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10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier

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.

Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park.
Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park.

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.”

A backpacker above Thousand Island Lake on the John Muir Trail.
Todd Arndt above Thousand Island Lake on the John Muir Trail.

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.

Get my help planning your backpacking, hiking, or family trip and 30% off a one-year subscription. Click here.

Backpackers on the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Backpackers on the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

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.

 


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

Hiking across Ants Basin, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho.
Hiking across Ants Basin, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho.

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.

. . .

See all of my Skills stories, including my tips for avoiding blisters and my “5 Tips for Staying Warm and Dry on the Trail.”

About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

14 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Another one I use is to try to keep my eyes forward when going uphill and spot a path with the smallest increases in vertical. In other words, I try to avoid the rocks, which require steps up, when the dirt terrain will gradually take there. While it may be a few more steps, I find, like you, it’s a lot of little things.

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      That’s a good one, Ralph, and a little more nuanced version of my tip no. 7 above. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Helpful article, Michael. Some of these techniques are new to me. I will try these techniques on my next hike!

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      Thanks, Alex. I think you will notice the benefits.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    Morning Michael. I am a 62-year-old retired Navy Officer and USFWS law enforcement officer; I “hung up” my uniform for the last time this past July. As I enter my 4th childhood, I am prepping to complete a lifelong dream of mine: thru-hiking the AT next spring. As a result, I spend no less than an average of an hour a day online researching equipment, techniques, etc., and I happily stumbled across your website. It is simply out-freaking-standing!

    Reading your article on “10 tricks…” I was particularly surprised to see your recommendation to do “mini switchbacks” when transiting downhill. I used to do significant trail-running, and that was something I used to do to save what is left of my knee cartilage. I still do that when hiking (though it does unnerve my Aussie when she is with me!). I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else mention that!

    Anyway, looking forward to delving deeper into your site! Thanks much, amigo!

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      Hi Gary, thanks for the kind words, and let me say it’s always nice to hear from an old sea dog. (My dad was one, long before you.) You learned one of my tricks from experience. I hope some of the others are new to you. Good luck pulling off your AT thru-hike, and with your fourth childhood and however many more follow (hikes and childhoods). I hope you’ll keep in touch.

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    Great tips, Michael. I can totally relate to the first two points, be fit and go light. These are the two mistakes I did on my very first hiking trip. I wasn’t fit but I was too excited and din’t want to miss the opportunity. And, my backpack was very heavy which made the things even worst. Somehow I was able to enjoy the trip but I learned a lot from my first trip. Wonderful article, thank you for sharing useful tips.

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      Thanks, Anthony. And your first backpacking trip sounds an awful lot like mine.

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    very informative article Michael. Little switchbacks in the trail while going downhill is a technique I’ll try on my next hike!

    Reply
  6. Avatar

    Hey, i’d be up for another Pemi Loop ? Nothing like a good old beat down! Love to tag along. Let me know when.

    BTW my Presi Traverse was over well over 70,000 steps according to my Fitbit ?

    Jeff in MA

    Reply
  7. Avatar

    Great advice! Some should seem somewhat obvious I would hop but #3,5,6,7 I believe are extremely good tips, especially if your dealing with very technical terrain….like my home turf the White Mountains.
    While not for everyone for me I enjoy to also turn hikes into almost little science projects. Quick trail analysis for good lines through techy terrain and those steps above to be safe, effeciant, and conserve energy. Since I live in extreme rock country one game I play when hiking with a slow group is practicing to see how far I can go staying just on top of rocks and not touching the ground. A good skill to practice IMO.

    At 58YO this past June I completed a solo 12 peak Presidential Traverse going south to north in 14 hours flat with breaks. 24 miles, 9,300 feet of elevation. (Longest hike I’d ever done until….)

    “The Pemi Loop” also late June done solo. 32.5 miles (including West Bond Spur to bag that peak for my 4,000 footers) over 9,000 feet of elevation again and just shy of 14 hours with breaks.

    EVERYTHING Michel listed 1-10 had to come into play for me to do these hikes in those times. Fantastic advice that absolutely works!

    Jeff in MA

    Reply
  8. Avatar

    Great tips! I carried way to much weight on my first solo hiking trip, and i was knackered with sore knees at the end. I’ve now learnt to pack light, and I totally agree that it’s easier to carry a light pack twice as far as carrying a heavy pack half the distance.
    I think it’s also important to walk at your own pace. I’ve been hiking in groups when I’m one of the fastest, and one of the slowest, but trying to walk faster to keep up with a group is also really tiring, it’s better to go at a steady pace, and keep going for longer. After all, it’s a hike not a race. Refueling regularly certainly helps, although when it’s cold i get less hungry, I think it’s because I don’t want to stop and get cold!

    Reply

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