Recently, I’ve been working with a few first time backpackers in my Thru-Hiking 101 Online course. While they have a lot of hiking experience, transitioning to backpacking is providing some challenges—especially since it is winter right now, and they also don’t have a lot of time.
I developed the idea of a “Mock Overnighter” to help these students feel like they have almost all the experience of an overnight backpacking trip, while still being able to make it home to their kids for dinner. These MicroAdventures can be done super local, close to home, and without a lot of planning or fanfare.
To do a Mock Overnighter, pack up all your gear in your backpack—just as if you were headed on an overnight or multi-day trip. Drive out to your trailhead (it can even be a big park if you live far away from trails). Hike a few miles and find a spot you think would make a good mock campsite.
Set up your shelter—including sleeping bag and sleeping pad—just like you would in camp. Then pull out your stove (if local regulations allow it) and cook yourself up a meal.
If you have time, get in a nap in your tent. Otherwise, get in your tent and do some reading or do a crossword puzzle.
The process of setting up your shelter will not only get you familiar with how that is done, but make it so you are faster at setting it up. By taking a nap or hanging out in your shelter, you’ll become aware of where your shelter may sag, whether your set up is comfortable, and how you can set up your shelter to breathe better. Cooking lunch on your stove will get you familiar with not only operating your stove, but also what kinds of food are cookable on a camp stove.
Walking a mile or two with your pack will be enough time to reveal some major discomforts in either your back or the way you packed it. That way, next time you do a Mock Overnighter, you can pack your backpack differently until you find a set up you like.
Mock Overnighters can be great for trail veterans, too. It’ll keep you fresh on how to set up your shelter and also give you an excuse to inspect your gear before you go on bigger trips and make sure it’s still in good shape and has all its operating parts (e.g. guylines, toggles, buckles, etc.).
The best part of the Mock Overnighter is you’re also getting in physical training. Just hitting the trail or walking for an hour with your full-pack is a great way to transition into or transition back into longer days with a big pack.
Since it’s winter right now, only the bravest want to venture into overnighters. But a mock overnighter lets you test out and practice in low commitment, non-scary terms.
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started” Mark Twain
Maps. Gear. Food. Planning for a thru-hike can involve so much stuff and data, it can seem downright daunting.
Before I started my first thru-hike, I obsessed the Pacific Crest Trail, but was scared to actually take the first step to make a thru-hike happen. Friends knew of my dream and would urge me to pursue it, but I kept letting fear and the amount of work involved keep me from doing anything about it. I found excuses to avoid even starting to plan. I didn’t even know if I could find the time and money, so why waste that time dreaming?
Then, in January of 2008, I took the plunge and went in head first. I didn’t know what I was doing, but all I can say is that that decision is among the best things I’ve ever done.
Planning and prep for a thru-hike will look different from person to person. We have different goals, different dreams, different timelines. And no matter how much prep we do, Mother Nature always throws something unexpected at us. But the truth is, regardless of who we are or how we want to hike, our experience in the outdoors is safer and more enjoyable when we take initiative and do some old fashioned planning.
Here are some tips to beat inertia and indecision and to hop on the planning train.
Commit to hike, even if you aren’t 100% sure you can make it happen I can tell there’s a difference between the trails that I’ve planned a year out vs. hikes I cobbled together 2 weeks in advance. The further out I can commit to a trail (even if it’s a slow start), the better off I am physically and mentally when I do hit the trail. Committing to my hike early also allows gives me the time to address my demands at home (work, my stuff, bills, etc.) and to make sure years in advance that the family vacation won’t be scheduled in the middle of my hike.
If you’re not sure you can actually hike (find time and money), research how others have made it happen. People from all walks of life have thru-hiked. All ages, all backgrounds, all sorts of professions. Finding the time and money to do a trip sometimes requires some creativity, but if you want it enough, it can be done! Work with a financial planner and talk to other hikers who are similar positions of you to get ideas and inspiration.
Decide to start planning early….say, now. If you’ve ever thought about thru-hiking, the more time you give yourself to mentally be in the “I’m going on a thru-hike space” the better prepared you will be when that day actually happens. If you’re planning on hiking this summer, in 2017, or after you retire in 5 years, setting your goal now and moving on it is a great way to make sure it happens.
