Bust out your boots: Hiking burns more calories than your standard stroll, and allows you to soak in the benefits of the great outdoors. But getting out into the wilderness, especially for a multi-day trek, isn’t always doable. Urban hiking is changing that though, one adventure at a time. This growing sport turns sidewalks into hiking trails to re-create the feel of a long-distance nature hike, smack dab in the middle of a city.
Just because you’re not scaling rocky terrain doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park: The pros hoof it for a week or more at a time, averaging 20, 30, or even 50 miles daily. Intrigued? Use these tips from Liz Thomas, a distance hiker who holds the women’s unsupported speed record of hiking the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail (in 80 days and 13.5 hours), to hit the road and explore a new city. That, or just see your hometown in a way you’ve never experienced it before.
8 Urban Hiking Tips for a Calorie-Burning Walking Adventure
1. Get The Right Gear
Pounding around on pavement all day can be harder on your feet than trekking on dirt, so choose your shoes and socks carefully. Thomas hikes in Altra Olympus for women (also for men) because they’re sturdy and cushioned, and wears Darn Tough socks, which are slightly cushioned and don’t bunch up or cause blisters. She keeps a few extras in her pack, too, and often switches to a fresh pair in the afternoon. “Over time, sweat on your feet can mix with dirt or dust and can increase friction, leading to hot spots and eventually blisters,” she says. “Plus, the moisture and dust in your shoes can compact the microfibers, making your socks feel less soft and cushioned.”
It’s also important to make sure you’ll be protected from the elements if inclement weather hits. Carry along some good rain gear, like the NW Alpine Eyebright jacket, the Montbell Tachyon jacket, and an easy-to-stash umbrella such as the REI compact travel version.
“The most important thing is to go places you’d otherwise not walk, visit neighborhoods you otherwise wouldn’t see, take the same adventurous wonder you’d have in the backcountry…”
Also consider having sunglasses and bandages for any blisters that pop up.
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2. Stack Your Pack
Buying snacks and water on the way will probably be easier, but it’s a good idea to bring a bit of each with you in a pack just in case. Having a paper map is smart as well, even if you’re planning to rely on a GPS function on your phone to help you navigate. There’s always the chance that service will be spotty or your battery gets drained. You can likely leave the compass at home, though. “I always carry one during nature hikes, but in urban areas, you can generally follow landmarks to ensure you’re headed in the right direction,” says Thomas.
3. Safety First
Try to always use crosswalks when crossing streets, and in sections where there aren’t sidewalks, hike against traffic, advises Thomas. “I often route myself along bike lanes, through parks, or on paths where cars aren’t allowed for extra safety,” she says. Wear clothing with reflecting detailing and to be extra cautious (especially during dim hours in the early morning or evening). Try the Mountain Hardwear Carinae running cap for women or Quasar cap for men, which have built-in sun protection and reflective trim and logo. The Helly Hansen Aspire jacket for women or the Pace Block jacket for men has glowing details and can be stashed in your bag without taking up much room. You might also wear a neon vest to ensure you’re visible. A head lamp, like the Coleman CHT 4 (worn on your forehead), can help you see and be seen as well.
4. Take the Stairs
Urban hikers tend to focus on climbing as many stairs as possible on their route, to mimic the incline of a traditional hike. The goal isn’t just to climb steps in a park or any old building but stairways that connect public roads. “These are essentially roads for pedestrians — hidden sidewalks in the hills,” says Thomas. By hiking them, you should become more aware of public infrastructure for pedestrians and see parts of the city you might not have otherwise. Want to locate more stairs? Many are marked on Google Maps, and Thomas suggests looking behind dead end signs — you’ll often find a set of steps there. Also try doing an online search of stair-walking in your destination; many major cities have websites devoted to finding and mapping all their public staircases and sites like publicstairs.com reports steps findings world-wide.
5. Don’t Look Back
The second big rule of urban hiking is no backtracking or walking the same street twice — you should always be covering new ground, as you would on long-distance route out in nature. This often means you end up making roundabout loops, and that’s OK. “It’s definitely not the most efficient way to go, but it provides a true long-distance-like-hike so that you always get to see new things,” says Thomas.
6. Pave Your Own Way
Yes, as mentioned, stair-climbing is a general rule of urban hiking, but you should feel free to plan your route however you like. Stairs don’t always have to be your main priority, says Thomas. She recently completed the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama, using her route to retrace the journey that Civil Rights activists marched and this summer she’s creating a hike based around a theme of following rivers and water. “The most important thing is to go places you’d otherwise not walk, visit neighborhoods you otherwise wouldn’t see, and to take the same adventurous wonder you’d have in the backcountry into the city.”
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7. Find Shelter
While not all urban hikes involve an overnight, for those that do, it’s important to know where you’ll rest and recover. Finding a safe place to sleep can feel easier in a city than on a remote trail, but it does take some forethought. “Before heading out, reach out to friends or family who live in the area and map your route by connecting their addresses,” suggests Thomas. Don’t know anyone in the city? Hotels, hostels, and homes listed on Airbnb can also all be good options. Finally, always consider the location of where you plan to lay your head when determining your route, suggests Thomas; you don’t want to get to the end of the day and find yourself stuck miles away from your resting place.
8. Hang Tough
In some respects, hiking the streets of a city can be simpler than trekking out in nature: You don’t have to carry a tent on your back, for one, and finding food and drink is usually easier. It does have its own challenges, though, says Thomas. For one, locating a decent public bathroom (behind a tree doesn’t count) can be a struggle. And it can be tough to push yourself to keep moving after walking three-plus hours. “Toward the end of the day, there’s always a great temptation to give up and take a bus or taxi back to a friend’s house or a hotel,” she says. “So in some ways, urban hiking actually requires more mental stamina than a wilderness hike,” and discipline, too. Make it easier to go the distance by repeating a favorite mantra, breaking up the miles into manageable chunks, and asking a friend to join you for sections or the entire journey.
For more insider tips about gear, training and hiking trends, check out Thomas’s website.
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