Hiking has all the benefits of walking and more. Here\’s how to get started.

Hiking, a form of exercise that\’s older than exercise itself, is so hot right now. From 2018 to 2021, the number of Americans who hit the trails rose from about 48 million to 59 million, according to the nonprofit Outdoor Foundation.

Though they came because of the pandemic, many people stayed for the workout and retreat excursion offers from their screen-scrambled daily lives. For Alyson Chun, an outdoor guide and assistant director of adventure sports at Stanford, hiking offers freedom and perspective. She said she helps her reconnect with the greatness of the world whenever she feels bogged down by everyday life.

But for those of us who haven\’t spent much time outdoors since summer camp, a half-day hike can seem daunting. What if you lose cell service? How to avoid getting lost or injured? And do you really need special hiking shoes? If the idea of ​​sweating it out on the trails sounds appealing but you\’re not sure how (or where) to start, we\’ve got you covered.

Hiking offers all the cardiovascular benefits of walking, but the uneven terrain does more to strengthen leg and core muscles, which in turn increases balance and stability, said Alicia Filley, a physical therapist out of Houston who helps train clients for outdoor excursions. Plus, it generally burns more calories than walking.

These benefits are multiplied as the trails increase in elevation. If you want to build upper-body strength, Ms. Filley said, you can wear a weighted backpack and use hiking poles.

Spending time in nature and having awe-inspiring experiences can also reduce stress and anxiety. A small 2015 study found that people who walked in nature for 90 minutes were less likely to ruminate negatively about themselves, a risk factor for depression than those who walked in an urban environment.

The conversational pace of hiking also makes it an ideal form of group fitness, said Wesley Trimble, a spokesman for the American Hiking Society. Mr. Trimble, who has a mild form of cerebral palsy, hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2014.

If you\’re exploring a new trail or a new region, consider meeting with a local hiking club to learn about the lay of the land. Several specific community groups have flourished in recent years, such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Disabled Hikers, and Hike It Baby, a group for parents of young children.

If you\’re relatively active, you\’re probably already exercising just by going for walks. It can be as simple as walking out the door for 40 minutes to an hour and building strength and endurance, said Lee Welton, a personal trainer in Idaho Falls, Idaho, who prepares clients for long hikes.

To exercise on steeper terrain, walk uphill, move the treadmill up an incline, or take the stairs instead of an elevator. Welton also recommended simple leg conditioning exercises before and between hikes, including calf raises, toe raises, squats, and single-leg exercises like lunges.

Choosing the right trail can be the difference between an enjoyable workout and a miserable grind. Thankfully, picturesque trails are everywhere, if you know where to look. City dwellers can reach many with a short train ride or within the city limits.

AllTrails and the Hiking Project are databases compiled by experts and regular hikers that coordinate color-coded trails based on difficulty. Apps like these also let you download or print copies of trail maps, in case cell service is spotty.

When choosing a hike, note the average elevation gain per mile and use the maps and profile tool to see if the climbs are gradual or more abrupt. There may be a short, steep section of the trail, and the rest is easy enough to moderate, Mr. Welton said.

A good initial hike might have between 100 and 300 feet of elevation gain per mile, he added. Anything over 500 feet of gain per mile is considered difficult.

If you\’re attempting something more difficult, look for a path with multiple return paths, in case you need to scale back your ambitions. Read the length and terrain of the trails to estimate how long it will take (or use an online calculator). Remember to add refreshment points and consider how the weather might change the difficulty.

The key to a relaxed hike is to be as prepared as possible for the unknown, whether it\’s a sudden downpour or a sprained ankle. Every hiker should carry the 10 essentials, which include food and drink, first aid supplies, a map, compass, and rain gear, all inside a supportive backpack with thick shoulder straps and waist belt. (See Wirecutters list of the best hiking gear.)

But the most essential piece of equipment is footwear, Mr. Trimble said, because your feet are literally your foundation. You don\’t need to invest in special hiking shoes, you should wear shoes that offer stability, protection and traction, especially if the trail is rocky, steep or potentially muddy.

Most physical injuries on the trail are not training errors but the result of being in the wild, Ms. Filley said. Good shoes and trekking poles offer more stability. (Poles can also help eliminate snakes near your path.)

Hiking comes with some risks, but taking a few simple safety precautions can help you return safely. If you\’re a new hiker, go with a friend or local group until you\’re more experienced, Mr. Trimble said. And he leaves the selfie stick at home.

Get in the habit of telling at least one person where you\’ll be and checking in afterward, Ms. Chun said. Leave a note on the dashboard of your car with your route so if you\’re not back by sunset, the rangers will know where to find you.

Finally, to avoid injury, don\’t push yourself too hard or fast through more challenging courses. Remember: the point is to be able to see the sights and smell the flowers.

Slow down, take in the scenery, listen to the birds, Mr. Welton said. Just be present in nature.

Danielle Friedman is a New York City journalist and author of Let\’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World.

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