With a few tweaks, hiking can be a great exercise for the glutes, which, in turn, helps promote a healthy spine. The key is good posture and gluteal activation.
Let’s start with stairs. Practicing this on some stairs will help you get the feel for it before you go for a hike. When you walk up the stairs, do you feel the muscles in your butt working? Hopefully so. If not, you aren’t using your body’s biggest asset (no pun intended) for going uphill. Think about pushing yourself up the stair with your glutes rather than pulling yourself up the stair with your quads and calves. Start by standing erect with the shoulders down and back, head centered over the shoulders. As you step up it’s okay to lean forward slightly if you must, but don’t hunch forward. Once your body weight is on the forward leg, propel yourself upward by extending the hip pushing with the glutes, rather than pulling through with your thighs. Hint: if you feel like you need to put your hands on your thigh to push yourself up a big step, you probably aren’t using your glutes and/or don’t have enough strength in those muscles.
Once you feel the glutes working on stairs, then it’s easy to translate that into hiking. Begin with a hike with some degree of uphill. The steeper the uphill, the easier it is to use your glutes. Maintain good posture throughout and be conscious of feeling a light to heavy (depending on degree of uphill or size of step up) contraction in the glutes while hiking uphill. Done properly, you should feel like you are standing tall with your chest slightly out and abs lightly tense. If you are new to this or didn’t feel your glutes at first doing the test on stairs, this will take some effort and thought in the beginning. It gets easier and will become natural in a relatively short amount of time. Coming downhill, you will rely more on your quads, but still try to maintain good posture.