Hiking: the hot new fitness trend

Three avid trekking fans - explain why we should all take a hike. (In the nicest possible way!)

With hugely influential trend-forecasting company WGSN declaring it ‘the new yoga’ (and we know how universal that has become!), it’s no surprise to find  that Instagram has, to date, more than 42 million #hiking tags, and that 81% of millennials are considering taking it up as a hobby. Of course, no trend is truly official without superstar support and, sure enough, you’re as likely to see A-listers such as Reese Witherspoon, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Garner taking selfies along dusty trails as being papped on the red carpet. Even Outdooraholics, which describes itself as London’s largest hiking group, has seen a membership increase of around 15% in the past year.

Think it might be time to slip into a cagoule and lace up your walking shoes? Well, handily, hiking boots and outdoor jackets have become a huge fashion trend (it even has a nickname, ‘gorpcore’), so it’s now easier to get your hands on nice kit you won’t baulk at wearing. But what is with this sudden fascination? We spoke to three hikers at the forefront of the trend to find out what it means to them and why we can become ‘trekkies’, regardless of our fitness level.

Helen hiking in the British weather

‘You don’t need to be a pro to give it a go’

Helen Ochyra, 36, a travel journalist and hiking addict from London, says:

‘Smug. That’s how I felt standing on top of Dead Woman’s Pass, the infamous high point of Peru’s Inca Trail, having reached it before anyone else in my group. But it wasn’t to last. I realised I’d made a rookie hiker’s error during several hours of descent, as my toes slammed into the front of my too-small boots (bought on the cheap for my first serious hike).

Later that night I removed them and found several black toenails. Scrimping on those boots wasn’t a good idea!  I should’ve known better, as I grew up trailing behind my mum on treks across Dartmoor, her favourite place. As a teenager, I hated it and stopped when those family holidays ended. But after Mum died in 2016, hiking became a means of keeping her close. It’s also the best way I know of connecting with nature, the ultimate restorer. I’ve tackled everything from heartbreak to grief with a romp in the British countryside.

I’m not a pro, however. I hike at least monthly, but never up snowy mountains or along steep ridges. Instead, I stick to the low roads, walking beside rivers or up small hills. Most of my treks come with signposts (called waymarks, in hiking lingo), and the gear and skills I’ve acquired over the years can easily be obtained by anyone.

First, those boots. I bought a new, sturdy pair from a proper walking-gear shop and jumped around in them in the store to ensure they were comfy. I also got some wool hiking socks (to help prevent blisters) and a backpack that can take a water hydration bladder (it sits inside your pack, and you sip from a “hose” attached to it) – another essential, as it’s easier than stopping to fish out a bottle.

It all cost about £250, but several years later I still have lots of these must-haves. I’ve replaced fleeces and waterproof jackets and trousers as they’ve worn out, but not my boots. The only other items I’ve needed are energy snacks and an Ordnance Survey map, such as the pink Landranger or larger-scale, orange Explorer (don’t worry about learning what the symbols mean, as the key clearly lists them).

And trust me, when it comes to hiking, analogue is best: wooden waymarks and a decent map beat struggling to get a phone signal. Keep your mobile in your backpack for emergencies, and focus on the landscape instead – because, with the right boots, you can go anywhere.’

Hiker with rainbow parachute

‘Mother Nature welcomes everyone!’

Hiking drag queen Pattie Gonia (aka Wyn Wily), 26, a photographer from Nebraska, says:

‘I’ve been hiking since I was a kid, but I only did drag for the first time last year at a friend’s party: I had these crazy, knee-high, stiletto boots, and thought, “When am I going to wear these again?” Then, while I was packing for a hike with friends the following weekend, I thought: “What if I take the boots and we make a silly video of me wearing them at the top of the mountain? That’d be fun.” So, we did!

The morning after I posted it on Facebook, I woke up to 12 million views, which made me realise that people were hungry for a non-traditional hiker online. I think many of us want to spend time in the outdoors, but until you see a person like you out there, it can seem out of reach. There’s an assumption it requires a lot of knowledge and skill, but it really doesn’t. I’m a recreational hiker – I know the basics and how to stay safe, and that works for me.

People also think you need to fit a certain mould: super-fit, athletic, tough, rugged. I’m proof this isn’t necessarily the case. A big part of Pattie’s journey – she’s my alter ego – has been realising that a lot of outdoor activity companies have never been hugely inclusive of people of colour or the LGBTQ+ community. So I want to start conversations around that. If I can re-enact Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music on a mountain top, in full make-up, costume and thigh-high boots, it’s clear that Mother Nature welcomes everyone!

Ultimately, however, my advice is that when you’re out on the trail, don’t be afraid to have fun, to make it your own thing. Be authentically you. If you want to take it slow, then do it. If you want a hike with no hills, there’s no shame in that. If you love taking photos, reading, writing, painting – let it be a space for you to do those things.

For me, an average day out on the trail is about quality time hanging out with my best friends, probably eating way too many banana chips, putting on heels to dance on a peak and recording something ridiculous for Pattie. That’s me, unapologetically.’ @pattiegonia

Hiking under a rainbow

‘Hiking boosts the brain and body’

Becky Angell, 42, a full-time hiking blogger from Nottingham, says:

‘I’d always loved going on hikes when travelling abroad. So when I was made redundant from my bank job in 2017, I decided to spend eight weeks hiking around the UK. I started posting about it on social media and there was so much interest that, two years on, I’m now a full-time blogger.

I’m passionate about getting as many people into the outdoors as I can, because of the life-changing mind and body benefits I’ve experienced. For example, my levels of fitness have rocketed skyward since I started hiking most weekends. I often carry a decent weight in a rucksack, just to give myself an extra workout – although I built up to that over time. I also feel as though my legs have superwoman strength now!

The great thing about hiking is that your fitness improves gradually, without putting unnecessary strain on your muscles and joints. And being active around nature has also boosted my confidence enormously. When I started, I’d always go with other people and I certainly wouldn’t map-read or navigate myself. But after completing a National Parks Challenge in 2017, where I solo-hiked and navigated all my own routes over two months, that changed.

The mental health benefits have been far-reaching, too. I’ve had depression throughout my life, and at times it’s been so awful I didn’t get out of bed for long periods. When that happens, it’s difficult to see a way forward, but I can honestly say I know hiking helps: as soon as I get outside, I automatically feel better. I took myself to the Peak District for a solo hike on my birthday last year. Waking up to the sunrise, with amazing views over the hills and calmness and silence around me, was just amazing. In fact, I was so excited, I was running around smiling, and taking photos and videos. I want others to experience that, too.

It’s a special kind of bliss that you don’t get from sitting on the sofa at home watching box-sets. Which is why, starting on 20 May, I’m off on an 800-mile trek with a friend, who has also had mental health issues. We’re hiking from the furthest easterly point to the furthest westerly point of the UK, to raise money for mental-health charity Mind. We’re urging people to join us, whether it’s for a couple of miles or a couple of days. It’s all about helping everyone make memories and giving them a lovely dose of happiness.’ 

Photography @enbrogue, Getty Images, Imaxtree, Unsplash Photograph of Pattie Gonia (aka Wyn Wily) Hannah Shea