More than half of Americans participated in an outdoor hobby during 2021, and about a third of them went hiking at least once. Hiking has gained a lot of popularity over the past few years, primarily fueled by social media envy and a desire to get out of cities.
Hiking is an excellent hobby for people of any age who are active enough to walk around on uneven surfaces. Many hikes require no additional gear or equipment, and have no entrance fee, making hiking an accessible hobby for anyone. The many benefits of hiking include boosts to both mental and physical health for both the occasional hiker and the hobbyist.
Hiking has almost doubled in popularity over the past 15 years for a variety of reasons, and shows no signs of slowing down. Let’s explore hiking as a hobby, including the many benefits and a few tips for first time hikers.
Hiking as a Hobby
What was once an everyday necessity has become a bit of an excursion in the modern world. It reminds me of the simple act of gardening. 100 years ago the majority of the world worked in agriculture every day. Now many people are far enough removed from their food supply chain that they crave the involvement enough to painstakingly plant and nurture an incredibly inefficient backyard garden (I am one of those people).
Hiking also used to be just a part of life. Whether it was dirt roads around town or off into the woods to get water or search for plants or animals, people in the past used to walk trails on a daily basis.
On the more extreme end though, hiking as a form of exploration has always existed as well. It wasn’t thought of as a hobby though, so much as a vocation or calling. Explorers and expeditions mapped the world, leaving less and less blank space until today.
While hiking just to get outside and get some solitude has been around forever, the idea of hiking just to hike is relatively new in human history. Urbanization and the destruction of green areas has just made it more of an ordeal to get outside.
Hiking is one of the most popular outdoors activities in the United States, as well as the world. Part of the allure is certainly the idea of going somewhere you have never been before and experiencing the feelings of exploration, but it becomes more than that as we revisit the same trails over and over again.
People who adopt hiking as a hobby find that it provides a slew of physical and mental health benefits as well as opening up possibilities for social connections and solitude alike. The occasional hike while on vacation isn’t enough- many people seek out hiking trails in their local areas and hike the same ones repeatedly.
What Makes Hiking an Excellent Hobby
Just about all of us suffer from a nature deficiency. As I’ve written before, there are tons of benefits to spending time in nature, even above and beyond the benefits from exercise, clean air, and vitamin D.
Spending time in nature boosts participant’s moods, strengthens their immune systems, and increases creativity and their overall outlook on life (source). With an activity like hiking, these benefits are compounded by the social aspect and the exercise aspect as well.
Hiking is different from many other outdoor activities in its accessibility. Just about everyone can go hiking if they pick the right trail. There is absolutely no cost for additional gear beyond regular stuff that everyone already has. (see my article: Can I Hike in Running Shoes?)
This is different from biking where you need to spend money to buy or rent a bike, camping where you need to buy a bunch of gear to get started, or rock climbing where you need additional gear and training. With hiking all you really need for a starter hike is a decent pair of shoes and a water bottle.
The availability of hiking trails vary by geographic location. Where I live in Utah, I could hike a new trail every day for a year within a 20-30 minute drive. In other areas you are more limited to state parks or other nature preserves, but you can find trails near you just about anywhere you live.
One of my top reasons for hiking versus other activities these days is that it’s easy to do with kids. They can hike short distances, or we can carry them in hiking packs. It’s a great activity for the old and young alike!
Hiking can be a good form of exercise. Generally it’s viewed as better than going walking (see: Hiking vs. Walking), but not quite as difficult as going running. Depending on how much weight you carry in your backpack, the steepness of the hike, and your speed though, it can be just as difficult as a run around your neighborhood at home.
As an aerobic activity, hiking strengthens your cardiovascular system- your lungs and heart. This cardio is excellent for your body, and often something people are missing in their daily lives. For more information on the physical benefits, read my articles What Type of Cardio is Hiking? and Why is Hiking So Tiring?
Hiking solo can be a wonderful experience to go get some solitude and clear you mind. It’s really nice to feel ‘at one’ with nature, but hiking is also a lot of fun as a social activity.
Whether you have friends who hike already or not, I recommend trying to go with other people- especially as you’re starting out. Sites like Meetup.com can be a good way to connect with other people and to get out and try hiking in groups. I’ve found that struggling through a hike together can help strengthen relationships.
Reasons Why Hiking is Growing in Popularity as a Hobby
Instagram and Social Media
Social Media, particularly Instagram, has contributed to the growth of hiking in a major way. It has shown how hiking can be glamorous, and highlights the beauty of the world around us. Geo-tags make it fairly easy to identify the location of a pretty picture so you can go there yourself.
Ironically, the growth of social media and smartphones has simultaneously made popular areas more popular while reducing the overall number of people frequenting the outdoors each year. Unfortunately, this explosion of growth has also contributed to the degradation of many trails and the spoiling of outdoor features (source).
It’s been interest to even see celebrities hit hiking trails and share about it online too. They can be regular people too, feeling the need to get out and find some freedom and maybe even anonymity in the woods.
Before the year 2000, the typical hiker would be wearing hiking boots, a wide-brimmed hat, and rugged apparel designed to take a beating while protecting the wearer. Fitness was largely limited to gyms and roads.
