Another summer is almost upon us. And as warmer temperatures and longer days begin to knock on doors across the country, people from Seattle to Sarasota will once again plan weekends and vacations around national parks and outdoor activities. Of the numerous options available, hiking remains popular from year to year. By their own estimate, the American Hiking Society, an advocacy organization that focuses on trail building, trail funding, and legislative issues that affect hiking, reports that roughly 330,000 people participated in one of 2,063 National Trails Day® events in 2011. This year's celebration (or trailgating party if you prefer) takes place on Saturday, June 2nd. If you haven't signed up for an event near you, it's not too late. Plus, here are a few other good reasons to grab your trekking poles, fill up your hydration pack, and lace up your boots this summer:
- It Makes You Smarter. According to a recent article in Backpacker magazine, "lab studies prove that even 30 minutes of nature make a difference in cognitive test scores; [Dr. David] Strayer’s hunch is that those benefits accumulate. And that makes backpackers uniquely positioned to reap the rewards." In fact, the results of a University of Michigan study showed that participants boosted their cognitive test scores by 20 percent after spending 50 minutes walking through an arboretum.
- You'll Probably Learn Something. Expanding on the point above, it's worth noting that spending time in the woods or the mountains gives you the chance to hone skills that you might not use as much in your day job. Like compass reading. Or flora and fauna identification. For instance, when made into a tisane or tea, a handful of needles from the Eastern white pine act as a great source of Vitamins A and C and serve as an effective decongestant.
- Exercise Is Good For You. This won't be surprising, but exercise burns more calories than sitting still. It's often more fun, too. Depending on your weight, hiking for an hour burns 430-650 calories, while a backpacking can expend as much as 760 calories in the same amount of time. Bonus: more exercise equals more chocolate (see below).
- You Could Make a Friend. Hiking is often safer—and usually more fun—in small groups. Fortunately, there are plenty of clubs and companies that organize outings lasting anywhere from a single day to more than a week. Determine your fitness level, find a blank space on your social calendar, and plan your trip. On the East Coast, local groups like the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference offer ways to meet other hikers, while out west, the Pacific Crest Trail Association is a good resource.
- Packing Chocolate Is Encouraged. I don't have any statistics to back this up, but I'm willing to bet nine out of ten hikers are chocolate lovers. Or at least fans of the occasional chocolate beer. When I'm leading groups with Discover Outdoors, I make sure I always have a few Dagoba tasting squares (preferably Xocolatl) in my pack. You know, for emergencies.