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—including 10 years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and many years running this blog—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 forties and fifties.
No matter how far you plan to hike, these tips will make your hikes easier.
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. But as with many endurance sports, there are ways to hike a trail more efficiently, conserving energy and reducing the physical impacts that bring on fatigue. The 10 expert tips below will help you do exactly that.
Tell me what you think of my tips and share your own tricks and tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
No. 1 Be Fit
Sure, this seems obvious, but we all know it’s easy to fall off track and find yourself struggling on a dayhike or backpacking trip because you’re in less-than-optimal physical condition.
Maintain a regular exercise program so that you hit the trail with a good base of fitness. If you’ve fallen off a training program, get back on it two to three months prior to a trip. 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.”
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No. 2 Go Light
This tip goes hand-in-hand with no. 1 (above): Keep your pack as light as possible. These first two tips are simply the two biggest and best steps you can take to make your backpacking trips more enjoyable. I’ve hiked all over the U.S. and the world for years, carrying heavy packs and light ones, and that has convinced me that carrying a heavy pack is harder physically than carrying a light pack even twice as far.
There’s a simple reason for that: Most people simply don’t train their bodies for the added pounding and wear-and-tear caused by hauling an extra 25, 35, or 45 pounds or more above your normal body weight in rugged terrain. It naturally takes a toll on our bodies—and that toll only grows with age.
Want to make your pack lighter and all of your backpacking trips more enjoyable? See my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of that story for free, or click here to download that full story without having a paid membership.
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No. 3 Don’t Kill Yourself
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. Hike at a pace—especially uphill—where you’re not pushing your heart or respiratory rates into the red zone; you should be able to maintain a conversation without gasping. 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 (not necessarily all) of your rest stops—sitting to eat, treating water, bathroom break, or 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 steady pace.
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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, but also in eastern mountain ranges—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 getting adequate sleep and minimizing your exposure to afternoon heat.
Get organized in camp to facilitate a quicker morning departure—eating breakfast and packing up doesn’t have to take two hours. See my “5 Tips for Getting Out of Camp Faster When Backpacking.”
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No. 5 Step Lightly
Walking straight down a slope’s fall line magnifies the strain on your feet, knees, leg muscles, and soft tissue in joints. To lessen that impact, especially on steep trails, make your own little, zigzagging switchbacks within the trail when going downhill, so that you’re landing with each foot at a diagonal angle to the fall line rather than stepping straight down it.
It can be a little tricky in narrow, rocky paths, but work on it. You’ll notice the difference once you get the knack of it. After years of doing it, it has become a mindless practice for me, and I can feel the difference in fatigue certainly over the course of a hike, but also, often, with each step.
How hard is it? See my five-level difficulty rating system in “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
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See all of my Skills stories, including my tips for avoiding blisters and my “5 Tips for Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking,” and all of my reviews of backpacking gear, ultralight backpacking gear, and hiking gear.