Hiking Lessons Learned

In the last couple of years I participated in week-long hikes with a group of
friends: in late August 2006 we hiked a 70 miles segment of the Pacific
Crest Trail (PCT) in Washington state from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie
Pass (see www.sqlhike.com for details), and in late August 2007 we hiked
in the Slovenian Alps. We learned some very important lessons that I’m
going to implement in future hikes. Bear in mind that I’m not a professional
hiker, by no means, rather it’s a hobby. So please treat this as self lessons
learned by an amateur, take them with a grain of salt, and make sure you do
your own research as well.

The two hikes were very different experiences. The PCT hike was
completely in the backcountry with no facilities throughout the hike, meaning
we had to carry food for the whole week and sleeping gear. In the hike in
the Slovenian Alps there were huts every few hours, so we didn’t need to
carry a lot of food and sleeping gear. In this blog entry I’m going to mainly
focus on the experience from the PCT hike, while Dejan Sarka from
Slovenia—a member of the group in both hikes—is going to focus mainly on
the experience from the Slovenian Alps hike in his blog

Practice Hikes
I can’t stress enough the importance of practice hikes before the main hike.
A week long hike covering dozens of miles requires you to be in very good
hiking shape. If you think that running, exercising in a gym, or other similar
exercises would be sufficient to prepare you for the hike, then you may want
to reconsider. Being in good aerobic shape is important, but there’s much
more to it in hiking. Going up steep slopes in rough mountain terrain, going
down steep slopes, and carrying a lot of weight requires the right set of
mussels, ligaments and joints to be well exercised. The best way I know of
to prepare for such hikes is simply with practice hikes. We had a couple of
members of the group who were not well prepared and had to part from the
group in an early stage in one of the hikes. That’s sad for the whole group
and even dangerous. Hiking rough terrain when you are not well prepared
increases the chances for injuries. Besides the strain on a non-prepared
body that can cause injuries, you’re more susceptible to slip and fall, to get
sick, and to suffer from heat strokes or hypothermia. One of our members
slipped and started rolling down a slope. Fortunately, he had good skiing
experience and knew “how to fall,” stretching his hands open and stopped
rolling after several yards.

Practice hikes can be done a few weeks before the main hike during the
weekends. Make sure you try hiking about 8 hours a day, 10 to 15 miles a
day, in rough terrain with a backpack carrying similar weight to the one
expected in your main hike (mine was about 35-45 pounds in the PCT hike).

In the practice hikes you can fill your backpack with full 1.5-2.0 liter bottles
of water to get the right weight. My practice hikes were in the Shenandoah
National Park in Virginia and Mount SI in Washington. If you’re not
accustomed to hiking such distances and carrying such weight, you may
want to start the practice hikes several months ahead with shorter distances
and less weight, and gradually increase the distance and weight.

Pace and Group Dynamics
A hike in a group is not a contest, though some members of the group may
be in such a state of mind. To me, it’s about sharing time with good friends
outside the busy, competitive day-to-day world, and enjoying nature. I’m
not after concurring peaks, and my main goal is not finishing the original
planned route at all costs.

Going in fast pace has several disadvantages. It is more likely that you will
get exhausted quickly, you will sweat a lot (increasing chances of
hypothermia), you will need longer breaks, you may cause injuries to your
body, you’re more susceptible to slip, and there will be big gaps between
the members of the group (a danger of someone getting lost or injured
without anyone noticing).

