Hiking: How it blasts calories and boosts weight loss

By James Fell
Hiking in Canada Getty Images

We’re big fans of walking here at Chatelaine. It’s the single most popular form of exercise the world over, and the health benefits are tremendous. It’s viable to use walking as your sole fitness routine to achieve optimal health, physical performance and even reap the weight loss benefits if you do it enough.

Walking a mile isn’t going to burn the same number of calories as running one, but becoming a runner is hard and not for everyone. I know this because I tried and failed the first few times. Some people are never going to feel the love for running that some do, and that’s where hiking can be a great compromise between the two. Read on for some of the most important benefits you will get from hiking:

1. Increased caloric burn
Burning calories isn’t the most important thing when it comes to exercise, but it can still make a significant contribution to a weight loss or maintenance program. Hiking is going to burn a lot more calories per hour than walking does. Judging by the increase in your heart and breathing rates, the uphill portion of hiking is similar, from a calorie-expenditure perspective, to that of a moderately-paced run.

2. It’s a logical progression
Mentally it’s easier to push yourself while hiking than it is while running. If you’re ready to rev up your exercise routine, but running isn’t in the cards (whether due to an injury or lack of interest), then hiking is a great alternative. If you’re looking to eventually run, hiking is also a great gateway exercise as it will build up your cardiovascular fitness and strengthen your leg muscles when you’ve plateaued with your usual walking routine.

3. It’s easier to get to than you think
Hiking can be done anywhere there’s a hill. I don’t need to drive out to the Rocky Mountains to go for a hike, and for the beginner, there are plenty of areas within a very short drive that have big enough hills to get the same physiological effect. For those of you who can’t access a hill, walking on a treadmill at an exaggerated incline will create a similar experience, though we do suggest getting outside. The Trans Canada Trail website has an interactive map that can help you locate areas in your province.

4. It can be social and adventurous
If you live in an urban area, hiking can make for a great weekend activity. You may want to get out somewhere with an amazing view at the top and/or take friends with you. Questing to be the first at the top is built-in motivation and you’ll be experiencing each other in a new setting. Instead of sitting watching a movie together for a few hours, why not get out and challenge your family and friends to push themselves in an outdoor setting (not to mention the amazing benefits of fresh air).

5. Hiking is a total-body workout
Though most of the motion happens from the waist down, your arms can get worked more if you use trekking poles. Even if you don’t, there’s going to be a lot more swinging and pumping arm movement than with walking.

Your core will be more engaged to keep your body stable while going over rougher terrain, while the butt, thigh and calf muscles will be burning by the time you’re through. Your lower body will become stronger, more toned and muscular with hiking than with a less varied walking routine. Finally, because it’s harder cardiovascular work, your heart and lungs will get a great benefit as well.

How to get going, the simple method
Grab a pair of shoes with good grip and take a friend. Find some hills in your local area and have at it. This doesn’t need to be complicated. Bringing water and a cell phone is a good idea. Start with something smaller and see how you feel about the exertion. If you like pushing yourself and the satisfaction of reaching the top, then you should be ready for something more challenging.

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the pace, and built up the stamina to try something riskier, you’ll need to do more planning. The more challenging hikes require extra time and money, but it beats a Sunday on the couch doesn’t it? And, when the girls at work ask you how your weekend was, you’ll have tales of adventure, plus pictures and memories that last.

This kind of hiking is about getting out of town. If you’re brand new, I recommend starting off with a pre-arranged group. I live in Calgary and when I search “Calgary hiking groups” I see loads of options, so do the same with your city and start there.

Some gear you’ll need:
- Good hiking boots or shoes
- A moderate-sized, comfortable backpack
- A warmer layer in case it gets cold
- Water and food
- Cell phone
- Small first aid kit
- Bear spray can be a good idea
- A hat
- Emergency rain poncho (the $2 disposable variety should be fine)
- Sunscreen
- Camera
- Replacement shoes laces
- Extra socks
- Sunglasses
- Mosquito repellent
- Small flashlight in case you end up walking in the dark
- Emergency fire-starting supplies
- You also might want to consider toilet paper (just in case)

Remember to dress comfortably and know that higher elevations can be colder, even snow-covered depending on how high you’re climbing. 

When going out with a group, make sure to pick one that is in line with your fitness level. If you need encouragement, email this article to a friend and ask her or him if they’d like to try some hiking with you. Doing this as a team, with someone you’re close to, is a guaranteed motivator. You’ll end up having lots of great stories to share and having newly firmed butts to show off won't hurt either.

It’s not a race, so be sure to enjoy the view while you’re at it. We promise it’s more fun than watching reruns on the TV at the gym.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the syndicated column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Chicago Tribune and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.


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