Today you’re much more likely to see hikers on popular trails in athletic or “athleisure” clothing like shorts and t-shirts or tank tops. The emphasis on fitness as a hobby as well as a way to stay healthy has converged on the outdoors, with hiking playing a big role.
Pandemic Influence on Hiking
I’d be remiss not to mention the COVID-19 Pandemic as a big boon to hiking’s popularity. As many gyms and public areas were closed between a few months and a year in different areas, people hit the trails instead.
Between 2019 and 2020, hiking participation jumped by 20% in the United States from about 50,000,000 to 58,000,000 participants, a number that continued to grow slightly in 2021. Part of the reason for this was that people were cramped in their homes and apartments and their favorite urban areas were closed or crowded.
This boon was also fueled in places like Utah by people spending their discretionary income that would have gone to flights and vacations normally, but instead was spent on toys, like campers (are campers worth it?, and road trips.
It will be interesting to see if the data for 2022 continues the increase, or if people settle back into old habits and hobbies rather than those activities they picked up during the pandemic.
Regardless, a lot more people got out and explored their local trails and found that they enjoyed the activity and have incorporated it into their hobbies- and that’s a good thing.
Types of Hiking
There’s no enumerated list of the types of hiking. Hiking’s definition is basically walking in nature, so a lot of things fall under it. These are some kinds of hiking that can be differentiated.
This is what most of us think of when we think of hiking. You grab a pack with some water, snacks, and emergency supplies in it, and take off on a trail. Casual hiking may be out and back, or it could be a loop. Often, you just go until you get tired or run out of time, and then turn around.
This can take place in the desert, in the mountains, or the forests. There’s no rush- the point is just to enjoy nature and whatever company you’re with while stretching your legs and filling your lungs with fresh air!
Instagram and definitely impacted destination hiking, with loads of people converging on popular or unique features every weekend throughout the world. A destination hike is generally when the feature of the day is the waterfall at the end rather than the hike itself.
I really do enjoy having a destination as a goal when I hike. It helps me to push myself physically a little bit more, and is a nice reward along the way. Sometimes though, the focus on the end makes it so I fail to enjoy the journey.
For me this often includes hiking to a climbing area, canyoneering canyon, or even a hunting or fishing spot. The hike is usually an enjoyable part of the day, but not the highlight.
I like to joke that canyoneering and trail running have ruined hiking for me because now just hiking feels slow and much more calm than I’d like when I could instead be scrambling down a gully or up a rock face.
The same research from the Outdoor Foundation found that 98% of campers participated in another activity, while 85% of hikers did. Most hikers have other outdoor hobbies that they couple with hiking, but not all.
Trekking or Through-Hiking is a form of backpacking (see: Hiking vs. Backpacking) where you start in one location and hike through until you finish in another. These trips usually last several weeks or months, and are quite the ordeal to plan out.
It’s much more common to hike portions of these trails than to take on the whole thing due to the time commitment involved.
I think of trail running as fast hiking, although depending on the difficulty of the terrain, it’s not all that much faster than hiking! I’m limited by distances and terrains and the company I’m with, but I can also see more area in less time and get a good workout in as well as reaping the mental benefits of a hike.
Tips for Picking up Hiking as a New Hobby
Everybody has to start somewhere! These are the tips I give to people who are starting to get into hiking.
It’s important not to bite off more than you can chew. Common mistakes are selecting a trail that is too long for a beginner, failing to take into account the elevation gain or loss, and not bringing enough water or food.
Start off with a short hike that is on a well-defined, well-traveled trail. As you learn your own physical limits you’ll be able to push for harder and harder hikes if that’s what you’re interested in. For more information for beginners, read my article How Long Should a Beginner Hike Be?
Plan Hikes in Advance
If you’re anything like me, then it can be hard to get up off of the couch to go hiking on an evening or weekend unless you’ve already got something planned. The best way to get around your inertia is to make a plan ahead of time and prepare whatever gear you need to bring before it’s time to go.
One of the best places to plan hikes is the All Trails app and website. I also really like The Outbound as a place to find user-submitted hikes and other adventures. With a free account to either site you can search through hikes by location and sort by difficulty, length and other features.
While you can hike alone, it’s much safer (and more fun!) to hike with companions. With about 1 in 5 Americans hiking during 2021, odds are you know someone who also enjoys it as a hobby who would be happy to have you tag along.
You can also invite another non-hiker or two to join you and get into it together. As long as you don’t go out too far or tackle anything too strenuous starting out, there’s no reason you need to go with someone who is experienced.
Otherwise, consider sites like Meetup or joining a local Facebook group of hikers or outdoors enthusiasts in order to meet people.
Hiking is a wonderful hobby that is growing rapidly in popularity in the United States and throughout the world. The health benefits, both mental and physical, can contribute to a happier and more wholesome life for you and your family.
Why do People Like to Hike? Hiking releases endorphins and provides a variety of health benefits due to not only the exercise, but also the exposure to the sun, nature, and fresh air. It is also a great way to build companionship with friends or family members since it is easy to talk throughout a hike. Hiking also provides a sense of accomplishment that makes you feel good.
Is Hiking an Expensive Hobby? Hiking absolutely does not need to be expensive. The only things you need to start hiking you probably already own. As you get more into it and take on more challenging hikes you may choose to buy more gear and higher quality gear, but starting out you really only need comfortable shoes, a water bottle, snacks, and a backpack.