In the Slovenian Alps we took two professional guides for part of the hike
that required guides. They both had very extensive experience with many
expeditions among them Everest and K2. We walked in a line with one of
the guides in front and one in the back, where the two at the edges can
always see each other. As soon as the leader started walking, we were all
amazed to see the pace. When going up, he walked in short steps and very
slow pace—I’d say a bit over a second per step (I tried measuring, and it
was about 10-13 seconds per 10 steps). When going on flatland or down,
the pace was a bit faster. After hiking like this for several hours we could all
see the advantages in this pace. The group walks together in a line; there’s
no chance for someone getting injured or lost without someone noticing. We
didn’t sweat as much as in our previous pace and didn’t strain our bodies
too much, so we could talk to each other, enjoy the view, notice things like
flowers and animals. We also realized that had we used this pace before, we
could have the two members who parted the group in earlier days be with
us. In this pace you’re less susceptible to slip and fall. This pace also
requires fewer breaks and shorter ones, so all in all, the average MPH is not
necessarily that different than in a faster pace. In short, you feel safer,
stronger, and you can enjoy nature and each other’s company more.

First day should be planned milder than the others. This is where your body
gets acclimatized to the hike conditions and the strain on your body. I’d say
try to limit it to less than 10 miles. I’d recommend not trying to cover more
than an average of 10-12 miles a day for the rest of the days. Even if you’re
an experienced hiker, trying to cover 15 miles or more per day, that’s about
the point where you stop enjoying the hike, the group and the views, rather
it becomes a pure exercise, where you’re virtually always looking at your
feet. We did have days where we covered 12-15 miles, but those were
cases were the terrain was mild or we were forced to continue to find a

In terms of the group size, we found that a group of 6-8 is ideal. A bigger
group would mean that it will be harder to find adequate campsites, and also
more people means more opinions and bigger discrepancy between the
different opinions.

I also recommend having a discussion among the group of hikers before the
hike talking about the pace, and also about decision that might need to be
made in case of problems. Because for some people the hike may be a
matter of the challenge and it may be important for them to finish the planned
route, it should be clear to everyone before the hike starts the circumstances
in which the hike would need to be cut short.

Backup Plans and Emergency
In the preparation/research phase before the hike it is very important to have
plans A, B and C. That is, plan A would be the original planned hike in case
all goes well and there’s very good weather throughout the hike, and plans
B and C would be backup plans in cases of bad weather, injuries or any
other unforeseen issues. We had to utilize plans B, C and sometimes even D
in the Slovenian Alps as a result of bad weather, knee problems, sickness
and exhaustion.

Make sure you identify as many routes as possible out of the main trail into
civilization/roads in cases of storms and injuries. It is a good idea to have at
least two spare days in your planned vacation so that if there are unplanned
delays like a bad storm for a day or two, you will still be able to make it.

There are some vital things that we carried with us for cases of emergency.
We rented a satellite phone that proved very useful. We had to cut the PCT
hike at some point because of bad weather, and we called family members
to meet us at the exit point to pick us up. Fortunately, there were no serious
injuries in our group, but in case there is one, you want to be ready with a
satellite phone, emergency numbers, a GPS to provide the coordinates and
a compass. You only need one satellite phone and one GPS for the whole
group. Also, for cases of hypothermia, you want to have a gas stove to
make a warm drink, lighter or magnesium firestarting tool to start a fire,
spare dry underwear and cloths and an emergency survival blanket. I also
find a multipurpose tool (like Leatherman, Gerber, Buck or others) with a
knife, a saw and other tools very useful to have around (at least one in the
group), both for convenience, but especially in emergency/survival cases.

Campsites and Water Sources
There are very good books about the PCT. We used those for info about
the trail including campsites and water sources and the info was pretty
accurate. We prepared a sheet with abbreviated info which several of us
carried (see: http://sqlhike.com/Landmarks.aspx, w-water, c-campsite).
One day we did the unfortunate mistake and aimed at camping near the
banks of a river in an area with no marked campsite in the books. We
thought that near the banks of the river there must be a place to camp.
When we reached the river we realized that there were big boulders where
we couldn’t camp, and it was already getting dark. We had to keep walking
for more than an hour, climbing a steep slope until we got to the nearest
campsite. Our lesson was to trust the info in the books and not our intuition,
and always plan to get to the campsite as early as possible in case the
campsite won’t be adequate and we’ll need to find a different one. In
general, it’s a good idea to start the hike as early as possible and try to get
to the campsite as early as possible (at least a couple of hours before it gets

