Musings on IT, data management, whitewater rafting, and backpacking

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

500 miles on the PCT – Getting Into Shape


In August 2003, I tried to hike 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail through the High Sierra in California – in 30 days.

Here's how I got into shape for the hike.

I needed to get my hiking mileage up to 20 miles per day. I used to hike as fast as I could until I got tired, rest for a while and drink a little water, repeat until done.

I hit the wall at 13 miles per day – dead tired, achy, sore, lots of foot blisters – even with light, ankle-high boots. The aches and pains got so bad I was taking Aleve before and after hikes!

I re-read Ray Jardine's books, read the latest edition of Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker, read Fixing Your Feet, scoured the Internet, and started experimenting on hikes.

I learned some important lessons:
  • Slow down to 2 mph average. I deliberately slowed my hiking pace to average 2 miles per hour, including breaks. You need to hike more hours per day, not faster.
  • Take 10 minute breaks every hour. Hike 50 minutes, rest 10 minutes, with a pace of 2.4 mph while hiking. I'm not rigid about stopping on time – I start looking for a nice place to stop a few minutes before, and sometimes keep looking a few minutes after.
  • At every break, take off your shoes and socks, and let your feet air as long as possible. Heat and moisture cause blisters, so cooling and drying them helps prevent blisters.
  • Carry two pairs of socks, and put on the drier pair of socks at each break. For example, after a stream crossing, the socks in my pack still might be pretty wet, so I'll keep wearing the old socks, which had a few minutes to dry.
  • Kill athlete's foot with Vicks VapoRub. The fungus causes your feet to peel and blister more easily. I applied a thin layer of VapoRub daily, to all of the infected areas. In a few weeks, my fungus was gone, plus my feet smelled better.
  • Carry and use a sit pad, to encourage sitting at breaks. I used the part I trimmed off my Z-Rest for day hikes. For backpacking, use your sleeping pad, or skip the pad entirely.
  • During breaks, keep your feet up – preferably higher than your butt. This reduces fluid buildup in your feet and legs. Avoid sitting chair-like on logs or rocks.
  • Stop taking painkillers, before or after hiking. Prostaglandins signal muscles to get stronger. I needed to tough it out, and not take Aleve, Aspirin, or Ibuprofen (antiprostaglandins) for the aches and pains. Within weeks, I felt stronger!
  • Drink plenty of water. At each break I drink 1-2 cups of water, from 1.5 liter Trader Joe's water bottles – light, cheap, and simple. Some people like fancy hydration systems, not me.
  • Switch from boots to trail running shoes. Following Jardine's advice, I tried street running shoes, but my feet got beat up worse than boots.
  • Avoid Gore-Tex lined shoes. Gore-Tex keeps moisture and heat in, and doesn't keep water from sloshing over the top.
  • Buy bigger shoes. Your feet will swell on long hikes. I went up 1/2 size, and that worked fine.
  • Tie your shoes loosely, so you can slip them on and off. I stop lacing two holes from the top, and don't tighten the laces much. Loose shoes have many advantages I won't describe here. I haven't had any trouble hiking in loose shoes, but they take a while to get used to.
  • Hiking poles don't work for me. I tried double hiking poles, I tried single hiking sticks. They got in the way and seemed like extra weight to carry. I never saw any of the miracle benefits others find in hiking poles.
Soon I broke through the 13 mile wall. In a few months, a 20 mile day was long and tiring, but not painful. 10 miles before lunch felt like a warmup hike. And I almost never got blisters.

I dedicated Fridays to long solo hikes, plus shorter hikes on Sundays with my wife. My work week was Monday through Thursday. Hiking is not the same as backpacking, but if you can't do the miles hiking, you can't do them backpacking.

I started adding weight to my day pack, using several 1.5 liter water bottles. Later, I started day hiking with a full backpack, using water bottles in place of food and other gear.

I gradually worked up to my target weight  of 25 pounds, and my target distance of 20 miles per day.

Next – backpacking training trips.

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