Women hiking
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There are many reasons we should be getting outside more often: Researchers have found that spending time in local and national parks can help us cope with stress and recover from illness and injury. It can even provide a morale boost. (A small British study in 2007 found that people who strolled through a park reported an increase in self-esteem, compared to those who were sent to a shopping mall—they actually felt worse about themselves.)

Because hiking isn't quite as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, we asked Mandy Pohja, a wilderness instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), to give us the top mistakes that tend to trip people up.

1. They choose the wrong path.

Pohja sees this time and again. Not only do newbies wander onto trails that are too tough, but people looking for an intense workout accidentally choose an easy amble, get bored and go back to the treadmill at the gym. Hiking trails are usually ranked by difficulty on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 and 2 presenting low risks of real danger. "In the third class, you might have to use your hands here and there to balance or scramble," says Pohja. "In the fourth class, you're using both hands to pull yourself up, and class 5 is basically rock climbing"—definitely not for beginners. Keep in mind, for a rough guide to your level of effort, you should add about two additional energy miles per every 1,000 feet of elevation gain. So if you're hiking one mile uphill on a mountain taller than 1,000 feet, it will feel like three miles.

2. They underpack or overstuff.

You don't want to end up with 25 pounds of equipment for an easy afternoon hike—and you don't want to be caught empty-handed in an emergency. For a day hike, Pohja's pack always contains these essentials:
  • A map and a compass. Pohja says that national parks are especially good about keeping their maps up-to-date.
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses, especially if you're hiking above the tree line. There's less shade, and UV rays are stronger at higher elevations.
  • Fluids. She recommends 3 to 4 liters of water for each person in your group. "Many people think that they can fill up their bottles in a river, but drinking untreated water can put you at risk for waterborne diseases."
  • Snacks. Instead of breaking at the summit for a big lunch, NOLS instructors like to nibble throughout the day. This way, Pohja says, they maintain their energy levels and avoid the discomfort of overeating. She likes snacks that combine carbs for energy as well as protein, like trail mix, jerky, and crackers and peanut butter.
  • A first aid kit with Band-Aids, athletic tape and an antibiotic ointment to clean wounds.
  • A rain jacket, regardless of the forecast. "Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the mountains, especially in the West, and a jacket is a small thing that will make a big difference."
  • A headlamp or flashlight in case you get stuck outside after dark.

3. They think hiking poles are for sissies.

Pohja recently helped lead a group of Naval Academy students on a 30-day wilderness trip in Wyoming. "All of our instructors had poles, and we told the students they could bring them, as well." None of the midshipmen did, and after a few days of picking their way over boulders and down snowy slopes, they were all confessing to pole envy. Poles take some of the weight off your knees, hips and ankles when going downhill; they're highly recommended for hikers with knee or hip issues. Pohja says poles can also help redistribute your weight while walking uphill: "You're engaging more of your upper body and arms." You'll burn more calories this way, which is a benefit if you're going out for a fitness hike.

4. They can't read a map.

Pohja says she has run into strangers in the woods who try to make the map fit the terrain around them. "They think they know where they are," she says, "so they look at the map and say, 'This peak must be that one there; this pile of rocks must be that one over there...' It's easy to convince yourself and others in your group that you know exactly where you are." Your instinct may be to keep forging on optimistically, even if the markers on the map don't match up exactly to what you see in front of you. But be ready to change course. Pohja says, "If the map says you should be hitting a bridge soon, and if you don't hit it in the next 20 to 30 minutes, stop and think about where that bridge might actually be."

5. They try to run up exposed rocks.

Take smaller steps on rocky patches-—this will keep your hips over your feet—and lean forward as the pitch gets steeper. Taking large, fast steps up an ascending rock face can strain your calf and Achilles tendon, Pohja says. It can also lead to another mistake: "Beginners often spot a good step and take it without checking to see where they'll go next." Keep looking a few paces ahead or you may find yourself in a dead end.

6. They get distracted by the views.

A glimpse of the Grand Tetons, a Smoky Mountain vista...these are the reasons you're out there in the woods, and they are practically irresistible. But Pohja says that when hikers are taking in the view, they aren't paying attention to where they're going. If the last thing you want is to hobble all the way back to camp, she suggests stopping for a photo break. If you're feeling nervous about that dramatic drop-off to the right of the trail, Pohja has some advice. She calms her anxious students by reminding them to "look where you want to go, not where you don't want to go." The body tends to follow the gaze, so try keeping your eyes away from the cliff and on the path in front of you.

7. They race down hills.

Making your way down the mountain can take longer than climbing up. There's no real way to hurry it up. Giving in to momentum and crashing down trails often leads to nasty spills. Also, if you're not in control, you may not abide by the rules of the trail by giving those going uphill the right of way.

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