Why We Hike
When Nanette Bercu, 38, creative director at Paul Mitchell, and her husband, Dan, pile their sons Odin, 8, and Hunter, 6 (all pictured here), into the car for their weekly hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, they're sometimes met with groans. "But an hour into the hike, the kids are totally engrossed," she says. "By the time we're done, we're all a little more alive than when we started."
This most basic form of outdoor recreation is equal parts workout and therapy, and good for all ages: It boosts cardiovascular health, strengthens muscles, and clears the head. What the gym and its calibrated machinery can't promise -- inspiring views and unpredictable physical challenges -- hiking has in spades.
Mind and Body Rewards
"The human body evolved to move over uneven terrain. Doing so keeps our muscles strong and our joints fluid," says Jonathan FitzGordon, creator of the FitzGordon Method, a program in Brooklyn, New York, that teaches natural alignment and pain-free walking.
On the soul-clearing end of things, being out in nature is its own reward. "You start to notice everything and feel present in a very tangible way," Bercu says.
To really reap the full-body benefits of hiking, it helps to do a little prep. The following tips, gear, and safety rules are all you need to push yourself to new heights.
Related: 5-Minute Workouts to Do Right Now
Before You Hike
To be trail-ready, you need to improve your aerobic capacity so that you can get enough oxygen to your muscles, says Danny Dreyer, founder of ChiRunning and ChiWalking in Asheville, North Carolina. Whole-body fitness programs that combine physics with tai chi will serve you well.
Try this: Walk at a medium-quick pace for 30 minutes twice a week. To gauge your intensity, count your strides for 15 seconds and multiply by four. (You want to reach between 65 to 75 strides per minute.) To train for hills, increase the incline of your treadmill. Start at a 3 percent grade, Dreyer says, and increase by 1 percent each week until you get it to 10. This acclimates your legs to walking in shorter, uphill strides. Add the stair climber to your cardio mix at the gym, and take the stairs whenever possible.
Day of the Hike: Stretch
Warm up first with a few minutes of walking, then do a few simple stretches to prime yourself.
Opens the chest, shoulders, and upper back.
Holding a belt with your hands wide apart, inhale and reach your arms over your head and behind. Repeat 8 to 10 times.
Day of the Hike: Reach
Promotes deeper breathing and core strength.
Reach both arms up and lift your rib cage away from your pelvis. Hold for 5 to 8 breaths.
Day of the Hike: Squat
Strengthens ankles and knees, opens hips.
Cross your right ankle over your left knee and bend the knee deeply, as if sitting in a chair. Hold for 5 to 8 breaths.
On the Trail: Going Uphill
While working your quads and glutes, use these strategies to maintaining stability and avoid injury.
Set a Realistic Pace
"The biggest mistake hikers make is pushing themselves too hard, too fast," says expert hiker Karen Berger, author of "Backpacking and Hiking."
Lead with Your Upper Body
Lean forward toward the hill and keep your shoulders directly over your leading foot, Dreyer says. Straightening your rear leg is easier than trying to pull yourself uphill by your hamstrings.
Take Short Strides
Big steps strain the quads and hamstrings. "Never step past your hip," Dreyer says. "It will overwork your hamstrings and wear you out quickly."
On the Trail: Coming Down
Going downhill may seem easier, but it challenges the muscles in your legs, knees, and ankles. Take it slow and keep these tips in mind.
Walk with your head, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles stacked on top of one another.
Head Straight Down
While zigzagging down a trail is a good idea for extremely steep terrain, it's best to point your feet directly downhill, Dreyer says. "Go easy on your legs by shortening your stride and picking up your feet quickly, as if you were walking on hot coals," he says. "This lowers the impact."
Soften the Knees
Don't lock your knees coming down; it puts a tremendous strain on them as well as on your lower back.
Pups Welcome! (Probably)
Dogs reap the rewards of hiking, too, says Linda Mullally, author of "Hiking with Dogs." Just be sure to observe proper canine etiquette on the trail: Check the park rules before the hike, keep a leash handy, and scoop your poop, as pet waste can contaminate other elements in the environment. Also, bring extra water and a travel bowl -- and never let Fido drink from standing water.
Opt for trail shoes or hiking boots, quick-drying clothes, a windbreaker, and moisture-wicking wool or wool-blend socks (which stay drier than cotton). And dress in layers.
Try Hiking Sticks
These poles steady you over uneven terrain, boost the aerobic aspect of your hike so you burn more calories, and even relieve some pressure in your knees and back.
Get Some Rest
Don't be too proud to take a break whenever you need one. "A good guideline is one 10-minute break for every hour of your hike," Berger says. If you're going uphill, you may need more frequent, shorter breaks.
Think portable, energy-dense foods: dried fruits and nuts, granola bars, fresh fruit, energy bars, or -- for a sweet reward at the top -- chocolate.
Estimate How Far You Can Go
Or rather, don't overestimate (a common error). Assume you'll travel 2 miles an hour -- more slowly (1/2 to 1 mile an hour) if you're out of shape, covering steep terrain, or hiking with kids. Plan on going more quickly (up to 3 miles an hour) if you're very fit.
By tuning in to your body as you hike, you give your brain a rest. Turn your attention to your feet on the earth or to your breath as you walk.
Hiking with Kids: Get Them Excited
Show your kids a map of the trail and talk about the plants and animals you might see.
Hiking with Kids: Pace Yourself
Use this guide to determine how far you should be able to go, based on kids' ages:
0-1 year: As far as you can handle while carrying your child in a pack.
1-3 years: 1 mile, with lots (and lots) of breaks.
3-5 years: No more than 2 miles.
6 years and up: 2 to 6 miles, depending on the steepness of the terrain and your child's enthusiasm.
Hiking with Kids: Bribe if You Have To
Use food to lure everybody from one milestone to the next. "The harder the hike, the better the snacks [should be]," Bercu says. Her kids' fave: madeleine cookies.
Hiking with Kids: Play Games
Inspire the crew with fun competitions, such as who can find the biggest boulder or the most acorns.
Hiking with Kids: Stay Footloose
For Bercu, here with Dan, Odin, and Hunter, fighting the urge to control (or nag) her kids is key to a great hike. "I like to play alongside them when we're hiking," she says. "Aside from looking out for their safety, I try to just let them be free."
These peanutty bars would make a great hiking snack.