14 Primal Tips for Better Hiking

Inline_Better_HikingThe most basic advice I can give about hiking is to go find a natural space and walk around. That’s it. It’s not sexy or particularly exciting, but it’s good enough.

I do have some additional thoughts, though. If you want to get deeper, if you want to “upgrade” or “hack” your hiking, you’ll find today’s post useful. I’m going to offer some ideas on how to get the most out of your forays into wilderness.

I’m not going to discuss multi-day hikes/backpacking, which, truth be told, I’m not nearly as experienced with. This is strictly about day hikes—the kind everyone has time to do.

I’m also not going to discuss gear. It’s real easy (and fun) to geek out on all the awesome gadgets and gear you can buy for hiking, so I won’t spend much time there.

Let’s get to it:

1. When choosing a hike, avoid those with the most reviews.

When searching for new restaurants to try, I weigh the number of reviews more heavily than the number of stars they receive. Same for books and other products. A 4.5 star average across 2000 reviews is more convincing than a 5 star average across 20.

Not so with hikes. When I’m browsing Yelp or some other hiking review site for a hike to try, I avoid the ones with the most reviews. I expect and prepare for crowds at a good restaurant. Crowds can even enhance a restaurant’s atmosphere. I hike to escape the crowds.

2. Be smart.

Grok wasn’t some foolhardy hiker, heading off into the backcountry on a lark. Most extant hunter-gatherers are cautious. They travel with friends. They move along pre-determined paths. They know the land before they walk it.

It’s a lot like a lifelong shoe wearer running a marathon in Vibram FiveFingers. It’s gonna hurt, and and injury is probable. Having grown up in the cradle of civilization, you probably aren’t prepared to go it alone. Nature can be dangerous. It doesn’t have to be, but you’d better respect it.

Plan your route. Follow a path; trails are where they are for a good reason. Solo hikes are fine (some of my favorites have been just me), as long as you know what you’re doing and where you’re going.

3. Bring your phone.

Wait, what? Sisson, I thought I was hiking to escape the trappings of civilization. I hike to gaze at the wonders of mother nature, not thumb my way through my Twitter feed. You really blew it on this one.

Not so fast. Here’s how I use my phone on my hikes.

  • Take notes whenever inspiration strikes. Walking increases blood flow to the brain and improves cognitive performance, spending time in nature reduces stress and elicits spiritual, ecstatic experiences, so hiking can really get the creative juices flowing. I often do my best creative thinking out on the trail.
  • Writing. Believe it or not, I do a fair bit of “writing” while hiking. I’ll often dictate to the speech-to-text feature on the phone a big messy rough draft. When I get home, I edit (and edit, and edit some more; it’s a really rough draft). But the hike gets the story going.
  • Photography. Don’t view the world through the view finder or anything, but photos can be nice. Memories and photos can perpetuate each other. And yes, share away on social media. Make people envious. Make people feel bad about skipping out on the last five hikes. Make people want to get out there themselves. In fact, let’s make this a thing. I want you to take photos next time you’re out hiking and post to the social media app of your choice. Heck, tag me @MarksDailyApple on Instagram so I can see what you’re up to. Throw in the hashtag #GrokInTheWild, too.
  • Research. Is this wild bay leaf, or something similar but inedible? Whoa, is that poison oak? Having a phone (with reception) allows you to dig a little deeper into the hiking experience, avoid potential dangers, and uncover treasures.

And no, I don’t always take it along.

4. Hike unencumbered whenever possible.

On short hikes, don’t take food. Don’t wear a backpack. If it’s a short enough hike, don’t even take water.

I love to hike totally unencumbered. Save for whatever fits in my pockets, I prefer to leave it behind. If it’s a cool day or a short hike (1-4 miles), I’ll even leave the water behind.

This gives me more freedom to roam and explore. I can run if I want to. I can lift a rock or log or climb a tree. Mostly, I just like having my hands free as I walk. There’s nothing like gliding down a trail, light as a bird.

Hydration is important, so before you start hiking, drink 12 ounces of water with sea salt sprinkled in—and maybe a squeeze of lemon or lime juice.

5. Don’t let children stop you.

Parents, even of youngsters totally unable to self-ambulate: take your kids hiking. It’s not that hard. If pre-walking, strap them into a baby carrier or use a stroller (trail permitting). If barely walking, just go short and slow. Your mile hike might take an hour, but it’s worth it and you’re still out there.

