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the backpacker's HANDBOOK
By Chris Townsend
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2005Chris Townsend
All rights reserved.
preparing for the trail
It came to me out of nowhere, without the apparent aid of logic, that what I wanted most in life just then was to walk from one end of California to the other.
—The Thousand-Mile Summer, Colin Fletcher
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. If you want to do so, however, The Outdoor Athlete, by Steve Ilg, is worth reading (see his Web site, wholisticfitness.com). The book includes programs for "mountaineering and advanced backpacking" and "recreational hiking and backpacking." 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, meet
Excerpted from the backpacker's HANDBOOK by Chris Townsend. Copyright © 2005 by Chris Townsend. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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