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If the idea of mindlessly clicking off miles on a treadmill or elliptical machine at the gym leaves you uninspired, know there is a vastly more fulfilling and exhilarating exercise alternative: hiking. Surrounded by nature's beauty, you can challenge yourself in ways unimaginable in the gym. Studies have shown that being in nature reduces stress and improves your emotional outlook while strengthening muscles and building cardiovascular health. The best part? It doesn't cost anything to take a walk outside. If you get tired, you can turn around. If you get out of breath, take a break. And you can hike with your human or canine best friend.
Hiking and climbing have been my passion for two decades. I started climbing — accidentally — when I was 64 by following my 20-pound Australian terrier, Emme. The tiny dog insisted on going higher. Our hikes became climbs. I learned how to deal with adversity and the physical challenges of age. Together, man and dog, we were unstoppable and climbed the highest (14,000-plus feet) peaks in the Rockies.
I wrote The Dog Who Took Me Up a Mountain to inspire others to try this breathtakingly beautiful outdoor experience. Here are some tips to help make your hike safe and enjoyable. (Please note: Always check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.)
1. Start small
Physical conditioning is achieved by starting with shorter hikes and gradually building up to more challenging hikes. This will help avoid muscle pulls, joint pain and spasms. Be cautious. Hiking is about health, joyfulness and smelling the roses, not competitiveness.
2. Plan your hike
Before you go, familiarize yourself with the trail. Google “local hiking trails” or a specific trail name. Spend time reviewing where it will take you and the level of difficulty.
3. Go with a buddy
Choose a compatible or supportive buddy. You shouldn't feel pressure to go too fast or keep up. Hike with someone who wants to share this adventure with you.
4. Equip yourself
Wear layers to be comfortable in all temperatures and weather. Invest in high-ankle hiking boots for extra support and to lower the risk of injury. Use hiking poles for better balance on challenging terrain or crossing streams on slippery rocks. Bring sunglasses, hat and sunscreen for maximum protection from the sun and wind. Always bring plenty of water and, for longer hikes, pack supplies like bandages, snacks, insect repellent and a small first-aid kit.
I also recommend packing strong string (like nylon) and a small roll of duct tape (in equipment stores they come in tiny rolls the size of a half cigarette). These will solve many problems that can arise when out in the wilderness; that includes, in my case, using string to replace a broken bootlace and fashion an impromptu eyeglasses cord, and duct tape to patch a ripped pair of pants and fix a broken sunglasses arm.
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5. Be prepared if you want to bring your dog
• If your dog isn't voice-command trained, he should be on a short leash.
• It's best to have no more than one dog per person or two dogs total. Pack aggression is real and can intimidate other hikers/animals.
• Equip your dog with a collar or harness and a tag with the dog's name and your contact number.
• Pack enough water and a cup for your dog. Hydration is as important for your dog as for you.
• Make sure your dog is current with vaccinations and flea/tick and heartworm protection. Ask your vet about any special concerns before your dog goes hiking.
• Trail etiquette. Always yield to human hikers. If your dog is barking, call ahead and let other hikers know your dog is “friendly, just noisy."
• If you are uncertain about anything along the way (distant animal sound, unidentified movement catching your eye, or even seeing your dog perking up) quickly get your dog on a short leash, if he or she isn't already.
• Bring dog treats. Dogs need snacks, too. Remember that some human trail foods, such as raisins and chocolate, are dangerous for dogs.
• When you get home, check your pup (and yourself) for ticks.
6. Stay alert for wild animal encounters
While rare, you might encounter a wild animal like a deer or, more exciting, a bear. If the latter, avoid sudden movements. Talk in low, calm tones and avoid eye contact. If you are close enough that it spots you, don't run. You can try clicking your sticks in the air to look bigger and make loud noise. Bears are unlikely to attack groups.
7. Know what to do in case of thunderstorms
Don't panic. It's more dangerous to run along a wet trail than to wait out the storm. If you're caught in the elements, move deliberately and seek shelter along a hillside or within tree cover but don't touch a wet tree. You can't hide from lightning, but you can reduce the odds of it striking you. Get lower than other things around you. Lightning is an electrical discharge looking for the nearest path to ground. It is more likely to find metal (a good conductor) and/or the highest object around. In a forest, seek cover near a cluster of trees rather than a single tree, and a cluster that is thicker and lower than other trees nearby.
Spending time planning and preparing for your hikes will make you a more confident, happier hiker. The most important thing is to enjoy your adventure.
A passionate outdoorsman, Rick Crandall, age 76, is the author of the new book The Dog Who Took Me Up a Mountain, about hitting the trails with his pup Emme. He lives in Aspen, Colorado.