I love yoga. Well, I loved yoga when I could do it in a room full of sweaty people. Breathing and stretching together, the Buddha bowl chimes, the candles – I couldn’t help but feel a sense of connection to something bigger than myself and emerge in a better mood.
But now, I’m not so keen on people exhaling deeply in a room beside me, even a polite metre’s distance away. So I have ventured out and started hiking – just because there was so little else allowed in lockdown. There were no oms or downward dogs, but I got a similar sense of connection, and bucketloads of feelgood endorphins. Turns out, I’m not alone.
Everyone wants to go hiking
More Britons have taken to hiking the outdoors since the onset of the pandemic. Since February, use of Ordnance Survey’s digital mapping and outdoor adventure app OS Maps has increased by 78 per cent, with its National Parks layer seeing an increase in use of 96 per cent.
Staggeringly, the use of OS Greenspace (the layer of the app that shows info on parks, natural public spaces and community gardens) has increased by 1,728 per cent. Meanwhile, UK Google search trends data for the last two weeks of July showed searches for hiking boots were up 71 per cent.
And, where once a penchant for Gore-Tex and ramblers’ groups meant you were officially middle-aged, hiking has become surprisingly fashionable.
“Adventure time”, hiking lover Kylie Jenner wrote on a series of posts last month from her Utah Canyon resort, Amangiri. But don’t let that put you off; there’s little chance of bumping into a Kardashian in the Lakes. Others who gush about the benefits of hiking include Jessica Biel and Reese Witherspoon, who played Pacific Cross Trail hiker, Cheryl Strayed in Wild.
There’s more diversity in the great outdoors too, including a raft of LGBT adventurers. Take Instagram star Pattie Gonia, self-styled as “world’s first backpacking drag queen” (according to her bio). Meanwhile, Unlikely Hikers features “people of size, black, indigenous, people of colour, queer, trans, and non-binary,” in plus-sized activist founder Jenny Bruso’s words. In hiking, Bruso says she “discovered a connection with nature, joyful movement and a sense of place in a world I struggle to fit into.”
Black Girls Hike was created by Rhiane Fatinikun because, “The lack of representation in hiking is clear,” she said. “It’s never something I associated with black people – it’s not ever marketed at black people. Historically dominated by white middle-class males I wasn’t keen on the prospect of venturing out alone or joining a typical hikers’ group where there’d be nobody I could identify with.”
Benefits for the body and mind
Quite aside from its new image, hiking is astoundingly good for you. Navigating uneven terrain not only uses 28 per cent more energy than over flat, even terrain, it also makes you concentrate so you don’t fall over, forcing you turn off your mental to-do list and sometimes loud inner dialogue, says Kate Sielmann, a sport scientist, hiking enthusiast and author of new book A Step-by-Step Manual to Mountaineering and Trekking Around the World (from Amazon). “So many of us struggle to switch off and relax and hiking unconsciously helps this, because the brain automatically makes keeping you safe its priority.”
Hiking is particularly good for mental health. One 2017 study published in the journal PLOS One found that a three-hour hike increased feelings of elation and calmness, while decreasing feelings of fatigue more than the same time spent treadmill walking or being sedentary. As a former treadmill junkie (God knows why, in hindsight) I can definitely vouch for that.
In fact, study after study shows similar results, some also revealing that hiking in nature increases brain power and creativity. Why? “Hiking outdoors gives us space away from the consistent stimulus bombardment of daily life, thus increasing creativity and brain power because there are fewer stimuli grabbing our attention and thought processes,” says Sielmann.
It’s also useful in helping prevent the thought processes that can underpin depression. “Research has shown that hiking helps with rumination. These are the repetitive thoughts that focus on the negative aspects of oneself, such as replaying an embarrassing or disappointing moment in our mind, which over time can lead to depressive episodes. Hiking and simply walking in nature reduces those thoughts and the consequences rumination has on our wellbeing.
Beauty on our doorsteps
I fell in love with hiking by accident during lockdown. No longer able to have gym dates with a friend, we went walking in Joyden’s Wood, right by her house in Kent. Just 35 minutes from my home in east London, this ancient woodland turned out to be an unexpected escape.
