One thing you can learn about thruhiking via the internet is that how much weight you’re carrying will have a measured effect on how much you’re enjoying you’re hike.
Not that long ago, it wasn’t rare for people to carry packs that, not counting food, water, etc weighed upwards of 30 or 40lbs. Cheryl Strayed’s pack, fully loaded, supposedly weighed half her body weight (there’s a reason she named it Monster.)
Now backpacking gear and it’s enthusiasts are trying to find a balance between lighter weight, durability and price point. Some people spent a lot of time, energy, education and often money trying to make their base weight – the weight of a person’s gear not including the clothes on their back, food, water, or fuel – as little as possible.
An “ultralight” hiker is someone who’s base weight is typically less than 12 lbs. Almost every UL hiker whose gear you look at will be carrying a tarp or a tarptent – an easy way to shave a pound or more off your base weight. They also tend to be fastidious about not carrying duplicate gear.
A “lightweight” hiker’s base weight ranges between 13 to 20 lbs. They might have a freestanding tent (like me), sleep clothes, town clothes, and a few other luxury items.
A “traditional” hiker has a base weight of 20 lbs or more.
My baseweight comes in just under 15 lbs, which is considered lightweight. My pack recommends not carrying more than 35lbs at a time, which means I’ve got about 20lbs to play with as far as food, water, and changing gear is concerned. That’s not much, considering that water weights 2.2lbs/liter (and there will be sections I’ll have to carry 6 or more liters of water) and in order to eat enough calories, I’ll be carrying around 2 lbs of food per day I’m hiking. Not to mention, 35lbs is heavy, and heavy slows you down.
I’m giving exact numbers where I can and making guesses where I can’t. I’m not invested enough in exact ounces to weigh each individual piece myself, so I’m going off of product weight details or other hiker’s estimates.
Backpack – ULA Circuit – 41 oz – I upgraded this from a 62 oz Deuter backpack to save myself 1.5 lbs and it ended up being more comfortable than the Deuter
Tent – REI quarter dome 1 – 34 oz
Sleeping pad – Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Women’s Regular – 12 oz
Sleeping bag/quilt – Enlightened Equipment Revelation – 21.5 oz
Ground sheet – Tyvek – 5 (?ish?) oz
Sleeping bag liner – 4 oz – Bringing this mainly to put over my sleeping pad because I find it super uncomfortable to sleep directly on plastic. It’s also a nice back up for especially cold nights to help prevent drafts from the quilt, or for warm nights where I don’t need my sleeping quilt.
Total: 117.5 oz
Potential modifications: I could maybe be talked into a tarp tent, but have seen enough people struggle with them that I’m OK with the Quarter Dome for now. Price is also pretty prohibitive there. Also although some people don’t feel more “protected” inside a tent, I definitely do (for now.) It would be near impossible to talk me into a straight tarp at this point. I can drop the sleeping bag liner if I decide it’s unnecessary, ditto for Tyvek. I have been using both on weekend trips.
Worn clothing (not part of base weight)
Shoes – still figuring this out
Socks – Darn Toughs or Injinji’s (still figuring this out)
Sun shirt – Columbia sun hiking shirt
Pants – Columbia Saturday Trail Pant
Underwear – Ibex Wool
Bra – Panache
Sunglasses – Random cheap polarized glasses, fancier glasses for the Sierra snow Hat Trekking pole (one)
Potential modifications: Might drop sun gloves if they prove unnecessary, might switch to running shorts if pants prove too hot/my legs can handle the sun, might give up on trekking poles if I can’t teach myself to love them, might have to change shoes depending on just how swollen my already-wide feet get out there
Rain gear – Dry ducks small jacket – 5 oz (ish)
Socks – Darn toughs x2 – 5 oz Down jacket – 7.2 oz (Bought on sale from campsaver.com, 50% off)
Underwear – Ibex Wool – 1.6 oz
Cold weather gloves – 1 oz ish
Beanie – 1 oz ish
Bandanas x3 – 1 oz ish
Total: 35.8 oz
Potential modifications: Current plan with bandanas is one is for nose blowing, one is a pee rag, and one is for sun protection/water filtering. Could potentially drop one in the future.
1.5L Evernew Bladder – 1.3 oz
2L Evernew Bladder – 1.5 oz
Evernew Bladder Hose – 2oz (ish)
Smart Water Bottles x 2 – 2.6 oz
Sawyer Squeeze – 3 oz
Total: 10.4 oz
Potential changes: Likely using the 2L Evernew Bladder as a “dirty” bag for Sawyer – whole thing is subject to change, one of the challenges of carrying water on the sides of your pack is having to adjust it as you go through your water lest you end up walking like Igor. At this point I definitely prefer being able to sip water effortlessly via a tube than having to take a waterbottle out of my pack. But the bladder hose is compatible with Smart Water bottles so I may end up just attaching it to the bottles directly.