Hiking soothes the crying babe. It provokes the sullen pre-teen into engagement with the world (despite their best attempts). It builds stamina walking up those hills, balance traversing that uneven ground, and instills a love and respect for the natural world.

Will babies “remember” it? Not consciously, but trust me. All those hours spent walking through beautiful natural settings imprint on their subconscious selves. They’ll be better, calmer, saner adults for their time in nature.

6. Lift heavy things.

The natural environment abounds with heavy objects. Stones and fallen logs of various sizes, shapes, and weights provide plenty of resistance. I suggest you take advantage.

  • Carry a heavy log in the zercher position. Do some squats and lunges.
  • Carry a log on either shoulder. Balance it so that you can carry it without hand support.
  • Do landmine exercises with a log. Place one end of a log securely against a tree, rock, or other surface. Pick up the other end and use it as a weight. I like the reverse lunge (only have the log in the front rack position, unless you’re somehow able to hold a log at your side with one hand).
  • Deadlift large rocks. Go lighter than you think, as the irregular shape and hand positioning will make it harder than deadlift the same weight on a barbell.

7. Play as you go with a partner.

Having a partner isn’t just safer. It exponentially increases the amount of fun you can have.

  • Every time you see a hawk/squirrel/fallen tree/mushroom/etc., deliver a pinch/slap/goose/elbow/tickle/wet willy/purple nurple/toss to the ground to the other person. Pick an object you’ll encounter throughout the hike, choose a punishment, and whoever sees the object first gets to enact the punishment. Repeat.
  • Play catch. Find a stone, and play catch the entire time. Go long and go short. Catch behind your back. Throw behind your back. Switch hands. Mix it up.
  • Carry a heavy stone or log together as far as you can. When you get tired, hand it off. Actually, hand it off before you get tired. Keep some in the tank so you can keep the handoffs going as long as possible. Vary your carrying method (right shoulder/left shoulder/zercher/overhead/etc.).

8. Incorporate formal exercise into the hike.

This is a great way to get a solid workout without realizing it.

  • Do a few pull-ups on every overhead branch you see.
  • Do walking lunges every five minutes.
  • Sprint up every other switch back you encounter.
  • Bear crawl for 40 yards every 10 minutes.
  • Stop and do max rep pushups every 10 minutes. Do dips instead if you can find a suitable place.

What else can you think of?

9. Climb.

Observe the verticality of the natural world. Look for trees that you can climb, and climb them.

Be safe, of course. Don’t climb anything you can’t climb down. Avoid branches thinner than your wrist. Avoid dead branches (and dead trees, for that matter).

Also check out rock formations you can scramble up. There’s nothing like a good scramble up some granite. Bouldering—climbing straight up using toe and handholds—is also fun but requires more training and know-how.

10. Slow down.

I’m no meditator. I’ve tried. I’ve read the literature. I know the benefits. It just doesn’t work for me.

But there are alternatives that get you to the same place, and hiking is one of mine.

So, when you hike, stay present and pay attention. Touch everything you see. Caress the bark and the leaves. Smell the flowers. Flip over a decaying log and watch the bugs scatter. One of my favorites to touch and see is the manzanita tree.

Hiking isn’t always about physical fitness. It’s a place to just be in the present moment, too. 

11. Try hiking the highest peak in your area.

If my hike doesn’t have at least a bit of elevation gain, I feel cheated. It doesn’t even feel like a hike. Rather, it’s a walk.

Walks are fine. I love a good easy walk through a wilderness area. But I really, really love a good climb.

One thing I’ll do anytime I’m in a new area (and have enough time) is look around for the hike with the biggest elevation gain. There’s something gratifying about battling the most fundamental force in the known universe—gravity—and coming out on top.

I mean that literally: you’re actually on top. You can look down on the city below and know that you’re higher than every single person there.

Also, climbing is a great workout.

12. Ponder the trees.

Trees are crazy.

Depending on where you are, the trees might have been around to witness the rise and fall of Alexander the Great, the spread of Christendom, the construction of the Great Wall of China and Macchu Picchu, the dozens of generations of hunter-gatherers raising children and warring and loving and dying under its canopy. And these are living things. Not conscious like we know, but responsive to the environment and reactive to their peers, with whom they communicate via a subterranean fungal network.

