12 Surprising Benefits of Hiking That Will Make You Want to Get Outdoors ASAP

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The demands of today’s world, with digital screens and office work and meetings, can make outdoor time feel like a squeeze. But the many benefits of hiking—mental and physical—show us that it’s important to carve out time to recreate outdoors and connect with nature. Some researchers1 have even found that spending time in nature, regardless of exertion level, can result in lower heart rates and decreased feelings of anxiety.

Hiking can conjure up mental images of scaling mountains and braving dangerous outdoor elements—but you don’t need to go to extremes (seriously, "soft hiking" is a thing). Visiting a local trail or nearby state park is enough to help your mind and body.

Experts In This Article

And beyond the beautiful scenery and fresh air, the benefits of hiking include some impressive fitness boosts: It's seriously good exercise and can help improve your overall physical health.

The differences between hiking and walking

Although they’re similar, there are some nuances that separate walking from hiking.

Colorado-based Patricia Cameron is the founder and executive director of Blackpackers, a nonprofit that offers curriculum-based, professionally guided, fully outfitted outdoor experiences for free or subsidized cost to those at the intersection of underrepresentation and economic vulnerability.

Cameron is an experienced backpacker and thru-hiker as well as a wilderness first response instructor. She has completed multi-week and multi-month backpacking journeys, including hiking the Colorado Trail.

“To me, a hike is a walk in the great outdoors—I don’t like to box ‘hiking’ into one specific definition, like bushwhacking up mountains,” Cameron says. “Hiking is an activity that intentionally places you into the outdoors, but the ‘outdoors’ can be in a local nature preserve or park. It doesn’t have to be climbing a mountain.”

Walking is a motion that moves your body from place to place, regardless of the setting. You might walk a city block or walk to the grocery store, but those wouldn’t be traditionally considered hiking.

Hiking is the act of walking (or power-walking) on a trail or route that intentionally winds its way through nature. The intensity of the movement isn’t what defines hiking; whether you leisurely stroll on a trail or aim to get your heart rate high while immersed in nature, both still qualify.

Edward Phillips, MD, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and co-host of the Food, We Need to Talk podcast, says that hiking gives you all the physical and mental benefits of walking—plus some.

“There are wonderful benefits to your mind to forestall depression, anxiety—all of those things just from going on a short walk,” Dr. Phillips says. “So with hiking, you get all of those benefits and then, as the old commercials used to say: Wait, there’s more.”

Physical benefits of hiking

Building muscle

One of the key reasons to take a hike is that hiking builds muscle (and strengthens it) in key muscle groups all over the body, according to Australian physiotherapist Calum Fraser, CEO and owner of Advantage Physiotherapy.

“Your muscles gain a lot when you go hiking: Your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves are all activated by hiking on the uneven surfaces frequently found on trails. This provides those muscles with greater stimulus than walking on flat areas such as a sidewalk,” Fraser says. “Incorporating trekking or hiking poles also engages your upper-body muscles like the arms, chest, and back for a full-body workout.”

Improved cardiovascular health

Hiking can also assist in improving your aerobic capacity and cardiovascular health.

“Hiking is an excellent cardio exercise due to the common changes in elevation or long stretches of uphill gradient,” Fraser says. “Hiking or power-hiking up this kind of terrain will raise your heart rate, which can in turn improve cardiovascular fitness, enhance the lungs’ functionality, and improve blood flow through the body.”

Better balance

Because hiking often takes place on terrain that’s a little rougher than your residential sidewalk, it’s an excellent way to challenge your balance. All of the movements you make throughout a hike, from stepping over a big rock to walking across a log, train your body to maintain its equilibrium under a slew of different circumstances.

“And the more you challenge any system in your body, the more your body is going to adapt and get better at it,” says Dr. Phillips. So if you find yourself stumbling down a trail littered with loose stones or take an unintentional dip in a babbling brook, don’t fret. Your next foray into the forest will likely be a little smoother.

Better metabolic health

Hiking is also great for metabolic health: It can improve the efficiency of your metabolism for up to 14 hours after the hike is complete.

If you want to improve markers for metabolic syndrome, hiking is an excellent option, according to an older study2 that found, after hiking at a moderate intensity four times a week for three weeks, participants saw better fasting glucose, total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure numbers, as well as some body composition changes.

Hiking at high altitude may confer even more benefits:3 Another older study found that hiking for 16 days at high altitude resulted in a loss of body fat with no significant decline in the resting metabolic rate, which is how many calories the body burns when at rest, such as sitting or sleeping.