Stop worrying that prep and planning will take away from the adventure. No matter how much prep and planning you do, the outdoors is always giving us surprises, always giving us gifts, and promises to keep us on our toes. On a long hike in remote country, you’ve got a smaller margin of error than you do at home. Planning and prep isn’t about forming expectations. It’s about being willing to take whatever Mother Nature gives us and have the knowledge and skills to know what to do with it.
Don’t buy your gear yet. The temptation to go out and buy the first great deal that you see at the outfitter is great. “Who cares how it works? I’ll figure it out after I take it home!” I’ve declared far too often. But for many hikers, gear is the biggest expense of a thru-hike, so it’s worth doing some research—a lot of research—before handing over your hard earned cash.
Find a mentor. First-time thru-hikers who learn from thru-hiking mentors not only get the information to hike, but also get personal support that a book or listserve doesn’t offer. A good mentor will live by the motto “there are no stupid questions.” Avoid online forums, listserves, and facebook groups with trolls that prey on newbies. Instead, look for mentors who are willing to take the time to “tailor” answers specifically to you and who are willing to invest the time to learn about you to help you come to decisions that fit your goals and values.
Know How to Choose the Information You Use. There is a lot of info on mountaineering, survivalism, and “the right thing to do in the outdoors” out there. But just like if you’re planning to bake a cake, a cooking class will only be so useful, if you’re planning to thru-hike, a survivalism book will also be of limited use. A lot of hikers I meet get caught up in learning skills and strategies that tend to not be useful for most 3-season thru-hikers, like learning to kill and skin squirrels or build ice caves. These people would have better spent their time learning to develop a lighter gear system or plan out their resupplies—skills better suited to long distance backpackers.
Carve out time each week to plan for your trip. Even if it’s only an hour each week, this is your time to re-commit to your goal, familiarize yourself with your trail, and prepare yourself for the challenges of a hike. Whether this time is spent taking a class, watching a hiking movie, reading a book, or going over your dream gear list, regularly making trip planning a part of your habitual routine will make sure your dream can’t slip away.
Break planning into chunks. Planning, research, and prep can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to do everything all at once. For example, a friend of mine committed to spend one month just on finding the best sleeping bag for his trip and saving up for it. You can do something similar by spending one week (or one month if your trip is a few years out) just researching something as silly as salty snack foods. The more time you have before your trip, the more easily you can break up your research and prepping needs and make the process fun. Plus, staying engaged throughout the planning process can help you get even more psyched about your trip.
If you have always dreamed of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, John Muir Trail, Camino de Santiago, or any other trail, on January 12th, I will be launching (with BACKPACKER Magazine) a 6-week online course called Thru-Hiking 101 with videos, worksheets, interviews, webinars, gearlists, physical fitness training calendars, and community. It’s an easy to digest, unintimidating guide to help you plan for your first thru-hike and make your dream of outdoor adventure come true. Sign up today
Learning to navigate is a life-long learning opportunity. There are always more things you can learn, more tips, tricks, and little know-hows to add to your quiver. I was honored by being asked by Backpacker Magazine for some tips on navigation. We all have to start somewhere when it comes to navigation, and I certainly remember when I first started hiking, I would easily get fooled to believe than an animal trail or water way was “the trail.” Hopefully, you will find these tips useful!
If you’ve ever thought about switching to Altra Zero Drop trail running shoes for your backpacking season, now is the time to start getting your foot accustomed to the shoe. I find that switching to hiking in the Altra Lone Peaks has increased my stability, reduced my strike impact, provided comfort for hours of hiking, eliminated long term hiker issues like plantar fasciitis, and increased my efficiency. That being said, hitting the trail with a brand new pair of Altras if you’ve never worn them before may not be the best idea because there is a transition time associated with switching over to a Zero drop shoe.
Fear not, though—the benefits of switching over are HUGE for long distance hikers. Zero drop shoes help align the feet, reduce the impact of each foot step, and increase your stability. The foot shaped toe box—increases balance and efficiency, while reducing blisters and chaffing, maximize shock absorption and allows toes to spread out naturally. What this means for hikers is day-long comfort, increased stride efficiency, and less foot pain.
