Get Ready to Hike
It's the beginning of April in Minnesota. Last week, the last snow just melted and yesterday was a beautiful, clear day. A perfect day for a hike! And that's great because my first big hiking/backpacking trip of the season is in two months.
But, I've been nearly sedentary for the past 3 months, barely getting outside due to snow, super cold temps, short days, ... and a myriad of other excuses that are way too easy to come up with. The worst thing I could possibly do would be charge out the door on a 5 mile hike down the local regional trail. After that, my shins would be killing me and I would be stuck inside for at least 3 days. I know this because I've done it before. Fortunately, being the older and wiser hiking dude that I am now, I understand some of the limits of my body.
This year, I just went on a short hike of 1 mile after warming up for about 10 minutes. It felt good. I felt fine the next day so I went on a 2.5 mile hike. The next day, my son and I hiked 2 miles to the store, got ice cream, then hiked home - 4 miles in 80 minutes. We repeated that yesterday, but comparing prices for ice cream at a different store. I ramped back up much faster than I had expected and my legs are feeling fine.
There are two reasons to prepare for hiking. Either you are just starting back into hiking and need to get going or you are training for a big backpacking trek. Both needs have similar preparatory guidelines, with the backpacking event needing a bit more focus.
You really need to prepare three areas before you go out on a serious hike:
- Hiking muscles - all your leg muscles plus your core body support. Arms and upper body are not that important for hiking.
- Cardiopulmonary - your lungs and heart need to be fit to supply your body with adequate oxygen.
- Gear - your feet need to be comfortable with your boots and your hips and shoulders with your pack.
Use these tips and guidelines to safely and effectively get into the hiking life:
Ask Your Doctor- Before you start any physical activity, you really should get a doctor's blessing. If you've been inactive for awhile, your doctor may recommend other programs or preventive measures.
Enjoy It- Hiking is recreation which means its supposed to be fun. Take your walks someplace clean and green that you can enjoy.
Take a Friend- As long as you're practicing hiking in high traffic areas in which you feel safe, you can hike alone. But, for real hikes make sure you have at least one buddy along. It would be great to have this friend do your same hiking schedule, but at least be confident that s/he is capable of completing your planned hike.
Be a Turtle- start slow and build gradually. Here's a sample schedule for someone in good health just starting to hike:
Day Miles Minutes 1 1/2 15 2 3/4 20 3 1 25 4 0 rest 5 2 45 6 2 40 7 0 rest 8 2 40 9 3 60 10 0 rest 11 3 60 12 3 60
Light is Right- Carry only water and a first aid kit. Don't weigh yourself down when starting out and hiking in populated areas. Add safety items like a whistle, pepper spray or whatever is necessary where you live, but wait until you are strong before carrying your pack. And, that first aid kit isn't just for you. I got to help out a neighbor boy that fell off his bike because his mom didn't have bandaids along.
Stick To It- set aside the 30 or 45 minutes religiously for your hiking training and guard it against all those things that creep into life. Do it after dinner before your favorite TV show. Do it in the morning before your shower. Do it after the kids are in bed. Whatever - do it.
Fake It- On really yuchy days or for any other reason that you can't get out, use a treadmill or stairmaster for exercise. I find these to be awful boring, but if you have MTV or VH-1 in front of you, its not too bad. Any aerobic activity will help your body get and stay fit - I really love swimming and its a super overall exercise, but getting to the pool is a pain for me.
Bulk Up- Once you are comfortable hiking three miles in an hour, you can start thinking about what you need to carry on an all-day hike. See Packing for a Hike for some suggestions, but you can figure a 5 to 10 pound pack of food, survival items, and clothes. That weight will really vary depending on where and when you are planning to hike for your all-day hikes.
Test Yourself- If you plan to go on an all-day hike in a couple weeks, its time to test your body to see if it is ready. On your first all-day hike, don't plan to hike more than about 8 miles because you haven't proven yourself yet. At least once before the real hike, set aside enough time to actually hike your planned distance. On your easier training terrain, hike the 8 miles carrying your full pack. See how long it takes you and how your feet, legs, and body feel. If you didn't feel ready to hike even further, then you're probably not ready yet.
Self-Evaluation- Take an honest look at yourself. Before going on that big hike, be honest with yourself:
- Physical Skills - Is your body ready for the hike you have planned? Will you be able to hike through the worst weather you might encounter?
- Outdoors Skills - Do you know enough to survive? You need to be able to build a fire, use a compass, filter water, camp overnight, stay dry, perform first aid, and basically take care of yourself if things go bad.
- Mental Skills - Are you mentally and emotionally ready to challenge yourself? How will you handle a twisted ankle, sore knees, getting lost, slow pace, dirty hands, a swarm of insects, or any other thing that may pop up unexpectedly? You need to be emotionally flexible and tolerant as well as confident in yourself.
Be a Hiking Dude- Wake up, pack up, and start hiking! Your first real all-day hike will be great! You may be surprised at how rough the trail is, how thin the air is, and how steep the mountain is, but take it slowly and you'll do fine. Even though you were hiking about 3 miles per hour at home, don't expect to cover more than 2 on the trail. Take your time and enjoy what's around you - it shouldn't be a race.
Now that you are a healthy hiker, your body will be itching for more challenge and variety. If a long distance trek is planned in the coming months, consider these suggestions:
Bear the Burden- You'll need to increase your pack weight to prepare for all you carry on your trek. Each day of practice, add a couple pounds to your pack until you are at the weight you expect to carry. Don't just load your pack and start carrying full weight or you'll risk blisters, sores, aches, and pains. A backpacking pack will weigh from 20 to 40 pounds.
Hike Every Day- If you are preparing for a 5-day trek, then go on practice hikes 5 days in a row before taking a rest day. Daily hikes more closely simulate what you'll have on your trek and prepare your feet and joints to the shorter recovery time.
Climb Stairs- If you're in a flat-land area and heading on a mountain trek, you'll need to find pretend mountains to climb. Hiking up and down flights of stairs doesn't fall into the enjoyable category, but it worked for Rocky.
Toughen Up- Your hips and shoulders will take abuse carrying a pack for many days. At least 3 weeks before your trek, make sure you carry the pack you'll be using for all your practice hikes. Toughen up your skin and muscles to prevent irritation on the trail.
Take a Deep Breath- If you live at low altitude as the vast majority of people do, there's not a lot you can do to get ready for the thin air of a mountain hike. Taking a deep breath and holding it as long as you can will help develop your lung capacity. You can do this any time when you're sitting around. Time yourself and see if you are getting better at it. Other than that, just exercising will develop lung capacity.
Of course, you can always just call your buddy and say, "Hey, let's go hike 12 miles on Saturday up Mt. Brokenfoot!" and you might do just fine. Just don't call me!