In terms of water, this is naturally the most vital thing in the hike. You can
survive several days without food but without water you won’t survive very
long. I used a 3-liter water bladder which I found extremely convenient.
You always have the water available to drink, taking a few sips every few
minutes without the need to stop for a water break. Also, refill in every
opportunity. One night we got to the campsite along the banks of a running
creek. We were exhausted and decided to refill in the morning. When we
woke up and went to refill water, we were surprised to find the creek dry.
Apparently the creek was fed by water from a Glacier, and during the night
when the glacier is completely frozen, there’s no water in the creek. Only
during the day when the glacier starts melting water runs in the creek.

As for water quality, we didn’t take any chances. A couple of us brought
SweetWater Microfilters, and we always filtered drinking water. Some
people may be willing to drink water from the streams unfiltered, but I’m not
willing to take the risk. The water filters we used are not too heavy (11
ounces), and they filter about one liter per minute. The water comes out
clean and tasty. Since no chemicals are involved, there’s no affect on the taste.

Hiking Gear
There are two key points to stress about hiking gear; make sure it’s light and
don’t be cheap.

Regarding hiking gear, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a
light backpack. If you’re hiking for several days, a heavy backpack will put
a lot of strain on you. It will feel like you’re carrying a backpack full of
bricks. And if rain will fall while you’re hiking, both the backpack and your
cloths will feel twice as heavy. Hiking gear is not something you want to be
cheap about. Good quality light gear costs a lot, but it’s worth it, especially
considering that this can be the difference between life and death. I got good
quality very light tent, sleeping bag and mattress, and was very happy with
them during the hike.

Regarding the backpack; you will need at least 60 liters volume if you’re
carrying equipment and food for the whole week. Good quality backpacks
have technology that makes it convenient to wear, impose less damage to
your back, spine and shoulders, and can be adjusted to your body
proportions. Some backpacks allow you to access the contents of the bag
from both the top and the bottom and I found it very convenient to have
access from the bottom as well. Some backpacks also have a special
pocket for the water bladder and a special hole for the water hose. I also
found this very convenient.

Good hiking boots are crucial. You need good traction especially when
climbing or going down. I have Vasque hiking boots and I’m pretty happy
with those. They have Vibram rubber outsole, they are high (lowering
chances for twisting ankles), and they will keep your feet dry with light rain.
With long heavy rain, you and your feet will get soaked regardless of the
type of boots you are wearing. Make sure you have spare socks and
underwear. There are technologies for underwear that dries fast. This can be
important in cases of rain, because when there’s heavy rain that doesn’t stop,
even if you replace underwear, your cloths are wet so the new
underwear becomes wet.

I found wool socks to be very good for hiking. I didn’t have any blisters
during the hikes. And in case you do, I suggest bringing a needle to poke the
blisters and drain the liquid (make sure you burn the edge to sterilize it
before use). We used the needle with some of the hikers who had blisters.
There are also special plasters that can be used for blisters.

Regarding pants, there are good quality hiking pants that “breath” and dry
fast. I haven’t found any pants that would function well in terms of hiking
and also completely reject water. So when we faced heavy rain, the pants
got wet.

Regarding shirts, you sweat a lot during the hike, and this can become
dangerous. There are several technologies like coolmax and dryfeet that
allow the shirt to dry fast. Still, make sure you have spare shirts to replace
when the shirt gets too wet.

In general, regarding the weight of your hiking gear; when you visit stores for
hiking equipment it is tempting to get lots of equipment, small things, each of
which seems like it could be very useful. Try to distinguish between things
that are really essential and things that look like they could be useful. When
hiking with a heavy backpack you feel every extra ounce. As an example for
minimizing weight, a flashlight is important when you camp in the
backcountry, and some flashlights can weigh a lot. I used a photon micro led
light weighing 0.17 ounce, and brought extra batteries that I ended up not
using. I found this micro light good enough.

