Soft hiking is the latest TikTok trend getting fitness experts talking - and for all the good reasons. If you've heard the term before and are wondering what it means or are looking for a new workout to try, this is what you need to know.
While many trends on TikTok make us wince (coffee and lemon for weight loss anyone?) or feel tired just scrolling through them (looking at you, 25-7-2 StairMaster workout), others can highlight new ways to work out that may be better and more enjoyable options for some people.
Whether you're totally new to the trails, a dedicated fan of Nordic walking, or looking for a new way to relax, this new wellbeing trend has something to offer everyone. Here, we've asked a doctor specializing in outdoor therapy to reveal all the benefits of hiking, plus how to get started.
What is soft hiking?
Soft hiking is walking slowly at a pace that works for you, making the most of the great outdoors, and enjoying moving your body, rather than aiming for a certain pace or "ticking something off" a list.
It's "about the pure joy of spending time in nature and moving your body", say Soft Girls Who Hike creators Emily Thornton and Lucy Hird, who invented the term and set the trend, which now has almost half a million views on TikTok under the hashtag.
"Soft hiking is exactly what it says on the tin," they say. "Hiking doesn't have to be hard. We've been on hikes before with seasoned hikers and we just felt we weren't good enough or strong enough, or good enough to keep up. We realized we had different motivations and while their reasonings are not wrong, it's just not for us. Ours is simply to enjoy ourselves."
This may mean going off-route to explore a particularly interesting landmark, going a shorter distance than you'd otherwise expect to while hiking, going slower than normal, or stopping more frequently, all to experience the many benefits of walking.
What are the benefits of soft hiking?
1. Reduces stress and anxiety
Soft hiking isn't just a passing TikTok trend, reveals Dr Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, an integrative medicine specialist and expert in outdoor therapy. It can have a great effect on our mental and physical wellbeing.
"Walking slowly and mindfully helps to reduce stress levels and promote relaxation," she says. "Emerging evidence [from Kansas State University] has revealed a correlation between low-stress, parasympathetic tone, which is part of the nervous system that prevents the body from overworking, and immune system stimulation."
In other words, when we're feeling calm and relaxed without stress, our bodies function better and our immune system is able to work as it should. "Our immune systems are happy when we're happy," she adds, "So it's vital to factor in time in your daily routine to step away from screens and explore the outdoors."
2. Improves sleep
Looking to learn how to sleep better? Soft hiking could be the answer. "Spending time in nature can also help improve sleep quality, which is essential for overall health and wellbeing," says Dr Hackenmiller, who is also the chief medical advisor to AllTrails, a hiking app that allows users to explore walking trails in their local area and beyond.
"Exposure to natural environments has been shown to improve sleep duration and quality, leading to greater feelings of restfulness and energy during the day," she adds, pointing to research by Jo Barten, et al, at the Edinburgh College of Art.
3. Improves focus and concentration
The benefits of running, cycling, swimming, and other cardio activities for our concentration levels have been spoken about for years. However, you don't need to be moving fast or be out of breath to experience a switch in mindset. Soft hiking and other walking meditation practices, such as forest bathing, can do the same job.
"[These] involves being fully present in the moment and paying attention to your surroundings," says the doctor. "This can help improve your focus and concentration, making it a useful practice for those who struggle with distractions or have difficulty staying present."
4. Improves cardiovascular health
Soft hiking can also offer similar benefits to cardiovascular health as running, cycling, and swimming as it's a low-impact aerobic workout. "This can help improve blood flow, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of heart disease," says Dr Hackenmiller.
"Guided meditation in nature has also been clinically proven to lower blood pressure and improve heart rate variability, and navigating natural obstacles that occur on uneven terrain can improve balance and coordination," she says.
5. Boosts mood
As Soft Girls Who Hike say, soft hiking is all about doing what feels good outdoors and studies by Stanford University have shown that choosing enjoyment over performance can offer plenty of benefits for our mental wellbeing over time.