13. Feel the trail’s history.

Imagine the original inhabitants padding along the same trail you’re on, seeing the same sunset you’re watching. What were they thinking? What did they dream about? What did they carry? Did they ever just go out to enjoy themselves on a hike?

Imagine the earliest explorers climbing the same ridge you just climbed. You see haze and skyscrapers off in the distance. They saw teeming wildness.

Imagine the conversations that have echoed through these trees and valleys, canyons and caves.

Imagine all the lovers sneaking off to rendezvous within the confines of that little nook in the rock wall ten feet up, maybe during a thunderstorm or to escape the brutal heat of summer. To how many conceptions did it bear witness?

Imagine the troops marching along your trail to die, or win, or do both.

14. Try brown space, blue space, not just green space.

Most of us think of forests when we think about hiking, but that isn’t the only way to do it. You can hike through deserts and scrublands (brown space), along the ocean (blue space), through grasslands, or even through a particularly impressive city park.

Not everyone has easy access to towering forests, and that’s okay.

Well, there you have it: my 14 tips for making the most of your hikes.

How do you like to hike? What tips would you add?

Let me know down below! Thanks for reading, everybody, and take care.


TAGS:  mobility

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

47 thoughts on “14 Primal Tips for Better Hiking”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. What is the best Footwear? I’d like to avoid anything too heavy but my daily minimalist shoe doesn’t offer enough protection. Snow, mud, and water seem to call for boots, but that sounds more like a chore than fun.

    1. Josh, I hike rough, rocky, rooty trails here in Connecticut in minimalist shoes most of the year and they work just fine once you get used to it. I did have my share of stubbed toes and sore arches from stepping badly, but it just taught me to not step badly. This time of year, when it’s cold and snowy and mucky, I switch to a good pair of mukluks. There are several brands out there, just try to find one that advertises a soft or flexible sole to avoid the big clunky Uggs type of thing. I got mine from Manitobah Mukluks, they have a flexible Vibram sole with good ground feel, but they’re exceptionally warm, and they look nice enough that I wear them to work as well. I waterproofed mine with silicone spray and the mud and water seem to slide right off for anything other than a submerged foot. They’re my go-to for winter hiking!

    2. Dude, most trails are hard packed dirt, and you could do them barefoot if you wanted to. Mud and water only call for boots if it’s really cold, otherwise your little itty bitty shoes will dry out in no time.

      Also, not sure why hiking has to be ‘fun’. Sometimes it should be difficult, more like a chore than leisure.

    3. Heavy-duty hiking boots ARE heavy, but there are lots and lots of sneakerized versions that are light and comfy. Unfortunately, if you are carrying a serious backpack, and climbing rocky trails, you would want the purchase and leverage that come with lug soles and stiff leather boots. It all depends on what surfaces you are on, how much you are carrying, and what your feet are used to.

    4. Merrells are good. Depends on the terrain though! If you’re hiking in snow, mud or water, that might be a different story lol.

      1. When doing all day in snow, I wear waterproof minimalist trail runners. Never had an issue.

    5. Teva Mush flip-flops are surprising good for hiking and running. All types of terrain, and they are dirt-cheap.

    6. I’ve never had problem with trail runners. Did 50 mile trek thru Sierras in minimalist trail runners without issue. Most common footwear for Appalachia Trail thru hikers now. Just make sure you wear good wool socks.

    1. Definitely not a day hike. Appropriate equipment is also an excellent idea. I’m always amazed at the number of clueless individuals who think they can hike Colorado’s mountains in cutoffs and flipflops, with no warm clothing, no water, no phone coverage, and no idea of where they are or how to get back to civilization. Truly a recipe for disaster. Thankfully we have many dedicated search and rescue people here.

    2. Wow! But you can certainly do day hikes that don’t go to the summit. OR, if you are a backpacker, bring gear, food, and water, and camp overnight for a multi-day trip.

  2. PSA: if you’re hiking in or around Phoenix (or somewhere with a similar climate), please ALWAYS take water, even if you don’t think you’ll need it. Every year hikers die or need to be rescued because they didn’t realize how hot it can get, or their hike ends up being longer or harder than they expected.

