Hiking, walking in nature as a recreational activity. Especially among those with sedentary occupations, hiking is a natural exercise that promotes physical fitness, is economical and convenient, and requires no special equipment. Because hikers can walk as far as they want, there is no physical strain unless they walk among hills or mountains.
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Many persons walk alone, mainly on weekends or holidays, but youth clubs and other groups arrange rambles, or hikes. The normal length of the walk undertaken is 7 to 12 miles (11 to 19 km) for a half day or 12 to 20 miles (19 to 32 km) for a full day. Those organized rambles, combining exercise with enjoyment of the countryside, are in country districts surrounding large towns and follow a planned route. Most densely populated European towns have hiking trails outside them.
For regular and intensive walkers there are available services offered by such associations as the Ramblers’ Association in Great Britain and the Wilderness Society in the United States. Those organizations encourage hiking and preserve footpaths, bridle paths, and rights of way in parkland and recognized open spaces in areas of natural beauty against the encroachment of builders, local authorities, and national undertakings. They also help hikers to obtain hostel accommodation and, by exchange of information and services, enable persons of one country to pursue these activities in others. The Appalachian Trail Conference (U.S.), with the aid of its member organizations in 14 states, maintains campsites and a trail more than 2,000 miles (3,200 km) long between Mount Katahdin in Maine and Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia; it publishes information on conditions of the camps and trail.
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Hiking is basic to many sporting activities and is also a widely recommended and practiced form of physical training. For example, hiking constitutes a large part of mountain climbing; experienced mountaineers know that they must train themselves for the long, arduous hikes over the lower trails and across glaciers and snowfields. Backpack camping, hunting, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and orienteering are other sports and sporting activities in which hiking is important. The ability to walk considerable distances without becoming overtired (an ability generally acquired through practice) also enhances the enjoyment of such other activities as bird-watching, nature walks, field trips of all sorts, and even sightseeing.
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Hiking is used as a test of fitness, notably in England, where it is embraced in the duke of Edinburgh’s scheme for boys and girls, and in Sweden and the Netherlands. In Sweden it was made a national fitness test in the early 1930s, and by the 1970s more than three million Swedish men, women, and boys possessed the time qualification badge. The Nijmegen marches in the Netherlands, organized by the Dutch League of Physical Culture, are open to the world in both civilian and military categories. The test comprises four separate days’ consecutive walking over distances up to 35 miles (56 km) each day, with about 12,000 persons taking part.
Backpacking, recreational activity of hiking while carrying clothing, food, and camping equipment in a pack on the back. Originally, in the early 20th century, backpacking was practiced in the wilderness as a means of getting to areas inaccessible by car or by day hike. It demands physical conditioning and practice, knowledge of camping and survival techniques, and selection of equipment of a minimum weight consistent with safety and comfort. In planning an excursion, the backpacker must take into consideration food and water, terrain, climate, and weather.
Packs hang from the shoulders or are supported by a combination of straps around shoulders and waist or hips. Types range from the frameless rucksack, hung from two straps, and the frame rucksack, in which the pack is attached to a roughly rectangular frame hung on the shoulder straps, to the contour frame pack, with a frame of aluminum or magnesium tubing bent to follow the contour of the back. The Kelty-type pack, which is used with the contour frame, employs a waistband to transfer most of the weight of the pack to the hips.
Modern materials have revolutionized backpack construction, utility, and capacity. The earliest packs were made from canvas, which, while strong and durable, added considerable weight for the backpacker to manage and lacked resistance to the elements. Today’s packs are constructed of nylon or similar lightweight materials and are usually at least partially waterproof.
Clothing is weatherproof and insulating, including shell parkas, insulating underwear, down clothing, windpants, ponchos, sturdy waterproof boots with soles designed for maximum traction, and heavy socks. Tents may be a simple tarpaulin, a plastic sheeting tube, or a two-person nylon mountain tent. Sleeping bags of foam, dacron, or down and air mattresses or foam pads may be carried. Lightweight pots and pans and stoves are specially designed for backpacking; dehydrated food provides stew-type one-pot dishes.
Backpackers must be able to read topographic maps and use a compass; they must also carry emergency food and first-aid equipment and be acquainted with survival techniques.
In the later 20th century, backpacking became associated with travel, especially by students, outside the wilderness.