"Walking in a calm and peaceful environment can boost the production of feel-good hormones such as serotonin and endorphins, improving our overall mood," says Dr Hackenhmiller. "Slow meditative walking, in particular, can be especially beneficial by improving mindfulness and ultimately leading to this greater sense of wellbeing."
She continues, "When we’re outside, our brain produces mood-boosting neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. This, in addition to inhaling the phytoncides we are exposed to outdoors, [which are] emitted through plants and trees and safe exposure to the sun’s rays, helps boost our immune system."
6. Cultivates gratitude
Learning to appreciate the world around us can only be a positive, especially if you're looking to engage in some manifestation and start developing more positive habits, and soft hiking can help us do just that.
"When we slow down and pay attention to our surroundings, we may develop a greater sense of appreciation for the natural world around us. This can lead to a greater sense of gratitude and a more positive outlook on life," adds Dr Hackenmiller.
How to start soft hiking for beginners
- Get the essentials: Having a good pair of hiking boots, a rain jacket, and something to hold your essentials in will be the difference between a good soft hiking session and an uncomfortable one.
- Map your route: If you're heading out of your local area, it's best to know where you're going with a pre-planned route. This will take the stress and worry out of your walk, allowing you to just explore the sights and sounds around you. Download one of the best running apps, such as AllTrails, for map suggestions on your phone.
- Engage your senses: "Use your senses to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of nature, to feel more grounded and connected to nature, while out on a walk," says Dr Hackenmiller. "Tapping into our senses can reduce stress levels, improve productivity and contribute to our overall state of happiness."
- Practice mindfulness: "As a certified forest bathing guide, practicing mindfulness in nature is something I widely advocate for my patients. Use your natural encounter as a time to work on your meditation techniques in the outdoors," she says. "From body scanning to breathwork, such exercises have been widely demonstrated to calm our nervous systems."
- Take breaks: "Take breaks when needed, and don't push yourself too hard if you're feeling tired or fatigued. You might also consider adding a “sit spot” to your walk. When you come upon a natural feature or landmark, or if you find a bench along the trail, take twenty minutes to sit and just notice the natural surroundings. Notice birds, animals, insects, plants, sights, sounds, and fragrances. Afterward, jotting notes or journaling can be a great experience."
- Bring a friend: As much as soft hiking can be a slow and meditative experience, it can also be a social one and makes for a great opportunity to catch up with friends and family, all while enjoying the great outdoors.
Soft hiking essentials
A pair of the best walking shoes is your first essential when soft hiking. They'll support your feet, keeping you stable over uneven terrain, and be a top companion in rainy weather. This pick from Columbia has a cushioned midsole, extra midfoot support, a heel clip for all-day comfort, and a breathable, waterproof upper. It also comes in three stunning colors: Mauve, Light Sand, and Steam.
The Power leggings are among the best workout leggings for a reason. They're made of super smooth material, available in loads of fun colors, supportive with a drawstring waistband, and have a large side pocket on the side for securing your phone on the move. Plus, Sweaty Betty Power leggings come in some alternative fits, for those who prefer high-waist over low or 3/4 over full-length.
For all your essentials: a backpack. This one from Osprey on Amazon isn't waterproof (but you can always pick up a backpack cover for bad weather days) but it is super lightweight and comfortable to wear, comes in a variety of colors, and the multi-function interior sleeve makes it ideal for those looking to carry a hydration pack - or a laptop on days off the trails.
Staying hydrated on the mountains is a must and this Hydro Flask is just the one for those looking to keep hot and cold drinks at the perfect temperature. It comes in fun colors, from laid-back blue to hot pink, a straw-top lid for easy drinking, is leakproof, and is dishwasher safe.
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Grace Walsh is woman&home's Health Channel Editor, working across the areas of fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental health, relationships, and sex. In 2024, she will be taking on her second marathon in Rome, cycling from Manchester to London (350km) for charity, and qualifying as a certified personal trainer.
A digital journalist with over six years experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace has covered (almost) everything in the world of health and wellbeing with bylines in Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more.
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