A couple of years ago I was out for a morning run and a guy was coming down the road in the opposite direction, backpack on, trekking poles clicking away. As we passed I waved, he nodded back and was gone. The only thought I had at the time was, “This is Maine. Couldn’t he find some woods to hike in?”
Fast forward two years. Now that I’m getting into hiking and backpacking, I’ve been reading about a recommended phenomenon called practice hikes. The gist, as I understand it, is to acclimate your body to the gear you’ll be using and the weight of a full pack you’ll be carrying on your back before you go out to a place with no cell phone coverage and do it for real. To someone who views carrying a house key as additional weight designed to slow down the pace of a run, this sounded like something I should definitely do.
So yesterday morning, I did. My half-day hikes so far have featured a light 8-10 pound pack (Ten Essentials, water, snacks, jacket), which is practically invisible when on. My trusty Kestrel 28 maxes out at a recommended 35 pound load, so starting out with 21 pounds total weight as I did for this first practice hike gives me room to grow. My tent and a bunch of water and Gatorade bottles got me there:
Two more bottles on the inside straddling my tent, along with my usual pack-out of odds and ends gave me a full, balanced twenty-one pound load.
I don’t ever plan on carrying more than 30 pounds or so even when I move to a larger pack and head out for a week-long adventure, so if I can get used to (eventually) carrying that in my Kestrel on test hikes, I’ll be good. Theoretically. The roots, rocks, water crossings, mud and PUDs that litter the AT might conspire to prove me wrong. We’ll see.
Anyway, I decided to hike one of my favorite running routes with this twenty-one pounds, an out-and-back from home that would feature 3.5 miles of road tripping and 2.5 miles on my favorite local woods trail for six miles total. I wore my Asics GT-2000 3 trail running shoes instead of my Merrell All-Out Peaks, as I had no desire to burn the Vibram soles off my good hiking shoes schlepping along on asphalt.
Overall, it was a good experience. I especially appreciated the all-important two hours on my feet. I noticed several things during my brief test journey:
- The first half-mile or so the twenty-one pounds felt heavy. My knees didn’t like it initially, but did warm to it. My feet barked during the last mile, tired of pounding pavement with extra weight for more than double the time that a run on the same route puts them through.
- I felt weird hiking on the street. On the AT, I feel like a hiker. On the road, I felt like a wandering homeless person. I kept waiting for someone to throw me a sandwich or yell, “Get a job!”
- I missed my trekking poles. Even though I was on essentially level ground in the midst of civilization, I wished for them to help me keep my hiking rhythm. Plus, as a corollary to point #2, I might have felt less like a homeless person and more like a hiker with them. I need to order some rubber tips pronto.
- Hiking on the woods trail where I’ve run hundreds and hundreds of miles messed with my internal pace clock, big time. I kept telling myself that I was moving too slowly, that the hike was taking too long. The whole “slowing down” thing is still a work-in-progress, I guess.
- I made myself stop and sit for a few minutes every two miles, something I have not done on my half-day hikes. Sure, I’ll stop for a photo or a drink or a few bites of a Clif bar, but I’ve never sat on my butt and let my feet rest. Of course, I’ve never carried twenty-one pounds on one of those hikes either…
I’m not sure I’ll do a practice hike from home again. The pavement was unkind to my feet, and let’s face it: how many hikes will I actually do on asphalt? Next time, I’ll drive to the woods trail and do 2.5 mile out-and-backs and trips around the athletic fields to get my time in on more realistic hiking terrain, which will allow me to wear my actual hiking shoes. The onset of winter might change that attitude. A snow-covered road might soften the pounding a bit.
Soon I hope to do eight or ten miles in the rain, another “practice” hike that the pros recommend. As a bonus, that will give me the chance to see if my Kestrel’s integrated raincover is worth anything…