Read an Excerpt
the backpacker's HANDBOOK
By Chris Townsend
McGraw-HillCopyright © 2012 Chris Townsend
All right reserved.
Chapter Onepreparing for the trail
Farewell we call to hearth and hall! Though wind may blow and rain may fall, We Must away ere break of day far over wood and mountain tall. —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Backpacking isn't difficult, but it does require both physical and mental preparation. Every year, first-time hikers set off along the trail unfit, ill equipped, and with unrealistic expectations. Many of them never venture into the wilderness again. The better your planning, the more enjoyable your trip will be. You need not know exactly how far you'll walk each day, or precisely where you'll camp each night (though such detailed planning is useful for beginners), but you should know your capabilities and desires well enough to tailor your trip to them. Setting out to carry 65 pounds twenty-five miles a day through steep, mountainous terrain just about guarantees exhaustion, frustration, and disappointment unless you are extremely fit and know beforehand that you can do it.
Backpacking requires fitness. You need aerobic, or cardiovascular, fitness to walk and climb all day without having your heart pound and your lungs gasp for air. Without muscular fitness, particularly of the legs, you'll be stiff and aching all over on the second day out. Also, if you set out unfit, you're much more susceptible to strains and muscle tears.
Getting fit takes time. I know people who claim they'll get fit over the first few days of an annual backpacking trip. They usually suffer for most of the walk; yet with a little preparation, they could enjoy every day.
The best way to train for carrying heavy loads over rough terrain is to carry heavy loads over rough terrain—what sports trainers call specific training. Although this isn't always practical, you'd be surprised what you can do if you really want to, even if you live and work in a city. In Journey Through Britain, John Hillaby wrote that he trained for his 1,100-mile, end-to-end walk across Britain by spending the three months before the trip walking the six miles "from Hampstead to the City [London] each day and farther at the weekends. On these jaunts I carried weight lifters' weights sewn high up in a flat rucksack that didn't look too odd among people making their way to the office in the morning."
At the very least, spend a few weekends getting used to walking with a load before setting off on a longer trip. Walk as much as you can during the week—including up and down stairs. Brisk strolls or runs in the evening help too, especially if there are hills. In fact, trail running in hilly country is probably the best way to improve both your aerobic fitness and your leg power in a short time.
I trained at a fitness center once, before a through-hike of the Canadian Rockies. For six months I did hour-long circuit sessions on the weight machines three times a week and hour-long runs on the days between, with one day off a week. It helped, but probably no more than if I'd hiked regularly with a pack and exercised in the woods and fields, which I prefer. I haven't followed an exercise program since. Good advice on training is contained in Courtney and Doug Schurman's The Outdoor Athlete. The main thing I learned from fitness center training was that you need rest from strenuous exercise and that you need to pace yourself. I'd never heard of overtraining before, having never regarded backpacking or hiking as a "sport." But once I discovered that pushing yourself too hard results, unsurprisingly, in excess stress to the body and reduced performance, I understood why, after hiking all day every day for two weeks or more, I often felt tired and run-down instead of superfit. Now on walks longer than two weeks I aim to take a rest day every week to twelve days. I don't stick to a rigid timetable—a day off every week, say—but rather pay attention to my body and my mind. If I feel lethargic or uninterested, develop aches and pains, or find myself being clumsy and careless, I know I need to rest. Resting while training is important—if you force yourself to train hard every day because you've got a big trip coming up, you may burn out before the hike starts.
After my brief bout with the fitness center, I abandoned formal training and returned to short, brisk hikes in the local woods and fields, the occasional 5-to 10-mile cycle ride, and as an aim if not in reality, at least one full day a week walking or skiing in the mountains. This is apart from the two- to three-day backpacking trips I try to take once a month or so between longer walks.
If you haven't exercised for some time, return to it gradually, especially if you're over thirty-five. Preparing for a walk takes time anyway. You can't go from being unfit to toting a heavy load all day in a week or even a month.
THE ART OF WALKING
While the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other seems to require no instruction or comment, there are, in fact, good and bad ways to walk, and good and bad walkers. Good walkers can walk effortlessly all day, while bad ones may be exhausted after a few hours.
To make walking seem effortless, walk slowly and steadily, finding a rhythm that lets you glide along and a pace you can keep up for hours. Without a comfortable rhythm, every step seems tiring, which is one reason that crossing boulder fields, brush-choked forest, and other broken terrain is so exhausting. Inexperienced walkers often start off at a rapid pace, leaving the experienced plodding slowly behind. As in Aesop's ancient fable of the tortoise and the hare, slower walkers often pass exhausted novices long before a day's walk is complete.
