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1. Get boots that fit. I used to always get boots on sale or close-out — then wonder why my feet would get so beat up. Hiking boots/shoes is one area where you should focus on fit, comfort and performance and endure the sticker shock. Visit your favorite outdoor retailer, tell them what you’re up to, see what they recommend. Try on at least two pair for comparison and walk around the store. Some stores have incline devices where you can simulate climbing. Be sure to try on the shoes with the socks you plan to wear. On the issue of shoes vs. boots, it’s essentially a matter of personal preference. Boots may be preferable if you have ankle issues or if your ankles have a good deal of hiker to support. Hiking shoes work for most other folks, even on a long hike. Lighter is generally better, especially when you’re spending the day on the trail. Again, look for a snug but not tight fit, and that your feet don’t move around, a catalyst for blisters. While hiking, check periodically (including after 10 to 15 minutes on the trail) to make sure your boots haven’t loosened up.
2. Socks: Back in the day, we had one sock option: tube socks (though we did have quite the array of colored calf stripes to choose from). Today, there’s a “technical sock” for every occasion. Hiking in dry, sandy conditions? There’s a sock for that. In a jungle? Got a ya covered. Climbing a scree field? Yup, there’s a sock specifically woven for that (or so the packaging claims). Fortunately, there’s also an array of socks for hiking. Socks differ in fabric (wool or a wool blend is good), in density of weave, in price. They also come in thicknesses; for our purposes a lightweight to mid-weight hiking sock should suffice. A snug, but not small, sock is preferable to minimize blister-causing friction. Also to help minimize the risk of blisters, you might consider sock liners, a thin, lightweight sock that goes between your foot and your main sock whose job is to minimize friction. And be sure to pack an extra pair or two: Wet socks are trouble.
3. Hydrate! If you take but one piece of advice from this post, make it this: drink! Nothing torpedoes a hike faster than becoming dehydrated. Hydration is an ongoing process, one you should be particularly aware of two to three days prior to a big hike. Although thoughts vary on how much water you should consume in a day, you should play it safe by having a water bottle with you at all times. A good way to tell if you’re drinking enough is by the color of your urine: the clearer the better. On the trail, take plenty of water. Your best bet is to carry a hydration pack; their big advantage is that the water tube is always at the ready, encouraging you to drink. They can be pricey — minimalist packs start around $40, a day pack with a hydration system built in can run you more than $100 — but the convenience and accessibility are worth it.
4. Layer your clothes. Some of you will begin training in the cold of winter and do your hike in the heat of spring. Others will start training during the dog days of summer and do your hike in the cool of middle to late fall. Either way, you’ll be hiking through a range of temperatures and weather — sometimes in the same day. From a clothing standpoint you’ll need to be equipped to deal with heat and cold and dry and wet conditions. Your best bet for comfortably handling these extremes is to dress in layers. Say you’re doing a 15-mile training hike in early April or late September. Your hike begins at 8, well before the heat of day kicks in. Start with a thin, long sleeve base layer, topped by a slightly heavier layer. If it’s especially cool, you might throw on a fleece outer layer. After a few minutes on the trail your body warms considerably; shed that outer fleece later and continue on (but keep it near the top of your day pack so you can throw it on and ward off a chill when you stop for lunch or breaks). Likewise, as the afternoon winds down and the sun drops behind the ridgeline you might want to throw that fleece back on. Gloves and a knit cap can also be used to quickly and easily regulate body temperature. It’s good, too, to pack a rain shell and pants in case of precipitation, which can cool a body considerably, even on a warm day. Avoid cotton at all costs: it gets wet and stays wet, making it hard for your body to stay warm.
5. Eat! “Bonk”: that’s the technical term for getting to the mid-point of a 10-mile hike and suddenly running out of energy — and thewill to proceed. Avoid bonking with the one-two punch of fueling up beforehand and during a long hike. Old school: Not long ago, the common thinking was to have a big pasta dinner the night before a long event. Load up on carbs that you’ll use the next day. The new school thinking is that you should carb load two nights out. The thinking is that carbs release more slowly into your system and that two days out is more efficient. Also: pasta tends to encourage water retention, not something you want on a long day on the trail. Fueling up a couple days in advance is a good start, but a long day on the trail will burn a lot of calories. Thus, you’ll need to take on extra fuel during the hike. The most efficient way to do this is with power bars and gels, which act as a shot of energy into your system. Be advised that not everyone’s system handles bars and gels well. Experiment and see what works best for you. You may discover that a PBJ or a sleeve of Oreos is your most efficient fueling system.
