Ever wondered how you can go from city-slicker to mountain-hiker? Kathryn Barnes, author of The Unlikeliest Backpacker has provided a few tips and anecdotes in this guide for first-time hikers as part of the Beginner’s Travel Guide series!
Back in 2016, Kathryn and her husband Conrad embarked on an ambitious attempt to walk from Southern Oregon to Canada, with no prior backpacking experience. Their epic adventure is detailed in The Unlikeliest Backpacker: From Office Desk to Wilderness – available from 7th March 2019.
To succeed, it’s imperative to come to the game mentally ready to persevere. Expect the journey to involve struggle; your resolve will be heavily tested, but you’ll also reflect back on those moments later and feel stronger for them. We found that packing a few morale-boosting tricks really helped fight off the dark times.
To ward off the daily mental monotony I liked to listen to podcasts or playlists which I would refresh at rest stops. These would cheer me up, and distract my mind from thoughts of pain, or hunger. I only allowed myself to listen for an hour or two a day, usually in the late afternoon, due to limited battery life, and I always kept the volume low so I didn’t totally mute out my surroundings – you’ll want to hear the bears approaching!
Also, in more desperate times, I found that taking a zero-nutritional-value sugar break worked wonders. In each resupply box was packed a different, random treat from home, which we reached for as required. I recall the satisfaction we felt from sucking sherbet off a Swizzle Stick late one afternoon following a massive lava climb near The Three Sisters, and how a packet of Nerds helped restore our energy levels during the day we trudged through the overgrown Goldmyer Alternate with delight.
For two city-dwellers this challenge was compounded by our lack of specific training. Being fit, it turns out, isn’t enough. We discovered gruelling gym workouts do little to safeguard the body from the repetitive-strain type injuries most frequently sustained in the mountains. It’s safe to say that injury can be a major obstacle in the world of long-distance hiking. With this in mind, and the power of hindsight, we should have completed more training before leaving home, especially carrying weighty packs over elevation. This may have been inconvenient given our hectic London schedule, but looking back on how beneficial it would have been – by toughening up our feet, or getting our shoulders used to carrying packs – I’m sure we could have found a way.
Who knows, with proper training I might have avoided the on-going mystery issue with my right leg, which plagues me to this day.
Setting Realistic Goals
Your body doesn’t just feel tired on the trail, it gets repetitively hammered. Fortunately, a simple piece of advice was bestowed on us just before we set out, which I believe proved key to our success. Shroomer, the friendly hiker we meet half-way up Mount Diablo, back when we still hadn’t cracked a five-mile trek, left us with a simple, but invaluable piece of advice. To paraphrase, it went something like:
“If you want to be hiking 20-milers, don’t go in guns blazing with 20s, try beginning with 10. No matter how tempted you may feel to go further, don’t. Give your body a chance to adapt. Maybe do 10 miles for the first week, then build up slowly from there.”
These words make a lot of sense, especially for people who, like ourselves intend to do most of their physical training on the trail. While we didn’t strictly stick to 10-mile days for the first week, Shroomer’s advice was at the heart of the low expectations embedded in our sensible hiking schedule, and motivated us to call it a night in the mid-afternoon on more than one occasion. Gradual progression is probably what helped give our bodies some sort of fighting chance to acclimatise – that and having the ability to take regular zero days to recover.
Packing What’s Right
Out on the trail, we met people carrying an enormous range of weight and gear. We saw full-size guitars, large bottles of booze, and one instance of what I believe was a stoneware urn but was too polite to ask. Brandon from Tennessee somehow carried a monster 70 pounds. The contents included a bear canister, a folding seat, and a crockpot, which all formed key components of his bush-camp. Camping under the stars, he told us, was his very reason for hitting the trail. Yet on the other end of the weight spectrum we met couples who shared a toothbrush!
From talking to people, I learnt that while it’s important to enjoy the experience, it’s even more vital to strike a balance between light-weight, comfort, and being prepared. Stories of ultra-light hikers being rescued because they didn’t have appropriate protections abound. As rookies, our biggest fear was getting lost or held up and not having enough provisions to survive. In the wild, it only takes a spate of bad weather to find yourself in a sticky situation, by taking out a vital river crossing, or throwing up a dangerous storm meaning you need to stay put and hunker down.
It’s probably wise to not be too obsessed with carrying the bare minimum, unless you are an experienced hiker, and depriving yourself is your thing! Pack what is right for you, and test everything out long before you leave. In particular, you may find that sleeping on the ground night-after-night can make the odd creature comfort seem well worth the extra weight.
This brings me on to my last point, the keystone I wish I could have grasped before it all began… appreciate it!
I shake my head in shame thinking just how much I focused my attention while hiking on the difficulties I faced, when I should have slapped myself into the reality of the experience.
I may hate camping, but there I was in the great Wild West living out a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that many will only ever dream of. Ordinary life can get very routine, but on the trail each day is an adventure, maybe not always a rosy one, but never are two days the same, and you know what: it feels pretty damn wild to let things be, topped off with an unexplainable, intoxicating feeling of personal triumph upon crossing the finish line.
Now if that Doesn’t get you wanting to pack up your day job and head out hiking, I don’t know what will. I’ve loved reading Kathryn’s book full of tips, anecdotes, and insights about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and I feel incredibly inspired as a result. I hope I can accomplish such a mammoth feat of physical and mental endurance myself someday! In the meantime, I’m excited to try out these tips for new hikers on my next walking adventure.
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Disclaimer: Kathryn’s team very kindly shared a copy of her book with me as a gift, however, any opinions shared remain my own and unbiased.