I step onto the packed dirt enveloped by the scents and sounds of the forest, on a trail that reaches up to 13,000 feet. The path shows little wear, and I soon find myself bushwhacking through fallen trees and quick-stepping across icy runoffs from lingering patches of snow atop the mountain. The goal today is a ragged, rocky ridge, high above the treetops. From that perch, I’ll watch an orange-soaked sunset, a sight usually reserved just for those with wings.
I’m not the only one seeking adventure in solitude: You know hiking has moved beyond the socks-and-sandals set when the prime minister gives trekking gear to Prince William and Kate Middleton on their first trip to Canada. Around the world, greenhorns are following their royal footsteps, hitting the trails in high numbers. They’re part of a continuing trend that builds on the popularity of easy, cheap staycations and waistline-trimming fitness getaways. Jennifer Brammer, director of Wild Women Expeditions, says the number of people jonesing for her Newfoundland multi-sport excursions has quadrupled. “As Canadians, we’ve always had breathtakingly beautiful places to explore right in our backyard,” she says. “Now we’re taking notice.”
Loreen Niewenhuis, 47, understands hiking’s appeal. Her mid-life crisis inspired a mid-life adventure: She walked around Lake Michigan — a trek that became the basis for her book A 1000-Mile Walk on the Beach. She hiked up to 40 kilometres a day, an effort that initially involved much negotiation between mind and feet. “I thought, ‘Go two more miles, and you can reward yourself with a few chocolate-covered espresso beans,'” she says. The more ground she covered, the fewer concessions she made. “I reached a point where I was no longer pushing myself to hike. I felt like the world was turning beneath me, and I was hovering above it. I’ve never felt more alive.”
The mental clarity Loreen fell in love with also has immense health benefits. Hiking burns twice as many calories as walking, says certified personal trainer Barry Duncan, owner of Momentum Fitness in Vancouver. According to him, carry a backpack with provisions for an all-day hike, and you’ll expend over 1,000 calories. Dirt trails engage your legs and core — the two largest sets of muscles in your body — for a comprehensive workout that converts you into a calorie-burning powerhouse. “Going uphill targets the backs of your legs and inner thighs, going downhill activates the fronts of your thighs, while steeper grades get right into your glutes. And balancing on rockier terrains fires up your core muscles,” says Duncan. For an extra boost, grab some lightweight trekking poles (we found a pair that weighs less than 10 ounces) to instantly turn your excursion into a dynamic, full-body workout.
Learning to really walk on the wild side starts with setting a good pace. “Trails differ from pavement,” says Miranda Terlingen, a certified hiking guide who leads tours with her company, Summit Mountain Guides. “Take small steps, and climbing heights of 500 to 1,500 feet will be surprisingly easy.” In addition to increasing your endurance, hiking at slow and steady speeds for prolonged periods enables you to burn fat as energy. “It’s like running a marathon,” says Duncan. “Because you sustain the activity for longer and keep your heart rate lower, you’re able to tap directly into your stored fat sources.” In the long run, you’ll trim down — and keep the weight off.
Trailblazing is also a mental exercise. It enhances memory and attention span, according to a study from the University of Michigan, because serene outdoor spaces let the mind recover from the constant stimulation of modern life. Looking up at mighty oaks robustly rooted into the ground is as peaceful as it is empowering. “Nature forces you to listen to your whole self,” says Terlingen. “There’s no tuning out, only tuning in.”
When Lisa Palin, a 34-year-old lawyer, tuned in to her body, she was able to confront her fear of heights. On one hike, the trail narrowed to a six-foot-wide pass with drops of about 1,000 feet on either side. “I was scared,” she says. “But there was no other way forward. Something made me step out and hold on tightly to the guide poles bolted into the ridge.” She made it across and was rewarded with an incredible summit later that day. “I’ll never forget the view,” she says.
Hours into my own hike, I experience a very different sensation. It starts to rain, and I’m happy for the jacket stashed at the bottom of my pack. The momentary downpour awakens childish impulses long buried in my soul. It’s muddy, and I start slipping down the trail, laughing. Chasing a rainbow after the rain lets up, I feel free and happy in a way I haven’t for years.
What’s your favourite place to hike? Read on for more on how one woman hiked her way to happiness.