The ability to maintain a steady pace hour after hour has to be developed. If you need a rest, take one; otherwise you'll wear yourself out.
The difference between novices and experts was graphically demonstrated to me when I was leading backpacking treks for an Outward Bound school in the Scottish Highlands. I let the students set their own pace, often following them or traversing at a higher level than the group. But one day the course supervisor, an experienced mountaineer, turned up and said he'd lead the day's walk—and he meant lead. Off he tramped, the group following in his footsteps, while I brought up the rear. Initially, we followed a flat river valley, and soon the students were muttering impatiently about the supervisor's slow pace. The faint trail began to climb after a while, and on we went at the same slow pace, with some of the students close to rebellion. Eventually we came to the base of a steep, grassy slope with no trail. The supervisor didn't pause—he just headed up as if the terrain hadn't altered. After a few hundred yards, the tenor of the students' response changed. "Isn't he ever going to stop?" they complained. One or two fell behind. Intercepting a trail, we turned up it, switchbacking steadily to a high pass. By now some of the students seemed in danger of collapse, so I hurried ahead to the supervisor and said they needed a rest. He seemed surprised. "I'll see you later then," he said, and started down, his pace unaltered, leaving the students slumping in relief.
This story also reveals one of the problems of walking in a group: each person has his or her own pace. The best way to deal with this is not to walk as a large group but to establish pairs or small groups of walkers with similar abilities, so people can proceed at their own pace, meeting up at rest stops and in camp. If a large group must stay together, perhaps because of bad weather or difficult route finding, let the slowest member set the pace, perhaps leading at least some of the time. It is neither fair nor safe to let the slowest member fall far behind the group, and if this happens to you, you should object.
The ability to walk economically, using the least energy, comes only with experience. If a rhythm doesn't develop naturally, it may help to try to create one in your head. I sometimes do this on long climbs if the right pace is hard to find and I'm constantly stopping to catch my breath. I often chant rhythmically any words that come to mind. When I can remember them, I find the poems of Robert Service or Longfellow are good. I need to repeat only a few lines: "There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold; / The Arctic Trails have their secret tales / That would make your blood run cold" (from Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee"). If I begin to speed up, I chant out loud, which slows me down. It is of course impossible to walk for a long time at a faster-than-normal pace, but walking too slow is surprisingly tiring, since it is hard to establish a rhythm.
Once in a while all the aspects of walking come together, and then I have an hour or a day when I simply glide along, seemingly expending no energy. When this happens, distance melts under my feet, and I feel I could stride on forever. I can't force such moments, and I don't know where they come from, but the more I walk, the more often they happen. Not surprisingly, they occur most often on really long treks. On such days, I'll walk for five hours and more without a break, yet with such little effort that I don't realize how long and far I've traveled until I finally stop. Rather than hiking, I feel as though I'm flowing through the landscape. I never feel any effects afterward, except perhaps greater contentment.
How far can I walk in a day? This is a perennial question asked by walkers and nonwalkers alike. The answer depends on your fitness, the length of your stride, how many hours you walk, the weight you're carrying, and the terrain. There are formulas for making calculations, including a good one proposed in the late nineteenth century by William W. Naismith, a luminary of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Naismith's formula allows one hour for every 3 miles, plus an extra half hour for every 1,000 feet of ascent. I've used this as a guide for years, and it seems to work; a 15-mile day with 4,000 feet of ascent takes me, on average, eight hours including stops. Of course, 15 miles on a map will be longer on the ground, since map miles are flat miles, unlike most terrain. As slopes steepen, the distance increases.
The time I spend between leaving one camp and setting up the next is usually eight to ten hours, not all of it spent walking. I once measured my pace against distance posts on a flat, paved road in the Great Divide Basin during a Continental Divide hike. While carrying a 55-pound pack, I went about 3Â¾ miles an hour. At that rate I would cover 37 miles in ten hours if I did nothing but walk (and the terrain was smooth and flat). In practice, however, I probably spend no more than seven hours of a ten-hour day walking, averaging about 2Â½ miles an hour if the terrain isn't too rugged. That speed, for me, is fast enough. Backpacking is about living in the wilderness, not racing through it. I cover distance most quickly on roads—whether tarmac, gravel, or dirt— because I always want to leave them behind as soon as possible.