First aid/emergency/hygiene kit
Duct tape, Ibuprofen, Benadryl, Pepto, Antifungal, anti-chafe, Sunscreen, chapstick, antibacterial, sunscreen, needle, thread – 5oz ish
Toothbrush, Toothpaste, Floss, Hand sanitizer, Wet wipes, TP, Menstrual cup, Deuce of Spades – 5 oz ish
Lighters x2, Whistle, Compass, (2.4 oz), Multitool – 5 oz ish
DeLorme InReach – 7 oz
Total: 22 oz
Potential modifications: Changes to first aid kit as different things become an issue/nonissue, will eventually add bug spray/lotion
10k MAH Battery pack – 6.4 oz Headlamp – 4.6 oz
iPhone7 w/ lifeproof case- 6 oz
Earbuds – .4.oz
Backup batteries for headlamp – 1 oz
Charges/cords – 3 oz (ish)
Total: 21 oz
Misc Trash compactor bag – pack liner – 1 oz ish
Cards/cash/ID — 3 oz ish
Hiking Umbrella – 7 oz
Maps – varies, let’s say 2.5 oz SticPic + Phone holder – 1 oz
Total: 14.5 oz
Potential modifications: Umbrella will get shipped ahead or ditched in the Sierra, possibly sooner. We’ll see if I use the SticPic, or the trekking poles that it attaches to, for that matter.
Total pack base weight: 234.1 oz (14.6 lbs)
Ice axe or whippet
Today is one of my last “lazy” Sundays before the trail. Three Sunday after this one I will be hiking through the desert barely having scratched the surface of 2600 miles. The last Sunday where I can imagine soreness and stiffness as a temporary condition.
Yesterday I hiked Battleship Mountain with three other people who are all doing the Oregon Coast Trail this summer. Our challenges are going to be different. They’re hiking 400 miles, but only have 3 weeks to do it, which means they will have to average 18 miles a day with little time to acclimate. I’m hiking 2600 miles but have the freedom of taking time and having patience with my body for the first few weeks. They will be cold. I will be battling the sun. They’ll be sleeping in hotels and yurts and designated campgrounds much of the way, eating hot meals and drinking beer, and I will not be.
Still, Battleship Mountain was a challenge for all of us. Long (5 miles before reaching the base), steep, bushwacking, trail finding, scrambling (some of which could be called low grade rock climbing).
We started giving each other trail names. When I slid my hand across a cactus that was hidden in a bush while we were bushwacking, I became “Cactus Whacker.” When my blistered feet and overtired legs made me slow for the last two miles, I became “Willie” – “because you’re moving by sheer force of will at this point.”
“So you’ve named me Cactus Willie Whacker?”
We got a kick out of that. I won’t be taking it with me on the PCT.
We didn’t make it to the very last summit of Battleship Mountain. That’s okay. We were tired, and the exhaustion was making the eroded granite that gave the “ball-bearing slope” its name especially treacherous. We called it and turned around.
Today I am hobbling around. I threaded some string through my blisters last night to much success, but my feet are still tender. I’ve decided to take it easy today. I took myself to brunch, read a book. I am trying to revel in the fact that in three Sundays, I won’t have the choice to put my feet up and drive to breakfast and watch hours of TV. I won’t get to cuddle with my dogs or wake up next to my husband. I will be choosing to be sore and exhausted every day. I will be choosing to walk on anyway.
It is also strange to think that however long I’m out there – hopefully five months, or however long it takes me to reach Canada – when I come back I will be coming back to a life that won’t quite fit me anymore. Too loose or too tight. Too sharp or soft. I will be stepping into a phantom life that I recognize and yet won’t quite seem alive anymore. Or that’s what I imagine. That’s what happens in small doses when I come back from long, hard hikes. I see my daily life and it seems to be, however slightly, sized to someone else.
I am nervous and afraid and excited and hopeful. 2600 miles seems too long and also totally possible. 5 months seems too hard and yet within my grasp.
The only way to do it is to do it I guess. But hopefully without feet filled with blisters. I have four pairs of shoes I’m testing out. Wide feet are especially hard to protect on the trail, it seems. I will find a way.
This weekend was 25 miles of backpacking in 36 hours. Approximately 5000 feet accumulated elevation gain, 3000 of it in a 2 mile distance. The destination: Reavis Falls and Reavis Ranch in a day with my friend Dominic. Holy crap, what a trip.
Our initial plan had been Reavis Ranch, but I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to backpack in that area again, so I wanted to see as much as possible and Dominic was down for a big mile push. The map said the waterfall plus the ranch would be a 15 mile day. I’ve managed 16 with less daylight before, and the ranch’s elevation gain seemed gentle (I didn’t look at the elevation gain for the waterfall – whoops) so I figured we could handle it.
We camped at the trailhead the night before and were on-trail by 6:45 am. The first ~3 miles was gentle uphill climbing in the cool morning air which made us overconfident. The flowers were blooming – one species smelled strongly of, ahem, semen (?!? I know there’s a tree that smells like this there weren’t any trees in this section) – and the mountains were gorgeously green and rolling. We could scarcely believe we were hiking in the Superstitions. It wasn’t like anything we’d seen in the Tonto before.
When we reached the turnoff for the unmaintained waterfall trail, it was a steeper up, but nothing too treacherous, and then started going relatively gentle downhill. Dominic and I passed a campsite where someone had left bottles of booze, a pair of pants and a torn up sleeping bag. “People are awful,” we moaned. “Maybe we can carry it back to the turnoff on our way out? And if it’s still there tomorrow, we can carry it out!” Ha ha. Our adorably sweet intentions.
