First Time on the Trail in Awhile? Take Time to Break In

Credit: Nathan Bilow/Allsport

Which of the following statements describes your fitness level over the last few months?

1. You've been religious about going to the gym, you can run a few miles without making a big deal out of it, and the idea of a quick 15-mile day hike sounds like fun.

2. You've considered going to the gym, you can run a few yards if someone's chasing you, and the idea of a 15-mile day-hike gives you the hives.

If the former, good for you! When you finally take that well-earned hiking vacation, you're all set to enjoy it from day one. If the latter, you may want to reform your habits before putting on a backpack and heading uphill.

But no matter which group you fall into, breaking into hiking does take a least a little getting used to. There's the matter of boots and feet (see "Conquering blisters" on GORP.com) not to mention carrying a pack on your back. And face it, no matter how fit you are, your daily routine probably doesn't involve hauling 40 pounds up and down mountains. A little know-how can help you break in more easily.

Find the Right Trail

First off, choose a hike that suits your fitness level. The ideal trail is one that you can hike comfortably. Watch out for elevation gain because steep, long climbs can make one mile feel like three. I like to keep total elevation gain under 2,000 feet for at least the first couple of days; what works for you may be different. (Think of it this way: The Empire State Building is a bit more than 1,000 feet tall.)

You can figure out the elevation gain by counting contour lines on a profile (topography) map if one is available, or consulting a guidebook. Don't forget to tap into local resources such as park rangers, information staff at ranger stations, and local trail clubs.

Set the Right Pace

Once you're out on the trail, set a pace that is sustainable for you. Of course, your pace will change with the terrain. On steep uphills, try the "rest step." As you put one foot forward and down, you pause for a second or two while the weight is still on the backward leg. Then transfer the weight to the forward leg, take a step forward, and pause again. This gives you tiny little breaks with each step.

Once you get used to the rest step, you'll be able to set a comfortable pace and move uphill without having to climb 10 steps and stop to gasp for air, then climb another 10 steps and stop and gasp again.

A few other reminders:

  • Climbing takes a lot of energy, so replenish calories and liquids often.

  • Don't forget to take breaks. Ten minutes of rest for every 50 minutes of walking is a good rule to follow.

  • Make sure you drink before a big climb.

  • Carry enough water so you can swill as much as you like when you get to the top. If you feel your muscles seizing up, do a few stretches during your rest stop.

  • On descents, use a hiking stick to help take pressure off your knees.

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