Preventing disease

The American Diabetes Association also recommends at least 30 minutes of activity a day to decrease your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Hiking for at least 30 minutes a day can therefore help you stave off conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

In some cases, hiking may even help normalize insulin sensitivity, as demonstrated in a 2004 study4 where a small population saw normalized insulin levels after 25 consecutive days of hiking.

Improved sleep 

Spending time in nature by hiking or camping can also help you sleep better. One 2017 study5 published in Current Biology found that spending extended amounts of time outdoors can help humans regulate their circadian rhythms, and that humans can respond quickly and effectively to the natural light-dark cycle.

Healthy aging

Hiking could be key to aging well, suggests one 2019 study6. A group of older adults were split into two study groups, with one group spending time hiking for a week and the other experiencing a more sedentary adventure.

The hiking group showed improvements in static balance, gait speed, and quality of life—and had increased muscle mass. The group that went on the more sedentary adventure did not reap the same benefits, implying that incorporating appropriate levels of intensity during hiking as you age could benefit your physical health.

Mental benefits of hiking

Improving mental health

A 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences7 found that people who walked for 90 minutes in nature (not an urban or suburban area) showed decreased activity in the part of the brain that plays a part in developing depression.

Dr. Phillips encourages hikers to try out the Japanese practice of “forest bathing,” a type of mobile meditation where you focus on the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural environment around you rather than, say, gabbing about the latest work gossip. Studies8 show that slowing down to take in the natural environment around us on a hike can help put us into a more relaxed state.

Calming and centering effect

Cameron agrees that hiking is particularly calming and centering.

“The sound of the trail crunching under my feet is such a comforting and familiar sound to me,” Cameron says. “The background noise of life drowns out, because your goal is very simple in that moment: walk from point A to point B.”

When hiking, Cameron is able to see and connect with different wildlife, flora, and even people than she would if she were at home on the treadmill.

Social connection

Although hiking can be done solo or with a group, it’s difficult even on the most remote of trails to avoid seeing a single other person. A 2020 study9 in the International Journal of Wilderness found that for those preparing for longer thru-hikes, using social networks was a large part of preparing for their trip—a combined 65% of those in the studies leveraged Facebook connections and online forum interactions to create their thru-hike plans, and 22% met up with others in-person to build their routes.

According to the same study, hikers often want to interact with other hikers, too, with 53% of respondents saying they hoped to meet new people during their thru-hike. Use your best judgment when interacting with strangers, but know that it’s likely fellow hikers simply want to say hello or make a friend.

There's also some evidence that hiking together can deepen a relationship, so next time you need some help communicating with a friend or partner, go take a hike. Dr. Phillips says even hiking in silence with another person can foster feelings of connection.

Encourages challenging yourself

Hiking also empowers Cameron by reminding her she can do hard things.

“I like being outside and proving to myself that I can survive outside of my house,” Cameron says with a laugh. “That’s always a big win—and in that vein, it helps to keep my goals of the day simple and uncomplicated: eat, drink, stay safe.”

Connecting to your innermost self

Perhaps most importantly, Cameron says that hiking can help you “hear the voices that you may have lost in yourself,” and reconnect with who you truly are.

“When I hike, backpack, or thru-hike, I get to hear the voice of who I was before I became a business owner and a wife and a mother. I love all of those things, of course, but it’s nice to tune out and reconnect with that inner voice,” Cameron says. “You get to tune out the ‘bad noise,’ like thinking about bills or pet care or other responsibilities, [which] can distract me from hearing who I truly am.”

Hiking tips to help you get started

It may be tempting to head out into the great outdoors as soon as possible, but before you go, make sure to follow these beginner hiker tips so you can maximize the benefits of hiking in nature.