Then the trail got decidedly less friendly. Steep downhills with loose soil and eventually eroded granite that acted like marbles under our feet. The mountain was a large garden of prickly pear cactuses. We’d only just started the big descent when I slipped and fell into one very large prickly pear plant. Dominic turned around and said he was sure he’d be pulling spines out of my back, but I managed to miss everything but a splinter in my finger.
As we continued down (and I fell on my ass several more times) we started voicing our concern for the trek back up: “That is going to be one bitch of a climb.” “And we still have six miles to get to the ranch afterward.” “But: Waterfall!”
After a full mile or so of treacherous footwork, we reached the creek at the bottom. Backpackers who’d camped overnight pointed us up the creek. “The waterfall is that way.”
There was little to no trail, only creek and boulders. Dominic seemed to be having a relatively easy time making it across the boulders and through bushes, but my pack kept getting caught on branches, yanking me back. I overheated quickly and told Dominic to go ahead while I sat by the creek and ate and cooled down. He didn’t get much further before finding a rock to catch a quick nap on and a half an hour or so later we met up and pushed forward.
My pack continued to get caught and eventually I decided to leave it on a boulder. I was more worried about forgetting where it was than someone stealing it. If someone wanted to haul that back up the mountain, more power to them.
And then, not even 20 minutes later, we were at the falls.
Dominic made a quick fire and cooked some potatoes, yams and onions he’d packed in tin foil and we had a hot, delicious lunch while resting our feet before heading back. My pack was where I’d left it. As I put it on, I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye and spotted a silver frog/toad. I called out for Dominic, who is really into herping (he’d brought along a hook-type thing to scout for snakes, I was sending out all of my anti-rattlesnake vibes.) He caught it and took a picture with it and we moved on. The trek back through the creek was easier and we stopped at the trail turnoff (easy to miss if you’re looking for campers like I was – it’s marked by a cairn that blends in if you’re not paying close attention) to filter water.
Sitting there filtering water I realized just how hot it still was and how easily I was overheating just going through the creek. We’d planned to try to be at the top of the hike up by 4pm so that we could get to Reavis by sunset, but I couldn’t imagine hiking up 3000 feet in 80 degrees and direct sunlight. I knew I’d be miserable and have to stop every few feet at best, and that I could get dangerously overheated at worst.
“What if we wait here until the sun backs off and night hike the rest of the way instead?” I offered. Admittedly, I am not a night hiker – the only other time I’d done it was on the day I met Dominic on the top of Piestewa Peak. But that hadn’t been so bad, right?
Dominic would have definitely preferred to push for it because he wasn’t as bothered by the heat, but he’s a great backpacker and knows heat affects people really differently, so he acquiesced.
As I sat there continuing to filter our water, another backpacker showed up. He was an older guy and he was sweaty and breathing hard. “I don’t envy you hiking down in that sun,” I said. He put his pack down and chatted with us. We advised him to leave his pack to get to the waterfall and traded hiking suggestions and I filtered some water for him because he hadn’t brought his own (he planned to bum a filter off of other hikers or boil water if he ran out.) He told us about trying to navigate Hell’s Gate up north and took my suggestion for an easy trip to Horton Springs.
Eventually he moved on and Dominic and I found a rock to lay back on and close our eyes for a few minutes. Around 4 we started heading back up the mountain. It was hard, but I was immediately glad we’d waited until the sun went away. Still, as we climbed, I let out many a “fucking seriously?” and “you have got to be kidding me” as I looked up at the trail in front of me. Meanwhile, Dominic’s knee was cramping up. I stopped every few steps to catch my breath.
At one point I turned to Dominic and said, “This is making me feel like I’ve never hiked before.”
But that kind of hiking is both what I live for and what I detest. It’s the point of suffering in a hike. That used to come quickly in a hike for me, and I could easily reach that place in a 3-mile hike in town. Everything about hiking was new to me – if my hands were swelling I thought I might be dying, if I needed a break when other people were passing me I told myself I was terrible and should quit, if my muscles burned I thought it was the end of the world.
I still don’t love those things. They aren’t fun. But when you’re done with them, your experience of yourself expands. You go from “overwhelmed, bit off more than I could chew, what was I thinking?!” to: I did that. I didn’t think I could, but I did.
The more I hike, the more I’m able to manage that feeling of suffering. Instead of, “this is a disaster,” instead I think: This is hard as hell, but I’ll get there eventually. Admittedly, on the climb out of Reavis Falls, I was definitely thinking, Hey, if Dominic wants to call it quits and just head back to the trailhead, I’ll be totally cool with that. If Dominic doesn’t want to try to push to Reavis Ranch, I won’t argue.
(But I also wasn’t going to offer.)
When we passed the trashed campsite again, we both looked at each other wishing we were better (and less exhausted) people and left everything, the pants, the alcohol bottles, the sleeping bag there.
Shortly thereafter we were at the top, and the sun was going down.
Ah, yes, the top! Dominic was ready to get as close to the ranch as possible despite his knee. Still, we figured we would be alright. We were back to the promised land of minimal, gradual elevation gain before a relatively flat smooth-sailing to the ranch. The sufferfest was over! (This is the lie my brain likes to tell itself to induce further agony.)
