It has been seven years since I started hiking again in a big way, and I have learned a ton. That’s good, because I am no longer young enough to just “power through” my mistakes. Thinking-my-way along the trail is a far better approach.
Here are my top ten lessons. If you learned most of these in your first six months, I guess that gives you some insight into the way my mind works—or doesn’t.
1. Weight matters. I don’t care if it is weight around your waist or in your pack, nothing improves the experience of hiking quite like carrying less. You need to stay safe, and you don’t want to shave so many ounces that you no longer are enjoying yourself, but weight DEFINITELY matters. Imagine if you lost ten pounds of body weight and saved another ten pounds with lighter gear. Do it.
2. Get trekking poles and learn how to use them. Nothing will end a hike faster than an injury and the number one way people get injured on the trail is from falls. My trekking poles have saved me from a fall more times than I can count.
3. Take long and more frequent breaks. If you see someplace idyllic along the trail, don’t rush past it! My first thru-hike I often pulled into camp between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., then went to bed early. The second time around I took more and longer breaks. I got to my campsite later, but still in plenty of time, and with great memories of the places I stopped to enjoy. A nap alongside a babbling brook is a wonderful thing.
4. Your most important gear choice is your footwear. Wear what works for you, even if it is a little heavier and even if it bucks the current trends. Oh, and socks are part of the package. Here’s a tip: if you buy a pair of boots or shoes you are unsure of, wear them exclusively inside (perhaps at work) for a couple of days. Chances are you will be able to take them back if they start giving you problems.
5. If you are hiking with someone, work out how you are going to hike ahead of time. Morale is fragile on the trail, and can easily be damaged if one person’s expectations are different from another’s. Are you going to walk with each other, or go your own pace? What are your daily mileage goals? Work this out before you begin, and if you are hiking with your spouse, read this.
6. Take something to read on the trail. I love hiking in the Sierra Nevada, but by the end of the day, I am ready for a vacation from my vacation. Back in my sailing days, one of my favorite authors used to complain that he never understood why there were paintings of seascapes on the walls of boat cabins. His point was: if you want to see the sea, go topside and look at it! He much preferred landscapes. I feel the same way about reading material. No John Muir memoirs for me, after dark, in the tent; instead, give me a murder mystery in an urban setting.
7. The first priority when selecting food is bringing something you will actually eat. Rummaging through the hiking buckets at Red’s and MTR is always a lesson in human nature. Lots of people seem to consider a hiking holiday to be a good time to start eating healthy. What many folks don’t realize is how hard it is to eat enough calories to keep yourself going. You aren’t going to do that if you refuse to eat what you brought. Chocolate, nuts, sweets, pasta—whatever you will eat should be in your bear canister. Leave the kale and sugar-, gluten-, or fat-free stuff for after the hike.
8. If possible, take a zero day at Muir Trail Ranch. It isn’t always possible; reservations can be hard to get. But, for me, the very first date I set (upon which everything else depends) is my reservation at Muir Trail Ranch. The food is wonderful, the camaraderie satisfying, the bath facilities opulent, and, with a location almost precisely half-way along the trail, there is much to recommend spending two nights.
9. Don’t let the big climbs worry you. The climb out of Yosemite Valley? The first day energy will carry you through. The fifty-one switchbacks of Bear Ridge? Hike it early and you’ll be done before you know it. The Golden Staircase? Nothin-but-a-thing. Glen Pass? Okay…there you got me. I do wish they would install an escalator there.
10. Take photos and videos with yourself in them, and keep a trail journal. There will come a time when you are not going to be able to do this anymore. Don’t you want some great memories? Photos, videos, and a trail journal are the best way to memorialize your experience—to yourself. Sure, take a few of the “pretty” pictures so you can remember what you’ve seen, but then get yourself in there, too. Years from now, this will be pretty neat to see.
Good hiking, Ray