We know that walking seems like the easiest thing in the world, but when you take that easy thing and multiply by hundreds or thousands of miles, it becomes a very different beast entirely.
We’ve showed you some of the most dangerous hiking trails, now it’s time to face some of the longest. Here are a few long distance hiking tips to keep your feet from turning green and falling off, or just to keep you from having a rotten time.
1. Minimize Traveling Weight
This is the single most important thing to consider in long distance hiking. I know an experienced hiker who has hiked tens of thousands of miles in his life, from the Brooks range in Alaska, to crossing rebel territory in Colombia, to what he considers the tame experience of hiking the Continental Divide trail.
I asked him what his number one tip for long hikes was and he shouted, “weight!”
You think you need that extra pair of long-underwear, that bulky camera, the nice camp silverware you bought at the bourgie camping store? Think again.
Long distance hiking veterans quickly realize that nothing matters more than weight. Some hikers literally tear pages out of books as they read them. Multiply any little bit of weight times 30 hilly miles a day and it seems much heavier.
This epic hiker I met gave the great advice that everything you carry should have at least two uses. He didn’t carry gloves, instead he used a pair of socks if it got too cold.
He carried only 1 shirt and a backup, which could also be applied to a variety of uses if the situation called for it.
Other pieces of weight advice:
• Invest in light weight equipment designed specifically for hiking. The extra bit of cash is worth its value.
• Check the weather and prepare accordingly. If you can avoid it, don’t venture into rainy conditions that will ruin your gear or require extra equipment.
• Go the extra mile for shelter. Finding a suitable sleeping area, even if it means travelling a few extra miles in a day, means you don’t have to carry a heavy tent that can weigh you down.
2. Get The Right Gear Ready
You know how to travel light, now you must make sure your gear is ready for the long distance hiking trails. The one exception to your minimal weight requirement is a good sleeping bag.
Make sure the sleeping bag is not made of down, because although the material is light, if it gets wet it’s completely useless. Choose an option that will give you a quality night’s sleep, but doesn’t weigh a ton. To minimize said moisture problems, make sure you carry along a good water-proof bivy sack.
Don’t waste weight and money on a camp stove either. A simple pop-can stove will get you by, and weighs almost nothing. Just make sure you know how to use it before you head off.
Shoes are perhaps the most important piece of gear you’ll need to buy. Make sure the fit is good. Heavy hiking boots, or work boots, are just extra weight to carry.
Trail running shoes, some nice Keens for instance, are ideal. Don’t skimp on this. These are like the tires on your car, if you pop one you’re stuck. Maximize weight and comfort in your shoes and your feet will thank you for thousands of hiking miles to come.
3. Take Care Of Your Feet
There’s a reason that shoes and foot-care are so important for long distance hikes. Guys that work on trails, clearing brush and such, often talk about a condition called the “Christmases.”
This name refers to the fact that after hiking trails non-stop for 3 months, carrying heavy packs, most of the guys encounter some loss of feeling in their toes, feeling that won’t come back until Christmas time.
The repeated stress of slamming your toes against poor fitting shoes can quickly cause nerve damage. Since this damage is not always painful, you can be gradually destroying your foot nerves without even knowing. These nerves help with balance, and with not burning your toes off at a campfire.
Also it’s kind of scary. I lost the sensation in my toes for a few months and when it didn’t come back I started to worry that I had some kind of degenerative nerve disease.
It’s also a common thing, after a long distance hike, for your feet to be so disgusting with blisters that your friends gag anytime your socks come off. You don’t want your feet to remind people of the continental army at Valley Forge.
Neglect your blisters and a few days into your trip you’ll hear the voice of Lieutenant Dan lecturing Forest Gump about the value of clean socks.
Bloody socks are gross, bloody socks that have days or weeks old blood crusted on them are risking an infection.
Simple measures that can prevent this are finding good fitting shoes and not skimping on socks. Comfortable, nice socks are a true joy.
Some people try to strengthen up their feet, even resorting to soaking their feet in various home remedies to increase toughness (tea, which contains tannic acid, is one homey recommendation, though we have not checked on the true medicinal effects).
Another more-proven remedy is to put some lubricant on your feet, Vaseline is common. This is especially common in hot, humid places.
As a side-note, Vaseline is also often used by hikers who experience chafing in the thighs or other areas. This is surprisingly standard on long, hot hikes.
Invest in a good, light first-aid kit. Applying moleskin to a developing blister can turn what would’ve seemed like a death march, into a nice walk in the woods.
4. Know Your Route
Unless you’re on a very clearly marked hiking trail, you’re going to need to be able to navigate a bit. Studies have shown that most people left in a forest without a compass wind up walking in circles on a cloudy day, and zig-zagging on sunny ones.