We quickly start cruising along the trail and the temperature is wonderful and we’re finally not moving at a snail’s pace and I’m like, night hiking is great! But my headlamp, I’m realizing, isn’t super great. My eyes are working hard to make sense of the trail, which so far has been pretty smooth but occasionally tosses a bunch of rocks at me that my ankles have to work quickly to correct.
And then we started hiking on a ridge, with a sheer cliff to the side.
It’s fine, I tell myself. The trail is smooth and wide enough and I haven’t died yet ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha?
“I don’t love this cliff,” I say out loud, and my voice is shakier than I anticipated.
“We’re fine,” Dominic says. I’m doing my best to keep my anxieties at bay and not imagine my body tumbling down the mountain.
A few minutes later I hear him say something.
“What?” I ask.
“I said, that really is a cliff.”
And then my brain goes wild. It goes something like this:
*imagining body tumbling down mountain –*
Me: NO! Don’t think about that! One step at a time. One step at a time. One step at a…
*imagining twisting an ankle that sends me off-balance and tumbling down the mountain*
Me: I wonder who should be carrying the emergency Personal Locator Beacon? Is it better for it to be on the body of the injured, or in the hands of the safe?
Me: NO! Don’t think about that –
Me: What if DOMINIC is the one who falls?
Me: I said don’t —
Me: Dominic walks faster than me, maybe that means he’s in even more danger?!
And so on, until we’re at a saddle looking at a camp site. “Did you want to just camp here?” I ask. But Dominic doesn’t. He thinks he can squeeze a few more miles in before his leg gives out, and he’s sure there will be more campsites along the way.
“I’m just really freaking out about the drop off,” I tell him. I can’t really see well with my headlamp and it’s scaring me. “I hate to ask,” I say. “But can I use your flashlight instead?”
“Of course,” he says. So he puts on my headlamp and pulls out his secondary bike light and I turn on his flashlight and it’s suddenly like the night isn’t quite as scary anymore because I can actually SEE.
So, on we go. Over more rocky rocks, across more ridges. There aren’t, unfortunately, more established campsites to stay at, and Dominic’s knee is only getting worse. We’re shining our lights around a slightly slanted meadow when in the distance is what sounds like a high-pitched, guttural “helllllllllllp.”
“Fucking birds,” I say out of reflex.
Wait, I think.
It’s night time.
I don’t think that was a bird.
“What was that?” I ask. On second thought, it kind of sounded like a dying deer.
“I don’t know,” he says, but I can tell he probably knows and just isn’t excited about telling me.
Oh my god, I think. It’s a mountain lion. There’s a fucking mountain lion and it sees us and it’s making noises at us and —
“It’s a bobcat,” Dominic says.
“That’s like a mountain lion, right?!”
“But it eats people like mountain lions!?”
“No. They’re barely bigger than a house cat.”
“And you’re totally 100% sure they don’t eat humans?”
I choose to believe him. But then I also tell him we won’t be camping for a few more miles because I won’t sleep a wink if we stop anywhere near that noise.
Which turns out to be fine, because there aren’t any established campsites. Eventually we’re far enough away that I relax, and Dominic gives up on the established campsite route and instead finds a tree in a meadow to set up camp underneath. We stop at 10pm. We’ve hiked 14 miles. We’re only about a mile from the ranch, but when it’s quitting time, it’s quitting time.
We eat. I pass off half my lentils and rice to Dominic, and then half my cheesecake. I’m hungry but not.
“I’m sleeping in tomorrow,” Dominic says. I can hear him snoring a few minutes later. I text Mark from my PLB and let him know we’re safe and at camp.
The next morning we don’t get up until 8:30. We pack our bags with only food and water and leave our tents at camp and go explore the ranch. It occurs to me pretty quickly I should have read more about what there was to see at the ranch. Mostly it’s a big, open field with remnants of farm equipment. Dominic was interested in some of the rusted machinery out there, trailers and axles and an old Buick transmission (?).
We puttered around and then filled water at the creek and got back on the trail at 12:30. I pulled out my umbrella for the first time and sang it’s praises for the first 3 miles. After that, the wind picked up, and I kept switching between putting on a hat and long sleeves or using the umbrella. I felt like I was constantly adjusting where the umbrella was sitting so that it would cover the whole top half of my body, and in some instances it felt like I was obstructing my view when the sun was in front of me. I want to give it a few more chances, because I definitely like not having to wear long sleeves and have a hat on, but I also don’t want to be putting my bag down every mile or so to readjust.
The last 3 miles seemed to last forever. I kept telling myself that the trailhead was just around the corner, it had to be, we were going down hill, it was only three miles, the time should fly by. No such luck. At one point we ran into a group of hikers hiking in. “We’ve been hiking for about an hour,” they said.
“Are you joking?” I asked.
“No…” they said. “Ha, has he been lying to you about how far there is to go?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve been lying to myself.”
Dominic said the look they’d given him when we said we’d done both the Falls and the Ranch in a day made him puff up a bit.
I have a habit of trying to push to the end at the end, and becoming grumpy and tired and unpleasant. So around the next curve I plopped down in the dirt and let my feet rest in the shade for a minute. I wanted to get to the trailhead, but I didn’t want to have a constant stream of expletives running through my head every step of the way there.