So, why should you start transitioning to Altra shoes now instead of say, a few days before my hike most thru-hikers (myself included) do the bulk of the trip planning? Because we’ve all spent years wearing high-heel like elevated trail runners, our feet have been trained to be lazy (in scientific speak—has neutralized our Achilles and lower calf muscles). If you hit the trail doing 15s, 20s, or 30 milers in a zero drop shoe when you’ve never worn zero drop shoes before, your Achilles and lower calf muscles are going to feel the burn. The muscles in your feet are going to be confused. It’s best to give yourself at least three weeks to strengthen your legs and feet before your hike.
Pre-hike training schedule:
Before you get your shoes (or during week 1): Walk around barefoot in the grass or the beach or your bedroom for 30 seconds, adding a 30 seconds per day.Week 1: Wear Altras around the office and running light errands (they sell a “work appropriate” show called the Instinct Everyday that has many of the same features as the running shoe, but looks like it’d work with a suit). At first, the Toe Shaped footbox may feel too roomy and weird. After a few days, your toes will start relaxing and will start spreading out naturally.
Week 2: Do a very short hikes (whatever that means to you). Start without your backpack and give yourself a rest day to assess how your feet, joints, Achilles, foot muscles, and lower calves feel. If everything seems great, slowly increase the mileage and add weight to your backpack, being sure to build in days in between for rest and recovery. On a thru-hike, it’s near impossible to take zero days every day, so let your body take advantage of rest days between hikes to build muscles and strength. Let your body also take advantage of the muscle building fuels that you can get from living off trail. Building muscles on trail when you’re living on instant mashed potatoes and ramen is going to be a little bit more difficult.
Barefoot Jake.Week 3: Up your mileage slightly, being sure to take days off in between. Take note of any excessive soreness or discomfort and rest up more. Week 4-6: Do a few hikes of the approximate length that you would wish to start a thru-hike. Take some days off between. Assess how you feel. Try doing that distance with a full pack of gear.
With this training system, your feet will get stronger and reduce the chance of getting bone fractures. Your lower calves will be ready to hit the trail (relatively speaking). And you’ll enjoy the natural alignment benefits of wearing a Zero Drop shoes. Wearing Zero Drop shoes is like long distance hiking: once you start doing it, you’ll have a hard time thinking of life the same way. If you’ve ever thought about it, I highly encourage starting now before hiking season gets into full swing so that you can maximize the benefits when you’re on trail. (P.S. I’m not a doctor. Legal says that you should consult with your physician before doing anything physical or changing your life in any way).
Get to the hills! The Colorado hikers are in Ruck! This past weekend, ALDHA-W and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) completed their first Rocky Mountain Ruck attracting 85 people from as far away as Salida, Vail, Portland, and even LA! This all-day event attracted hikers in all stages of experience—from dayhikers to seasoned veterans to the long trails. No matter what level of expertise, everyone walked away having learned a trick or two, and the fellowship, fun, and beer made the event the closest Colorado has gotten to a Gathering yet (besides maybe Lawton “Disco” Grinter and Felicia “POD” Hermosillo’s wedding).
After a break with food and snacks provided by Great Harvest Bakery and Whole Foods Golden, the event jumped into the ever-important ‘Everything that Can Go Wrong on the CDT’—with applications for the Colorado Trail, PCT, and pretty much every other trail. Disco and POD used their humor and wide breadth of hiking experience to present a spectrum of safety techniques for various tribulations of the trail—from grizzlies to giardia.
From here, it transitioned to winter hiking teacher Pete “Czech” Sustr’s hands-on (read: powerpointless) clinic on fords and snow travel. The troop of hikers traveled outside to a park outside to enjoy the four surrounding mountains of Golden, the 70 degree temps, and a little lightning safety position practice.
Czech demonstrated walking on a not-snow-covered hill and then gathered everyone to Clear Creek where he and a lone brave volunteer forded the creek. Passerbys from downtown Golden stopped to witness the crazy.
The morning concluded with backpacking gear presentation by expert and ultralight guru Glen van Peski. Throughout the day, hikers had the opportunity to explore manned booths and touch, try on, and otherwise drool over gear from Montbell, Gossamer Gear, Katabatic Quilts, and the CDTC. Lunch outside transitioned into pack shakedowns with experienced hikers and trail Q&A in breakout groups. Those who brought their backpacking gear for one-on-one consultations were stoked at the level of attention, helpfulness, and insight the hour of gearheading provided.
