A Rookie’s Guide to Hiking

A few days ago I did my first big hike of the season. The last time I did the Syncline Loop turned out to be a very…er… interesting experience (you can read about that fateful day here, if you haven’t already). Although I thoroughly enjoyed the part of the hike I spent on my own, I felt a little cheated on the second half and decided to give it another swing.

Three days later and I am still so sore I can barely move.

I guess it was a little cocky of me to choose the most difficult trail in the park for my first big hike. But it has provided me an interesting perspective this time around, not only because I have finally gotten to really experience the entire trail, but also because I made many of the rookie mistakes that I so often roll my eyes at when I hear of visitors who have done the same things. This got me thinking about all the things I’ve learned in my last year of rediscovered athleticism, which lead to the thought that I should write it all down.

So here we go, Mariana’s Top 10 Tips for a successful hike.*

#1 – Be Prepared

The girl scout’s motto! And seemingly obvious. But the key here is to be thorough about your preparations. For example, I never, ever, head out for a day hike without a cell phone, beacon, headlamp, first aid kit, map, knife, more food than I’ll need, and way more water than I might think necessary. This lesson was learned the hard way the first time I hiked Syncline, when I ran into a man who was severely dehydrated, and ended up giving him the rest of my water and having to hike the last 3 miles or so without any. Also, always check the weather before you go out. Even if there’s only the slightest chance of precipitation, bring rain gear – and no matter what the forecast – a sweater. Especially when hiking in remote places, the forecast from the nearest town is probably not accurate enough to plan for to the T. And never, ever head into a backcountry area without being prepared to spend the night. That doesn’t mean you have to tote a tent and a gas stove. But that sweater and headlamp will come in handy in case of an emergency that may force you to be out after the sun goes down.

#2 – Know Your Limitations and Prepare For Them

Because of my freakishly flat feet, I have pretty weak ankles that have lead to wobbly knees. Together they both contribute to sore hips after a certain amount of time or level of difficulty. So I always wear shoes with ankle support on long or challenging hikes and bring athletic tape and cotton pads for blisters or if I find myself needing extra support. You might look dorky in a pair of knee braces, but you’ll look dorkier being carried out by 6 park rangers who are not very happy to see you. If you’ve never done a long hike before and are not sure what might end up irritating you, assume that any small issue you might have on a regular day could turn into a big one on the trail. Athletic tape and ice packs are always handy (and good at keeping your water cool!), and if you can, hike with trekking poles – it will change your life on those switchbacks (and you can get a set of 2 for $20 a WalMart).

#3 – For God’s Sake, STRETCH

This was my main mistake on this last hike, and I can’t believe that I let it slide. I can’t stress the importance of a good, long pre AND post hike stretch. Your muscles will be working hard, and will need all the help they can get. The first few miles of the trail is not an acceptable warm-up, and you need to let your muscles cool off when it’s all said and done. If you have the time, yoga is a great companion to hiking. Thirty minutes to an hour of practice before and after is ideal, but if that’s not practical for you compromise with some toe touches and jumping jacks. This is not a case where less is more. Trust me, 3 days out of my last hike and I’m still walking like an old lady.

Julia displays an excellent choice in wardrobe for an overcast, chilly day

#4 – Breathe

Once again a seemingly obvious one, but a problem I had a lot in the beginning. If you’re hiking with a buddy, you may find yourself to be embarrassed by heavy breathing and try to compensate by holding your breath or not inhaling as deeply as you need to. Breathing hard does not mean you’re a weak hiker or even having a hard time. It’s just your body asking for the oxygen it needs. You’re not doing anyone any favors by holding back. If you’re still super self-conscious, hike in front. Your buddy won’t be able to hear you as well.

#5 – Use the Buddy System

I’m not one of those people who preaches never hiking alone. Actually, I think a lot can be gained by solo experiences in the backcountry. But never cut yourself off completely, and always tell someone where you’re going, and when you will be back. Carry a cell phone and, ideally, a beacon in case of an emergency.

#6 – Do Your Research!

Don’t just amble up to a trailhead and go. It’s important to do your research before-hand. Things you should always know about an upcoming hike include number of miles, amount of elevation change, average or suggested time to finish the hike, major features, and the general layout of the trail. ALWAYS bring a map, preferably a topographical one. The internet and guidebooks are a great place to start your research, but don’t use them as your primary source. Go to a ranger station or visitor center and if you can, talk to someone (or many people) who have completed the trail. There is a lot of inaccurate and/or bias information out there. I can’t tell you how many websites tout the Syncline Loop as an interesting, moderate, and easy-to-follow trail when it is actually so disorienting at times that it has the highest rate of SARs in the park. You wouldn’t know that if you went online, but trust me, the ranger at the visitor center will tell you.

#7 – Go At Your Own Pace

Everyone goes at a different pace, and faster hiker does not equal better hiker. Make sure you have your footing and are walking at a speed that is comfortable for you. Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing anything else. It took me 6 hours to complete the 8.3 miles of Syncline, when it generally takes me 4-5 to do 10. But pushing myself on already challenging terrain wouldn’t have resulted in a faster time, it would have resulted in an injury.

#8 – Strong Mind, Strong Body

It’s easy to become discouraged when it seems like you’ve been going forever and still have 1,000 feet of elevation change ahead. Staying positive is essential to a successful hike. Stop whenever you feel like it, take long, deep breathes, revel in the sounds of a human-less domain, really see the sights, and look closely at everything around you. There are a lot of things around to add extra motivation if you need it – as long as you look. For me on this last hike, it was the flowers. Since last season I didn’t come to Canyonlands until June, I missed a lot of the flora at their prime, and am just now discovering many of them for the first time. Desert flowers amaze me. They are often intricate but tiny, so spotting them feels like a special treat. I made my journey up the switchbacks into an Easter-egg hunt of sorts, and it was way more fun than just trudging ahead. You’re probably out there for more than just fitness. Make sure you enjoy yourself!

A lovely little desert flower, my hand next to it for perspective.

#9 – Pick Up Your Feet

Don’t let yourself get lazy. Watch where you’re going and don’t drag your feet. When you get to a root or rock, it takes less energy to step over it than on it, and it’s probably safer for your ankles too. When in doubt, use your common sense. And if you feel too tired to be vigilant, take a break. I am a big fan of cliff bars as energy boosters. Sticking a few clementines next to your ice pack makes for a great, cool, energizing treat too.

#10 – Use Every Available Extremity

I’m a very handsy hiker. I like to hold onto things around me for balance and it has only done me good. Don’t let your legs do all the work. When you’re climbing down, hold yourself up with your arm(s) against a rock so you can to take some of the pressure off your knees and thighs. If you’re hiking with poles make sure you have a way to attach them to or fit them inside your pack in case you need to scramble up or down rocks or just want your hands free in general. Small bungee cords are great for this. Another great rule of thumb that I live by: you can get down anything on your hiney.

And that’s all folks. I’ll post more as I learn more. Until then!

*Note: All of these tips come from my personal experiences – most of which have occurred in high desert areas and on public land. Although I believe all of these recommendations are relevant to other environments, there are other things to consider when, let’s say, you’re hiking in bear country, that probably haven’t been covered here.

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