Not Hiking is Killing You

This is a guest post from Aaron over at Free Range Hiking

Hiking is an all-around great workout. Walking is one of the most beneficial exercises that you can do for hearth health according to the American Heart Association, when you add a weighted pack into the mix as well as negotiating (sometimes) strenuous paths in the forest the benefits only increase. But even knowing all that, we still find ways to put that next hiking trip on the back burner in favor of less strenuous activity. So here are eight reasons that putting off that next hiking trip is probably killing you.

  1. Heart Disease. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in men and women over age 40, much of this owing to our increasingly bad diets and a tendency to get less and less physical exercise as we age. The more we sit and watch television, grab artery clogging fast food and generally avoid strenuous activity, the higher our risk of heart disease climbs. But, hiking is one of the best cardio workout around. Nothing gets your blood pumping like carrying extra weight on your back and negotiating fallen trees, mountain paths and burbling streams with views so beautiful, you’ll forget that you’re exercising. So not only will your eyes thank you for going on that trip you’ve been putting off, your heart will too.
  2. Blood Pressure/ Blood Sugar. High blood pressure and irregular blood sugar are becoming more and more common with younger and younger patients every year. We have an endless supply of starchy, sugary snacks at our fingertips and more and more series piling up on our “binge list” on Netflix. This combination of bad habits can lead to a few extra pounds piling on before you even realize it and aside from bad eating habits and lack of exercise (I hope you’re seeing a pattern here) excess body weight is the leading cause of high blood pressure and those bad habits going on for too long can wreak havoc on your pancreas, eventually leading to irregular blood sugar or even Type 2 Diabetes. But, one of the best ways to drive off high blood pressure and blood sugar problems is to start living a healthier lifestyle by eating better and getting more exercise. So instead of reaching for that soda and binge watching the next season of The Walking Dead, grab a bottle of water, some of your favorite trail snacks and head out for a short hike instead.
  3. Weak Bones. As we grow older our bodies naturally stop funneling calcium into our bones. A problem that is further compounded for women who have children, because a growing baby will leach the calcium out of their mothers bones if not enough is present in her diet. Inactivity also leads to decreased bone density, which in turn makes it easier to break bones in the event of a fall or other minor accident. But weight bearing exercise is a great way to increase bone density. When our muscles are forced to lift or bear more weight than what they are used to, our bones are forced to support greater weight loads, so our bodies increase our bone density to accommodate the increased load bearing needs. This is why Doctors tell people with bone density problems to begin lifting free weights. But instead of heading to the gym and lifting weights, backpackers carry that weight in their packs.
  4. Weak legs. Much like the stomach and arms, the legs tend to be one of the first areas that our body looks to store excess body fat. Extra leg and butt fat is less than flattering and are two of the areas that most people wish they could shape and change. Smaller leg muscles and excess body fat in this area also contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure. However, increasing the size of your leg muscles by walking with a weighted pack will help you trim away the excess fat from your legs and butt, and is also good for your heart. Many of the largest muscle groups in your body are in your legs. Your hamstrings, glutes and quads move a lot of blood when they are active. This blood has to be moved by the heart, causing an increased heart rate and improving heart health. It also leads to strong, good looking legs, and who doesn’t want that?
  5. Weaker core muscles. Your core muscles, i.e. you abs, obliques, hip flexors and back muscles, affect every movement we make in our daily lives. If you’ve ever done an intense core workout, you likely became painfully aware of just how much you use your core in the days following. Not only does a strong core help balance and stability, it also leads decreases your chance of heart disease, diabetes and a long list of other maladies. The opposite is also true, a weak core burns less fat as fuel, makes hernia-type injuries more likely to occur, leads to unflattering belly fat and makes you more susceptible to a laundry list of chronic preventable disease. But, shouldering a weighted pack and navigating your favorite trail passively builds up these muscles groups by holding the weight securely in place while you maneuver with your legs. Carrying weight long distances will quickly build up your core muscles.
  6. Poor Coordination. We gain absolutely nothing from watching television or sitting around the house. We lose time, gain weight and miss out on cool opportunities to make unforgettable memories. Walking on flat, level ground all the time lulls us into a false sense of security and leads to weaker auxiliary muscles in our legs and core that help up maintain our balance when we’re negotiating difficult terrain or maneuvering over boulders, fallen trees or unstable rocks. But hiking forces us to move over difficult terrain, often up and down gradual to step slopes and across all sorts of rocks, boulders, tree roots, branches, water hazards and undergrowth. This forces our minds and bodies to think and act quickly and builds cognitive awareness that increases our balance.
  7. Excess body fat. Being sedentary in our daily lives leads to a quick increase in body fat. Any time we don’t burn what we eat, we put on weight in the form of excess body fat and while it is not detrimental to have a little extra body fat, obesity is one of the most deadly chronic diseases in America and thousands more a year are falling into its clutches due to more and more people living sedentary lifestyles. But it’s no secret that hiking burns calories, thru hikers on the AT often lose between 20-50 pounds on the trail, and many are in great shape when they start. With a loaded pack and on moderate to difficult terrain a hiker can burn well north of 3000 calories in a day. Even a one to two hour hike can burn between 800-2000 calories depending on your body weight, the weight in your pack, and the difficulty of the route you’re on.
  8. Psychological health. We’re biologically designed to live in nature. We’ve evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to find our homeostasis in an outdoor environment. So naturally, when we’re deprived of the environment that our bodies developed to live in, we begin to see negative effects on our psyche and mental health. Because our ancestors lived for so long in the wilderness environment, many of the aspects of being outdoors effect our well being. They became basic needs over a very long time, basic needs that are no longer met by our man made environments. Another basic need that is not met as often as it was in decades and centuries passed is our connection to the community. Human beings are social creatures, but outside of our immediate families, people rarely get outside human interaction anymore. Society teaches us that we should be staying in and consuming artificial entertainment by ourselves or with a few members of our immediate family instead of going out with friends to seek entertainment outside of the home. Hiking is a great past time that only gets better when you include friends. Sitting by a campfire, having a few adult beverages and laughing and talking with friends is a great way to satisfy our need for human interaction and to be out in nature. This is a great way to get your blood pumping and stave off depression. Additionally, getting out and hiking and camping on your own or with close friends is a great way to build confidence in your ability to provide for and take care of yourself in harsh or uncomfortably situations. This builds confidence in what we can do, and helps alleviate anxiety.

