Walking is the most powerful creative tool that I know…the most powerful spiritual practice known to man…Walking makes our breathing rhythmic and repetitive. As our breath steadies and soars, so do our thoughts.
For more than 40,000 years, Aborigines have walked in Dreamtime. In this“timeless” dimension, they dream toward the future and the future dreams back. In this realm they alter the future by altering the way they dream back at it ——– We can do the same thing. Walking allows the body to move into Dreamtime.
Julia Cameron; Vein of Gold
Only where you have walked have you really been.
An English translation of the slogan of the Austrian hiking company ASI.
Although simple in concept, there are many aspects of walking, especially when hiking or backpacking, that are not obvious. Hiking and backpacking often involve a great deal of hard work. Making that hard work as easy as possible is my goal. I believe one must like the hard work to enjoy hiking.
1. Physical fitness.
It is not enjoyable to hike when unfit. Walking up and down hills requires strong legs and reasonable aerobic ability. Steep down hills especially stress knees and require strong quads. Simply walking around town, or jogging, doesn’t build the type of strength necessary for hiking.
There are many ways to build hiking fitness. Climbing hills or stairs is the best. Adding weight to your pack and going to a gym to use leg machines and stair climbers helps. Lower weights with frequent reps may prevent overuse injuries or exacerbating past joint injuries. It is always best to do the activity that you will be doing, simply start according to your ability and work your way up. Weight loss may make the most significant difference.
2. Clothing. When I hike, the only cotton clothing I wear is a bandana. Wet cotton is difficult or impossible to dry and there are a plethora of options involving synthetic material which wick well, are light weight, and dry quickly. Most are now treated to avoid odour. Merino wool base garments are increasingly available to utilize the warm when wet qualities of wool and my favourite underwear are merino boxers.
Layering is well accepted, starting with a wicking base layer, then insulation layer(s), and finally a wind/water proof layer. I virtually always hike in shorts. I also prefer light coloured synthetic long sleeved zip tees. They protect your arms and neck from the sun and can have cooling options by undoing the zip and rolling up the sleeves. Light colours are not hot in the summer and don’t matter in the winter as they are covered by warmer layers. Look for brands that have high ultraviolet protection as many will protect up to 40 SPF. I use MEC zip T silk weight underwear in an off white colour.
I prefer hiking shoes or boots that have stiffer but not rigid soles. These offer the most support and absorb more shock especially when going downhill. A roomy toe box is important. Wear two pairs of socks, as below, when purchasing new boots. Boots with ankle support prevent injuries. Wearing two pairs of socks is best. Thin, synthetic wicking socks (I like Wigwam Ultramax) inside thick socks that cushion and absorb moisture, work well. Some wool in the sock often in combination with synthetics works best. This is the combination most likely to prevent blisters and hot spots. Replacing your insoles with better quality ones may improve comfort. Many require orthotics. Short gaiters are very useful to keep socks and boots clean.
To keep warm when it is cold outside, it is important to not sweat. This is a lesson best learned from the Inuit. With sweating, your clothes become damp, and are less effective insulators. The moisture continues to evaporate after sweating has stopped, causing further cooling. The trick is to exercise at a rate where you stay warm without sweating, and that is largely a matter of adjusting speed and clothing. An individual has more flexibility than a group in controlling speed. If you can’t adjust speed, you must adjust your cooling.
3. Start cool. Most of my hiking experience is in mountains. Ascents of a few thousand feet usually begin immediately at the trailhead and within five minutes, things are starting to heat up. To prevent excessive sweating, start walking wearing the minimum, often your light synthetic wicking layer (this depends on the season). I like to avoid sweating as much as possible. For those who are very cold intolerant, one can start with more clothing but stop early as soon as any sweating starts. Once your muscles are warm, this is a good time to stretch your legs.