Cameron believes that expensive and niche equipment is not needed for hikers, especially beginner ones. She recommends the following hiking gear to get you started:

  • Hiking poles: These don’t need to be expensive, but they will help offset the impact on your knees and assist with balance on uneven terrain
  • An emergency or first-aid kit with basics such as antibacterial ointment or wipes and bandages
  • Sunscreen
  • A water bottle with water and/or the ability to treat water found in nature
  • A physical compass, not just an app on your smartphone
  • Sturdy shoes with good treads on the soles. You don’t necessarily need hiking boots, but close-toed shoes with good grip are ideal
  • Wool or wool-blend socks: Cotton socks easily cause blisters when hiking

Choosing a trail

Not all hiking trails are created equal—some will be easier or harder than others, and it’s important to choose accordingly. Cameron recommends considering the following when choosing a hiking route:

  • Total elevation gain and the elevation profile of the hike. Cameron recommends not exceeding more than 200 feet of elevation gain per mile for beginner hikers. To calculate how many feet of gain there are in a mile, divide the total elevation gain of the hike by the number of miles of the hike.
  • Total distance of the hike
  • Shape of the hike (point-to-point, a loop, etc.)
  • Terrain of the hike (crushed gravel, rock scrambling, etc.)

Although it can be tempting to choose a hard or “impressive” hiking route, it's always better to go for a safe and appropriate trail—a successful day in the wilderness is one that ends with you back at the car!


Hiking in nature can come with its fair share of safety concerns. Knowing and addressing these concerns ahead of time can mitigate your risk of danger while out on the trail.

  • Always tell someone what hiking route you are completing and when you think you will be back from the hike.
  • Check the weather early and often.
  • Know how fast you hike and on what terrain.
  • Always bring water and food, no matter how short the hike.
  • Be aware of how far you are from resources such as emergency services and cell reception, and if your comfort level with hiking in nature aligns with that.
  • Seasonal changes can make big differences in terrain and weather. Know what mistakes to avoid when winter hiking, and be prepared for summer heat or changing conditions in the spring and fall.


How long does it take to get in shape for hiking?

You do not need to be “in shape” to begin hiking, but you should choose hiking trails that align with your current level of fitness. Shorter hiking trails with less elevation gain are a good place to begin getting in shape for hiking, and then you can choose longer, more challenging trails.

What equipment do I need for hiking?

While you technically do not need any specialized equipment to go on an easy hike, it is recommended that you bring a pair of hiking poles to assist with balance, a first aid kit, sunscreen, a water bottle filled with water, food, and sturdy, close-toed shoes with socks that won’t give you blisters.

Is hiking better for you than running?

This depends on what your fitness and wellness goals are. Hiking is, in general, gentler on the joints than running and moves at a slower pace. For those who want to maintain a decent level of aerobic fitness without high levels of impact on your joints, hiking is a better choice. If you are looking for a more intense workout that can build aerobic and muscular endurance quickly, running may be a better option. Both hiking and running provide opportunities to improve cardiovascular and muscular health and can also offer numerous mental health benefits such as decreased stress and improved sleep quality.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Lee, Juyoung et al. “Influence of forest therapy on cardiovascular relaxation in young adults.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 2014 (2014): 834360. doi:10.1155/2014/834360
  2. Greie, S et al. “Improvement of metabolic syndrome markers through altitude specific hiking vacations.” Journal of endocrinological investigation vol. 29,6 (2006): 497-504. doi:10.1007/BF03344138
  3. Armellini, F et al. “The effects of high altitude trekking on body composition and resting metabolic rate.” Hormone and metabolic research = Hormon- und Stoffwechselforschung = Hormones et metabolisme vol. 29,9 (1997): 458-61. doi:10.1055/s-2007-979077
  4. Lee, Wen-Chih et al. “Effects of hiking at altitude on body composition and insulin sensitivity in recovering drug addicts.” Preventive medicine vol. 39,4 (2004): 681-8. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2004.02.035
  5. Stothard, Ellen R., et al. “Circadian entrainment to the natural light-dark cycle across seasons and the weekend.” Current Biology, vol. 27, no. 4, Feb. 2017, pp. 508–513, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.12.041.
  6. Prossegger, Johanna et al. “Effects of moderate mountain hiking and balneotherapy on community-dwelling older people: A randomized controlled trial.” Experimental gerontology vol. 122 (2019): 74-84. doi:10.1016/j.exger.2019.04.006
  7. Bratman, Gregory N., et al. “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112, no. 28, 29 June 2015, pp. 8567–8572, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1510459112.
  8. Miyazaki, Yoshifumi et al. Nihon eiseigaku zasshi. Japanese journal of hygiene vol. 66,4 (2011): 651-6. doi:10.1265/jjh.66.651
  9. Cole, Taylor, and Jennifer Thomsen. “Understanding the Role of Social Interactions during Different Phases of the Thru-Hiker Experience.” IJW, International Journal of Wilderness, 13 Apr. 2021, ijw.org/role-of-social-interactions-during-thru-hiking/.

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