If you like the outdoors and the being out in nature, then hiking and backpacking might be the answer to your fitness plan and could be a great lifetime hobby.

The hardest part of a fitness program is getting the motivation to start. This is where joining a hiking club and meeting people with similar interests can make your habits stick. A little positive peer pressure may be all we need to start and sustain good habits of a lifetime.

If you live on or near the east coast of the US, you may want to try some walks along the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT was completed in 1937 and has 2,175 miles of trail stretching from Georgia to Maine, going through 14 states. It’s the nation’s longest marked footpath with the unique ‘white blaze’ marking its way. It traverses eight national forests, many state parks and has views of this country that will inspire and invigorate you. For more information on the AT, check out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson is a very comical and entertaining non-fiction story about two friends hiking the AT. It’s a great book for anyone thinking about getting into backpacking or hiking.

After a decade of annual Christmas get-togethers, a group of my high school buddies decided to do something different: a 30-mile section hike of the AT. It turned out to be one of the best outings I’ve ever had. Something about that long weekend in the wilderness seemed to put everything into perspective.

Here’s a few backpacking / hiking tips (that we learned the hard way):

Pack your water first
Water weighs a lot and can be underestimated if you put it in your pack last. Bring plenty and a means to purify water along the way. It can be the difference between a great or miserable trip.

Leave the nice-to-haves at home
A hike is a hike and a BBQ is BBQ…nary the two shall meet. The vision of cooking sliders and dogs out in God’s country may have to be modified a bit unless the Incredible Hulk is in your hiking party. If you’re backpack weighs more than 30-40 pounds for an overnight hike, it’s time to prioritize and reduce your gear. Step on your bathroom scale with your full pack to weigh it (with water).

Accessible Water
A backpack with a water bladder (like CamelBak) or one with outer pockets that fit water bottles is a great advantage. It’s nice to sip water as you go along, without having to mount and dismount your pack each time.

First Aid
One can go overboard here, but the absolute essentials should include bandages and antibiotic cream for blisters, Ibuprofen or Tylenol, and serums for any allergies. An elastic ankle wrap and a few large gauze packs should also be thrown in along with additional items for any site-specific hazards you may encounter.

Take care of your feet
Comfortable boots, socks and even some Vaseline or anti-friction sports cream can be the difference between blisters and no blisters. Keeping your feet dry and comfortable directly translates into a happier and more enjoyable hike.

Lighter is better
If you’re planning an overnighter, check out your local outdoor store for ideas on newer and lighter gear. They have camp stoves that weigh less than a pound. They have tents with fiberglass poles. Tents with steel poles belong in car trunks not backpacks. Go in with a friend to defray the costs – it’s better than strewing your heavy gear across the woods out of frustration (hypothetical…of course ;-).

Dehydrated food has come a long way
You can get some great tasting meals that don’t weigh much or take up much space in your pack. Most of them come with a durable plastic bag and clip, so you literally just pour the boiling water into it, let it cook, cool, then eat.

Prepare, plan, and have a back-up plan
The great outdoors is…great, but it’s without cell phone towers, Starbucks and information desks. So make sure you carefully map out your hike, know the water spots, talk to the ranger station before you go, and have a plan if you need to alter your course mid-way. Prep time is always time well spent and a map and compass are worth their weight.

Backpacking or day-hiking can be so much fun, you likely won’t view it as exercise…but it’s a great workout…for your mind, body, and soul! If you want some good information on camping &hiking, check out this camping field guide.

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