4. Pace. Walk at a pace that allows normal conversation. This is often a pace that one can maintain for at least an hour or longer without stopping. It also prevents excessive sweating. This results in the most efficient way to cover the greatest distance and to enjoy the surroundings. For people who like to socialize, it allows easy conversation. Everyone will have their own pace depending on fitness, terrain, and weight of pack. Average paces might be five kilometres/hour on flat ground, three km/h day hiking while climbing, or 1½ km/h backpacking uphill. When fatigued, shortening your stride will help. Shorter, more frequent steps may allow one to maintain the same pace. How often to stop is very individual, but most will want to stop hourly. I often have trouble regaining my pace after long breaks, so will more often have a small snack and water while standing for a few minutes or so and then continue on my way. Hydration systems that allow one to drink regularly whenever any feeling of thirst strikes, work best.
5. Foot placement. Walking on rocky ground requires the hiker to almost constantly look at the ground for stable foot placements. Placing your foot on a flat, as nearly horizontal a surface as possible, causes the least fatigue and strain. I’m constantly looking for larger rocks or roots which usually provide the most stable surface to step on. Avoid loose rocks, scree, and sand as much as possible. When walking uphill on sand or loose scree, try to step in the footsteps of whoever is ahead of you. Hopefully they have the same stride length as you. Safe foot placement is crucial to avoid injuries. One of the most important rules of hiking is to never injure oneself when miles from help. I once fractured my ankle on an unpleasant bushwhack. It was a long six hours hobbling back to the car. Keeping ones foot flat is an important general principle. When walking up steeper hills keep your heel constantly raised trying to recreate the flat foot placement.
6. Rest steps. When having to work extra hard and fatigue is setting in, use rest steps. A rest step involves pausing on your straight downhill leg. Standing on a straight leg allows your muscles to relax as your weight is completely supported by your leg bones. In this brief non contracted state, the muscle recovers faster. This could be for a split second or for as long as a few breaths. Rest steps are especially valuable at higher altitude.
7. Pursed lip breathing. This involves breathing out against pursed lips. Simply hold your lips tightly together forming a small “o” on your exhalation, which significantly lengthens each exhalation. This raises the back pressure on the air in your airways and lungs, increasing the time available for oxygen transfer and holding your airways more open. This is a technique used by people with emphysema to help them breath more efficiently and is especially useful, like rest steps, at higher altitudes for everyone.
8. Hiking poles. Poles help going uphill especially for people with limited aerobic ability, on rough terrain to improve stability, or downhill to ease the strain on joints especially knees. Other benefits include giving your arms a workout and preventing the finger swelling common when hiking (secondary to the pendulum effect of arm swinging). I find them more of a hindrance than help on boulder fields because of the difficulty of finding good placements for both your poles and feet. Collapsible poles are easier to store on your pack when not in use. I prefer the flip lock mechanism on Black Diamond poles. Poles are an integral part of many lightweight tarp/tent systems.
9. Health issues. Blisters. Prevention is key. Start with some prophylactic covering with your first hiking – duct tape is cheap and effective, moleskin and products like Compeed are all useful. As blisters develop in seconds, stop the instant you feel a hot spot and cover it, change the tightness of your boots, and change socks adding or subtracting socks as necessary to improve fit. Once a blister has formed, they are usually best drained using a needle and thread. Leave the thread running through the blister to keep it draining. Once formed, I use doughnut shaped foam corn pads under moleskin or duct tape. Alcohol can be useful to dry blisters and toughen the skin of the foot. Purchasing new shoes (often larger especially across the toe box),is necessary. Traumatic nail lesions. With nails not cut short enough or a too small toe box, repetitive trauma to the end of the nail will often result in losing the nail sometimes complicated by infection. Tendonitis around the ankle. Due to repetitive strain, treatment consists of ice, rest, large doses of anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, and active stretching of the calf and achilles tendons.
10. Hiking essentials There are many lists (mine follows in a separate article). The essence of any list should include gear that would enable one to stay outside overnight. Just imagine if you were to break your leg and could not be evacuated. What are your chances of even being minimally comfortable?