Can Hiking Get You in Shape? (Yes! Here’s How)


Can hiking get you in shape?

I’ve worked in the sports performance field for 20 years now, so I always get questions from friends and family when it comes to working out and staying in shape. I was asked yesterday if hiking can get you in shape.

The fact is, not only can hiking get you in shape, it’s perhaps one of the BEST ways to get in shape. Hiking can easily burn over 500 calories an hour and is a great workout for your lower body and core muscles. You can also tailor your hike to meet your current fitness level. 

So what if you are wanting to start using hiking as a means to get in shape? Let’s go over some of the things you need to know to get you to your goals.

Before we do that though, as with any exercise program, you should consult with your doctor and you should always hike with safety in mind first.

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How Hiking Can Get You In Shape

A hike can be a true full body workout, depending on the trail and the equipment you use. Here are just a few of the ways hiking can help improve your physical health.

Hiking Builds Lower Body Strength

Hiking Uphill For Lower Body Strength
Step-Ups in the gym or Step-Ups on the trail? I know which one I’d pick.

If you went to a gym and asked a trainer how you can improve your lower body strength they would give you a list of exercises including movements like Step-Ups and Lunges. Well, as anyone who has hiked uphill can tell you – every step hiking on an incline is basically the same as a Step-Up or Lunge.

You’ll build leg muscles even if you’re only using your body weight if the trail has elevation to it. But, you can easily add to the challenge by carrying a backpack as you hike. Now, you’ve just turned your hike into a weight bearing exercise.

It’s easy to see why hiking uphill is a great physical activity, but don’t sleep on hiking downhill either. I usually find going downhill to be just as taxing a lower body workout as going uphill. You have to be able to brace and control your momentum every step on the way down which is no easy feat on a steep decline.

Hiking Builds Upper Body Strength

Hiking not only builds stronger muscles in your lower body, but hiking helps strengthen your upper body as well.

If you’re hiking with the aid of trekking poles or if you’re carrying a pack there is no doubt your upper body is going to be getting a workout.

Many hikers use trekking poles on particularly steep inclines where they climbing vertically is more challenging. Every single time you use one of those poles to brace, push off of or help pull you up – you’re basically doing a complete upper body workout routine.

Add a pack to the mix and now you’re shoulders and upper back (and your core muscles which I’ll get to in a second) are constantly at work to help you maintain your posture throughout the hike.

Hiking Challenges Core Muscles

I just mentioned how wearing a pack can put your core to work during a hike, but the hike itself can include many challenges for your low back and abdominal muscles.

Most trails will include as least some sections of uneven terrain. This uneven terrain forces your core to constantly work to help keep you balanced and upright. Again, adding a heavy pack into the equation ramps this up even more.

Hiking Will Build Endurance

Hiking is one of the best cardio exercises for a number of reasons.

For starters, I’ll take exercising outdoors where I can breathe in the fresh air and take in some sunshine any day over grinding it out indoors on a treadmill.

Hiking is also a physical activity that is accessible to most people because you can scale your hikes depending on your body’s limits. As you get into better and better physical health you can adjust your hiking accordingly.

You can increase the distance of your hikes or choose trails that may have more challenging elevations. The point is, you can build endurance at your own pace.

5 Tips For Hiking To Get In Shape

There are 5 main points that you should focus on when using hiking to help get in shape, starting with doing your research before you even get to the trail.

Research your Trail

Do a little bit of research on the trails you’re going to use. How long is it? What is the incline? Some parks will even rate each trailOpens in a new tab. by the level of difficulty. Is the trail a giant loop or straight out and back? Some trails will even wind and intersect which gives you the option of cutting the full trail short if you need to.

A trail that goes straight out and back is easier to gauge than a loop if you need to cut it short and turn back. The last thing you want to do is run out of gas when you’re a couple of miles out into the woods.

Lastly, how close is the trail to your house? For the purposes of getting in shape, you want a trail you can get to easily and consistently. It might be the most amazing trail in the world, but if it’s 45 minutes from your house it’s probably not going to work. Speaking of work, you can check trails close to your work (or on the way) if you’re struggling to find something you like close to home.

Gear up for your Hike

Trail Running Shoe Lugs

If you’re using hiking as a means to get in shape then you’re probably going to just be doing day trips. In this case, you won’t need a substantial amount of gear but there are a few pieces you’re going to want. First off, a good shoe. You can’t go wrong with a good trail running shoeOpens in a new tab., but a good pair of running shoes will suffice in many situations.