As we walked the challenging, fungi-lined hills, light filtering through the branches, we chatted and laughed and were almost giddy with joy. It made us feel far more connected than throwing a medicine ball to each other in the gym. That’s fresh air for you.
In fact, data from OS Maps also showed a similar spike in people walking in areas of natural beauty closer to Britain’s main cities. Geographer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison, also a hiking enthusiast, took advantage of this in lockdown.
He initiated a new project called Slow Ways, in which 700 walking-loving volunteers mapped 7,000 routes linking 2,500 cities, towns and beauty spots in Britain. The routes will all be tested in autumn and they need 10,000 volunteers. You can sign up here.
He is passionate about encouraging more of us to walk closer to home. “I was constantly meeting people on urban hikes in lockdown who were discovering the beauty of the landscapes around them and many of them couldn’t contain their joy at having found such natural beauty and changing surroundings on their doorsteps,” he says.
We walk the Thames Path from Kew towards Osterley one afternoon and we could be somewhere far more rural, as cormorants and herons fly by. Look forward and wild woodland envelops the path, look behind and it’s flanked by city buildings, which for me, was a breathtaking mix.
“Throughout the country there are lots of national trails and this one on the Thames Path is not only incredibly beautiful, it intersects the city and you can do it in bite-sized pieces. Either through London or out towards Richmond and Twickenham where it becomes wild and rural in places,” says Raven-Ellison.
London’s Capital Ring (see the box, above, for more details) is one of his favourite routes in the country. “It goes around the outside of the inner London boroughs and inside the outer London boroughs and you can walk it in segments between public transport hubs.
I walked the whole thing with friends in four days, walking around 24 miles a day. Really good fun, and if you live in London you get to go home to your bed every night.” Makes sense, if you’re reticent about getting on a plane or trying your luck on staycation accommodation.
Taking the first steps
I stuck to local paths close to home, but if you are venturing further out, Forestry England ranger Eli Bishop has advice.
“Take a hard copy map and don’t rely on your phone, as batteries run out faster when the weather gets colder”, she says. “The best maps to take are Ordnance Survey maps.” Get them online at getoutside.co.uk. Make sure you pack warmer layers too, especially if you’re going into the mountains, she warns. “It gets a degree colder for every 100 metres you go up.”
Her key piece of advice? Take advantage of the camaraderie of this socially distance-friendly activity by joining a group (it’s safer for newbies too). “Ramblers are the best known,” says Bishop. “You get benefits such as discounts at outdoor shops and lots of walks every weekend.”
Hiking’s surging popularity has given rise to other niche groups where you can find like-minded people.
“Say Yes More is a community that also includes other outdoor adventures,” says Bishop. “Adventure Queens is women-only as sometimes single women feel intimidated about joining a group. And, Black Dog Outdoors is aimed at people who have been affected by mental health issues. That’s just to name a few.”
Hiking starter kit
You can spend hundreds on a rain jacket but water will get in somewhere and unless you’re seriously trekking through downpours for days, you won’t need to. Pick up a decent quality jacket at a reasonable price from Columbia, Craghoppers or Regatta. Try the Women’s Pouring Adventure II Jacket; £75; columbiasportswear.co.uk.
Baselayers and fleeces
The Páramo range is made in Colombia at the Miquelina Foundation, run by nuns for women who need work and a chance for a better life. The Cambia base layers for summer layering are made by the Foundation from fully recyclable material. The long-sleeve Cambia base layer; £55; paramo-clothing.com, is excellent.
For short hikes of 90 minutes or less opt for trainers or walking shoes. If you’re going further afield into track terrain, invest in a pair of hiking boots with ankle support. Try Merrell for well-priced walking shoes and boots, or Italian bootmaker AKU. I loved the Trekker Lite 3 GTX WS, £179.90; aku.it.
For lightweight and great-looking backpacks with plenty of well thought-out compartments, I love the Montane range, which is reasonably priced and snug fitting with a multitude of pockets. Montane Trailblazer 8L Mission Backpack; £50; montane.com.
Where we hiked in lockdown
According to data from Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency for Great Britain, 700,000 hiking routes were created in their OS Maps app – which had a 300 per cent rise in users – since May 13, when the lockdown restrictions were lifted. These were the most visited areas.