Regarding rain gear; if you get hit by heavy rain you realize how important it
is. Don’t go out for a hike without a rain jacket. The problem with the jacket
is the balance between its weight and the level of rain and wind protection it
gives you. I got a pretty light North Face rain and wind jacket. Keep in
mind that even when walking in the rain you sweat, and this can lead to
hypothermia. I have zippers in my jacket in the areas of the arm pits for
venting. Again, make sure you have spare underwear, socks and shirts.
These become lifesavers in wet circumstances. Also, with very heavy rain
we all got completely soaked. Even with backpack covers that are
supposed to reject rain, the water entered our backpacks. We then realized
that it’s important to put all the cloths, toilet paper/tissues, and whatever you
can’t afford to get wet in plastic bags. Plastic bags in general are good to
carry with you. Besides protecting your dry clothes from getting wet, they
can be used to carry garbage, and for other purposes.

As for a surprising rain gear element… the professional guides we took in
the Slovenian Alps suggested bringing umbrellas. We first thought it was a
joke, and that it would make us look like sissies. But sure enough, when rain
started, both guides pulled their umbrellas and had the last laugh. Trust me,
when heavy rain falls on you while hiking, you don’t care what you look like.
We got quite a few lessons from those professional hikers for future hikes.

In general, when hiking in wet conditions, you want to avoid stepping on
roots and rocks as they are very slippery. However, sometimes you end up
stepping on those, and that’s why it’s important to have slow pace and good
hiking boots.

I also found a hat with wide brim very convenient. I have a hat with wide
brim made of material that doesn’t absorb water (at least with light rain).
Such a hat also gives you better protection from the sun. As for sun
protection, the obvious things are a wide brim hat, sunscreen and water.
Thinking of it, having an umbrella with you can also give protection against
the sun in extreme hot conditions; of course, as long as you care more about
your health than your looks. ;-)

The key points regarding food are: make sure it’s light, provides lots of
energy and have a wide variety.

In the planning and research phase before the PCT hike, we read
recommendations to have about 3,000 calories per day. This is nice and
well, and maybe important for people who hike the whole PCT or the whole
Appalachian Trail, but for a week-long hike, next time, I’m going to take
much less food. Even though we got food with maximum calories per ounce,
it was way too much. We couldn’t eat that much and it added a lot of
weight on our backs. We ended up burning a lot of food to get rid of the
weight. With less food, you will most probably lose some body weight by
the end of the hike, but you will gain it back after the hike. My personal
lesson is to bring less food for week-long hikes. From the amount of food I
ate every day, next time I’m going to aim at around 1,500 – 2,000 calories
a day. Of course it’s not just the calories that you need to consider rather
also the ingredients.

It’s also very important to have a wide variety in the food and not assume
that you can eat the same things every day. You get to the point where you
are fed up eating the same food and end up forcing yourself to eat. Energy
bars, nuts and GORP give you lots of energy per ounce, but make sure you
also get other food items for variety. We found dried freeze food, fruit
leather, m&m’s, Halva, Tuna (to a point), soup mixes, and other items
important additions to have a wide enough variety.

Other Items for Convenience
Group moral is very important in the hike. We played cards in one of the
hikes and this did very good to raise our spirits.

This is probably something I shouldn’t mention or encourage, but we
brought some Schnapps and had a small drink in the campsites. This also
did good to raise our spirits.

I also like to know what elevation we are gaining, what elevation we need to
gain to get to the peak, and in general, as much information about our status
as possible. For this, I found it very convenient to have a watch with hiking
features like altitude, compass, barometric pressure, and so on.

For people who, like me, spend a lot of time in front of a computer, I highly
recommend going to the outdoors from time to time with a good group of
friends. I hope this blog entry will inspire you to give it a try, and at the same
time gave you some important ideas. Please remember: safety first!
Research well, and take precautions to make sure you get back in one


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