So with all of the benefits that hiking brings to the table, extending our life, making us stronger and staving off depression and anxiety. Why do we continue to put off those next hikes? Do we really have anything more important to do? Probably not, so the next time you think of putting off that next hiking trip, remember all of the benefits that you’re passing up.

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The Adventure Hiking Trail

Another item on my bucket list has been to hike the Adventure Hiking Trail in Corydon, Indiana. Of course, one of the reasons I want to do this is to prep myself for the fated thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. It served that purpose in spades. And trekking poles. Last weekend, I finished the first twenty-miler (plus) since I was a teenager. I was wiped for a couple of days. This weekend’s outing was sort of a last minute affair, since I wasn’t sure if I wanted to exert myself in back-to-back weekenders.

What am I talking about? Of course I did!

In addition to the benefits I get from hiking – breathing forest air and phytoncides, getting a workout, meeting all sorts of people who are mostly in a good mood, it also serves as penance! Woe to me if I pass up an opportunity for voluntary discomfort.

I will say this about the AHT. Depending on where you begin, it can be subtly deceptive. Many flat sections combined with gently rolling slopes lull you into a nice pedestrian (think level paved sidewalks) pace. Then come the rocks. Or maybe I should have said then come the sections of trail that are nothing but rocks. Big chunks, little chunks. Sharp chunks, round chunks. Uphill and downhill rock-chunk paths. Very good training for the AT.

This has been, thus far, my most favorite trail. Partly because there are shelters distributed along the Ohio River section of it, but also because of the scenery and that it is very clearly marked and easy to follow. Some online reviews from the usual trail websites state that it isn’t well marked. They are.

I’ve posted a YouTube video of scenery from along the trail for those who can’t get out to hike it themselves. It is only recommended that those in great physical shape attempt to thru-hike the AHT. And for good reason. It was a difficult, rewarding hike. Enjoy the vid.

Morgan Monroe Double Down

img_0834The days are getting longer. Not super long, but it is still light out at 6:30 in the evening. So I made a decision. When I got up this morning and finished sharing an indulgent breakfast with my bride (the only day I eat bacon and eggs!), I tossed my backpack in the hatch and sped down the road toward Morgan Monroe State Forest. I’d been debating whether to hike both the Low Gap and Three Lakes Trails in one day. It may have made more sense to put it off until the days were even longer, but frankly? I was itching to catch up with my hiking buddy in Texas, my son Aaron. He did a section img_0844hike of the Lone Star Hiking Trail north of Houston and got in a twenty mile day. I haven’t done that since I was a teenager in Scouting, and certainly not since I turned 50.

I went for it. Now I ache. Not so much because I’m old, which I’m not – not really. I don’t feel “age” day in and day out. But I kept a 3 mph pace most of the way through the hike. Yep, that is the normal human walking pace. But these hills. Both trails I hiked are rated “rugged” and they don’t even recommend that you thru-hike them if you aren’t in shape. Good shape. Bordering on really good shape. I’m in good shape, non-bordering.

img_0840I hiked hard. And I hiked for 8 hours including breaks every 5 miles. I usually do a short break every three miles, but I was racing the sun down, and the sun won.

I night-hiked the last mile, without my headlamp on. I brought it, just did’nt use it because the half moon was out and I could see the blazes. I couldn’t see all the roots and sticks, but I tread carefully and didn’t fall down once. I stumbled a couple of times, but my trekking poles kept me upright. My legs feel awesome right now. No, really. It’s a good img_0845burn. And with the pack on, I burned nearly 7,000 calories.