Corralling people back to the classroom on such a sunny day was a chore, but well worth it. Paul “Mags” Magnanti gave a highly informative presentation on navigation on the CDT with a robust Q&A. Mags proved a hard act to follow, but Allgood and I came on stage to discuss serious business: pooping in the woods. We discussed Leave No Trace trail ethics and Trail Town Etiquette—two very important topics that to-be hikers need to know before stepping foot on trail. The session concluded with a cathole digging competition with participants using their shoe, hiking poles, sticks, tent stakes, rocks and potty trowel to dig the best hole they could in 45 seconds. Needless to say, the trowel got the job done.
The evening ended with a killer presentation by Junaid Dawud, who thru-hiked all the Colorado 14ers as a continuous hike. A minor Front Range celebrity, as well as a seasoned thru-hiked himself, Junaid’s photos were jaw dropping and his description of pioneering a trail and the suffering that actually doing it entailed somehow just made me want to hike it even more. Junaid told us during Happy Hour that it was the first time he had given a talk about the 14ers Thru-Hike. Everyone who heard that could not believe it—his talk was so well-polished that we had all assumed he had given it to numerous clubs around the Front Range. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure Junaid has an opportunity to give his talk again sometime soon.
It’s the end of Ruckin’ Season. Soon, hikers will hit the trail. But with the help of the Rocky Mountain Ruck, we hope that everyone will set foot on trail—whatever that trail may be—feeling more prepared for the journey ahead.
In Tina Fey’s Bosspants, the comedian dedicates a chapter to how being a Vogue cover model is nothing like anyone would like to believe. She doesn’t get to keep the clothes, heck, the clothes doesn’t even fit her (she describes how they squeeze her into a too small designer dress and then don’t even zip it up).
Before I’d done a lot of hiking, I thought that the ladies I saw in the outdoor gear catalogs were just rugged looking models, but it turns out (at least if I’m showing up in print) that at least part of the time, the outdoor industry uses real people in their ads.
Yes, a lot of the big companies, especially the ones who make “lifestyle clothing” are hiring real models to look hot in their products. But as a long distance hiker, no one is investing that kind of money in models, and instead, they’re getting real people who really use their gear. As I join a crew of GG ambassadors headed to do a photoshoot in the canyons around Moab this weekend, here are a few things I’ve learned about being (perhaps the most ironic term ever) a hiking model:
1) No one is doing your hair or make up. Bummer. Because I really wanted to look hot in this photoshoot, and instead, I look like I’ve got about a week without a shower (yes, I know that’s true but…)
2) Wear brightly colored clothes-they show up better in the shots
3) Bring a full backpack-because, a partially filled pack looks 20 pounds heavier , extra dumpy on camera
4) Bring an extra change of clothes. When I did the photoshoot for Brooks Range, I brought a couple outfits, and we tried out what l what looked best on camera.
5) Be prepared to walk back and forth A LOT. When Kevin Steele got his first page shot for the article in Backpacker, I walked an LA downtown crosswalk at least ten times. Meanwhile, he laid down in the center of traffic to get the angle on the shot he wanted. It was worth it—the photo turned out awesome—but there were certainly some extra miles made that day.
6) Know a lot of shots that were taken will never see the light of day: Sometimes, you’ll take 100 shots from 15 different angles of that one mountain—and it will never make it to print or the web. I have yet to have a photographer get an awesome portrait shot of me, but a lot have tried.
7) After the shoot, be sure to credit the photographer and use photos only with permission: People taking photos are artists, which means that a lot of them are starving and struggling. Be sure to send them some future customers by acknowledging and recognizing their work.
Are you a photographer or have you taken a lot of outdoors photos from people? What tips would you have for hiking “models”?
Long distance hikers have to go into town and get new supplies every few days, but after being in the woods, sometimes going into a grocery store can be overwhelming. Here are a few tips to make the most of your town time and make the resupply process a bit easier.
