10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier
By Michael Lanza
When I started hiking, I was like a young baseball pitcher with an overpowering fastball: I hurled myself at every hike with all of my energy. I didn’t think about how far I was hiking, the terrain’s ruggedness, or my pack’s weight. I was young and fit, so my haphazard strategy worked fine.
Now, many years and miles later, I’m more like a veteran hurler who’s honed a repertoire of off-speed pitches. I’ve learned various tricks to soften the blow of hard miles, helping me to hike 20, 30, even 40 miles in a day—even in my 40s and 50s. No matter how far you go, these tips will make your hikes easier.
While it’s natural to think that walking is walking and there are no secrets to doing it better—after all, most of us have been walking since we were about a year old—as with many endurance sports, there are ways to hike a trail more efficiently, conserving energy and reducing the physical toll that brings on fatigue.
Here are mine. Tell me what you think of them and share your own tricks in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
No. 1 Be Fit
This one seems obvious, but we all know it’s easy to fall off track and find yourself struggling at the outset of a dayhike or backpacking trip because you’re in less-than-optimum physical condition. Maintain a regular exercise program so that you hit the trail with a good base of fitness—the better your physical condition, the more you’ll enjoy whatever distance you hike, and the less likely you are to get hurt.
See my story “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb.”
No. 2 Go Light
Keep your pack as light as possible. I’ve hiked all over the U.S. and the world carrying heavy packs and light ones, and I’m convinced that carrying a heavy pack takes a harder toll on me physically than carrying a light pack even twice as far.
See my tips on ultralight backpacking, which provide helpful general guidelines for backpackers and dayhikers of all stripes.
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No. 3 Don’t Kill Yourself
Hike at a pace—especially uphill—where you’re not pushing your heart or respiratory rates into the red zone, and take frequent, short breaks. Hiking is an endurance sport, not a sprint: Dial in a pace that you can maintain for hours rather than a pace at your upper limits, which will fatigue you much faster. On hard ascents, stop for a 30-second breather when you need to; even brief rests can provide a surprising degree of physical recovery.
Similarly, keep most of your breaks to sit for eating/treating water/bathroom/cooling feet (see my tips for avoiding blisters) to 15 to 20 minutes or less. That allows enough rest time without letting your muscles cool down completely, so you’re still ready to hit the trail at a strong pace.
No. 4 Get Out Early
Hike as much as possible of each day’s mileage in the cool hours of morning (or evening), because summer afternoons are typically hotter in many mid-latitude mountain ranges and desert canyons—especially at middle to higher elevations in the U.S. West—and heat greatly amplifies your fatigue and accelerates dehydration, which prevents muscles and cells from functioning optimally. (On a related note, I always wear a sun hat, and a wide-brim hat protects you better than a ball cap.)
Not everyone likes to wake up early, and your trip doesn’t have to feel like work; just find a balance between how much sleep you need and minimizing your exposure to afternoon heat. Get organized in camp with gear to facilitate a quicker morning departure—eating breakfast and packing up doesn’t have to take two hours.