To paraphrase the illustrious Buzz Lightyear from the Pixar movie Toy Story, hiking is walking with style. Walking has many benefits and with limited options, it is one of the easiest forms of exercise to consistently perform. All that is required is a decent pair of shoes or hiking boots. Depending on pace, walking is a mild or moderate intensity form of exercise. As a mild intensity exercise, a pace of 3 mph or less is a good pace. A walking pace of 3 to 4 mph is a moderate intensity pace. For most people, a pace somewhere between 4 to 4.5 mph becomes a jog.
Beyond the health benefits of increasing physical activity, walking — especially outside in nature — offers an excellent opportunity to de-stress and clear the mind after a hard day. If there is a limiting factor to the health benefits of walking, especially for those whose pace remains at 3 mph or less, it is that it is not fast enough of a pace to create substantial calorie burn if one of the goals of a walking program is to reduce body fat. At a pace that is mild intensity, most people are going to need to walk for 60-90 minutes per day, every day if significant fat reduction is to occur. That kind of time commitment is not practical for most people.
For people who are looking to utilize walking as a method for fat loss, but are not yet fit enough to move at a faster pace or, like myself, do not enjoy running at faster paces often, another option needs to be considered. An easy solution is to graduate from walking to hiking — the primary difference being that when hiking, a person carries an additional load. Carrying additional weight makes walking more challenging and more effective for increasing calorie burn without having to move at a faster pace.
There are two tools that can be used to accomplish this: a weighted vest and a quality hiking backpack. A weighted vest is the more affordable and easily accessible of the two options, which is why it was one of the recommended tools in the article “Four Fitness Tools under $100”. A quality backpack is not needed unless a person is considering taking up hiking as a hobby that will turn into all day, weekend or weeklong backpacking trips. Guidelines for picking a quality pack for hiking will be addressed later.
When considering how much of a load should be carried, it is important to recognize that every body is built differently. A man who is 6’4”, 250 lbs., and built like an NFL linebacker has a body that is different from a woman who is 5’4” and 140 lbs. For this reason, picking arbitrary weight loads to carry does not make much sense. Suggesting both people can carry a 30-lb load and the effects on their bodies be the same is not logical. Rather, it makes more sense to recommend loads based upon a percentage of the individual person’s body weight. So instead of suggesting both people carry a 30-lb load, it makes sense to suggest that each person carry 10% of their individual body weight. This way, each person is doing an equivalent amount of work relative to his or her own body. In this example, the man would be carrying a load of 25 lbs., while the woman carries a load of 14 lbs., but both are adding the same amount of work in relation to body size. If both carried a 30-lb. load, the woman would be doing considerably more work than the man given the difference in body sizes.
Estimating the caloric expenditure of hiking while carrying a weight load is difficult. It will vary depending upon several factors. The specifics of that science go beyond the scope of this article. However, Outside magazine (Hutchinson, 2018) has an excellent writeup for anyone who is interested in really diving into the science of this. What is important to note is that hiking with a load, especially in hilly terrain, creates similar increases in heart rate and oxygen consumption (VO2max) to those seen in other forms of cardiovascular exercise such as running (Perrey & Fabre, 2008). In the context of exercise science research, heart rate measurements and oxygen consumption are indicators of caloric expenditure.
What is most important to note is that hiking with weight is a viable option for people who want to significantly burn a lot of calories but do not want to do running or cycling. This is the important takeaway: when done correctly, the potential exists for hiking — when carrying a load — to be as effective for fat loss as other types of cardiovascular exercise.
The chart below offers a six-week sample training program for including hiking as a component of fitness. A light load would be up to 10% of body weight, a moderate load 10-20% of body weight, and a heavy load would be anything over 20% of bodyweight. As a note on safety, when hiking the risk of injury-related to carrying a load increases dramatically when the load increases to more than 30% of body weight (Grenier, et al., 2012). For the purposes of general health and fitness, the risk-reward tradeoff is not worth it to exceed 30% of body weight.
Intro to Hiking Program
|Week||% of Body Weight||Days Per Week||Duration|
Grenier, J. G., Peyrot, N., Castells, J., Oullion, R., Messonnier, L., & Morin, J.-B. (2012). Energy Cost and Mechanical Work of Walking during Load Carriage in Soliders. Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 1131-1140.
Hutchinson, A. (2018, June 06). The Ultimate Backpacking Calorie Estimator. Retrieved from Outside Magazine: https://www.outsideonline.com/2315751/ultimate-backpacking-calorie-estimator#close
Perrey, S., & Fabre, N. (2008). Exertion Uphill, Level, and Downhill Walking With and Without Hiking Poles. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 32-38.