Plan out your attack first: I usually start planning out my resupply on trail a few days before hitting town. This not only gives me something to think about while I’m hiking, but also gives me time to be strategic about my nutrition. Walking into a grocery store from the woods can be overwhelming, so know what you’re looking for beforehand—make a shopping list. It helps qualm the surrounded-by-food-lots-of-people-and-noise anxiety that plague a just-to-town hiker.
Wash your hands: You just got out of the woods. You’re gross. Go do it before you start pawing at your snack.
Don’t resupply on an empty stomach: How many times have I let my starving belly dictate a resupply only to either a) end up with waaaay too much food for the next resupply b) discover on trail that my entire resupply is cookies and chocolate? A snack before you shop can calm your belly and prepare your mind for the difficult decision of what food is worth carrying on the next leg of your trip. Favorite simple satiaters are: a yogurt, a few pieces of fruit, chocolate milk, Ben & Jerry’s, a couple pieces of fried chicken, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, a slice of pizza (but NOT a whole pizza!)
Grab a drink: Sure, you’ve spent the last few days thinking of nothing but how you’re going to eat the entire grocery store, but unfortunately, your budget isn’t going to allow that (your stomach also will prove to have limitations). 80% of people can’t tell the difference between whether they are hungry or thirsty and I’m willing to say 80% of hikers are dehydrated coming into town. A drink will fill you and help rehydrate you for peak performance on some important decision making: what to eat!
Use your time indoors to warm up/cool down: Take advantage of the heating/cooling system to get your body temps back to normal before hitting the trail again. If your rain gear needs some drying, this may be a time to get creative…
Weigh your food on a produce scale: Now that you’ve loaded half the grocery store into your cart, it’s time to check whether you really need all that food to make it to the next town.Head back to the fruit and veggie area and weigh what you’ve got on a produce scale. You’ll probably want around 2 pounds of food per day until your next resupply. Account a little for the weight of the packaging, but be honest. If you carry 20 pounds of food for the two days until your next resupply, you’ll be hurting!
Grab a luxurious treat (or two!): I often do my resupply by sending boxes of pre-packaged food to myself, but when I resupply from a grocery store, I go out of my way to buy things the post office would rather not keep in the back mouldering until I pick up my box. When resupplying, I like to grab cheese, a sandwich, baked goods (cinnamon rolls are my favorite), ice cream, or a few fresh fruits and veggies to bring on trail. Garlic is lightweight and feels like a real luxury in camp. Ice cream doesn’t pack out that well (I’ve done it before…), but man, does it feel great to eat a tub of Ben & Jerry’s a few miles in!
Charge your phone quickly: This is my best discovery ever. Most supermarkets have washing-machine style plugs outside for their vending machines. You can usually find one that is unoccupied. These plugs charge super fast so you can sometimes get your phone up and running in the time it takes to eat snacks and sort food.
Don’t forget water: I never leave town without getting more food, but I often forget to resupply on water, only to find the next water source is really far away. Fill up your bottles and top off your Platy, even if it means having to buy a bottle of water to do it. You’ll thank yourself several hot miles later.
Be respectful: Remember: you look and smell like a hobo, so having good manners is especially important. Try to get in and out of the store quickly and to not scare the other customers. If management asks you to stop cooling yourself in the walk-in freezer, you best not argue. Your actions not only affect you, but also impact all future hikers who walk in that store for resupply. Think of yourself as an ambassador for all hikers. A really smelly, hungry ambassador.
Wait—did you hear that right? Yes! If you get holes in your socks, Darn Tough will replace them for free. Darn Tough is so confident that the average user won’t be able to put a hole in their well-built construction, that they actually will give you a new pair if you ever manage to get holes.
I’ve talked to people who hike every weekend and have had the same pair of Darn Tough socks for 10 years without getting holes. But as a long distance hiker who is known to wear the same pair of socks everyday and as someone who puts miles into my socks that far exceed the average user, I have managed to get some holes in my Darn Toughs.
So here’s what I’ve done to get a free replacement:
Wash my socks. If I’m going to return them, at least I should have the courtesy to bring them back in good shape. I’ve heard that sometimes, the Darn Tough team takes used socks to help aid in design and construction improvements. I could be helping to make a better sock!
Seek out my local gear store: A lot of independent gear stores will take holey Darn Tough socks and replace them for free on the spot.