40 minutes or so after that break, we got to the car.
The drive back I felt pretty delirious. I could only half-have a conversation. I found things ridiculously funny.
It’s a weird feeling post-hike. Even at the end of the day at camp. I spend much of the second half of the day agonizing over how far we’ll make it, over my fears, over phantom aches in my body. But then I get to camp, or the car, and it’s done, and I see the fruitlessness of my anxieties.
Not to mention, once I’m home and I’ve had a good sleep, my brain rewrites history. It wasn’t really that hard, was it? You could do it again. Of course you could. No problem. How about next weekend?
I guess that’s why I go back there again and again. Overcoming my anxieties in real, tangible ways. And a little bit of amnesia.
My first-ever backpacking trip was to Havasu Falls, Arizona, a three-day, two-night trip. I was invited less than a week before the trip, had zero gear, and had only ever hiked 8 (miserable) miles in a day. I gathered all my gear from REI rentals and Amazon and ended up with a pack that I struggled to lift onto my back. I had no idea how to secure a backpacking packs, so on the mile down the canyon the pack swayed side to side and repeatedly pushed my pants down. I slipped and fell three times or so, and I moved about as slowly as someone could without reversing back up the mountain. I arrived to camp two hours later than everyone else in my group. At camp, I gave away a bunch of extras – a fuel canister, books – to my group so that I wouldn’t have to carry them out.
On the way OUT of the canyon, the sandy uphill that comes directly out of camp ruined my morale (I’d woken up early to get a head start) and I stood in line for two hours to take the tourist helicopter out ($80 fee) before learning that I’d have to wait for another four hours. I furiously called my husband, had him drive four hours to meet me (knowing my group would have left by then) and hiked my way out of the canyon on pure self-hatred alone. I had eight blisters on my feet when I reached the top.
Here are a few things I wish I’d known.
1. Your pack is (mostly) as heavy as you make it
Ounces add up to pounds. Step on your home scale without your pack, and then with your pack. Decide if all that “just in case” stuff is necessary.
2. Somebody else will likely have packed all that “just in case” stuff
Borrow it if you need it, which you probably won’t.
3. That 2lb sleeping pad you brought slept on for two nights that just seems like a useless flat piece of plastic?
4. Your hands will swell while hiking/backpacking
You’re not gonna die.
5. If your shoes give you blisters, any at all, return them
Finding the perfect hiking shoe is an adventure all of it’s own.
6. You’re a slow-average hiker
Your pace is pretty much your pace, and there’s not much you can do about it. Luckily, this is not a race, so stop comparing yourself to everyone else.
7. Don’t sit down or take off your pack when you need a breather.
Save these moments for when you’re going to stop and eat lunch, or need to take care of your feet. Actually, someone probably did tell you this, and you probably cursed at them. They were right.
8. Tighten all of the straps on your pack.
This helps make your pack into one solid mass, which you can then do your best to secure to your back so that it 1) doesn’t wobble and throw you off balance and 2) transfers the weight more effectively to your hips.
Eat them regularly and as you walk. Don’t “wait for another 10 minutes” or “’til you get to X miles.” Eat and drink when you’re hungry. The delay between energy dip and energy crash is shorter than you think.
10. Don’t pack “healthy” food.
Remember that time you packed celery and carrots and cucumbers for a day hike? And the whole universe laughed at you? Bring easy fats and carbs, friend. Fats and carbs.
11. Fit as much as you can IN your pack, not on it
This will help keep the weight in your hips, which do not lie.
12. You don’t have to put your tent poles inside your pack
You can put them in a side pocket, strap them on top, etc. Just make sure they’re secure..
13. Context matters
If you’re having a hell of a time, ask yourself: Why? Maybe you’re walking uphill in sand for two miles, and it’s not that you suck, the trail does. Maybe you didn’t have enough for breakfast. Maybe you’re carrying 5 liters of water. Remind yourself that the suckiness doesn’t last forever – both your mental state and the terrain are subject to change. Then keep going.
14. You will be okay (probably)
Common sense and paying attention go a remarkably long way. Don’t let fear of the unknown keep you from trying something new.
Here’s a photo of my pack on the first trip I took to Havasu Falls compared to my pack 18 months later on the same trip.
**Admittedly, being able to evaluate and purchase your own gear helps a whole lot – REI doesn’t have a particularly great light-weight selection for rental (or it didn’t at the time. Not that I would have known to ask.)
1. Use your feet/ankles/toes. When hiking uphill, think of the way you get “up” the mountain as coming from your ankles, feet and toes propelling you, rather than your thighs/quads doing all the work. Another way to think of this is: Imagine your back foot pushing you forward rather than your front leg standing you up.
2. Take smaller, slower steps when hiking uphill. You want to push yourself to the point where you can keep a steady breathing pace so that you don’t have to stop to gulp for air every few steps. The way you do this is to take smaller steps, which means you might move a little slower. That’s OK! That’s how you get up the damn mountain. If it gets particularly steep, check out this video on a technique called a “rest step.” I haven’t quite figured out down hill yet, although I try to use my hips to take some of the impact off my knees (like so) and when all else fails, I have gotten pretty talented at falling.