    1. Good advice. Aside form the heat, it’s very arid here. Easy to get dehydrated even in cooler weather (like now).

      Also, I’d be careful about lifting logs and rocks. That’s scorpion habitat!

  3. I love day hikes. I most often walk with my dog, so I have to do dog-friendly trails or just meander through my neighborhood, sometimes miles in any direction. Sometimes Dog decides which way we will go. I listen to podcasts, in particular, the MDA interviews. This way, the information gets my full attention.
    It seems I get lots of ideas for writing as I walk and then promptly forget them by the time I get home. I need to figure out how to use speech to text. Maybe my phone is too old for that feature.

  4. Love this post!

    One tip that came from my boyfriend during a hike: look forward! So often I find myself looking down at my feet (or the ground in front of my feet) because I am not as used to walking on the uneven ground, I “think” I need to watch where I’m stepping. Truth is, I don’t! Just lift your head and look forward, and slow your steps a little, and this triggers your body’s natural ability to feel its way and balance. Also, on flatish trails or sections of trail, my boyfriend added walking sideways and backward to the repertoire. It engages different muscles and adds to the fun!

    Also, I highly recommend bringing a dog and experiencing their joy at being in the natural world. 🙂

    1. Indeed, I started trail running years ago. When you are out in nature it’s interesting how the body adapts to instinctual movements. My sister is always surprised when I can detect the changes in the ground and even riding in a car. I had an issue I was able to the tell the mechanic what part of the car it was in. I pride myself on learning to rely on that skill.

  5. Lifelong hiker here. However when I hike, I purposely leave the phone in the car and I don’t do pull-ups or sprints. I’m out there to enjoy the solitude of Nature. On a 5 miles hike last Fall it took 90 minutes to cover a particularly easy, flat mile. Why? Because I was in a towering forest of old trees, moss covered boulders and pristine ponds. I savored every smell, sight and sound.

    1. I could hike with you, Peter. I hike in our forest preserves and usually around a lake. I love seeing the changes in the wildflowers from week to week, how the geese gather in the fall. In the winter I follow fox and coyote tracks to see where they are going. I observe the ice patterns in the lake. I hate when i see other people walking the trails and they arent even seeing it. So many are power walking and jabbering with somone the entire time-frequntly on the phone, and I just wish they would look around instead.

  6. Hiking is one of my most favorite pastimes … I picked up a more than a few useful tips here though … great post!

  7. Hiking is something my husband and I enjoy together. I am thankful that my husband as he ages he is finally taking it slower. Believe me, it should not be a contest, it should be fun. We take only water and usually just beat the sun going down. I used to get really sore, so much pain I could hardly stand it. We started bringing along very small bottles of tart cherry juice and have no more post hike pain. I am a much more willing participant in these dawn to dusk adventures since we have been drinking the cherry juice.

  8. I don’t usually hike, but take my dog on multiple walks each day, which sometimes turn out pretty long and may take us off of the actual walking paths. There is definitely something meditative about getting out in nature. While sometimes I occupy my mind with podcasts, many times I try to just take in the beauty that’s all around me…the trees, the sky, whatever happens to be blooming (or in my case now, the snow on the ground.) It always gives me a boost, and definitely gets my creative juices flowing!

    1. Mark’s favorite is the hike you’re not at.

      30,000 of his best friends all trying to get advice and autographs tagging along would not make for a relaxing day.

  9. “Observe the verticality of the natural world.”

    Nicely said. Yoda-like.

    “The natural world, observe the verticality of.”

  10. Hi Mark,

    Have to 100% disagree with #4. If you are in a park or urban hiking fine. However if you venture into a wilderness setting (even if part of a established park) please take water and a even a small amount of food. I know some tragic stories of “day hikers, short hikers” who have lost their lives from wandering off of an established trail (just to get a better look at something) or being caught in a sudden change of weather.

    Also remember, we are a community. You don’t always bring something for yourself. You bring something for the person who you may find that is really lost and needs water or food.


    1. John, you make a great point, specifically about bringing supplies for the sake of others. Let me clarify that I only support not carrying food and water on inherently short hikes – trails that keep you close enough to civilization that you can at any time find your way back/out quickly and easily (e.g. urban hiking, regional parks, small preserves). Any foray into actual wilderness necessitates appropriate preparation. Thanks for commenting.

