On the right path: Finding a hiking trail that matches your fitness level

Hiking is one of the most versatile and affordable sports out there. It's healthy, it doesn't require any specific skills or techniques, and you can do it practically anywhere. And unlike other sports that may place undue stress on one or more body parts, hiking offers a good all-around workout that improves your posture, tones your body, and burns fat. All you need is a good pair of walking shoes or boots, a bottle of water, and a good hiking trail.

Choosing the right challenge

In order to make your hiking experience a good one, it's important to choose a trail that matches your fitness level. And though hiking is one of the least complicated sports, you need to match your challenge to your fitness level to avoid injury. Remember, if you suffer from any serious condition or injury, discuss your hiking plans with your physician first. Otherwise, it should be enough to be honest with yourself about your level of fitness.

If you're mainly sedentary, don't choose a long trail. Two to three miles can be quite challenging if your only other form of exercise is walking to your car and back. However, if you're relatively fit and exercise regularly, choose a longer trail of about five miles. Of course, experienced hikers can choose trails that involve entire weekends or even vacations of hiking.

It's also important to select a hiking trail that's well maintained. Climbing over fallen trees and jumping over potholes can be fun, but usually doesn't make for a safe and relaxing time. Go to the American Hiking Society to find more information and links to each state's national parks, as they'll only list suitable trails.

Last, make sure that the trail itself isn't too difficult. Does it involve a lot of steep climbing, or is it at a high altitude? Is there sufficient shade? If you have to cross streams or rivers, are there bridges, or will you have to wade through?

Always carefully review the physical aspects of any trail, and only choose it if you feel confident you can handle the challenge.

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