It sculpts the body, relieves stress and has a host of A-list fans... why the humble hill walk is having a moment
Celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson and Jennifer Garner are fans - the humble hill walk is having a bit of a moment, writes Jessica Salter
Cast aside fusty images of tatty cagoules and shorts with cargo pockets. Hiking is the fitness trend du jour with celebs like Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson and Jennifer Garner boasting about its heart-pumping, bum-sculpting and mind-clearing benefits.
"By 2019, hiking is likely to replace yoga as the 'it' fitness activity," says Clare Varga, Active Director (sport) at the trends forecaster WGSN. And despite its dodgy track record in the style stakes, the fashion world is now hooked, too.
"Don't expect to see this new generation of hikers in hand-knit socks," Varga says. From hiking boots by Gucci and pink walking socks by Prada to sporty parkas at Balenciaga and climbing ropes styled as belts at House of Holland, fashion has gone mad for the pursuit. Unlike many trends that start and end on the runway, or in la-la land, this is something that translates to the real world, too.
One reason it has taken off? Just look at Instagram, where the hashtag #hiking has 35 million posts. "As an activity, it's highly Instagrammable," Varga says. "Bagging and then bragging about each trail completed is hugely aspirational and has fuelled the hiking rise."
Meanwhile, the British outdoor clothing company, Wiggle, found that 51pc of people listed walking or hiking as their main exercise in a YouGov survey.
In response, activewear and outdoorsy brands are now upping the game. So typical gym clobber, like bra top and leggings, are "outdoorsed-up", as Varga puts it, with UV protection added in, as seen at luxe activewear brands Lucas Hugh and LNDR.
It's easy to see why celebrities like Witherspoon and Garner - both mothers in their 40s - favour a hike to the gym. Why wouldn't you? You can get all the physical and mental benefits, plus a hit of nature too. Even a moderate one-hour uphill hike can burn around 400 calories (for someone who weighs around 10st), which is similar to an hour's slow jog on a treadmill.
Plus, scrabbling up paths and jumping over streams firms up the core and sculpts the lower body too. And as the gradient goes up, so do the benefits. Walking uphill has a similar effect to using the StairMaster in the gym or repeated lunges.
"You strengthen your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves; it's a great lower-body workout," says Mercedes Sieff (38), co-owner of Yeotown, the luxurious UK fitness retreat in Devon.
And one of the best physical benefits? "Your core," Sieff says. "I always notice when I've done a few days' hiking that my tummy is firmer. I have had two children and going for a hike was one of the best ways of strengthening my core muscles without having to do endless crunches."
The effects of walking are especially important for women, she says. "As we get older our bones get weaker and women, in particular, are vulnerable to osteoporosis. But hiking is great at building up bone density and helping to prevent that."
Plus there are the many mental health benefits, too. "I'm happiest when I'm outside. For me, going for a hike is so much more appealing than going to the gym," says Sieff, who got into hiking when she moved to California for university.
"I find being outside and exercising makes a huge difference to my mood."
This is backed up by research and it seems being in nature is ingrained in our DNA. Studies have linked the Japanese practice of "forest bathing" - or Shinrin-yoku - with reduced stress, lower blood pressure and a stronger immune system. Most recently, research at Oregon State University found that hiking regularly improved life satisfaction thanks to the subjects' increased time spent outdoors.
Lorna Jane Clarkson (53), founder of the Australian activewear brand Lorna Jane, goes hiking every weekend: "I find that nothing relaxes me more than escaping the city to spend a few hours among nature - and getting some exercise at the same time."
As well as relaxing, psychologists from the University of Utah found that hikers who spent four days walking in nature scored 50pc better in creativity tests when they returned. Emily Gough (34), who writes the blog alongdustyroads.com documenting her hikes, understands this creativity boost.
"Hiking still gives you that sense of discovering the undiscovered, even if it's along a path that others have walked down," she says. This is partly to do with the fact that when you're up a mountain with patchy signal, you are automatically cut off from any electronic devices.
"Day-to-day life has become frantic, and with the evolution of smartphones, many of us find it difficult to truly switch off. Heading out into the wilderness, even for a few hours' hike, provides the opportunity to do just that," Gough adds.
It's perfect for beginners or seasoned fitness fans alike. "You don't need expensive kit and you don't even need to be that fit - you can start at any level," Sieff says. On her retreats, beginners go on the 12-15km hikes, but take them as slowly as they like: "That's the beauty of walking; you can do it at your own pace."
And we're blessed in Ireland. With six national parks, you're never too far from a good hike in beautiful surroundings.
While you can dress it up (literally, in Prada) and Instagram it, at its heart, the attraction of hiking is its simplicity.
Olivia Wood (26), a part-time building surveyor, says she was inspired to hike by her grandfather.
"He made me believe it would make me stronger and grow quicker," she recalls. And now she does the same with her four-year-old daughter. "Sometimes she says: 'Mummy, can we climb a mountain and watch the sunset?' How can you say no to that?"