    2. I agree with John on #4. As an avid hiker, I can’t tell you how many times I have seen someone walk out on a popular, local trail for a “short hike”, only to find themselves in trouble and ill-prepared. Last year we were hiking out from a trail and just 300 ft or so from the parking lot a guy had fallen and hurt himself enough to need emergency care. They had nothing between them but a bottle of Coke. The trailhead was just off a major highway, but it still takes time for help to arrive. And I can’t even tell you some of the stories my search and rescue boyfriend tells me. The idea of being unencumbered sounds great until you are stuck out longer than you expected or need help that won’t be there soon. Other than that, I love your tips!

  11. Great post!

    Just a word of advise. When lifting rocks, takes extra care and be watchful for poisonous snakes and scorpions. In particular, if you are living in an arid or desert area (Arizona for one).

  12. And don’t forget to snowshoe in the winter when there is too much snow for plain, old hiking! Plenty of opportunities for that with elevation gains where I live. Talk about a workout – but you must take water and some food in the cold weather. You’d be surprised how much water you need as you snowshoe in winter.

  13. tip 15: keep a small washable laundry sack in your car (about 8 gallons) and fill it with garbage every time you take a hike on your favorite trail/beach. The first few times you’ll have no problem filling it. keep several if you go with groups

  14. Have to disagree with #1 — for me as a solo female hiker, I like crowds because I feel safer. Attacks against female joggers and hikers are just too common for my comfort level.

    The trick is to go fairly early in the morning to a popular spot — there will be other quiet early-morning types there, but you avoid the crowds and loud groups.

    1. I am an constantly out on my own. I personally think crowds are worse, that is when things happen and no one notices. So few people pay attention or in tune to their environment. I get out in the backwoods and I go. I’m on my own the whole time because no one in my circle prefers to adventure like I do. My mom gets paranoid about it, but statistically more people are attacked in their own home. I never where music and my head is on a swivel I pay attention to what my instincts are telling me. I have police grade pepper spray on me. I sometimes have my dads dog. I do occasionally run into moose and this past year I ran into a mountain lion down on a popular near town hiking spot. It’s life I live it. We all do what we do.

  15. Great tips for hiking lovers. Comfortable clothes and footwear are necessary otherwise if you feel uncomfortable you can’t enjoy anymore.

  16. Hike to the highest peak in your area? Lol….. that’s called mountain climbing, and requires WAY more training than I’m likely to ever have.

  17. We live in Upstate New York near the Adirondack Mountains. My son and I started doing the High Peaks of which there are 46. Once complete you join the ranks of the Forty Sixers. Over the past few years we have completed 7. Most are day hikes and sometimes you can combine two together for a long day. What a great challenge they are. Once on summit I get in my pushups to max reps, you feel so alive once on top.

  18. Mark, the last hike I went on the logs were 3′ in diameter and 30-40′ long. I would love for you to come up here to Oregon and show me how you balance one on each shoulder!

  19. Is number 4 a bit irresponsible for most of the people? An accident could happen …

    1. I took it to mean hiking in an urban park. In Mt that means to me one of our city parks, where you will see people at regular intervals. The terrain is mild at best and you are never more than a 100 feet of so from a parking lot etc. I think everyone has to use their best judgement. I have a unlimited direction hydration pack, that really feels like nothing. I run in it with no issues. I like to take it with me with some hydration item like primal quench or pickle juice in water. I usually have the phone. What I take changes depending on whether I am just going on a short jaunt somewhere I have been a ton of times. Or a trail like Sioux Charlie in the Beartooth-Absarokas
      Where the trail is very lightly traveled, the terrain changes constantly as well as the weather. I think hiking like any thing has to be a progression from little short hikes in urban areas to more aggressive hikes in wilderness areas.

  20. I am a trail runner by choice a lot of these things I do when I am out on the trail. I am blessed to live in Mt where you have no problem getting off the grid. It’s not uncommon to hike a whole day and never see anyone.

  21. I’m a bit surprised since it seems that I have been already following your tips for the last few years for sure. These are all great things when you are on the trail. As one of my friends says: be free, but be safe.

  22. I know this is an old post, but please IGNORE #1 and #4….and especially do not combine the two. Unless you know the trail VERY well and know what you are in for. I hike in the southwest and in California and other western states — have hiked in Hawaii as well, and this is a sure fire way to get yourself in big trouble at best, and killed at the worst.