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Seeing the World on Foot

Avid hiker and NPF volunteer Darren Hitz shares his thoughts and tips for those looking to hit the trails this summer.

When you are living with psoriasis, how your skin looks to the outside world might dissuade you from doing the outdoor activities you love. That was true for Darren Hitz, a nurse and National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF) volunteer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who said his guttate psoriasis – which at times covered more than 50 percent of his body – made it hard for him to stay active without feeling self-conscious.

“Dealing with the anxiety that comes from being a teenager and in your 20s with psoriasis, and always being concerned about people seeing you and what can they notice about you, can get mentally exhausting,” says Hitz.

Looking for a way to stay active and not be reminded of his psoriasis, Hitz turned to hiking. With sparsely populated trails, beautiful surroundings and the ease of entry for beginners, he says he was able to fully be in the moment. “The psychological aspects of having the freedom to be outside in shorts and a T-shirt is very therapeutic for me and helped me to fully identify with nature,” he says.

Now, with the help of topicals and phototherapy, Hitz is living with much clearer skin and more confidence. And his escape has turned into a passion that he has followed for decades. Hitz has hiked some of the most famous trails in the world – from New Zealand to Japan – and some of the top hiking adventures in the United States.

Working in the health care industry, Hitz recognizes the effects that movement can have – physically, by reducing risk for comorbidities like obesity and diabetes, and mentally, by helping manage mental health.

Start Slow

Most hiking is a low-impact activity, meaning one foot is always on the ground. This helps to prevent injury compared with higher impact activities like running. It is also not a race, so you can go at a pace that is safe and appropriate for you. Hitz focuses on listening to his body and taking occasional breaks. He thinks this is especially helpful when easing into physical activity.

Everyone has their own limitations and abilities, so always check with a health care provider before starting a new routine. For Hitz, starting small meant moving around town, then slowly increasing in distance. “You don’t need to drive hours out of the way to get started. You just need to do some 1-mile hikes and then slowly progress,” says Hitz. “For those who can handle a bit of a challenge, I recommend training by carrying your backpack with weights in it if you want. And for those looking for more of a leisurely experience, start out by just walking around the neighborhood and expand from there.”

If you decide to step up your game with a longer hike, Hitz has a valuable tip born from experience: Keep those nails short. “I’ve experienced nail psoriasis and found it incredibly important to cut your finger and toenails short and straight across. When hiking for hours, it helps to prevent ingrown toenails,” he says. Bringing a change of socks is also handy for those who experience psoriasis flare-ups on their feet or who easily blister.

Always keep safety at the front of your mind, says Hitz, especially when you might be venturing to areas where cellphone reception ranges from spotty to nonexistent. Keep another person in the loop about your hiking plans, your planned route, when you are starting and when you expect to be back.

Preparedness is your best tool. Research your hike and where you are going. If there is elevation gain, make sure your body is ready for it. And keep an eye on the weather forecast to plan ahead for whatever Mother Nature decides to throw at you.

Gear Up

Hitz likes that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get the most out of hiking. In fact, you probably have everything you need already. He advises wearing comfortable and loose-fitting shorts or pants and a comfortable-fitting shirt.

As for footwear, Hitz says trail shoes or athletic cross trainers are perfect and recommends you don’t pay more than $70 for a pair, especially if you are just starting out. He does warn that typical running shoes are not ideal, and you should aim for a shoe with a stiffer sole.

“You don’t want a shoe with a flexible sole,” he says. “That would make the hiking experience a bit uncomfortable when you’re feeling every rock and every tree root you walk over.”

If your plans have you venturing out a short distance for an hour or so, all you really need is a bottle of water and you’re good to go. For longer hikes, it’s smart to come prepared for more. Hitz says on typical day hikes he brings a backpack with water, a change of clothes, a first-aid or mini survival kit (Hitz mentions that 10-piece compact kits can be found online) and a headlamp for hiking in the dark.

The key is to keep it simple. Hitz says a mistake he sees over and over among those who are starting out is throwing too much money at fancy gear. If hiking is a new activity for you, give it some time to see if it’s going to be your thing. You can always upgrade to the latest and greatest later on. 

Have Fun

Hiking is supposed to be a pleasant activity. If your body is not ready for it or does not respond well to long walks, or if you are not having a good time, it’s OK to walk away. Hiking is only one possible avenue to achieving a healthier lifestyle. Find what works for you and what you truly enjoy, and make it part of your routine. And don’t forget to talk to your doctor if you have questions before embarking on a new physical activity.

Looking for a Smaller Adventure?

Does hiking sound like a bit too much with your schedule and abilities? You don’t have to go big to have an impact on your health.

Read more

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