3. Bring (a little) more water than you need. I always bring 3 liters, more like 4 (usually in the form of a gatorade/vitamin water) if I know I’ll be out for more than 5 hours, or if it’s especially hot out.
4. Bring SNACKS. In my opinion, hiking – especially backpacking – is not a dieting exercise. Your body wants fuel and it will demand it. Bring hiking bars (like Lara Bars, Kind Bars, etc) for shorter trips, and if you’re going to be out more than 3 hours, bring lunch (which you may end up eating early in the trip.) 90 percent of the time when I am grumpy and every step I take feels like the end of the world, it’s because I am low on fuel and need a snack (and probably a brief break.) Pay attention to when these things happen so with time you can learn to catch them before they make you hit a wall.
5. Start a mindfulness practice. Hiking is mostly mental. Certainly mental positivity can be easier when your calf muscles are used to the endurance of uphill hiking, but it’s still mostly a mental game. When I first started, my internal monologue was often: “I am so bad at this. I am so out of shape. Everyone is passing me. I’m never going to be as fast as them. I look like a joke. Everyone can tell that I’m new at this. I’m not meant to be outside.” Once I could *see* that I was saying those things, rather than just letting them keep talking, it’s easier to practice not believing them. I can say, “Huh, that’s not very nice,” or “That doesn’t sound entirely true.” Being able to recognize those thoughts means I’m a lot less likely to quit, turn around, or stomp along miserably for the next 3 miles.
6. Mess around with gear that’s within your budget. Although it would be nice to think that we could just find the top-rated gear online and know we have the best of the best, the truth is the best gear is the gear that works for YOU. If the top-rated shoes are giving you blisters, or they just feel weird to you, take advantage of the return policy and try something different. If all the other hikers on the trail go out there in tank tops but the sun makes you want to shrink into a hole, play around with long-sleeved options or a sun umbrella. Hiking can be made extremely cheap by hitting up Goodwill to find synthetic hiking clothes, hats and sunglasses. I’ve seen hiking and backpacking backpacks there. But if you find that the gear isn’t working for you – whether you paid $1 for it or $100 for it – give yourself the permission to try something different when you are able to afford it. You don’t know that it doesn’t work until you experience it not working. That’s OK.
7. Stretch. Admittedly this is something I’m still trying to make a habit, but it makes SUCH a difference. There are a bunch of different opinions on when to stretch (should you stretch beforehand? during? after?) and you’ll have to figure out what’s right for you – but if nothing else, stretch AFTER the hike, and then maybe even a couple of hours after you’ve stretched (like, before you go to bed.) I’m not a scientist, but it seems to remind my muscles to relax after a hike so that they’re not still clenching through the night, and that leaves me with much less soreness the next day. Here are a few good stretches specifically for hikers and backpackers.
8. Accept that sometimes hikes suck. Too hot. Too cold. Too uphill. Too rushed. Too brown. Too green. Too many people. Too lonely. Too bad an attitude. I don’t walk away from every hike with an untouchable sense of wonder, even if Instagram sometimes looks that way. Learn from the less-than-ideal hikes and tailor the next one to be a little different.
9. Hike your own hike. Do everything you can not to compare yourself to other hikers on the trail. There is no prize for being the first person to the end or for taking the shortest breaks. And when you go hiking with a friend, there’s no rule that says you have to talk the whole time or stay within a few feet of each other. As long as you’re both safe – plenty of water, low risk of hypothermia or heat stroke – let yourselves hike different paces and find a routine you’re both comfortable with to check in on each other. It can be a real fun-killer to constantly be trying to keep up with the person in front of you or wait for the person behind you. Don’t let something like different hiking speeds kill your fun.
What other tips have made hiking more fun for you?
I’m pretty sure I’ve had a mild form of anxiety for a decade, but it was only in the last two years that I figured out what it was. For me, anxiety felt like I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes it felt like my chest was compressed. Other times it felt like there was pure adrenaline running through my veins (especially after a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea which explains SO MUCH to me about high school.)
I imagine I had other symptoms, too — racing thoughts, disproportionate worry — but at the time, they just felt like me. My brain was always going 100 miles an hour. I was always planning for the worst-case scenario. But that is just me, man. That is just who I am.
Once I realized parts of this feeling were anxiety it took me a year, and my mother dying, before I saw a doctor.
“It sounds like you’re having mild panic attacks,” my doctor said when I described not being able to get a deep breath for days at a time. I was constantly yawning, like a bored insomniac, trying to take an inhale that would quiet the alarm in my body.
So began the attempts to get rid of my anxiety. I turned to the internet. I read about herbal options, exercise, brain tricks, breathing techniques, anything I could find. I wanted an instant fix so I could focus on the world in front of me, something akin to the Xanax my doctor had offered to prescribe.
“I don’t feel like I have a chemical problem,” I remember telling a friend. “I feel like my life is the problem. My life is giving me anxiety. And I need to figure out why.”
Here, ultimately, is what ended up helping my anxiety.
1. Quitting drinking
I still drink occasionally, but alcohol, at the time, was how I was coping with the anxiety (among other things.) I’d get home from work and feel desperate to turn off my brain and have a glass of wine. And another. And maybe another. But what alcohol was really doing was preventing me from seeing — let alone fixing — everything I was trying to avoid.
