Your treadmill tells you that you’ve maintained a steady pace of three miles per hour at a moderate incline for four miles. At that rate you’ll only have to walk an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon to make your eight mile quota for each day on the backpacking trip. By that logic, the trail should be a breeze, right?
Four miles on a treadmill is like one mile on a track, and one mile on a track is like half a mile on an easy trail. To propel your body forward takes more energy than just moving your legs back and forth on a treadmill. Tracks are flat and smooth, but even the easiest trails are crooked, uneven, and covered with indentions and roots. Treadmills are good for burning calories, but should not be used to judge how well prepared you are for the trails. Also, your body is accustomed to walking with your own body weight, not with a backpack. Once you include the additional weight, your feet will be ready to give out within the first two miles or so. The uneven terrain will wear down your ankles, the inclines will tire your legs and the declines will stress the muscles and cause fatigue. But there are ways to avoid these discomforting setbacks to more thoroughly enjoy the trail.
First, you need to get out and exercise. If you’ve been looking to shed a few pounds, now is the time to do it. If you lose five pounds before a backpacking trip, that’s like hiking without carrying a quarter of your gear. And since the key to comfortable backpacking is to travel light, start with your own body. Besides, didn’t you say you would do that when you made your New Year’s resolution anyway? You don’t have to go on some extreme diet and workout program, but substituting that second cold drink for a glass of water and spending a little more time on the track will help.
Now you’re ready for the real conditioning. Start by visiting your nearest high school track. Walk a lap on the track to warm up your legs, then hit the bleachers. Walk from the bottom to the top and back down again at a comfortable, even pace. Repeat the climb about two or three times before returning to the track for another lap. After walking a second lap, go back to the bleachers for more climbing. Continue to alternate between bleachers and track until you’ve worked up a good sweat. Don’t burn yourself out, but don’t go easy on yourself either. The key is to keep moving, alternating between horizontal walking and vertical climbs and descents. It keeps your legs guessing, and since that’s what will happen on the trail, this is one of the best workouts.
The next time you visit the track (two days later) bring your pack with you. You don’t have to load up all your gear, but you should simulate the weight by placing about six liters of water in the main compartment. Adjust the straps (see Preparing III: Packing amp; Consumables below for proper strap adjustment) and repeat the above workout. The extra load will put pressure on your feet while walking the track, but you’ll really feel the workout when you climb the bleachers.
It’s a little known fact that more damage is done to the thigh muscles while walking downhill than uphill. This is because the tension increases as the muscles extends rather than when it contracts. Since the muscles are working in the opposite manner that they were designed, it damages the muscle more. Although it takes less energy to walk downhill, you’ll feel more soreness in the morning. Regular trips to the bleachers will toughen your legs and they’ll become accustomed to walking downhill while carrying the additional weight. The end result will be a sturdy pair of legs ready to tackle any hill in the afternoon and will be ready to walk again the next morning.
Another problem people often come across is blisters. And the one thing you can’t hike without is your feet. No part of your body will take more punishment and likewise, no part of your body should be more taken care of. Buy thick, comfortable socks and well fitting boots to start with. After that, walk in them to form the boots to your feet. Pay careful attention to your feet as you walk and feel for any warm spots (early symptoms of a forming blister) or soreness. If part of your feet feels raw or a blister begins to form, remember its location. This is a trouble area that must be dealt with BEFORE you decide to tackle a multi-day hike. If a blister forms, quit walking for the day and apply a bandage. Do NOT use any kind of lotion that will soften the skin. Allow a callous to form, as this will help prevent future blisters. Another way to promote callous growth is to locate troublesome spots and then apply a dose of wart-remover once per day for three days. This will kill the skin but it’s not enough for it to flake off. Instead, you’ll develop an even layer of tough skin where blisters used to form.
Before a long hike, any troublesome spots that you still have can be doctored in such a way that nearly eliminates the chance of blistering. Apply a bandage to suspect spots prior to the hike. Keep your socks dry and always wear liners. And if a warm spot develops, stop where you are and apply a moleskin to the area. If you don’t have a moleskin, use duct tape. A patch of duct tape can remain over a hot spot for several days, preventing the blister from forming while you complete your hike. Just be sure you tape your foot BEFORE the blister forms. Removing tape from an already developed blister is a painful idea. If you don’t catch the blister in time and it develops, lance it, cover it with a bandage, tape the bandage in place and just march forward and try not to think about it. Pain killers work great for this.
The most common type of conditioning that people overlook is hydration and caloric intake. We’ve been programmed to drink energy drinks whenever we’re outside and to only eat low-cal, low-fat, low-carb foods. This is great for a relaxing lifestyle, but for the strenuous nature of the trail, you need a bit more. First off, forget about energy drinks. They provide salts and sugars that are too processed to get into your system in a timely manner and not nearly enough water. And when you lugging around a back and walking for the better part of the day, for several days, low-calorie diets can become your worst enemy. If it’s good for you at home, it’s bad for the trail.
If you’re sweating all day, you need lots of water and lots of salt. Think pretzels, chips, Combos and crackers. Junk food is best. Bulk up and hydrate before the trail. Two days before I go on a multi-day backpacking trip, I start eating and drinking like crazy. I’ll nearly double my caloric intake and guzzle a gallon of water per day. And the night before you set out, hit a buffet or order pizza. Pack on a little extra fat and lots of water weight. Drink a half liter of water just before hitting the trail and grab a big breakfast. The extra water that your body stores will help prevent dehydration and will reduce the amount of water you drink on that first day, allowing you to cover more ground. Don’t worry about the weight, I promise that you’ll lose it. I once consumed 7,000 calories and 3 liters of water in 24 hours while backpacking and still lost 2 inches off my waist. My pants still don’t fit.
With all the food you’re taking in, you’re setting yourself up for a major inconvenience. While on the trail, restrooms come in the shape of a large tree or a small thicket. You really don’t want to squat behind one of these in the middle of the forest, but you usually don’t have a choice. So here’s how to lessen the possibility of that. Two days before the hike, take a laxative and clean yourself out. Use the bathroom every chance you get and be sure to go just before you start the hike. When you’re in the woods, your body naturally slows things down and it is possible that you won’t have to go while you’re out there and if you take this advice, you should be fine. And if anything in this paragraph seems disgusting or offensive, you have no business being in the woods in the first place.