On a warm August evening in 2000, a walk in the woods turned into a life-changing experience for Jeff Gray. The 40-year-old banker from Fredericton – a pack-a-day smoker at the time – was 15 minutes into a hike up a steep road in Fundy National Park with his wife when, weary, winded and sweating profusely, he had to stop to catch his breath. As he sat on the summit of the hill, the former high school star athlete wondered if he was having a heart attack. "My head was pounding, my heart was pounding, I was out of breath," he says. "I honestly did not know if I would be coming back down that hill."
The episode scared Jeff into overhauling his lifestyle. After more than two decades of smoking, he ditched the cigarettes, and before long he was doing a 10-kilometre walk every morning before work. Now, at 48, he's a seasoned outdoorsman who backpacks several times a year, takes frequent day hikes and has his own hiking website. "I'm more capable now than I was at 35," says Jeff, who adds that he has especially improved his leg and arm strength and believes, "I can become more capable every year."
Canada is a 9.9-million-square-kilometre hiker's fantasyland, with trails ranging from hour-long pleasure walks to multiday wilderness excursions. This year, thousands of nature-loving, health-conscious Canucks will head out to gaze at seabird colonies in Newfoundland, find rainbows at spectacular waterfalls in Ontario and cling to cliffs in the Rockies. In most cases, their bodies – and their rejuvenated psyches – will thank them. "You're going to get improved cardiovascular fitness levels and the health benefits that go with that," says Kyle Turcotte, a kinesiology instructor at the University of Manitoba. "So, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, decreased risk of diabetes, etc."
With the hurried pace of life these days, not everyone has time to pull a Grizzly Adams and spend half the summer communing with the trees and birds. Canadian hiking experts are seeing a trend toward shorter hikes closer to home.
"People are under significant time pressure, yet they're not wanting to give up their love of the outdoors and the pleasure that comes just from hiking a trail. That's the case for me," says Tim Southam, the public affairs manager for Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), a Vancouver-based cooperative that sells outdoor gear and clothing. "I don't have the opportunity to go on extended trips very often anymore, but I live in a place where trails are close by. So I can spend a couple of hours just getting the enjoyment and renewal that comes from hiking."
Regardless of the length and location of your hike, it can be a dangerous mistake to think you can get by with flip-flops, a fanny pack and a couple of chocolate bars. The health benefits of hiking come with the risk of everything from blisters to dehydration to bear encounters, and your great escape needs planning. The Scouts and Girl Guides have it right: Be prepared.
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Your best foot forward
Strutting onto a trail in a pair of cheapie sneakers or plastic shoes can lead you straight to blister city and make your leg muscles weep. Be good to the two things that do most of the work on the trail: your feet.
For a short, easy loop, you can get by with comfortable runners, but for anything longer or more challenging, check out hiking shoes. "There has been quite an evolution over the last decade in footwear for outdoor activities," says Southam. "It runs the gamut from trail running shoes right through to light trail shoes, day hikers, as well as full-on backpacking boots."
Trail running shoes (a kind of souped-up sneaker) give great traction for sprinting across uneven terrain. The best ones are lightweight and have lugged rubber soles durable enough to absorb plenty of shock.
Light trail shoes, a little heavier than the runners, also have lugged rubber soles and are suitable for brisk hiking. Day hikers, meanwhile, have some ankle support and, according to Southam, are ideal for trekking across smooth trails when your backpack weighs less than about 15 kilograms.
"Find a pair of boots with good ankle support that fit, right from the start," says Carole Garnick, a mountain-hiking guide based in Rocky Mountain House, Alta. "Get a good tread so that you're not slipping and sliding on wet rocks or wet trails."
As for what it will cost you to get laced up, MEC's prices range from about $100 for light trail shoes up to the $275 range for leather backpacking boots.
And don't skimp on socks. Good hiking socks, made of blends of wool and polyester, can wick moisture away from your hot, sweaty feet and save you from blisters. "As the moisture is pulled into the sock material, over time it will evaporate," says Southam. "The long and short of it is that your feet won't get overly warm, you won't get blisters and you'll be more comfortable."
For long treks, some hikers like to layer a warm wool sock over a thin "liner" sock, made of synthetic fibres. Liner socks sell for as little as five dollars a pair, wool socks are often in the $25 range, and waterproof Gore-Tex socks for wet days can cost around $65.
