Be it a gentle walk along a forest path or a steep mountain trek, there’s nothing like hiking to get our blood flowing smoothly and our heart beating strong.
Trails have been a lifeline to Canadians during COVID-19, as confirmed by a national survey, commissioned by Trans Canada Trail, which showed trail usage up 50% across all age groups. The Leger survey, published in November 2020, found that physical and mental health benefits and access to nature were behind the surge in popularity.
It’s an activity that engages all the senses as we breathe in the fresh air, listen to the songbirds chirp and tweet, watch the squirrels scamper through the woods, smell the earthy fragrance of pines and cedars, and marvel at the scenic views.
Hiking can be enjoyed on your own or with family and friends year-round (provided the weather co-operates and you have the right gear). It’s also the perfect break from the stresses and strains of everyday living, especially as the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic persists in some parts of Canada.
There’s a growing body of scientific evidence to suggest hiking is a truly unique experience, delivering benefits beyond what you would gain from typical exercise. Not only does it oxygenate your heart, it helps keep your mind sharper, your body calmer, your creativity more alive and your relationships happier.
The research tells us that hiking is a natural stress reliever and a powerful cardio work-out, particularly if your route includes hills, which forces your heart to work harder. Plus, it helps prevent chronic disease and premature death. If hiking among trees, all the better: being around trees offers an extra perk, owing to the organic compounds that trees release into the environment to boost our mood and our overall mental wellbeing.
Here are some tips for making your hike an enjoyable experience.
Find the right fit. Hiking is an option open to nearly everyone, regardless of age or athletic ability. However, if you haven’t done it before, start slow and then work up to hills or uneven terrain. Find a hike that offers the right level of personal challenge for you. Many towns, cities and provinces have a variety of short, flat and easy-to-navigate trails full of beginners trying hiking for themselves. Even walking through your local park is a great way to start being active.
Know before you go. Familiarize yourself with the trail map. Check the weather and dress or pack accordingly. If storms are a possibility, rethink your plan. Follow marked paths and trails.
Bring a buddy. It’s best not to hike alone at first, especially on unfamiliar or remote trails. A companion is good for both company and safety. They can help navigate and you can assist one another if anyone stumbles or gets hurt. As your skill level improves, you’ll feel more comfortable going solo. And if you go alone, let someone know when you plan to return.
Use poles and wear the right footwear. If you have problems with stability or vision, using walking or trekking poles can give you an added level of security on uneven terrain. Also, choose well-fitting footwear with good ankle support. Make sure to break them in with shorter walks — like at your local park — so you don’t get blisters when you are miles from a trailhead.
Stay hydrated. Don’t forget to take plenty of water along on your hike, especially in warm, sunny weather. You can’t go wrong with a few pieces of fruit or other light snacks either.
Looking for a place to hike? In Canada, we are spoiled with choice when it comes to places that combine natural beauty and physical activity to create one-of-a-kind healthy and safe experiences for the entire family. To get ideas, information and directions, ask for referrals from friends and colleagues and search online. Consult your provincial tourism guide, your city or town’s recreation offerings. Most communities, and certainly all provinces, have extensive trail networks to explore on foot or by bike.
The Great Trail. Canadians are fortunate to have the longest recreational trail in the world that winds through communities from coast to coast to coast. The Great Trail offers a wide range of activities through a variety of landscapes — urban, rural and wilderness, along greenways, waterways and roadways. And you can go your own way, choosing an experience that resonates with you, be it hiking, cycling, paddling, cross-country skiing or snowmobiling.
The following are the Top 10 Hikes recommended by Parks Canada, by region:
Sources: Berkley, Harvard, WebMD, Parks Canada, Healthy Families BC