4 Unexpected Outdoor Activities That Burn Calories

You Don't Have to Run or Bike to Burn Calories

You know you're doing your heart and lungs a favor when you head outside for a jog or you join in a local boot camp. But in today's world of step-counting and heart rate tracking, it's easy to overlook activities that may not rack up lots of steps or cause you to break a sweat, but still, do your body good. In fact, all movement matters, so the more often you choose to engage in exciting activities that get you away from the couch and outside in the great outdoors, the better off you'll be. Need more convincing? Just check out these unexpected outdoor activities that burn calories and put your body to the test.


Driving an ATV or Side-by-Side

Polaris RZR Rock Pirates Side by Side
Wildrock Public Relations

Sitting is generally frowned upon in the fitness world, but there's an exception to every rule, especially where rugged terrain is concerned. Sitting on an ATV or a side-by-side as you ride over rocky embankments and through low-water crossings requires core strength and control, as well as mental focus, all of which tax your system and ramp up the calorie burn.

For instance, on a recent side-by-side tour on the Alpine Loop in Silverton, Colorado, my Fitbit tracked my heart rate as ranging between 74 beats per minute and 130 beats per minute over the course of the three-hour tour. This ultimately translated to a total calorie burn of 960 calories, at an hourly rate of about 320 calories per hour. That's roughly the same number of calories I'd burn walking at a 3.5 mile per hour pace—no walking required here.

Of course, the number of calories burned is affected by factors like height, weight, sex, age, and muscle mass, as well as the difficulty of the terrain you're riding on. CalorieLab estimates that a 150-pound person burns about 100 calories per hour riding a motorcycle, which is probably a pretty good estimate for ATV or side-by-side riding on reasonably level terrain. Considerably better than the estimated 68 calories the same person would burn riding in a car or on a plane.

Where to Try It: Head to Silverton Colorado and rent a Polaris RZR from Rock Pirates. City ordinances allow you to drive your side-by-side or snowmobile rental directly from the outfitter's downtown Silverton location directly to the Alpine Loop, where you can explore 65 miles of rugged terrain, and unbelievable views from Colorado peaks. Stop at Animas Forks to explore the ghost town, then if you're feeling brave, head up to Engineer Pass for a 12,000-foot view.


Horseback Riding

horseback riding
Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

Horseback riding is another one of those seated activities that shouldn't be scoffed at. According to a 2015 study from researchers at Texas A&M University, a 45-minute ride consisting of walking, trotting, and cantering resulted in a calorie burn of about 200 calories over the course of the workout—that translates to about 267 calories per hour.

Researchers also noted that the intensity, duration, and energy expenditure of such a workout done several times a week would meet physical activity recommendations, no gym required. The more serious you are about horseback riding, and the more challenging the ride, the more calories you end up burning.

Where to Try It: If you love horses, but don't have one of your own, look no further than the Equitours Willamette Coast Ride. This seven day, six-night tour starts in Carlton, Oregon, and takes you over the Coastal Range to the Pacific Ocean. You'll enjoy Oregon wine country, stay in cozy inns and bed and breakfasts, and spend your days atop a sturdy steed, all while challenging your legs and core as you work to maintain your balance. Don't be surprised when you end up sore.


Jet Skiing

Jet skiing
Vieira Antonio / EyeEm / Getty Images

Jet skiing is similar to, but different from, both ATVing and horseback riding. Like the other activities, it's also done in a relatively stationary position, and it, too, requires core activation and mental focus. But unlike these other activities, jet skiing requires even more total-body engagement and control as you stand or crouch while driving the machine, with the added elements of water, wind, and high speeds making the task more challenging.

Based on estimates from various online calculators, a 150-pound person could expect to burn somewhere between 200 and 475 calories in the course of an hour, depending on how aggressively they're riding the jet ski, and under what conditions. For instance, choppier water or waves tackled at high speeds is much more challenging than smooth waters and slow speeds.

Where to Try It: Head to Miami and book a tour with Jet Ski Tours of Miami. Their 2-hour tours take you past the homes of Miami's rich and famous, out to isolated areas without speed limits, past beautiful islands, and through amazing wildlife—you may even see wild dolphins or manatees.



Laura Williams

Chances are, you haven't even heard of sandboarding. Sandboarding is much like snowboarding, but it's done on the sand, at slower speeds, and without the benefit of ski lifts to take you back to the top of each sand dune. The boarding itself isn't all that taxing, although you'll feel it in your glutes and quads as you squat down to keep your balance as you slide down the dune. The truly taxing part is walking back up each sand-covered hill.

Walking through dry sand is incredibly challenging, as you never have completely solid footing, and the ground reaction force is reduced, causing you to work harder to push off with each step. Now think about that additional challenge while climbing up a hill and carrying a sandboard with you. Your entire lower body will protest, and your lungs will burn with the effort, but the break at the top of the hill makes the experience worthwhile.

True calorie-burn estimates for sandboarding are hard to come by, but on a recent sandboarding trip, I burned an estimated average of 262 calories per hour, according to my Fitbit. Not too shabby considering at least half of each hour was spent sitting and recovering between rides and climbs. Of course, if the thought of climbing repeatedly up sand dunes sounds about as fun as pulling teeth, then it might not be for you.

Where to Try It: Sand Master Park in Florence, Oregon, is the only sandboarding park in the country. It's a good place to rent a board and test the sands on shorter dunes. Once you're feeling confident, though, head south a few miles to Honeyman State Park. You can ride the dunes almost straight into a freshwater lake, or you can hike farther away from the main day use area to higher, more challenging dunes. The views are stunning in a desolate, barren sort of way.

A Word From Verywell

The moral of the story is that just because your fitness tracker doesn't log steps during all forms of physical activity, that doesn't mean these activities aren't improving your well-being. Gardening, slacklining, skateboarding, paddleboarding, and pump track cycling are all further examples of activities that may not do much for your step count, but that do a whole lot for other important facets of health, such as flexibility, balance, upper body strength, coordination, and mental focus. Logging the minutes you spend exercising is certainly important, but don't forget that activity should be fun—it should keep you coming back for more.

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  • OReilly CL, Sigler DH, Fluckey JD, Vogelsang MM, Sawyer JE. "Rider energy expenditure during high intensity horse activity and the potential for health benefits." International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings. Vol. 2, No. 7, p. 44. 2015.