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Even if you look fabulous in your bum-hugging designer jeans and cute cotton T-shirts, they don't belong on the hiking trails. When you're suiting up for your adventure, focus on keeping things light and layered. "You want to be able to dress down as it gets warmer and dress up as it gets colder," says Southam. "If it gets windy, you want to have a light shell that can double as a rain jacket." It's also essential in all seasons to have a cap or hat; it's especially important through the summer months to keep the sun off you, and in colder weather to keep you warm. Be prepared for possible changes in weather.
Because cotton can take forever to dry, synthetic fabrics are now the essence of hiker chic. Much like those synthetic hiking socks, polypropylene and polyester garments draw moisture away from your skin. Polyester fleece will dry quickly and keep you warm. And the trendy soft-shell garments are light, sturdy and water-resistant.
"When I started hiking back in the 1980s, I still preferred natural fibres," says Michael Haynes, one of Canada's leading hiking experts and the author of Hiking Trails of Nova Scotia and other books. "There's no question now that the synthetic fibres are far superior. They're light, they're durable, and they don't retain water."
When choosing your hiking duds, Haynes recommends starting next to the skin and working your way out. Silk-like synthetic underwear, he says, prevents chafing on those hot, humid days, and you can't beat the convenience of pants with zip-off legs.
Have backpack, will travel
Your backpack and its contents can be your best friend, even a lifesaver, on the hiking trail. "You need to be prepared for all sorts of weather or accidents," says Garnick, who has been hiking in the Alberta Rockies since she was a child, and says that she always carries way more supplies than she needs, especially when she's going to be travelling 10 or 15 kilometres from the trailhead.
When you are trying to decide which backpack to buy, think about how ambitious a hiker you want to be. Stores that sell outdoor hiking gear stock everything from small daypacks with shoulder straps to large expedition packs. "If you're going on a day hike, a simple daypack with a waist strap to stabilize the load will suffice," says Southam. If you're doing extended trips where you’ll be carrying a fair amount of weight, you might want to have a pack that has a suspension system in it. "A suspension system can save your back and shoulders by making your hips do most of the heavy lifting," he adds.
These types of backpacks have a sheet of stiff, lightweight material sewn into the back panel. Both the hip belt and the shoulder straps are attached to the sheet. "So when the waist belt is cinched up," explains Southam, "the pack's weight is lifted up off the shoulders."
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Regardless of the size of your backpack, look for one made from a durable, weather-resistant fabric, such as pack cloth, with tightly stitched seams, inside seams covered by fabric, tough zippers, and zig-zag or perpendicular stitching at stress points and load-bearing surfaces. Prices will vary from about $20 for a simple daypack to about $500 for the Rolls-Royce of expedition packs.
As for what to put in your pack, don’t think you have to lug as much gear as a Sherpa on Mount Everest. If you're going on a daylong hike, you can get by with a warm fleece, food, a basic first-aid kit, sunscreen, bug spray, a hat and plenty of water. Haynes recommends taking along one litre of water for every hour of your walk.
When it comes to snacks, forget the barbecue chips, candy bars and glazed crullers from the doughnut shop. Haynes recalls that when he led a group hike in Cape Breton one time, "this woman had nothing but cola and potato chips for her kids. It was dreadful." Haynes gets energy from dried figs, dates, nuts and apricots on his hikes, while Garnick packs sandwiches, oranges, raisins, granola bars and nuts. Southam suggests throwing a few extra energy bars into your backpack – just in case.
For hikers venturing into the backcountry, Garnick recommends packing collapsible hiking poles, a waterproof poncho or other rain gear, a fleece jacket or shirt, extra socks, a compass, a map, a whistle and mirror for signalling for help, sunscreen, a first-aid kit, insect repellant, an emergency foil blanket to keep you warm if you are stranded overnight, a sun hat, gloves and a toque. Other essentials include a knife, a headlamp, waterproof matches, light rope and toilet paper. Add a sealable bag to carry out the paper and leave a clean, litter-free landscape.
Rules to live by
Inconsiderate, ill-informed hikers are the scourge of the trails. For one thing, flicked cigarette butts or flying embers from campfires have started many forest fires. If you must build a fire, the Canada Safety Council recommends clearing an area with a three-metre diameter, making a circle of rocks around the fire and keeping a bucket of water, sand and a shovel nearby.
"I would always discourage people from lighting fires in the backcountry," says Southam. "It can be damaging to what are often very fragile environments. That said, I think you should carry some waterproof matches in the event that you need to light a fire for safety purposes."
