Five things I’ve learned while hiking
Years of bushwalking have taught me a few things. On another page I share some of the lessons specific to the Bibbulmun Track. Here I share some other things I've learned which apply to long hikes in general, regardless of where that happens to be.
1. Blisters can be avoided
My first hikes and long day-walks were spoiled by blisters, so much so that I thought they were an unavoidable part of serious walks. Not so. There are a number of blister strategies which are well known to hikers, which you've probably seen before:
- Wear good fitting boots - but not too tight
- Make sure they are well worn-in
- Wear two socks on each foot - a thin inner sock worn under a thicker hiking sock
- Cover blister hot-spots with tape for extra protection against rubbing
- Keep feet dry
What hiking in Australia has taught me is the importance of applying all of these strategies together.
My greatest leap forwards in blister prevention came after sticking small patches of tape (such as fixomull) onto skin where blisters are most likely to form. And how do you know where to put the tape? The best way is to learn from experience, by noting where blisters have formed before.
One idea I tried was to take photos of my feet when suffering from blisters. Drawing rings around the blisters with marker pen made them clear and obvious. Such photos provide a personalised map of hot-spots, and show where tape should be applied next time.
This and the other blister strategies are like links in a chain. Fail with just one, and problems can still arise ... as in my next lesson.
2. Tight boots can cost you a toenail
I was managing to avoid blisters and thought nothing could go wrong. How silly! Over the years my feet had grown a little, and my well worn-in boots became just a fraction too snug. I got away with it until the day a torrential downpour left me with waterlogged boots and soggy socks. Snugness became tightness, and by the end of the day my little toenail was coming off - something I didn't even know was possible before then.
After limping painfully to the next town I learned that lost toenails are not unusual among serious runners. In fact some hardcore runners and hikers seem to treat it as a badge of honour, or a rite of passage into a higher level. To me it was just a sign that I needed boots with a wider fitting and more toe room.
A new toenail grew back in six months, and with plenty of toe space in my new footwear I hope to never repeat the experience.
3. You don't need to carry as much gear as you thought
On my first overnight hikes I carried a 25kg load on my poor back ... and that was just for one night! The discomfort set me on the long road to the holy grail of ultralight hiking.
I'm not there yet, but years of small adjustments brought my hiking backpack weight down to just 12kg, and that includes food and fuel for three days. For me this has made the difference between enduring a walk and actually enjoying it.
Some of the weight reduction came about by taking lighter versions of things, like a titanium pot instead of a heavy stainless steel one. Camping gear sellers will bend over backwards to help you buy smaller and lighter gear. But most of my improvements were not the result of lighter stuff, but rather deleting items from my list and simply doing without.
On my early trips I thought I needed all the stuff I was weighed down with, but getting by happily with less than half has taught me I didn't really need much of it after all.
4. Food quality is at least as important as quantity
(Assuming that you have sufficient to supply your needs)
As with packing in general, the amount of food I carry has diminished over the years. I've found my actual needs to be less than what the hiking literature suggested, and less than what I would have expected.
At first I put it down to my fat reserve being drawn upon ... a plausible idea given the size of my reserves! However I've met plenty of other hikers who don't eat as much as they expected to, and end a trip with uneaten food left over. For me it is drinks, both cold and hot, that provide a stronger lure at the end of a sweaty day of walking.
While the quantity may be overrated, the type of food you eat is still important. On my earliest long hikes I suffered intense cravings for milkshakes, and hot chips with lots of salt. This led to over indulging after the walk, which didn't work out too well.
At first I thought it was just hunger, but then I wondered if the craving was an expression of my body's need for things lacking in my hiking diet - in this case fat, salt, and dairy. I replaced dried fruit with cashew nuts (fat and salt) and added powdered milk to my hiking breakfast. Since then those cravings have diminished. In this case I think my craving was revealing a need - or maybe just a desire - for more appropriate food, rather than just more food.
5. Solitude is underrated
Being alone and being lonely are not the same. Unless you are at the extreme end of the extrovert spectrum, you may be surprised just how refreshing it can be to experience solitude out in the bush. Being alone in nature somehow feels more appropriate than being alone in the midst of other people.
On some of my winter hikes I've walked for days at a time without seeing another human. Rather than feeling lonely, I've found it to be just relaxing and therapeutic for the soul.
There are tangible benefits to solitude. Without the disturbances and sounds that a group of humans inevitably make, you get to see far more wildlife when alone and quiet. And there is something special about having a large tract of wilderness all to yourself.
Of course all the responsible hiking books and guides recommend walking in groups because it is safer. This may be true, but the numbers of other solo hikers I keep seeing suggest that I'm not the only one who thinks the rewards outweigh the obvious need to be extra careful.