8 Incredible Health Benefits of Hiking

Are you looking to improve your fitness, physically and mentally? Hiking as a huge number of benefits from improving your strength to increasing your ability to focus.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about hiking is that almost anyone can do it. Hiking is free, accessible and open to all. It requires some equipment if you’re planning longer trips, but you can get started by simply walking outside and heading for nature.

Hiking really is what Outside Online called ‘The Most Underrated Endurance Workout‘.[1]

In this guide, I’ll explore the 11 top health benefits of hiking, providing studies and sources as evidence and for further reading.

1. Improve your overall fitness

Humans are designed for daily exercise and regular hiking helps us to get plenty of hours of physical exercise in the great outdoors. Rather than being confined to an artificially lit gym, we can head out move our body on the trail.

The biggest benefit of hiking is that it contributes massively to our physical fitness and stamina.  When we’re out walking, all our muscles are activated from our legs powering us forward to our core and upper body when carrying a pack and using hiking poles.

A study in the Journal PLOS One[2] looked at two groups of people, one were sent outdoors to hike while others were inside on treadmills. It found that the outdoor group pushed themselves harder and higher heart rates but paradoxically they reported increased feelings of pleasure and felt less fatigued afterward.

This study and others clearly illustrate how being outdoors and in nature, while doing our exercises allows us to push ourselves further and feel better about it.

2. Increases in flexibility

With age and without regular exercise we lose the range of motion and flexibility that we have in our joint.

Hiking is a great way to exercise, use your limbs and muscles and stretch our joints through a full range of motions. Long strides stretch your hip flexors while walking uphill stretch your calf muscles.

Wearing a pack that is too heavy or improperly worn can put a strain on your body, so it’s a good idea to work on your posture and walk upright without arching your back. Your chin should be parallel to the ground and your shoulders slightly back and relaxed.[3]

hiker walking nature

3. Builds leg strength

Our legs house our biggest muscles groups and it’s these that propels us forward and power us up mountains. Hiking is a great way to develop and build powerful leg muscles.

From our quadriceps to our hamstrings, all our leg muscles are activated with each stride forward. The primary leg muscles are the:

  • Quadriceps: which extend our knee as we walk and propel us forward.
  • Hamstring: sit at the back of the thigh and help flex the knee and extend the leg as we step forward;
  • Calves: site behind the shins and they pull the heel up and stabilize the leg.
  • Glutes: are our butt muscles which help rotate the hips and support the entire leg.

Regular hiking strengthens these muscle groups, making us stronger and more powerful in other sports and daily life. While weigh-lifting is more effective at building larger muscles, hiking is very good at toning your muscles[4]. Toned muscles are tighter and more shapely.

Hiking won’t make you look like a body-builder, but it will tone your muscles while giving you more strength and stamina – as long as you’re eating the right food and staying hydrated.

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.”
― Steven Wright

4. Burns excess fat

Hiking burns 4-500 calories per hour. Over the course of a day hiking you will burn thousands of calories – which means it is is a great way of burning through excess fat. Everyone burns through calories slightly differently, but if you have a faster metabolism and more muscle mass you’ll burn through more calories. Hiking uphill makes your work harder with each stride and the extra effort will increase the amount of energy you’ll burn through.

Using hiking poles is a great way to improve your hiking enjoyment and also burn through more calories. Hiking poles provide stability and support on slippery rocks, helping you to set a rhythm and pace ins your stride while also activating more muscles and making you burn through more calories. Trekking poles help you hike further at faster speeds, but without feeling more fatigued.

It is important to fuel up and eat plenty of food on your hikes so you are not exhausted, but if your goal is to lose weight then you can safely hike, stay satiated and still have a calorie deficit.

Hiking is a great way to lose excess weight and lower your body fat percentage all while toning and strengthening your muscles.

“But the beauty is in the walking – we are betrayed by destinations.” 
― Gwyn Thomas

5. Helps you sleep

hiking grassOutdoor exercise like hiking leads to better sleep because it mutes the body response to stress, making you more relaxed and able to drift off.[4]. This works because while your hiking your body temperature rises through physical exertion and as it dips towards nighttime, it triggers the body natural link between temperature and sleep.

There is also a clear link between getting sunlight (even through clouds) exposure which helps to better regulate the patterns of sleep and wakefulness.[5] Spending the day outdoors under natural light helps our body get into a more natural sleep cycle – which makes curled up in your sleeping bag or bed that much more enjoyable.

6. Makes you happier

There is another side to hiking that is just important, it’s ability to affect positive change in the mind. Hiking like other exercise releases chemicals in the brain known as endorphins – these act similar to morphine and trigger a euphoric high.[6] Leading to a more energized and positive outlook.

On top of giving you a more positive outlook, hiking also stimulates the mind and leads to a boost in creativity.[7]

7. Increases our ability to focus

A 2008 study[9] showed that surrounding yourself with nature led to a boost in productivity and a more recently a study from the University of Kansas showed a positive link between participants ability to focus after a two-day hike.[8]

When you remove the instant gratification of smartphone notifications and get out into nature – a world of mental and physical benefits help to strengthen the body and re-focus the mind.

If you need some time to mull over a problem, re-gain some breathing space and step away from the demands of everyday life – regular hiking is a great path to follow.

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

8. Helps you unplug

In today’s world, everyone is connected from dusk till dawn. With 4G you can even connect while you’re on the trail. But more than not, hiking allows you to disconnect from the web and have some time in nature without the screen.

All the evidence suggests that spending more time outdoors improves well-being.[9]

Lets Recap

  • Improve your overall fitness
  • Increases in flexibility
  • Builds leg strength
  • Improves balance
  • Burns excess fat
  • Makes you happier
  • Increases our ability to focus
  • Helps you unplug

Final thoughts

Hiking is awesome! It gets you outdoors in nature and doing exercise. All things that are good for your health and well-being.

Whether you’re walking on a wide open trail or tackling a high peak, trekking has a path for everyone (metaphorically and literally!). From those just getting their boots muddy to experienced mountaineers.

If you’re prepared to get dusty or muddy, lace your boots up and head out into the hills – you’ll be richly rewarded.

Very few people come back after a hike and regret having left!