10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier
By Michael Lanza
When I first started hiking, in my early 20s, I was like a young baseball pitcher with an overpowering fastball: I simply hurled myself at every hike with all of my energy and cluelessness, not terribly concerned about whether I hit the metaphorical strike zone. I didn’t think much about how far I was hiking, how rugged the terrain was, how heavy a pack I was carrying—or, to be honest, how much my companions were ready or eager for whatever lunatic plan I was dragging them into. I was young and fit and didn’t really care how much my body ached afterward, so my haphazard strategy worked well enough.
Now, many miles and (too) many years later, I’m more like a veteran hurler who’s learned the benefits of honing a repertoire of off-speed pitches. Hiking and backpacking can be hard on your body. But over the years, I’ve learned various tricks to soften the blow of hard miles, and they have helped enable me to hike 20, 30, even 40 miles in a day. No matter how far you want to hike, the tips that follow will make those miles a little 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.
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.
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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 twice as far. See my tips on ultralight backpacking, which provide helpful general guidelines for backpackers and dayhikers of all stripes.
No time for a big trip this year? You need to read my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More.”
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 longer 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 plenty of 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, and heat amplifies your fatigue. (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.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
No. 5 Step Lightly
Make your own little switchbacks in the trail when going downhill. Walking straight down a slope’s fall line puts the greatest pressure on your feet, knees, leg muscles, and soft tissue in joints. To lessen that impact, especially on steep trails, I like to zigzag slightly in the trail—as if creating my own tiny switchbacks within the footpath—so that I’m landing with each foot at a diagonal angle to the fall line rather than stepping straight down it. Work on it, I think you’ll notice the difference once you get the knack of it.
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