Wednesday, May 11, 2011

5 tips for prospective thru-hikers

I am an avid reader and poster on Trailjournals, and look on with a bit of wistfulness each spring as the next crop of thru-hikers begin their adventures on the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and other trails. As a successful thru-hiker who has never sustained a serious injury in over 7,000 miles of backpacking and two traverses of the length of the United States, I think I have a few nuggets of sage advice to pass along to the current crop of thru-hikers or those considering taking a long-distance backpacking trip themselves.

1. Walk light. I'm not going to invite debate about go-lite philosophy, as I am somewhere in the middle. My pack, with food and water, usually weighs between 30 and 50 pounds, depending on the season. But what I mean by "walk light" is to take steps that put minimum impact on your feet and joints. I do this by stepping on the balls of my feet and walking with my knees slightly bent. On downhills, I put my hiking stick down before me to absorb some of the impact of the descent. Also, if your muscles and joints get sore, simply walk in a different way to take stress off those sore areas. I have seen countless hikers have their thru-hikes derailed by feet and muscle problems. Some of these problems could have been avoided by simply varying their hiking style. It's counter-intuitive. Who is conscientious about the way they walk? Thru-hikers should be. Pretend you are sneaking down the trail. This will instantly make you aware of your gait.

2. Your most important piece of gear is between your ears. I've seen this before at trail crossings. A hiker sitting next to their pack, head between their knees, utterly beat and ready to quit. Don't be fooled. Injury is not the number one reason for failure to complete a thru-hike: mental and emotional reasons are. IF you just broke up with a girlfriend, got a divorce, or lost a spouse, maybe a thru-hike isn't the best idea right now. If you don't love the outdoors and embrace the lifestyle and sacrifices in comfort that come with a thru-hike, you will not make it. If you came to the trail to escape your problems, guess what? They are still with you. One of the best and worst things about a thru-hike is that you get a lot of time to think about things. If you have a good imagination and internal voice, this can be a joy. Most of the songs I've recorded come from riffs I sang in the backcountry. But if you have lingering, unresolved issues, those worries will eat away at your mind like a cancer. Before you begin, you must make your peace with the people in your life and have your finances in order. You do not want to bring money and relationship problems to the trail. They will only curtail your efforts and make you lose focus.

3. Embrace the brutality. You have to be a little bit of a masochist to enjoy thru-hiking. Aches and pains are a daily reality for even the most seasoned backpacker. If you are a wuss about blisters and sprains, you will not succeed. The best way, I've discovered, to deal with it is to be prepared, don't over-medicate, and don't overdo it. If blisters or a nagging injury are slowing you down, then SLOW DOWN! Listen to what your body is telling you. Don't be a silly fool slave to an itinerary or try to keep up with the pack of hikers you've been with for the past couple weeks. Recognize that discomfort comes with the territory and be especially attuned to what your body is telling you. But don't overthink it or dwell on your woes. Don't make an abcess out of a blister or a fracture out of a sprain. Do what you can to tend to yourself and move on.

4. Stay curious. In addition to good genetics (I was born with super tough feet and strong legs), I also have an insatiable curiosity and love of travel. I can honestly say not once, ever, did I contemplate ending a thru-hike early. Why? Because I wanted to know what was around the next bend and looked in awestruck wonder at new flora and fauna. In short, I retained a childlike curiosity for the world around me, and each day in Mother Nature's kingdom was a new adventure. I also did a lot of research before each hike and pored over maps and guidebooks. I couldn't wait to see these places I'd read about.

5. Find comfort in your gear. As I wrote earlier, pain and discomfort are inevitable in a thru-hike. One way I deal with this is to give some totemic power to a piece of gear. For me, it was my bandanna and camp clothes. During a two-week stretch of rain on the PCT, I found comfort in knowing that at the end of the day I had dry clothes in a ziploc bag in the bottom of my pack. Even though my tent was still sopping wet (and about two pounds heavier) from the night before, at day's end, I could sop up the floor with my bandanna, change into those dry clothes and get into a warm, albeit clammy sleeping bag. Other times, a special treat, like a King Size Snickers bar, gave me a little lift. Build these "treat" times into your daily routine. Another thing I would do is pick beauty spots to take breaks at. There's nothing like laying on the ground, feet up on the pack, and looking out across a wonderful vista. This is what all the hard work is for. Relish the moments. Recognize how different this life is from the life you've led before. Know that this time in your life is fleeting. Recognize all the hard work and sacrifice it took to even get here. And, most important, keep on hiking!

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