6. Train for night hiking. No kidding, at almost every Ultimate Hike at least one hiker seems surprised and shocked by the fact it’s dark — and will be for at least the first couple hours. The notion of hiking at night — through a dark forest amid a cacophony of weird and unidentifiable sounds; — can seem freaky at first. But for most, once they hit the trail and get used to living within the cozy glow of their headlamp, it’s a treat. You’ll need a headlamp (you can pick up a decent one for as little as $30), but that’s it as far as special equipment goes. You need to pay closer attention to the trail than you do during the day and you’re advised not to hike alone. Also, most land managers have posted hours for their properties (the U.S. Forest Service being a notable exception); if you go in after or before posted hours, you are, technically, trespassing. Hiking in the dark, either before sunup or after sundown, is an especially good way to beat the summer heat, and it’s also a great mid-week option during winter, when the last of the sunlight tends to disappear about the time you get off work. Do not wait until your Ultimate Hike to take your first night hike: Hiking under the lights takes some adjusting and you’ll have enough to deal with on The Big Day.
7. Consider hiking poles. It’s interesting how many people have no interest in hiking poles at the start of training and how many do after the first 10- or 12-mile hike. Leave your vanity in the closet and do your knees and feet a favor by getting hiking poles. The strain they take off your knees is noticeable to anyone who has ever hiked 15 miles without poles, then hiked 15 miles with them. They also help relieve the pounding your feet take on a long hike and give your upper body something to do on the trail. Poles are especially useful on climbs and, even more so on descents. If you’re facing a long stretch of flat, smooth trail, most poles quickly break down and can attach to your pack. You can get poles starting around $50; ones with shock absorbers and quick-release adjustments may run closer to $100. If you’re uncertain, borrow a pair for a test run. Also: Make sure you know how to use them. It may seem obvious, but proper technique makes all the difference between useful appendage and hiking with two sticks that constantly get in your way.
8. Have a good day pack. If you already have a pack, stick with it for the first few weeks. Take note of what works for you (lots of pockets), what doesn’t (minimal access to the main compartment). Then go to your favorite outfitter and check out the options. Things to look for: A good suspension system, including a hip belt that lets your hips absorb the bulk of the pack’s weight and that keeps the pack away from your back (an especially good thing on sweaty summer hikes); good pocket options (a hip belt with pockets lets you keep energy snacks close at hand; zippers that zip with ease. Think about everything you’ll need to pack on a big hike and make sure your pack can accommodate it all. Make sure it’s comfortable on your back and doesn’t bind.
9. Cross-train. It’s not all about hiking. True, the best way to build up to a 25- or 30- or 35-mile hike is to take long hikes. But odds are you don’t have time to head out every day for a 2-hour, 6-mile hike. Some options include: Ride a bike: It builds your cardio and leg muscles. Hit the elliptical trainer or stair climber at the gym: similar benefits as the bike. Take a yoga or pilates class: builds strength, keeps you limber. Work your core: your abs, your back muscles — muscles that don’t get a lot of attention during a hike, but will play a key role in keeping your body happy and moving on the Ultimate Hike. A favorite form of cross-training: Working in the yard. Raking, weeding, mowing: you think you sleep well after a 10-mile hike? You’ll sleep great after a day of yard work.
10. Listen to your body. As your hikes get longer, your body will be entering new physiological territory. New things will be sore, new aches will surface. You’ll want to pay attention to these new and strange feelings and deal with them before they become an issue. I suggest keeping a malady journal with you on your hike and making note of any annoyances that pop up. For instance: Suddenly you notice a little tenderness in your right heel. Make note of where exactly the soreness is occurring, how far into the hike you were when you noticed the problem, what the conditions were (rainy? dry? rocky? steep climb?), what kind of socks and shoes/boots you were wearing, and what you did immediately to deal with the problem. If the problem goes away, make note of it: It could pop up again down the line and you may well have forgotten exactly how you dealt with it the first time. If the problem persists, make note of subsequent attempts to deal with the issue. At hike’s end, if you still haven’t solved the problem you’ll have a detailed account of what happened and what you did to try and deal with it. Also, odds are a colleague or two has dealt with a similar issue. Use the Facebook page to share your problem and see if anyone else has a good solution.
Christine BorkEmail Christine(800) 458-6223