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.
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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.
No. 6 Choose Your Steps Carefully
Step onto stable, relatively flat rocks and earth when walking downhill. That not only reduces your risk of slipping and falling, but those feet-friendly platforms act as small, natural braking mechanisms for your body, thus relieving your muscles of some of that effort. It may sound minor, but over the course of many miles and thousands of steps, it can make a difference. I frequently walk along the tops of the bigger rocks that are sometimes set in place at the edges of trails to keep hikers from wandering off the trail; they usually provide a stable platform (they won’t roll) and make a descent easier on my legs. (This tip is closely related to no. 7.)
No. 7 Take Baby Steps
Long strides are fine on flat terrain, but when going up or down, shorten your stride. Bending your knees deeply, as you do when taking big steps up or down, works the large muscles and your joints harder than bending your knees more shallowly. (Think: what’s harder, walking up and down a stairway one step at a time, or two?) In the same way that long switchbacks in a trail ease its difficulty by lessening the path’s angle, while you’ll take more steps by shortening your stride, you’ll work less hard than if taking big steps up or down.
A side benefit of this technique when going downhill is that you’re less likely to slip and fall, because you land with each foot more directly below your body weight, rather than ahead of you. The reason most falls occur walking downhill (we rarely fall when walking uphill), is that when stepping up, we land with each foot almost directly below our body—a balanced position—whereas when walking downhill, we land on a foot that’s out in front of our body, a position that’s more off-balance.
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No. 8 Drink Up
Drink regularly to stay hydrated, which helps combat muscle soreness and the effects of the hot sun and high elevations. I take a good drink every 15 or 20 minutes (and remind my kids to do so). I also like carrying powdered drink mix and making a liter to drink in the afternoon or right after reaching camp, to help rehydrate and replace electrolytes. It’s amazing how much better that alone can make me feel.
No. 9 Eat Like It’s Your Job
Similarly, snack regularly while walking. I keep bars, dried fruit, or other snacks within reach, in the pockets of my pants or my pack’s hipbelt. Hunger is a delayed signal—it arrives only after your body’s energy reserves have become depleted. That’s not a problem when you’re lying on the couch, but if you’re walking for miles, nibble frequently to avoid letting your gas tank run low. If you notice companions—especially kids, who lack the fat reserves of adults—slowing down, getting quiet or grumpy, or with a faraway look in their eyes, that’s usually a sign they need some food. (See my “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors.”)
Planning your next big adventure? See “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips” and my All Trips page.
No. 10 Use Poles
None of the most experienced and hard-core hikers and backpackers I know ever hike without poles, period. Trekking poles significantly reduce the impact and cumulative fatigue on leg muscles and joints and your lower back, whether going up or down, especially when you’re carrying a load on your back. Poles also reduce your risk of tripping and falling—four legs are better than two.
By the way, many hikers I see don’t use poles properly to maximize their benefits. Here’s how:
• When going uphill or on flat terrain, adjust your poles’ length so that your elbows are bent at 90 degrees when holding the poles upright with their tips touching the ground. With each stride forward, plant the pole in the opposite hand beside or behind your trailing foot, with the pole at an angle, so that you’re pushing off slightly each time you plant a pole. Planting the pole in front of you—as many people do—doesn’t help propel you forward. Over the course of several miles, you’ll notice the difference.
• On sustained downhill stretches, lengthen the poles by five to 10 centimeters, depending on the trail’s steepness, and plant each pole out in front of you (right-hand pole when stepping left foot forward and vice versa) so that the poles take some of your body weight when stepping down. For big steps off ledges and rocks, plant both poles first and lean on them as you step down.
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See all of my Skills stories, including my tips for avoiding blisters and my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More.” Find great places to dayhike and backpack at my All Trips page and in the menus of all of my stories about hiking, backpacking, family adventures, and national park adventures at The Big Outside.
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