It’s hard to overstate the health benefits of walking. A brisk daily walk or hike keeps your body’s systems tuned, and helps with everything from muscle strength to blood pressure to digestion.
And when you walk outdoors in nature, the benefits multiply. Fresh air, sunshine, green scenery – and, right now, the chance to walk with friends and family during the COVID-19 pandemic – all do wonders to lift spirits and boost physical and mental health.
For the past several years, the state of New Jersey has offered “First Day” guided hikes on Jan. 1 at state parks, forests and recreation areas. Unfortunately, like so many events this season, the state’s organized First Day hikes were cancelled for 2021 due to the uptick in coronavirus cases.
But wait, you don’t have to be a couch potato on January 1!
This year, the state is urging us all to plan our own First Day hikes: “Start a new tradition, plan a ‘household hike’ on January 1 to kick off 2021 on the right foot!”
First Day Hikes became popular as part of a nationwide initiative to encourage people to go outside for exercise and fun. It’s estimated that nearly 55,000 people rang in 2020 with a hike, collectively covering over 133,000 miles throughout the country.
And there’s no reason that number can’t be matched or even exceeded this new year! The good news is that New Jersey has hundreds of great parks and trails. All it takes is a little research to choose the best spot.
Start by visiting the state’s Trail Tracker site. This interactive map of New Jersey state parks allows you to find a park close to home, discover new trails and points of interest, learn about seasonal activities and track current locations. Go to http://spstrailtracker.nj.gov on your computer or smartphone, or simply search “New Jersey state parks Trail Tracker.”
When you open Trail Tracker, you’ll see a map showing all 50 state parks. Zoom in to the park of your choice and all of the trails will pop up on the screen. From there, click on each trail individually to find out its length, difficulty rating, surface material, and permitted activities. The app includes a toolbar to help find more detailed information. For example, tap the funnel icon to filter trails by difficulty. (If your group includes novice hikers, you’ll want to toggle the filter to show only easy and moderate trails.) Or tap the snowflake icon to find out what about other winter activities – like cross-country skiing and sledding.
Also check out the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference website at www.nynjtc.org. The interactive map currently displays 452 hikes at 366 parks and other locations in New Jersey and New York. Unlike the Trail Tracker app, the Trail Conference’s interactive map includes some county-owned parks and nature preserves run by nonprofit conservation groups. At the top of the map are slide bars that allow users to filter hikes by difficulty and length. And when you click on a trail, you can view a map and read a detailed description of what hikers can expect to see every step of the way.
And another good place to find a hike is the New Jersey Trails Association website at www.njtrails.org. The site includes a selection of recommended hikes in seven central New Jersey counties: Morris, Somerset, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth and Burlington. You can filter trails by ZIP code, county, name, or use - for example, to find trails accessible for wheelchairs and strollers, or dog walking.
Once you’ve picked a park or hike, be sure to take COVID-19 precautions. If you’re hiking with close friends outside your household, stay at least six feet apart and use face coverings. And even if you’re hiking with only the people you live with, be sure to mask up when approaching others on the trail.
The American Hiking Society offers these tips for winter hiking:
Dress in layers - While it’s nice to have a fluffy parka on the ski slopes, it isn’t practical for the trail. Instead, wear layers you can peel off or put on. The base layer should be a wicking fabric that pulls sweat away from the skin. Overheating can be dangerous, since excessive moisture that isn’t allowed to escape can freeze and cause hypothermia.
Wear a hat! - Our heads are filled with oxygen-carrying capillaries which fuel our brains and consume one third of the body’s energy. During the colder months it is important to keep your head covered to maintain function and not lose precious body heat. You may want to pack a warmer/heavier hat for rest periods.
Keep your water bottle warm - When you’re on the trail, a foam sleeve like a koozie will help prevent the water from freezing in a bottle. Also, to keep water from freezing, keep your water bottle on the inside of your jacket – properly sealed, of course. You can heat up the water before for your hike.
Be prepared for shorter days - Early January has some of the shortest days of the year, with the sun going down by about 4:30 p.m. Have a good idea of the usable daylight hours before hitting the trail. Always carry a headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries in case you find yourself still on the trail as the sun is setting.
Pack or download a map – Either pick up a paper copy of the trail map when you arrive at the park, or download a map in PDF format to your phone ahead of time. This is an important safety precaution, as many parks in rural locations have limited cell phone service.
Enjoy a First Day Hike and have a safe and happy New Year! For more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including nature preserves and trails - visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at email@example.com.
For more information about state parks, go to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection website at https://njparksandforests.org/.