7 LESSONS LEARNED LONG-DISTANCE HIKING
Authored by Katie Highsmith
January 28, 2019
Have you ever walked 75 miles up and down and over and all around mountains? Of your own accord? Like completely and totally willingly?
If your answer to my question is “no” or maybe even a “hell no,” stick with me. Three years ago that was my answer as well. Fast forward to current day: I’ve been on two what I’ll call “long-distance hikes” of greater than 70 miles, and I can not wait for the next opportunity.
Is it challenging? Yes.
Is it worth it? Absolutely.
In 2016, I was invited by a friend on a trip to the Dolomites in Italy to hike the Alta Via II. Without a whole lot of thought (or knowledge of what exactly I was getting myself into), I enthusiastically agreed. Had I done something like this before? Not even remotely, but I had done a few poorly trained half-marathons in my past and was still alive, so I felt more than adequately prepared. I remember looking through a list of gear I would need to pack, carefully online purchasing all of the things that would make me mountain-chic, and then eagerly trying everything on as the packages arrived. Like, I actually remember hiking over the back of my couch while giving my new trekking poles a test run. Anyways, point being, I did survive the hike and loved it so much I returned on another adventure to hike the Haute Route in 2017. Along the trail, hiking has given me quite a few nuggets of wisdom, seven of which I will impart to you below.
7) Break in Your Damn Boots.
This may seem an obvious one even to the inexperienced hiker, but some crayons in the box are born brighter than others. I bought these great (chic) boots from REI and would wear them on walks a few times per week. I live in Houston, TX, where our greatest elevation gain is probably an overpass on the freeway, but I thought I was doing a great job so when the time came for the trip I packed up my shiny, stiff boots and hopped on the plane. Forty-five minutes (I kid you NOT 45 minutes) into an 8 day trek I was pulled off to the side of the trail, boots and socks off, with a blister that had already formed and then popped. Seriously...break in your boots.
Life Application - Prepare for the upcoming unknown. Then prepare some more. I promise, the potentially painful and painstaking preparation process is far less than the proverbial blister of unpreparedness.
6) You Don’t Need Family-sized Toiletries in Your Pack.
I promise. No matter how dirty you think you’re going to get, carrying 10 extra pounds of Dr. Bronner’s, shampoo, and conditioner is not worth the weight (conditioner I tell you...as if my delicate hair needed to be conditioned up these mountains). I was given explicit instructions on how to pack. I even had to have my pack’s contents approved before I could put them inside the backpack itself. I just waited until the pack approver went back downstairs and then snuck in my shower supplies. Every pound counts up these mountains, a lesson I learned readily and with force on the 2nd day of my first hike when I got my ass handed to me and my friends (best people in the world) had to deload some weight (toiletries) out of my pack. I’ve never tried to inappropriately condition my hair since.
Life Application - Be aware of the extra weight you’re carrying around. All those little things you’re letting tag along in your life can (and will) add up.
5) Never, Ever, Trust the Weather Forecast.
Like, ever. Ever ever. One day we were scheduled to get some rain in the morning, so we dressed accordingly in our super chic rain pants. It was lightly sprinkling as we set out from the hut we were at the night before, but before long it started to clear up and definitely started to warm up. We pulled off the trail and delayered; I was now in chic yoga pants and a long sleeve. We started up the trail again knowing that our day was taking us up and over a pass so it was time to get moving. Uphill trekking will get you sweating in no time! Oh, it’s sprinkling again but it’s going to clear up, no outfit change #3 is needed, and I’m already a little damp from sweating anyways. Oh, excuse me, is that a chunk of ice? Like a light switch got flipped, it went from overcast to sleeting, and within 30 minutes we were in a full-blown snow storm with 5 feet of visibility at most in my chic yoga pants with a pair of (very wet) cotton gloves on. I lived (obviously) and bought a pair of legitimate gloves in the next town we passed through.
Life Application - Plan for the best, prepare for the worst. It is life’s guarantee that there will be curveballs, what can you do to make sure they don’t take you out?
4) Download Your Maps Offline.
Do you know what happens to the trail when there is an inopportune snow storm in the Alps in August? The trail is still there, but it’s under several feet of snow so best of luck. Reliable cell service? LOL no. Luckily for our group, one of our more tech-friendly friends had downloaded a GPS map of our trail and we were able to use it to get over the day’s pass and to our next hut. There were times we questioned him (and also our sanity. and also why it was snowing in August) and times where other fellow hikers would pass us and continue in a direction different from where our map was guiding us. We chose to trust the only thing we had that we knew to be true and reliable and it got us to our destination...and the wine waiting for us.
Life Application - Know who you are and what you stand for - and know it well. There will be people around you who will question the direction you are going and there will most definitely be times when it feels like you’ve lost reception. Pull out your map and hike right on.
3) If You Run Your Mouth, You’re Probably Going To Have To Pay Up.
One of the days of our hike in Italy ended with a few hours of downhill to a hut next to a glacier lake. Your joints really taking a beating tromping down a mountain, and, about an hour into it, I announced that I was going to jump in the glacier lake when I arrived to “ice bath.” Two of my friends immediately called my bluff. Extraneous, yet important, background information - I am queen of the wimps when it comes to weathering the cold. Never the one to back down from idiotic claims (this is how I ended up being goaded into eating an entire pizza one night), I fired back with a bet that I most definitely would be getting in that lake, and if I did they would have to buy me a beer. Shots fired, bet taken. I was filled with regret upon arrival to the warm hut but changed straight into shorts before I lost my resolve, marched across the street, and into the lake (with a minimal amount of swearing and shrieking). I WON.
Life Application - If you run your mouth… you’re probably going to have to pay up. That’s right. The lesson is right there. Run your mouth all you want... as long as you’re ready to back it up with action. Otherwise, zip it.
2) Accept Help From People.
Some days on the trail you feel great. Some days it will feel like one of your friends put rocks at the bottom of your pack (could be possible depending on your caliber of friends...you should check for rocks if your friends are anything like my friends). Point being - some days, the level of suck is going to be higher than others, and when your friends offer to hang at the back of the pack with you or do something that takes some of the literal weight off your shoulders - let them. I promise it will make your experience (and theirs) more enjoyable if you don’t yell at people who love you and tell them you are fine.
Life Application - You don’t have to do hard things alone. Let people love you.
1) You’re capable of more than you think you are.
I know. I had to bring some feel-good shit in right at the end. But honestly? The top of mountains is where I’ve felt this with the most sureness. There have been moments when I’ve felt like I would not make it another 4 miles to the day’s destination, but with the only options of hiking 6 miles back to where I came from or lying down in the middle of the trail, you find that your perceived limitations aren’t actually real. No life application here; simply a lesson for each to discover and know in their own way and own time.
There is something to be said for getting outdoors, and there is certainly something to be said for putting yourself in new and challenging situations. Is long-distance hiking hard? Hell yeah; it’s put me in arguably some of the most physically and mentally challenging moments of my life. Worth it? I encourage you to get out there and see for yourself. Make sure you break in your boots and leave the Costco-sized toiletries behind.
Blogging Adventurer: Katie Highsmith
Instagram Handle: @katiehighsmith_
Katie is a pharmacist, exercise enthusiast, professional snacker, and all around adventurer. In past lives she has taught yoga and identified as a Californian. Despite not having a passport until 2015, she has now been to 6 countries, hiked 2 mountain ranges, lived on a school bus abroad, and ran off the side of a French mountain. Next up - London, Norway, and Bolivia!