A “Practice” Hike? Now I Understand

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:

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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…

 

 

 

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When Opinion Adds to the Confusion

As I continue to add necessary gear and move towards my first overnight on the AT, I’m immersing myself in as much study of the nuances of the experience as I can in an attempt to avoid stupid newbie mistakes. The last week or so has found me devoting my time to the subject of food storage. And, as with many other things related to the backpacking experience, this topic is rife with contention.

As far as I can tell, these are the main camps (pun intended) into which backpackers are typically divided:

  1. Just throw your food into a bag and keep it in your tent. Use it as a pillow. Bears won’t attack people in their tents for food.
  2. Buy a bear-proof bag and learn how to do a proper hang or lash it to a tree.
  3. Buy a bear canister. They’re easy to use, can double as a stool, and when an area requires them, you don’t need to rent/borrow/buy one because you already have one as your primary storage solution. Just place it 100 yards downwind from your campsite.
  4. Lash your tent to a tree with your bear-proof bag inside and hang from a branch at least 12′ off the ground all night with your headlamp and an air horn to scare off any rogue bruins.

Of course, there are several variations on these themes (especially #4), like “I keep my bear canister in my tent at my feet,” or “I use a Ursack, but leave it in my vestibule at night.” You get the idea.

So, as a newbie looking for a “best practice” to guide me, I’ve hit another stone wall. Now, I’ve seen a black bear a couple of times in the wild, and they’re pretty skittish creatures. So I can see the point of the “Just keep it in your tent!” crowd. The problem I’ve read about concerning this philosophy is people leaving food in their tents and wandering off, only to return to a perfectly untouched tent with a missing food bag. Or in some cases, mini bears like mice gnawing a hole through your tent to get at your food, ruining both your expensive sleeping quarters and some of your food on the same mission.

Buying a bear-proof bag and hanging it or lashing it to a tree sounded like a great idea, until I read that most veteran backpackers admitted that teaching a newbie to do a proper hang each and every time was nearly impossible. Lashing to a tree sounds good, but bears and other animals like raccoons will have a go at it if there’s food scent on the outside of the bag for some reason.

Number three might seem like the best option, but comes with a pretty severe weight penalty. A Ursack weighs about 8 ounces. A typical canister that would hold the same approximate amount of food weighs a full two pounds more. Two extra pounds. Ouch. Anecdotally, I found a bit of disdain for bear canisters. I went into my local outfitters and asked the two guys behind the counter if they had any. They smiled at each other and replied that they’d had a few in stock for a while, but those gathered dust and finally sold only when put on steep clearance. I guess that bear canisters are not de rigueur in Maine.

Ultimately, my goal isn’t to protect my food as much as to protect the bears who love it. Once bears becomes accustomed to human food, they begin to turn their backs on their learned foraging behavior and seek out more of our yummy treats, sometimes aggressively, which leads to them being put down. I don’t want to be a party to that.

Right now I’m leaning towards a canister (in spite of the weight penalty) for the simple reason that I can use it anywhere, from the Hundred Mile Wilderness to the High Sierra. One solution for every problem.

Though I might be tempted to wrap it in a smelly t-shirt at night and leave it in my vestibule rather than shlep it 100 yards downwind from my tent…

This Whole “Slowing Down” Thing? It’s Working

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” – Henry David Thoreau

 

The other morning I went for a run on my favorite fields and woods trail. That’s not unusual for a runner; we run. But what happened after I finished was out of the ordinary for me. While I don’t keep a strict post-run regimen, I do tend to gravitate towards some combination of walking and light stretching before spreading a towel on the front seat of the car, cracking open my hydration-of-the-day and heading for home.

After this run however, I did the walking and stretching thing, then wandered off-script. I went to the car, got my Gatorade G2 (Raspberry Lemonade, if it matters), and returned to the fields to sit on the top row of bleachers overlooking the recreation complex to partake of the day. It was a bright, sunny 63 degree morning with lower humidity and a nice breeze. I planted myself on a shiny aluminum bench and watched the trees rustle, smelled the grass, felt the early morning sun on my back and just let my mind wander for a bit while I rehydrated. As many miles as I’ve logged there over the past five years, I’ve never once slowed down to enjoy the view. But that day, I did.

Morale of the story? The reduced speed and “enjoy the journey” mentality of my hiking time is beginning to have an effect on my running days.

Not only did I slow down and appreciate the morning, but I didn’t look at my Garmin one time to check my pace while I was sitting there.

Honest.