Let me tell you, it’s spring at long last here in the Last Green Valley, and hikers are out in droves. (Which, in hiking, means meeting two people on a typical hike instead of one.) As usual, I’m seeing the usual mix of seasoned trail explorers and neophytes, and remembering my first forays into the forests some years ago. When you’re just getting starting with hiking, it’s common to make choices that seem smart from a ‘common sense’ view, but are actually harmful to your hiking efforts. Today, I’m going to cover some of the mistakes that newbie hikers make, and highlight some quick and easy tips that will help you hike better – and enjoy your time on the trails much more.
For this post, I’ll be joined by my amazing friend Haley, who is a dietary aid and nutrition major at the University of Connecticut. Haley knows her stuff when it comes to health and diet, and she’s a great cook too – check out her blog for diet tips, recipes, and more. It’s right here.
Tip One: Take Care of Your Feet
Wearing running or training sneakers on the trails is a rookie mistake I observe all too often. These types of shoes are best suited for level to moderately-sloped surfaces, and they don’t offer the type of arch and ankle support you need on rocky trails or steep ascents. If you’re waking up the day after a good hike complaining of sore feet, chances are you’ve got the wrong footwear for the job. Be smart and get some hiking boots, paying special attention to ankle support. Distressing the muscles around your ankle can lead to sore feet and even knees and serious injuries down the line.
Tip Two: Stagger Your Fluid Intake
Keeping hydrated during exercise is obvious. But don’t guzzle twelve ounces of water at the start of your hike, and then down another twelve or more at the end. You want to ration your H20, sipping 2-4 ounces about every 10-15 minutes. Chugging a bottle of water is going to place extra strain on your already hard-working heart, because the sudden influx of fluids will raise your blood pressure (which is partially a function of fluid/blood volume). Your kidneys will also work extra hard balancing the alternating states of hydration and dehydration. Keep your metabolism running efficiently with a consistent fluid intake. Oh, and don’t forget the electrolytes – these are critical to proper fluid balance in your body. Just don’t grab Gatorade or any of the sugary beverages…
Tip Three: Throw Away the Refined Sugars
Your pack should always have a few snacks in it for extended hikes. Exercise of less than sixty minutes’ duration won’t place enough of a demand on your body for extra calories, so if you’re just out for a quick hike, you can consume some lean protein about 20 minutes before and after for muscle recovery. But while it’s tempting to grab a trail mix with M&Ms or sugar-coated raisins, these processed sugars are used least efficiently by your body, and can actually slow you down when your glucose levels drop. “Most people know this as the ‘sugar crash’or ‘crashing,'” Haley explains, “and it happens when your insulin levels are too high.”
Your best snacks contain natural sugars. Bring some strawberries, cherries, blueberries or another low-glycemic load fruit with you. Nuts like pecans, cashews, pistachios, and almonds are another great source of energy that also contain healthy fats and a good dose of protein, too. Granola bars and oat-based products are fine, but check labels – refined sugars are often found in excessive amounts in many of these foods.
For sustained activity, Haley recommends complex carbs. “Complex carbs, like oats or whole grains, are important for hiking and sustaining the body for a long period of time,” she says. A bag of potato chips, on the other hand, will kill your energy levels, and the high sodium content will make you thirsty even when your body is adequately hydrated.
Tip Four: Be a Smart Packer
Bringing a lightly packed day pack on any hike is a great idea. However, don’t overdo it. Many new hikers are giddy with the prospect of taking photos, reading a book, or trying out new hobbies like rock-collecting when they hit the trails. Just remember how much harder your body (and back) have to work with a heavy load. If you must bring a book, pick a slim, softcover one – but to be honest, most people find the forest itself stimulating enough, and never crack a book to begin with. Photography equipment is great, but plan ahead and select just the lenses and tools you know you’ll likely need. With equipment, don’t fall into the trap of buying tons of gadgets and gizmos in the outdoor section of the store. You won’t need a portable shovel on a hike. Really. A compass, a whistle, a map (all of which, to be honest, you have on your smart phone), a poncho, a little food, and water and extra clothes (see below) are really your only necessities. If you’re going out in the evening, add a headlamp and bug spray to that list. Cooking equipment or utensils are only necessary for extended hikes, and if you need to cook, get a “pocket rocket” collapsible stove – they typically weight just a few ounces.