If you absolutely must indulge in hot soup or tea on the trail, buy a lightweight stove. Some butane stoves are small enough to fit in your pocket.
Leave no footprints nor ...
• Scoop when you poop. If fire is the No. 1 problem on trails, No. 2 could be, well, number two. With no outhouses on many long trails, poorly placed poops can be a disgusting problem. Leave No Trace Canada, a national nonprofit organization, advises hikers to dig a hole 15 to 20 centimetres deep and at least 60 metres from water and trails. Cover the hole when you are finished, and don't leave your used toilet paper on the trail. Ideally you should seal it in a plastic bag and take it off the trail, but at the very least, bury it.
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More rules ...
• Pack out what you pack in. Litter is another scourge of the hiking trail. Glass, cans and plastic are not just visually offensive, they can harm animals and people.
• Leave Fido at home. While dogs are a fixture on many trails, some die-hard hikers believe dogs should stay home. Some trails actually have no-dog policies. "It's from dog feces more than anything else that water sources get contaminated," says Haynes. Haynes adds if dogs do need to accompany you, you should always keep them on a leash.
• Don't hike alone.
• Check the weather forecast before you head out.
• Carry a map and compass with you, even if you have a GPS.
• If you don't know the area, study a map before you hike.
• Obey all posted signs.
• Tell someone where you’re going and when you will be returning.
• Keep the noise down.
• Leave the alcohol at home.
Choosing your trail
Just as a new swimmer isn't going to breaststroke across the English Channel, a novice hiker has to pace herself. Some longer trails, especially ones with steep hills, demand a fairly high level of fitness. Haynes recommends beginners should start at five kilometres or less (one to two hours) for their first few walks. Flat trails of up to 10 kilometres may be fine as well, but new hikers shouldn't attempt longer routes. Trails beyond 15 kilometres – or 10 kilometres with a significant climb – are best left to the more experienced hikers. Most formal trails will tell you the distance, and some will rate the level of difficulty. And if you have a topographic map, you can quickly see if there are any steep hills.
Whether you want to take a sweet afternoon stroll or spend four nights sleeping in the wilderness, there's a trail out there for you. For getting fit, clearing your head, escaping the concrete and getting to see some of Canada's most stunning scenery, it's hard to find anything better than taking a hike.
Page 5 of 6Hikers' top picks
Adrian Tanner loves Newfoundland's 540-kilometre East Coast Trail. In spring there are icebergs and whales, says the hiker and anthropologist from Petty Harbour, Nfld. "You're within sight of the sea at most points," he adds.
Moving west, Michael Haynes, a hiker and author, recommends the Skyline Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. On the west coast you can see whales and moose. On a clear day, you might even sight the Magdalen Islands.
Fredericton hiker Jeff Gray enjoys Nova Scotia's Cape Chignecto Provincial Park, with more than 4,000 hectares along the Bay of Fundy, and Fundy National Park in New Brunswick, with its rocky shores, salt marshes and dramatic cliffs.
Quebec's Laurentian Mountains are a dreamland of hiking trails. One of Haynes' favourites is the Toit-des-Laurentides trail in Parc National du Mont-Tremblant.
The Bruce Trail, a footpath spanning the Niagara Escarpment, in Ontario, has 845 kilometres of main trails and 430 kilometres of side trails. The Bruce Trail Conservancy website describes 40 great hikes.
In Saskatchewan's Prince Albert National Park, you can hike 20 kilometres to the cabin of Grey Owl, a conservationist who lived in the early 20th century.
The Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park in British Columbia is the top choice of Carole Garnick, a guide from Alberta. You're hiking right below glaciers, and you can see way down into the Yoho valley.
Garnick's other pick is the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park in Alberta.
For more information on Canada's national parks visit the Parks Canada website at www.pc.gc.ca.
The hiker warm-up
Warming up for a hike doesn't have to turn into an Olympic-size workout. Some hikers shun the stretches and simply go slowly for the first part of the trek – and that's OK.
If you prefer to limber up with exercises, try these easy stretches, recommended by mountain-hiking guide Carole Garnick.
• Place both hands on a car or tree. Take small steps back, keeping your heels to the ground. Continue until you feel a stretch in the muscles in the back of your legs.
• Stand beside a car or tree for balance. Bend one leg behind you, grasp the ankle and gently pull your heel up to your bottom. Do the same with your other ankle. Repeat on each side several times.
• Rotate your arms at the shoulders in wide circles several times. Bring your right arm across your chest and gently push on your right elbow with your left hand. Repeat on the other side.
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