When Nanette Bercu, 38, creative director at Paul Mitchell, and her husband, Dan, pile their sons Odin, 8, and Hunter, 6 (all pictured here), into the car for their weekly hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, they're sometimes met with groans. "But an hour into the hike, the kids are totally engrossed," she says. "By the time we're done, we're all a little more alive than when we started."
This most basic form of outdoor recreation is equal parts workout and therapy, and good for all ages: It boosts cardiovascular health, strengthens muscles, and clears the head. What the gym and its calibrated machinery can't promise -- inspiring views and unpredictable physical challenges -- hiking has in spades.
To be trail-ready, you need to improve your aerobic capacity so that you can get enough oxygen to your muscles, says Danny Dreyer, founder of ChiRunning and ChiWalking in Asheville, North Carolina. Whole-body fitness programs that combine physics with tai chi will serve you well.
Try this: Walk at a medium-quick pace for 30 minutes twice a week. To gauge your intensity, count your strides for 15 seconds and multiply by four. (You want to reach between 65 to 75 strides per minute.) To train for hills, increase the incline of your treadmill. Start at a 3 percent grade, Dreyer says, and increase by 1 percent each week until you get it to 10. This acclimates your legs to walking in shorter, uphill strides. Add the stair climber to your cardio mix at the gym, and take the stairs whenever possible.
Warm up first with a few minutes of walking, then do a few simple stretches to prime yourself.
Opens the chest, shoulders, and upper back.
Holding a belt with your hands wide apart, inhale and reach your arms over your head and behind. Repeat 8 to 10 times.
While working your quads and glutes, use these strategies to maintaining stability and avoid injury.
Set a Realistic Pace
"The biggest mistake hikers make is pushing themselves too hard, too fast," says expert hiker Karen Berger, author of "Backpacking and Hiking."
Lead with Your Upper Body
Lean forward toward the hill and keep your shoulders directly over your leading foot, Dreyer says. Straightening your rear leg is easier than trying to pull yourself uphill by your hamstrings.
Take Short Strides
Big steps strain the quads and hamstrings. "Never step past your hip," Dreyer says. "It will overwork your hamstrings and wear you out quickly."
Going downhill may seem easier, but it challenges the muscles in your legs, knees, and ankles. Take it slow and keep these tips in mind.
Walk with your head, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles stacked on top of one another.
Head Straight Down
While zigzagging down a trail is a good idea for extremely steep terrain, it's best to point your feet directly downhill, Dreyer says. "Go easy on your legs by shortening your stride and picking up your feet quickly, as if you were walking on hot coals," he says. "This lowers the impact."
Soften the Knees
Don't lock your knees coming down; it puts a tremendous strain on them as well as on your lower back.
Dogs reap the rewards of hiking, too, says Linda Mullally, author of "Hiking with Dogs." Just be sure to observe proper canine etiquette on the trail: Check the park rules before the hike, keep a leash handy, and scoop your poop, as pet waste can contaminate other elements in the environment. Also, bring extra water and a travel bowl -- and never let Fido drink from standing water.