How hiking benefits your mind, body and spirit

Hiking, trekking, bushwalking or tramping — no matter what you call it, going for a walk or climb, far from the madding crowd, is a beautiful way to connect with nature.

If you’ve never thought about strapping on some boots and heading bush, there are lots of good reasons why you should. Hiking benefits your mind, body and soul; it rejuvenates the spirit and offers opportunities to build cardio and endurance fitness as well as flexibility. For some, hiking is a way to challenge themselves, and for others a social and fun activity or a way to escape the grind.

According to Forests Australia, there are over 134 million hectares of bush to explore. So what are you waiting for?

When hiking, the awe-inspiring sight of a mountain vista, the sweet melody of birdsong, delicate beauty of wildflowers or glimpsing morning dew clinging to a spider’s web bathed in light are moments that can take your breath away. Experiencing Mother Nature can be humbling; you’re connected and surrounded by a living, breathing thing and that can be balm to the soul.

When Darren Edwards, the founder of Trail Hiking Australia, began hiking in the bush, it turned his life around. He had worked hard and suffered from depression and burnout. “I was trapped in the mentality of having to work harder and harder and one day it was like my world imploded,” says Edwards. “Hiking enabled me to get rid of all the noise inside my head, and the pressures around me.”

Hiking brings the present into focus.

It’s a way to let nature soothe and heal. It can help you to be present in the moment, as you feel the warmth and texture of a paperbark tree, watch a native animal drink from a nearby stream or close your eyes and feel the kiss of the morning sun.

Back to basics

Before you begin hiking, there are some things to consider. Edwards says planning is key. “Some people might see something on social media and think, ‘OK, that looks like a cool place to go for a walk,’ but you need to prepare,” he says.

Knowing some basics of navigation in the bush is important. Edwards says we all need to start every hike with the knowledge that we are personally in control of making it back safely. “Know how to read a map and compass, and have reliable mobile apps on your phone,” he says.

The length and difficulty of the hike you plan to undertake also need to be factored in, to match your ability. In Australian national parks, the Australian Walking Track Grading System grades hikes from 1 through to 5. A Grade 1 hike is a well-formed trail with no steps and a short duration, yet on the other end of the scale a Grade 5 hike is unformed and could be a very rough track with potentially steep and extreme gradients. Edwards suggests up to Grade 3 is usually OK for a novice hiker with a moderate level of fitness. “Beyond that you really need to have a bit of experience under your belt,” he says.

Build your fitness

Edwards stresses it’s important to walk to your ability. “You need to check. The terrain beyond the initial sign may be difficult and navigation can be challenging — I also volunteer for the SES and we see it often where people get into strife if they aren’t prepared,” he says.

When you first start, build up your fitness and confidence with shorter hikes and, as your fitness improves, try longer hikes. Be sure always to walk within your comfort zone.

Accredited exercise physiologist Bek Payne says starting small is always a good idea. “You’ll build up leg strength as well as endurance,” she notes.
Inclines and steps add to the challenge. Payne explains that when walking normally, each time you take a stride, the leg swings and it’s relatively easy. “But each time you raise your leg you use extra energy, and step more on the balls of your feet — you use your calves more which can be strenuous,” she says.

When bushwalking you are potentially walking on rocky uneven ground. Payne points out that there is increased risk of falls and injury, regardless of age. “Being mindful of foot placement when you are walking is very important,” she says.

You can hike solo or with friends or a walking group or take a paid guided hike. When you plan a hike, always share where you’re going with others when you plan to leave and when you should be finished.

Gearing up

Really getting up close and personal with gear is important. Hiking with blistered feet and a pack that digs into your ribs will diminish your enjoyment factor, and chances are it’s an experience you won’t want to repeat.

For a longer hike, Edwards says gym gear won’t really cut it. Ideally clothing should be lightweight and comfortable.

“Even for an easy short hike, comfortable foot protection and sun protection is important,” he says.

“I have seen people climbing hills in heels … that’s definitely not a good idea.” On rough terrain, hiking boots are recommended for an extra level of ankle protection.

When you buy a pack to carry your gear, try it on first for size and comfort and adjust it to see that it is a good fit. The same goes for hiking boots.
For a hike lasting a few hours or a half day, Edwards suggests carrying a minimum of two to three litres of water, fruit, nuts and a bread roll. As you are hiking, take rest breaks to stop and immerse yourself in the beauty of the natural world that surrounds you. Breathe in the crisp fresh air.

For longer hikes or overnight ones, Edwards says your requirements are different. “Gear selection is critical — things that will breathe easily and wick perspiration away from your skin, like wool,” he says. “It won’t allow bacteria to accumulate; you want to pack lightweight things that will pack down well.”

For nourishment on overnight hikes, Edwards recommends dehydrated meats and foods that are freeze-dried to keep the weight down. You can take your own or purchase what you need from a hiking store.

Dealing with critters

When going for a walk in the bush you might end up with some unwelcome hitchhikers including sandflies, ticks and leeches. Cover up with long-sleeved clothing and use repellants.

Snakes are a concern for some, Edwards says. Most of the time they’ll hear you and get out of your way, but be vigilant. “If I’m walking along a riverbank in warm weather, I’ll anticipate I might see a snake sunning itself on a rock. Just give them space to get away from you,” he says.

To maximise everyone’s enjoyment when hiking, there is a hiker’s etiquette. Whatever you carry in, carry out with you. Be sure to respect others. Edwards says he’s been on hikes where people have had loud music blaring as they trek. “Fellow hikers go out there for peace and quiet and to be with nature,” he says. “Keep to the left of the trail and always yield to those going up as it’s harder work going uphill.”

Article featured in WellBeing #203

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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