. "I've walked 100-plus miles over three days many times. For me, that's a long-distance walk," says Shawn Anderson, who's trekked 3,000 miles across seven countries since 2014.

One of the most notable (and even celebrated) long-distance walks occurred in February 1963 when then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy walked 50 miles from just outside Washington, DC, to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. That event is said to have kicked off the long-distance walking trend.

What Are the Benefits of Long-Distance Walking?

Walking in general is an easy form of moderate-intensity exercise, and it's great for your health. Regular strolls burn calories while boosting your heart rate, which can help you maintain a healthy weight and may also help lower your risk for health problems like heart disease, diabetes and cognitive decline.

But is walking further automatically better? That depends on your goal. When it comes to lowering your overall mortality rate, research published in the May 2019 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who walk 7,500 steps (about 3.75 miles) daily fare just as well as people who walk longer distances.

That's not to say distance walking isn't beneficial, though. For one, walking a mile burns roughly 100 calories. So the more miles you log, the easier it might be to lose weight or keep your weight in check. (As long as you don't end up erasing the extra calorie burn by eating more.)

There are mental perks, too. Distance walks can be both relaxing and invigorating at the same time. According to research published in July 2011 in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, distance walking is tied to increased feelings of wellbeing and personal growth and reduced feelings of stress.

"A long solo walk is a chance to talk to yourself and listen to yourself," Anderson says. "It gives you an opportunity to determine what your life steps are going to be when you're not walking."

What Shoes Do You Need for Long-Distance Walking?

It's always a good idea to wear comfortable, supportive shoes if you're on your feet a lot. But if you're setting out to walk more than a few miles, the right footwear is a must. "The right shoes will help you avoid injury and make walking a lot more enjoyable," says fitness expert Dempsey Marks.

Many distance walkers, including Johnson and Anderson, prefer to wear running sneakers, which are lightweight and offer plenty of cushioning and breathability. "Asics, hands-down, have been the best shoes for me," Johnson says.

If you plan on walking over rough terrain, hiking shoes are another cushion-y option that can help keep you stable. But they tend to be heavier than running sneakers, which can slow you down. "I can go for more miles in sneakers because my feet aren't as tired from lifting up heavy boots all day," says Anderson.

Either way, it's worth going to a dedicated store to get fitted for a pair that'll provide the optimal support for your foot and stride, if you can. "Practice walking in the store to make sure your selection is the right one," Marks says.

Finally, don't forget about socks. Basic cotton socks can lead to blisters when you're logging lots of miles. Instead, go for dedicated running or hiking socks made from moisture-wicking materials like nylon, spandex, polyester or merino. You'll feel a big difference.

What's the Best Place to Walk Long Distances?

Does walking on hard surfaces like concrete put you at higher risk for injury than walking on, say, grass or dirt? Plenty of runners avoid concrete, so you might think the same goes for distance walking. But since walking is lower impact than running, most experts agree that strolling long distances on concrete is just fine, provided you're wearing the right sneakers.

"Make sure you have a good running shoe on," says fitness expert Ali Greenman. And when you have the option, switch to the asphalt next to the sidewalk instead of walking on the sidewalk itself. "It's easier on the body. Just wear reflectors for safety and walk towards oncoming traffic," Marks says.

There are perks to walking on natural surfaces, too. Whether you're on a grassy field near your home or hiking on a famous trail, natural surfaces tend to have more "bounce" and better shock absorption compared to concrete, so they're less jarring to your joints, muscles and bones.

But softer surfaces also demand more core stability. "This will improve overall proprioception — your body's sense of where it is in space — and decreases the likelihood of you falling down or losing balance in daily life," Greenman says.

What Are Some of the Longest Hiking Trails?

Long-distance hiking can be particularly beneficial, especially when steep hills are involved. "There are additional cardio benefits from an ascent," Marks says. "You can also build strength in your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip muscles, lower legs and core."

If you'd like to give it a try, it might be worth making treks to famous U.S. trails like:

You could also cover portions of some of America's longest hiking trails, like:

Or go international with super-long trails like:

How Do You Prepare for Walking Long Distances?

It's a good idea to warm up and cool down with stretching for any kind of workout, including distance walking. "It prepares your body for exercise and also keeps your muscles from tightening after your walk," Marks says.

Before and after your walk, aim for five minutes total of static calf, hamstring, abductor and chest stretches. On a long hike? Consider doing periodic stretch stops to stay loose too, she says.

Distance walking might not be as intense as weight lifting or running, but proper posture still matters. "Using bad form can throw your whole body out of alignment," Greenman says. On flat surfaces, keep your head up straight with your chin parallel to the ground and look forward instead of down. Straighten your back, engage your abs and let your arms swing freely with a slight bend in the elbows.

As for steep terrain? When walking uphill, keep your steps shorter and lean into the hill. For downhill walks, stand straight instead of leaning forward to keep your center of gravity over your legs, Marks says. If you can't keep form walking straight up or straight down the hill, try zigzagging up or down instead.

How Do You Stay Safe for Distance Walking?

Whether you're out on the world's longest hiking trail or walking in an area you know well, play it smart. Distance walking can take you far from home, so be sure to follow basic safety precautions like:

  • Plan your route before setting off and carry a map or GPS if you're in unfamiliar territory.
  • Let someone know where you're going and when you plan to be back.
  • Wear reflective clothing, if you're walking in the street or in the dark.
  • Bringing a cellphone.
  • Bringing food, water and other necessary supplies if you're doing a long-distance hike.
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