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It’s about mental wellness as much as fitness & health

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Hiker Garrison MacQueen pauses on his way up Mt. Whitney.

DENNIS WYATT/209 Health & Wellness

POSTED July 31, 2013 8:34 p.m.

Take a hike.

It’s about the best advice you can get.

Hiking is not just about fitness and health but it also underscores one of the biggest advantages of exercise in general — mental wellness.

Making your way through stands of redwoods, along a rugged coast, on a mountain ridge, across a meadow, or along a stream helps put things in perspective.

But perhaps more important are the chance encounters with strangers that can provide gifts of philosophical insight to just pleasant exchanges.

The 209 is a hiker’s paradise. There is a repertoire of varied hiking abilities within minutes from most folks’ door to a smorgasbord of mountain, hill, and oceanside hikes for the beginners to those tackling strenuous options within several hours.

Suggested books

You can browse the Internet for ideas or chat it up with others who have hiked before, but for someone starting out there are two books that can give you a good overview of Northern California hiking options.

Ann Marie Brown’s “Easy Hiking in Northern California” published by Foghorn Outdoors for $14.95 covers all types of geographic options complete with distance, average time and other tips on what to expect. Her introductory pages offer a good primer of what you should do to prepare for and take on a hike. She also offers suggestions on the best time of the year to hike.

The other book is “101 Hikes in Northern California: Exploring Mountains, Valleys & Seashore” by Matt Heid. It is published by Wilderness Press for $17.95. It covers hikes from Fresno-San Luis Obispo-Sequoia National Park north to the Oregon border. They are rated from one star (Mono Lake, which has almost no loss or gain in elevation and takes about an hour) to five stars (Half Dome, which covers 16.4 miles round trip, takes 10 to 12 hours, has a net elevation gain of 4,800 feet, requires a permit, and a lack of fear of heights).

Heid also offers benchmarks to look for on each hike, suggested times of the year to hike, plus how to get more detailed maps.

My personal favorite is “Yosemite National Park: A Natural-History Guide to Yosemite and Its Trails,” authored by Jeffrey Schafer. It is also published by Wilderness Press. It comes with a folding topography map and covers 100 hikes in Yosemite, ranging from short excursions to half- and full-day hikes to multiple-day hikes.

Part of the fun of hiking is researching various options.

Basic equipment

Although the first two books do a good job of covering the basics, there are seven things that I would emphasize that you definitely should get if you’re going to hike even though each is often recommended as options.

1. HIKING BOOTS: Not all trails require hiking boots but your feet will thank you if you use them. I hiked in Yosemite and twice on Mt. Whitney in a good pair of cross trainers. Not only are hiking boots designed specifically for walking on smooth surfaces such as granite and other terrain, they offer more support and comfort. The surprising part is you can get a good pair for the same price or even less than a pair of good cross-training shoes.

2. HIKING SOCKS: There is a difference between good exercise socks and hiking socks. Hiking socks made of wool are designed not just to cushion but to keep your feet dry from sweat. I also make it a point  to carry an extra pair of socks on longer hikes in case my feet get wet crossing a stream.

: They help steady you going up steep inclines as well as down them by taking pressure off your ankles and knees. You really appreciate them in steep and treacherous terrain or when you’re tired at the end of a trek. They also mean you can avoid for most hikes having to invest in more expensive and sturdier hiking boots that can run in excess of $100 compared to most decent ones you can buy for $40 to $65. Those buying the more expensive boots usually also have the hiking poles as well especially when they go into rugged territory. You can get by with one (they are $19.95 each at Bass Pro Shops) but you will appreciate two.

4. GLOVES: Obviously if it is cold you will need winter gloves, but gloves in general help cushion your hand while using hiking poles or balancing yourself against rocks or trees. I tend to use closed-finger hiking gloves while in desert mountains where there is more scrambling due to a lack of clearly marked trails, and open-finger gloves such as those used for weightlifting in the Sierra.

: Various manufacturers have different names. Nike refers to them as “Dri-Fit.” They pull away sweat from your skin. That’s important even in winter or in colder temperatures when you may be wearing multiple-layers. Nothing is more of a drag than having a shirt clinging to your skin that is soaked with sweat. In colder temperatures it can also help trigger hypothermia.

: It is amazing what you can carry in them. On my last trip I had my iPhone, wallet, camera, car keys, eye drops, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, lip balm – and still had three empty pockets. You can also slip in a water bottle. It beats having to get in and out of your backpack if you need to access one or more of those things frequently.

: These are adjustable for your waist and most come with a 10-ounce water bottle and can easily carry typical commercial water bottles. You can also secure your keys in a zipper pouch. They typically cost $30 and are washable.

Hiking is for all ages

On one of my most recent hikes on Mt. Whitney we came across people in their 70s, hikers as young as 10 years old and people of various degrees of physical fitness. Hiking is something you can do at your own pace.

The best encounter I ever had with a stranger while hiking was while ascending Wildrose Peak in Death Valley that has a summit elevation of 9,064 feet. I passed a lady who was going up in her 30s. Then, several switchbacks later, I came across her grandfather who I later found out was 78 years old.

He seemed to be struggling even with a walking stick. I greeted him by saying, “It’s worth the effort,” to which he replied without missing a beat, “it already is.”

During a brief three-minute conversation I found out he was an engineer by trade, that he lived in Menlo Park and that when he retired from Hewlett-Packard at age 63 he didn’t want to sit around the house. He was never really super active. But he didn’t like what he saw happen to other friends who retired, became lethargic, gained weight, and developed health issues that watered down their quality of life.  So he decided he was going to hike every mountain peak that he could in California that was 7,000 feet or higher. He was on Wildrose Peak for a third time.

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