Extended hikes require even more frugal packing, especially if you’re trying to make good time. Liz Thomas, an exceptional distance hiker who recently completed the Pacific Crest Trail, carried a pack with her that weighed just seven pounds for the 80-day journey. (She hiked into nearby towns for food and water.) That’s on the low end, but certainly a day hiker can carry everything he or she needs in 15 pounds or less.
Tip Five: Be Prepared for Weather Changes
Checking the weather before you go out to hike is smart, but weather conditions can change unexpectedly and accidents do happen. Many a new hiker has gone out in shorts and a tee shirt in the morning, only to find themselves shivering in cold, wet weather later on. Get a cheap plastic poncho for rain, and keep some extra layers of clothing in your pack. An extra pair of socks, a light jacket or sweatshirt, and a hat and gloves in the spring are strongly advised. (By the way, those extra socks will come in handy if you should be crossing a river or stream and slip, too.) A savvy hiker dresses in easy to remove layers. As weather conditions change, or as your body’s internal temperature rises, you’ll want to be able to remove outer clothing as needed. And even in sub-zero temperatures, avoid absorbent fabrics like wool. They may feel toasty and dry at first, but after you’ve started sweating, you’ll be drenched and uncomfortable. Choose fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin instead.
Tip Six: Let Someone Know Where You Are
The standard wisdom for hiking is “Never hike alone.” I routinely flaunt that convention, and to be honest it’s just not realistic for many of us, anyway. So instead, just give someone advance notice about your plans in the event something should happen. Let them know where you’re going, and about what time you expect to be back. It’s extremely unlikely that any catastrophe will befall you on the trails, especially if you plan ahead. But just in case you should experience an injury, it’s wise to have someone in the know about your location.
Tip Seven: Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude
We all want to reap the physical and spiritual rewards of a good hike, but remember: this hike isn’t just about you. Be mindful of the forest and its inhabitants by adhering to the rules of the park. Stay on the trails, pack out your trash. Most professional hikers cultivate a sense of respect and gratitude for the earth, reminding themselves that they are guests in the woods. As your time spent hiking increases, your sense of connection and respect for nature is sure to increase. Notice that feeling and cultivate it.
Tip Eight: Take a Break (But Not For Too Long)
If you’re trying to lose weight or build muscle mass, you probably want to push yourself to the limit. While you definitely want to keep your heart rate high and keep burning calories, your body will manage both more efficiently with brief breaks to rebound. Break every thirty to sixty minutes, but only for three to five minutes at a time. Resist the urge to punish yourself; your body knows what it can do and when it needs a break. Haley explains that resting is “about listening to your body and taking a break when you need to. If you get fatigued, you may not be able to work a, hard or continue going as strong as you would if you took a short rest.”
Tip Nine: Hiking is the Best Training for Hiking
If you’re planning to hike for a weekend, or thru hike a major trail, consider working hiking into your daily routine beforehand. Many pro hikers carry their gear with them any time they leave their house in order to adjust their bodies to constantly carrying a load. Wear your hiking boots to the grocery store, and use stairs to mimic steep ascents and declines. Getting your body used to the strains of hiking will decrease the adjustment time once you’re on the trails. And, it’s helpful to take a hiking “mentality” too – focus on your steps and where you plant your feet, be mindful of balance and posture, and practice moving at a pace that works for you. One way of looking at hiking is “mindful walking.”
Tip Ten: Show Courtesy to Your Fellow Hikers
Hiking is a pretty lonely sport, to be sure. Most days I don’t encounter any other people when I hike. But when you do run into someone else, be friendly and say hello. If someone hiking behind you catches up and wants to pass, step to the right so they can pass on your left. Offer some trail mix or a little water if you can spare it. You’ll find hikers are a special type of people, with great stories to tell and knowledge to give to anyone who’ll listen. Most of them are there for the same reasons that you are: to test themselves and their limits, to find a deeper connection with the world, to uncover new truths or wrestle with hard questions. Hikers are wanderers and seekers, and they will welcome kindred spirits.
Oh, and many hikers have “trail names” that serve as shorthand in the same way that CB radio call signs do. Mine, you may have guessed, is “Factotum!”
See you on the trails!