Know how to use your compass, and have detailed maps of the area. Take the time to plan a hiking route and acquaint yourself with basic navigation techniques.
Wandering off your route for a few miles might not sound like a big deal, but when you only have so many hours before the sun sets, every stray mile starts to add up.
5. Embrace The Moment And Stay Tough
At the end of the day, long distance hikes are all about the attitude. This means two things: you’ve gotta enjoy it, and you’ve got to be prepared stare down adversity when it counts.
On your adventure, take time to smell the roses, see the beauty, stop when you find something cool, hang with the locals. Often people get caught up in making their daily mileage, trying to beat yesterday’s record.
And this works for some people. But then, why are you walking through a forest and not on a treadmill?
Even though you’ll be embracing nature, you need to be tough when it counts. When things are miserable, wipe away the sweat and keep testing your limits. Know your boundaries and remember our safety advice, but never let that undaunted Adventurer spirit die.
The day will come when your feet are killing you, when it’s raining and you’re hungry and you still have 20 miles to go. At that point will you grumble and be miserable, or accept that your journey as a challenge waiting to be conquered.
You already know you’re undertaking something ridiculously extreme. Long distance hiking is a big commitment – it’s not something ordinary people do every day.
Sometimes you’ll be up, sometimes you’ll be down, but through it all what’s going to make the difference is your attitude, your ability to deal with the hard parts and soak in the good parts when the opportunities arise.
6. Make Sure You Are Physically Up For The Challenge
Before heading out on your next hiking adventure, these simple workouts will get you ready to tackle anything waiting for you on the trails.
Adequate preparation for your long distance hiking trip can help you focus less on your heaving lungs and burning quads, and more on the scenery that compelled you to plan the trip in the first place.
Here are some key elements and exercises to work into your routine leading up to the big adventure.
Get On Your Feet
On the trail, you’re going to be on your feet for hours at a time, in hiking boots, with weight on your back. A daily 10-hour hike with a pack may not be an option, but you can find ways to get your body used to those simple changes.
Walk to work, wear your boots around the job or at home, and, assuming your boots are already broken in, make a concerted effort to go on a longer walk or hike (8-10 miles) with your pack on once a week. Pay attention to whether your pack needs fit adjustments, and start with a light load if you’re just getting back into a workout routine.
Strengthen Those Legs!
Make sure your load-bearers are strong enough to get you up and down the mountain.
Dumbbell Step-ups (and Step-downs)
The step-up is a staple exercise for hikers and backpackers that directly simulates getting a heavy load up an incline. Heading downhill, though, has an even more fatiguing effect on leg muscles.
Supplement the technique in the video above: instead of stepping down backwards, continue the motion at the top of the bench forward, and step down off of the other side.
Turn, and go back over with the other leg. If you don’t have dumbbells, load up your backpack.
These hiking exercises are excellent for lateral balance and really pack a punch — and you can do them anywhere.
Plyometrics are explosive movements meant to increase speed and power. On the trail, they can come in handy when bounding down a mountainside or across a stream, and will help you catch yourself if you stumble over a root or rock.
Check out our Plyometrics Workout Starters Guide for some tips on how to get going.
Work Your Heart And Lungs
Cardiovascular endurance will keep the blood flowing throughout your body on long hauls and should be the biggest chunk of your pre-trip routine. Don’t be afraid to spice it up: go on a long bike ride, swim, or take your pack to the bleachers at the local school stadium.
Additionally, you can throw in some more high-intensity movements to get your heart and lungs in primo condition:
Interval training intersperses bursts of high-intensity exercise among longer periods of rest, and does wonders as a supplement for aerobic exercise.
The simplest type of intervals are running sprints. Rather than running wind sprints until you puke, like in high school (though this is still a fine — if brutal — option for getting in shape), try sprinting all-out for 40 yards, then walking back to the starting line and repeating 8-12 times.
Or, add 20-second bursts of sprinting to your normal jog every 2 to 5 minutes. For lower intensity, throw spurts of brisk walking into your stroll. For higher intensity, take your sprints to the stairs or hills.
No assembly required: you can do these at the park or in a hotel room. As we mentioned in our push-up guide, the burpee is a killer exercise that will both strengthen your entire body and increase lung capacity. See how quickly you can bang out 100, and you’ll understand what all the hype is about.
Stretch Out and Rest Up
Take time at the end of your hiking workouts to stretch. This goes for throughout the training process as well as on the trail. Loose muscles and flexibility will help you recover after a long day and will help prevent injury.
Your hamstrings, hips, and quads in particular take a serious beating when hiking.
Lastly, make sure your body has time to recover. A solid basic structure is a cycle of three days of training followed by one day of rest.
Tailor your rest to your needs as an athlete; resting can include a leisurely stroll or bike ride if it helps your body overcome stiffness and soreness.