How far you can push yourself to walk in a day is less important than how far you are happy walking in a day. This distance can be worked out if you keep records of your trips. I plan walks based on 15 miles a day on trails and over easy terrain. For difficult cross-country travel, I estimate 12 miles a day.
When planning treks, it also helps to know how far you can walk over a complete trip. You can get an idea by analyzing your previous walks. For example, I averaged 16 miles a day on the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 1,600- mile Canadian Rockies walk, a 1,300-mile Scandinavian mountains walk, and an 800-mile Arizona Trail hike and 16Â¾ miles a day on the 3,000-mile Continental Divide, which seems amazingly consistent. A closer look, however, reveals that daily distances varied from 6 to 30 miles, and the time between camps varied from three to fifteen hours. All these walks were mainly on trails. My 1,000- mile Yukon walk was mostly cross-country, and on that my average dropped to 12Â½ miles a day.
One problem with a two-week summer backpacking trip is that many people spend the first week struggling to get fit and the second week turning the first week's efforts into hard muscle and greater lung power. By the time they're ready to go home, they're at peak fitness. The solution is to temper your desires. It's easy in winter to make ambitious plans for the next summer's hikes that fall apart the first day out as you struggle to carry your pack half the distance you intended. On all walks, I take it easy until I feel comfortable being on the move again. This breaking-in period may last only a few hours on a weekend trip or a couple of weeks on a long summer trek. On two-week trips, it's a good idea to take it easy the first two or three days by walking less distance than you hope to cover later in the trip, especially if you're not as fit as you intended to be.
It's customary to advise hikers never to go alone, but I can hardly do that since I travel solo more often than not—I feel it's the best way to experience the wilderness. Only when I go alone do I achieve the feeling of blending in with the natural world and being part of it. The heightened awareness that comes with solo walking is always absent when I'm with others. Solitude is immeasurably rewarding. Going alone also gives me the freedom of self-determination. I can choose to walk twelve hours one day but only three the next, or to spend half a day watching otters or lying in the tent wondering if the rain will ever stop without having to consult anyone else. This is more than just freedom or what might seem self-indulgence, though. At a deeper level it's about finding your natural rhythm, the one where your body and mind work best and which is unique to you, and attuning it to the rhythms of nature. Your rhythm is most obvious when you're walking, but it is there when you eat, sleep, and rest. You can slip into this rhythm much more easily alone than with others, when it may not even be possible.
Of course, solo walking has its dangers, and it's up to you to calculate what risks you're prepared to take. When crossing steep boulder fields or fording streams, I'm always aware that if I slip there's no one to go for help. The solo walker must weigh every action carefully and assess every risk. In the foothills of the Canadian Rockies I once spent eight days struggling cross- country through rugged terrain. I was constantly aware that even a minor accident could have serious consequences, especially since I was also way off the trail. Such situations demand greater care than trail travel, where a twisted ankle may mean no more than a painful limp out to the road and potential rescuers may not be too far away.
The wilderness is far safer than civilization. Having a car accident on your way to the wilderness is more likely than getting injured while you're there.
You always should leave word with somebody about where you are going and when you'll be back, especially if you're going out alone. The route details you leave may be precise or vague— but you must leave some indication of your plans with a responsible person. If you're leaving a car anywhere, you should tell someone when you'll be back for it. This isn't a problem in places where you must register a trail permit, but elsewhere a parked car could cause concern or even lead to an unnecessary rescue attempt if it's there for many days. Unfortunately, leaving a note on your car is an invitation to thieves.
Whenever you've said you'll let someone know you're safe, you must do so. Rescue teams have spent too many hours searching for hikers who were back home or relaxing in a café because someone expecting word didn't receive it.
SLACKPACKING AND FASTPACKING
Different hiking styles produce different outlooks—philosophies, even, if that's not too grand a word for a simple pleasure. Some hikers stride along the trail, aiming for the maximum mileage per hour, day, or week. Others dash up and down the peaks, bagging as many summits as possible. The more contemplative meander through forests and meadows, studying flowers, watching clouds, or simply staring into the distance when the spirit moves them.
The term slackpacker was first coined to describe Appalachian Trail (AT) hikers who, while intent on walking the entire 2,150 miles, nevertheless planned on doing it as casually as possible. Now it's often used to mean hiking without a heavy pack, which is accomplished by having gear and supplies transported to road crossings along the route. In this book I use the original meaning.
Excerpted from the backpacker's HANDBOOK by Chris Townsend Copyright © 2012 by Chris Townsend. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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