Find Darn Tough at festivals and outdoor gatherings: Darn Tough booths at outdoor events like PCT Days are happy to switch out socks on the spot
Mail them in!
Below is a documentation of my process of mailing in my Darn Toughs. I’ve only ever had to do it twice, but had a great response each time I did.
After washing my socks, I packaged them up in a manila envelope. They’re plenty safe in there and it weighs less than a padded envelope or box (less expensive for shipping)
It is a great time of year to wash your sleeping bag. If you’ve just finished a thru-hike or are putting your summer bag away from the season, taking the time to clean out some of the dirt, oils, and smells can extend the life of your bag. Washing your bag can also restore loft and add warmth to your sleep system if you’re still planning to hit the trails in the fall. Do not dry clean your down sleeping bag! Some companies, like Feathered Friends, offer downwashing services (which I’ve never used) or you can go to a laundry mat and use a clean and nick-free front loading washer and dryer. Handwashing is the least expensive route (which is good, since a summer of thru-hiking is known to wipe out bank accounts). I also find it a cathartic exercise way to commune with my sleeping bag one last time after a thru-hike. Washing a bag is easy to do, but can be a bit intimidating at first. You will see your precious bag looking sloppy and soaking, which can be a bit like seeing a loved one down in the dumps. But don’t worry! Your bag will be better than new with a little care and these easy steps! Step by Step Instructions for Handwashing Your Sleeping Bag: Note this process can easily take 5 hours so if you are using a Laundromat, make sure that it is not near closing hours. Bring a book and expect to hang out for a while. Always use a down-specific wash. I like Nikwax Downwash or McNett Revivex Down Cleaner. Check your bag before hand for nicks and tears. If there are any, use Gear Aid Tenacious Tape or duct tape to seal up holes. Most sleeping bag companies like Western Mountaineering *require* you to wash a bag before sending it in for repairs.
Spot clean stains from your bag by first nudging down away from the area you need to clean so you are only treating the shell. Use a few drops of your down wash and a clean towel to gently scrub away the stain. Wipe away residual soap with a moist towel.
Put about 5 inches of warm but not hot water into a bathtub.
Add about 3 oz of downwash to the tub.
Put your sleeping bag in a stuffsack (non-waterproof works better) and submerge the stuffed sleeping bag into the water. This takes the air out of your bag and prevents inflated baffles from making your bag float.
Slowly pull the bag from the stuff sack. Bit by bit, knead the soapy water through each portion you remove before pulling out another section.
Be careful when kneading and work slowly when baffles fill with air. If a baffle becomes inflated, be mindful that quick movement can pop your bag, either in the internal baffles or the external shell.
If you flip the bag over at any time, use both hands and be aware that your bag will be much heavier than usual because it is filled with water. If done incorrectly, you may tear your bag’s liner. Use both hands. Note that newer bags, bags treated recently with DWR (Durable Water Resistant), or bags filled with DryDown may require a little extra effort to become thoroughly worked into your bag.
Change the soapy water five or more times until the water is no longer brown or bubbly.
When the water runs clean, drain the tub with your bag still in it. Then roll your bag slowly to drain water. Do not ring your bag as it can cause down clumps, which are hard to dry.
Lift your bag using both hands and carry to a dryer. I use a laundry bucket in between to reduce stress on the fabric.
Drying your sleeping bag in a dryer
Find the biggest front loading dryer you can. The dryer should have heat control and a no heat setting. Check the dryer for nicks and burrs or sharp objects using both your eyes and hands.
Throw some tennis balls in the dryer to break up down clumps. If you’re in a small trail town and are looking for tennis balls to dry your bag, note that some grocery stores, like the City Market in Pagosa Springs, CO, sell tennis balls.
Set the temperature for the dryer for very low or air dry. Excessive heat can melt the shell’s bag.
When your bag looks dry, pull it out and manually break up any down clumps you still feel in the bag. Then put it back in the dryer for even more time.
When the bag looks really dry, check for down clumps again. Still there? Just a small one is there? Keep drying! Dry that bag until there is not a single down clump left.
When it is done, find a dry place to airloft the bag. I like to put mine in the California sun for half a day for lofting in dry heat, but if you live someplace humid or the sun isn’t available to you, indoors should work OK.
Store your bag in a large, loose fitting cotton bag until your next adventure!