2. Quitting caffeine
On a perfectly relaxed, blissful day, I could probably have a cup of coffee. But in my every day life, there were too many stressors that, when combined with caffeine, meant I was much more likely to end up feeling breathless (and not in the chipper The Corrs way.)
When people said “yoga is good for anxiety,” I thought they meant it’s the physical exercise that is helpful. And it was for about the first five classes. After that, the super-zen state I found myself in afterward disappeared, which was very, very disappointing.
Instead, yoga became helpful because it I was able to put my body into stress under my own control. Yes, Warrior II sent my thoughts racing, my body desperate to stop, but my yoga teacher encouraged us each class to watch the thoughts, to feel the sensations instead of get wrapped up in them. (Me: “The thought says THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE CAN WE STOP NOW?”)
This was a whole new way of looking at feelings I didn’t like. Instead of stress being a thing I tried to control or end, it became a thing to observe.
4. Feeling feelings
If you’re the kind of person who cries at weddings and/or when you’re happy and/or when you’re sad and/or when you see puppy videos, you might not relate to this. But I had gotten really good at not having feelings. I mean, some part of me knew they were there — when my yoga teacher asked what I thought was causing my panic attacks, I told her “I think I’ve buried all of my feelings and the only one that is managing to get out is anxiety?” — but I had gotten very adept at talking myself out of them.
Angry? “Oh, I’m sure they meant well, I bet they were trying to do X, even though it came out like Y, and don’t they deserve a break, and…” or: “You have a RIGHT to be angry because of X, Y, Z, but you must stop FEELING angry so we can get to the real work and come up with a logical strategy to MAKE THEM PAY.”
Sad? “Yes, yes, being sad is a thing, and whatever, you can be sad. But you won’t be sad later, so why bother being sad now? You have stuff to get done.”
Joy? “Don’t get used to this. It’s going to go away soon and you’re going to be sorry.”
The second therapist I went to told me it was important to acknowledge my feelings. “Right, but how do I do that?” I asked her.
“You just… sit with them,” she told me. Which was about as helpful as you can imagine.
She was right, but the problem was I’d managed to place a huge wall between me and my body. I couldn’t feel the physical sensations of feelings. With some help from my yoga teacher, I was able to get back in my body and figure out what feelings felt like again, and once I was able to feel them, I was able to sit with them. Now when I have feelings, I do my best to feel them, to pay attention to them, and maybe even to send them a little love. Which is exactly as hippie-dippie as it sounds, but it also works. At my best, I don’t try to get rid of them. I don’t tell them to hurry up. I don’t ask them to create a lawyer’s case for why the deserve to exist. (“Sadness, please explain to the court why the occurrence on March 3rd has given you the right to take up ALL of our time this beautiful morning?”)
Instead I think: Oh, hey. I see you. (Sometimes I place my hand on my chest.) Life’s rough. I love you. Stick around as long as you need.
At my worst, I think, FUCKING FEELINGS! THE FUCK ARE THESE FOR? I HAVE SHIT TO DO!
5. Starting the day with myself, not work
In practice, this means sometimes I scroll through my phone, but then I always roll out of bed and go meditate. Lately I’ve been lighting candles, pulling a tarot card, sometimes beginning or ending my meditation with a Tibetan singing bowl. (It has gotten really woo-woo over in my world, but I do what works for me.)
Often my brain races the whole time, or only briefly settles down, but it still feels better than jumping out of bed and immediately getting ready for work. When I meditate in the morning, I move a little slower the rest of the day. That might sound like a bad thing, but if you have ever seen me power-walk through a grocery store, you’ll be happy to know I have been shoulder-checking fewer elderly people.
If I’m really feeling anxiety coming on and all the self-care in the world isn’t working, or I’m unable to take care of myself in the way I’d like to, hiking is a great (temporary) fix. It’s cardio and it’s nature, which are about as fundamental to self-care as anything. BUT, if I run from my feelings too many times, they will catch up with me even in the heart of the Superstitions, even if I went off-trail, turned off my GPS and hid inside a saguaro. The hiking only works if I’m doing the other things. It only makes physical sensation of anxiety calm temporarily. (Although if I could run away and spend all day hiking in the wilderness, I’m pretty sure my anxiety would find a way to chill out.)
The meditating is a daily invitation to have a billion thoughts per a second, but a chance to realize I don’t have to believe them, or follow them on the hellish spiral they’re going on. They can just exist, and I can sit back and let them exist, like when someone else’s kid is pulling all of the books off the bookshelf and I know it’s not my place to discipline them or clean up after them. I just get to watch the absolute chaos they’re creating. (I still spiral sometimes. But now I do it knowing I am spiraling, and later I learn a big, important lesson about how I got myself into a spiral. And promptly forget the lesson again. Isn’t this fun!?)
I have also been using meditation as a time to wake my feelings up in the morning. Sometimes they get really cozy and they don’t want to come out for the day. But the thing is, I NEED them. They’re how I figure out what’s good for me and bad for me while my brain is too busy weighing pros and cons. When I meditate, I sit and pay attention to my chest and upper abdomen. And I imagine snapping my fingers and a pilot light lighting. And somehow that makes my emotions go: Oh, right. Jesus, fine, we’re getting up now.
