What Are the Benefits and Disadvantages of Hiking?

Whether for outdoor recreation, family time, a connection with nature or simple solitude, there are many different reasons people choose to take a hike. The benefits of hiking are both physical and mental — but before venturing out, know the advantages and disadvantages of hiking so you're prepared.

From greater physical health to mental clarity, the benefits of hiking generally outweigh any disadvantages. (Image: coberschneider/RooM/GettyImages)

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From greater physical health to mental clarity, the benefits of hiking generally outweigh any disadvantages. As long as you properly prepare for any potential negative effects of hiking, the great outdoors has much to offer.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Hiking

Long ago, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and other outdoor enthusiasts discovered the joy of the outdoors while sauntering through the woods. In the mid-19th century, Thoreau wrote about his experiences around Walden Pond, and soon after, Muir ventured out on foot from Indiana to Florida along the most unbeaten of paths, according to the American Hiking Society. Eventually, Muir made his way out West to Yosemite.

In the years that followed, even as people enjoyed the benefits of hiking and being outdoors, eventually the need arose for a systemized way of providing trail access to Americans. President Lyndon Johnson, in a speech to Congress in February 1965, called attention to the need for conservation and restoration of natural beauty in America.

As of June 2015, there were 11 National Scenic Trails and 19 National Historic Trails, plus 1,244 National Recreation Trails, within the National Trails System. In addition, there are thousands of miles of state, local and regional trails — all helping to meet the demand for outdoor recreation as well as provide a pathway for children walking to school and adults who walk or bike to work.

If you're considering hopping on one of these trails, be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of hiking before you embark on your adventure. There's much to be gained if you prepare for any potential negative effects of hiking.

It’s a Challenging Workout

Hiking recruits muscles in your legs and core to help you stabilize and balance as you traverse across uneven terrain. That kind of effort isn't required on a treadmill or a flat road, no matter how much of an incline you add.

The Journal of Experimental Biology reported in a November 2013 article that walking on an uneven surface requires more energy than walking on a smooth surface. With the increased effort, you'll elevate your heart rate, improve cardiovascular health and burn calories — especially when you include hills.

Indeed, when you compare hiking with walking and many other types of aerobic activities, hiking burns more calories. For example, walking 4 mph will burn 120 calories in 30 minutes for a 125-pound person. Meanwhile, hiking will burn 180 calories in the same amount of time, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

If you're hiking an especially steep trail or have problems with stability or vision, bring along a set of trekking poles. Plant the pole in front of you with each step to help you balance and maneuver through more challenging terrain.

Hiking Benefits the Brain

If you've ever taken a hike or even a short walk in nature, you may have felt instantly calmed. Simply being in nature can improve your mood and mental health — helping to reduce stress and anxiety and even lowering the risk of depression.

One Stanford-led study compared the effects of walking in nature versus walking in a high-traffic urban setting. The June 2015 study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that those who walked in nature had less activity in a region of the brain associated with risk of mental illness.

Known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex, this area tends to be active during rumination. That's when a person focuses repetitively on negative emotions. Although the study does not conclusively link urban environments with mental illness, it does suggest that exposure to nature offers mental health benefits that are worth exploring.

Hiking Staves Off Illness

When you get out for a hike, you're not only burning calories and improving mental health, but also reducing the risk of serious health problems. Hiking and other types of exercise lessen your chances of developing heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis and obesity. By taking a hike, those with insulin-dependent, Type 1 diabetes may be able to reduce the amount of insulin the body needs, according to the American Hiking Society.

Hiking encourages a more active lifestyle that counteracts the negative effects of sedentary behaviors, such as sitting at a desk at work or plopping down to watch television for hours at a time. The Conservation Institute reports that this "nature deficit disorder" predisposes people to premature death.

The solution is simple: Get outdoors with friends. Expose yourself to fresh air and natural environments. The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine notes in July 2016 research that hiking not only benefits the body and mind, but also increases time spent in a social setting — offering another boost in emotional health.

Prepare for Potential Disadvantages

If you plan to tackle a peak at a high altitude, be sure to prepare first to stave off any negative outcomes while hiking. Incorporate a regimen that includes weekly conditioning hikes and aerobic conditioning exercises such as swimming and distance running. Strength train your legs and core with resistance exercises, such as lunges, squats and planks.

Note that hiking at a high altitude can cause nausea, headaches, fatigue and light-headedness. Prepare for altitude changes by gradually increasing the elevation and duration of your hikes. The Washington Trails Association recommends a combination of short, steep hikes and longer, more mellow hikes in your training. Gradually merge the two types of hikes together as you get stronger, gain endurance and grow accustomed to elevation changes.

With hiking, you're also at the mercy of weather changes and, sometimes, unpredictable terrain. Always hike with a buddy or at least let friends and family back home know your whereabouts before venturing out.

If you see any wildlife such as bears, rattlesnakes or mountain lions, the California Department of Parks and Recreation advises backing away slowly — don't run. Report what you saw to a State Park Ranger. Watch out for poison oak, ivy and sumac — and most important of all: Have fun, drink plenty of water and make it a lifestyle.

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