The treads on trail running shoes (also known as lugs) will help you grip the trail in all kinds of different terrain.

Make sure they do have good tread because most trails are going to have a least a few slick spots on them–may that be rocks, moisture or even leaves. A slick shoe with no tread can be a recipe for ending up on your butt.

Comfortable clothes in layers. I’m not going into great detail here except to say this. Dress in layers. Temperatures can change quickly on trails between sun and shade, elevation (and your own heart rate!) so having something like a light sweatshirt that you can take on and off as needed can be a gamechanger.

While not a complete necessity, if you have an Apple WatchOpens in a new tab. or FitbitOpens in a new tab. to track your progress, they can be very helpful. You can track your heart rate to make sure you’re staying in a good zone and you can track your progress from one hike to the next.

Water. I can’t stress this one enough. No matter how short or easy you think your hike is going to be, always take water. It’s always better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

Start Small

Pick an easy trail to start with. We have a trail in our nearest park that is about a mile and a half long with a few inclines, but nothing too crazy. On the other hand, we have a trail that goes straight uphill to the top of Kennesaw Mountain. Pick the former. Take your time. When you’re first starting out the only goal should be to finish the trail.

If you need to stop and take a break, take it. A lot of popular park trails will even have benches along the way. Stop, have a seat, drink some of that water I told you to bring, and enjoy your surroundings.

After all, the number one reason hiking is better than walking around your neighborhood is the scenery. There is no need to be in a rush to get done. In fact, there are tons of research showing that hiking outside in nature has tons of mental benefits in addition to the physical benefits.

Be Consistent

Hiking consistently improves our mental and physical health.

I’ve worked in Strength and Conditioning for almost two decades and the biggest advice I can give anyone working on fitness goals is to Be Consistent! Pick a schedule that works for you and try to get in 3 or 4 days a week for at least 30 minutes. If you can get in more, great! If you don’t have time to get to your hike that day it’s okay to substitute a walk around the neighborhood or on a treadmill.

The key is to make it a habit. Habits, both good and bad, are hard to break. The first few weeks as you’re developing this new habit are the hardest. Stick to it and you’ll thank yourself later. If not you’ll end up in that, “I’ll start next week” rut that we’ve all been in before and never usually leads to anything.

However, this is what makes hiking a great way to get in shape. No one looks forward to getting on a treadmill. If you say you are, you’re a liar and can’t be trusted. BUT, going on a hike is something I can always look forward to. Being able to get out in nature and unwind is amazing. The getting in shape part is just an awesome bonus.

Challenge Yourself

Now it’s time to take things up a notch. You can start to challenge yourself in a couple of different ways.

First, start by timing yourself on a particular hike. Then once per week, try to beat your time – even if it’s by 10 seconds. Continue doing this each week and you’ll be amazed at how much you can cut your time over the course of a few months. I say once per week on purpose. You have to make sure that you don’t start sucking the fun out of each hike every time you go out.

Second, start taking on longer trails or ones that involve more elevation. There is something pretty rewarding about finishing a hike that you thought you wouldn’t have been able to do a few months prior. More elevation also usually means better views too.

Just remember that the only person you’re competing against is yourself and if you still feel you need to cut a longer hike short, don’t let your pride get in the way.

Have Fun and Enjoy your Hike

Hiking at Sunrise

Don’t get so caught up in worrying about how many calories you’re burning that you forget the most important part – have fun!

Being out in nature beats being on a treadmill any day of the week. In fact, that’s one of the best aspects of using hiking as a means to get in shape. It’s something you can actually enjoy each and every time you do it. Just make sure you don’t lose sight of that fact along the way.

Hiking your favorite trail at sunrise can reward you with some amazing views.

Invite friends to come hike with you, take your dogsOpens in a new tab., and hike at sunrise to take in the view – get creative with the ways you can make each and every hike a great experience.

Final Takeaway

Hiking is one of the best and most rewarding ways to get in shape. Do your research, start small and then work your way up. Above all else, enjoy the opportunity to just be outside in nature!

Ryan H

I love hiking and being outdoors with Jen and our two rescue dogs, Chompers and Mia. I also enjoy a good weekend trail run. I'm also really enjoying sharing some of the knowledge we've learned along the way here on Zenful Hiking!

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