Journaling is so I can put down the feelings (UGH) that I’m having, which sometimes I don’t understand until I start trying to put words around them.
8. Being honest/telling other people how I’m feeling/setting up boundaries
This is the worst part of the whole thing (and probably the reason I was so averse to having feelings in the first place) and the thing I struggle with the most. Learn all about myself? Fine! Embrace feelings? If I must! Change my behaviors into a person 16-year-old-me would have scoffed at? Whatever! She was kind of an asshole anyway!
But tell a person** that I don’t actually want to do the thing they want to do even though it would be super nice of me if I did?
Or tell someone** that I’m upset about something and I’m not sure how they can fix it, or if it’s even their job? (Uhhhh… Can’t I just wait until the feeling expires? Like a very sweet, well-meaning puppy that you don’t feed and then it dies?)
Or telling them that I can tell that they’re not really present*** in the moment and I would rather wait until they’re energetically*** available while trying to not sound patronizing?
Because here’s the thing… I have spent my whole life thinking that the way you get people to like you is to 1) change yourself into what they like and 2) become irreplaceably useful. If I am “too loud” for a person, that’s not a cue that we’re not destined to be best friends — it just means I need to be quieter! If a friend (or wannabe friend) is having an issue? Give me 30 minutes and I will have solved it for you as well as picked up your favorite drink at Starbucks!
I want people to like me. Being honest/telling people how I’m actually feeling/setting up boundaries sounds like a terrible recipe to do that. But you know what causes a massive amount of anxiety? Not being who I actually am. It’s exhausting. Constantly doing what I think other people want from me, rather than what I actually want to do, is soul-sucking. I know this, because it’s what I was doing when I couldn’t breathe for five days in a row.
(Cheryl Strayed who is, in my mind, a demi-god, said in her podcast: “Being yourself allows the right people to love you more.” This made me LITERALLY cry (feelings!) so I am working on believing her.)
If this sounds like a shit ton of work, well, it is. I’m spending 1.5-2.5 hours every day on what one might call ‘self care’ — meditating, yoga, journaling. And it’s susceptible to failure. When I got the flu a month ago, I could feel the anxiety crawling it’s way toward me because many of my techniques weren’t available to me with a delirious fever. The second I could move, I went on a hike. Hiking with the flu is the worst. But it calmed the anxiety until I could get back to my regularly scheduled programming.
It also means there is less time for other things — TV, cooking, social media, reading, telling everyone how to live their life…
I would really like to say I’d found a pill, or a two minute practice, or a mantra that made my anxiety go away. That is a story I would much rather be telling you, because it would be easier, and I wouldn’t have outed myself as a meditating, yoga-ing, bowl-playing hippie. Instead, what is working for me is: I am making an entirely different life.
But I like this life much better****.
(*anxiety is a feeling you can’t cure it also I write clicky headlines for a living please don’t sue me)
(***WHO AM I)
(****ask me again tomorrow)
I’ve been practicing yoga regularly (3x and more a week) for six months, but this is the only cool yoga pose I can do*.
I am grateful for that.
I’ve tried yoga a million times. I’ve managed to go regularly for a couple of weeks at a time. Each time I went to yoga, I was going because it was exercise. Because me and my body were at war with each other, and I was ready to fight it into submission. I went to yoga when I was thin, determined not only to control what I was eating, but also how I was moving.
I went to yoga when I gained weight, determined to shrink myself back into a size I could comfortably present to the world. (I gained more weight.) I liked the idea of having stamina other people didn’t have, of twisting my body into shapes that took other people’s breath away. They also took my breath away, because I had no idea how to breathe.
Unlike the other times I tried yoga, six months ago I joined a studio because I was desperate for a solution to my anxiety.
(I still have anxiety.)
The first few classes were so physically challenging that I left them feeling zen-like, completely physically spent, all of my excess energy gone. That was blissful and wonderful.
After a few classes, my body was already ready for the challenge. I stopped huffing and puffing and started slowing down my breath. I was finally learning how to breathe. Instead of the challenge being getting into a pose, the challenge became staying there and not freaking myself out. The challenge became being there, in my body, with all of the physical sensations that came with it.
(Kind of like anxiety.)
That, if I’m honest, is way less blissful. But it’s the best thing that yoga has given me. To be uncomfortable, to be in discomfort, and to feel it anyway — rather than to immediately try to shut it down. To know that discomfort is not the same as pain. To know that I am capable of feeling all kinds of things and still be OK.
It’s also why I don’t know — and haven’t really attempted — many cool poses.
Because the focus is on me, in me, on how I’m feeling rather than how I look. I’m still learning in the basic poses. I’m still learning something every time I go through a chatturanga, even as they become (slightly) more reliable.
I’m finally reaching a point where trying more intermediate poses sounds like a fun way to explore my own edge rather than something I’m determined to master for external approval. Cue many incomplete attempts at inversions. Kind of like my attempt at grasshopper:
But I also wanted to put a little blip out into the world, in case you’re a yogi and wondering if you’re alone in not practicing handstands. The basic, fundamental poses are beautiful. They are teaching me so much. Even if they aren’t as exciting on Instagram.
*For like 2 seconds. Nobody’s saying it’s perfect.