Hiking the Low Gap and Three Rivers Trails in one day is no longer on my bucket list. I did it, and I didn’t kick the bucket. There is this surreal feeling of peace and wellness that washes over you at the end of a good day of hiking, when you get to camp or to the trailhead and it is time to get on with the next thing. For me, it was getting a shower, eating, and coming back here to tell you about it.

The Lone Star Hiking Trail: Day 3

This is a guest post from Aaron over at Free Range Hiking.

My third day on the LSHT ended up being my last on this particular trip. From the minute I woke up to the heavy tapping of rain pouring from the forest canopy onto my rain fly I knew that this day would be different than the past two. The ground at my feet was soaked, the temperature had dropped during the night and my gear and clothing was still damp from the day before. The worst of it all was the fact that I no longer had dry shoes or socks to wear, and my feet were worse for wear now. On the previous day’s pursuit of the 20 mile day I had neglected my feet for the entire second half of my day and I now had several large, painful blisters on each foot. I spent most of the first hour of daylight doctoring my feet with moleskin while I boiled water and cooked the mountain house meal that I had skipped the night before. Once I got my hammock broken down and stowed, cleared as much of the standing water off of my rain fly as possible and stowed it, I was on my way. After another 4 miles on the sandy, flooded trails that had swollen to a full blown creek with all the rain of the past 2 days the trail came out of the woods and followed a forest road for most of the next 4 miles.

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Walking on the forest road was much quicker than navigating through the underbrush and around dead fall blocking the trail in the forest, in a futile attempt to keep my already soaked feet as dry as possible. The down side to walking on the forest road was that with the absence of mental stimulus that comes with trying to find a dry, clear footpath in a rainstorm. I was now painfully aware of each and every blister on my feet, I was also becoming painfully aware of how hard it was raining on this day. That terrible, heavy rain that makes you think “I’ll wait this out, it can’t last forever”. The truth is that it doesn’t last forever, but sometimes it lasts all day. This was one of those days. I decided to listen to an audible book to help pass the time and keep my mind occupied. After a little over an hour and a few road changes I came back to a forest path that was mostly dry, but my feet were still wet, I was cold and wet and my spirits were in the tank. But  I kept on the path, a little while into the path I passed the 30 mile marker. That was a small victory for my morning. I tapped it with my hand as I passed, like I’d done with all of the others and thought “only 16 more for the day”, as I continued down the path.

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There were many stretches of trail over the next 5 miles that switched between dry pine needle strewn forest path and deep pools of water that required you to soak your feet up past your ankles or walk a good distance off the trail through the underbrush in order to keep your feet dry. At this point I was painfully aware of how badly I’d neglected my feet up to this point so I opted for the latter option. I had done a decent job of keeping all new water sources out of my shoes for most of the morning. That was until I got to the spillway. Out of the blue there is a portion of the trail where you come to a paved road and several houses. There are no tree markings at this point, just a T in the road. So after pulling out my trail map and finding where I was, I saw that I needed to go left about 200 yards to the pump house that sits on the “lake”. The trail map says that there is a hose behind the pump house where you can fill your water without having to filter. This was great news to me since I had been out of water for the last couple of miles. After a quick refill my spirits rose, for all of about 2 minutes, until I got to the path that crosses the spillway. At this point just a moss covered concrete slab with water rushing quickly over it. The moss made the path slippery so I had to move slowly to avoid being swept away in the current of water that was leading off into the forest to my right. The water was already ankle deep and fast moving. The combination of the two quickly soaked my shoes and socks once again.

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After this my spirits were at an all time low. But I continued on into the forest until coming to parking lot 8 where the trail forks, one path leading to the highway and the other leading down into the forest. I took the path into the forest for about a mile before realizing that I couldn’t remember seeing a trail marker since leaving parking lot 8. As I was telling myself I would follow the path for a little longer to see if I could find a trail marker I came face to face with one of the only other hikers that I encountered on this trip. We exchanged “afternoon” before he let me know that I was indeed off of the LSHT and was currently on an ORV path. “Its a big loop I like to hike to add miles to my day hike” he told me before asking how far I was going today. After I told him that I was planning on thru hiking the trail he came back with “You know they’re calling for tornadoes tonight don’t you? I wouldn’t want to be out in the woods if one of them comes through”. After this I agreed that I, in fact, did not want to be in the forest if a tornado came through. Especially given my already miserable conditions. At this point I made the decision to hike the mile or so back to parking lot 8 and call for a taxi ride back to my truck, about 35 highway miles away. After fighting waterlogged fingers and a wet phone screen for about 10 minutes, I managed to get a  hold of a taxi company that knew where I was at, and managed to snap a crappy quality picture of what the trail looked like at this point in the afternoon, after over 24 hours of continuous heavy rain.

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In the end, the trail got the best of me on this trip. Both physically (feet) and mentally (rain). But I left trail head 8 happy that I had spent the time that I did on the trail and looking forward to coming back at a time when I can walk ON the trails instead of next to them because of all the rain, and without the fear of windstorms blowing over the tree that I’m attached to while I sleep. I’m looking forward to getting back out and finishing the rest of the trail, but next time I’ll take a few more pairs of socks just in case.