Last Saturday I succeeded in accomplishing one of my 2018 goals: Do at least two out of town hikes, with one of those being at least eight miles long. It ended up being a solo hike and I thought I’d share some of my experiences from it in the form of a “Do and Don’t” article. This post is dedicated to Trish, who helped me remember how rejuvenating spending time in the wilderness is, and to Dan, who inspired me to hike farther.
Don’t wait for the perfect day.
There are perfect days for hiking, but there’s no way you can guarantee when those days will be. I debated right up until 8:00 a.m. on the morning I’d scheduled for hiking whether to go or not. “Maybe next Saturday would be better,” I thought. This Saturday was the coolest temperatures we’ve had so far this autumn with overcast skies and a chance of rain in the morning. Next Saturday was supposed to have more sun and no rain. The friends I’d invited to go with me weren’t available this weekend; would someone be free next weekend?
But here’s the thing: You don’t need a perfect day to have a good hike. Yes, my hike would have been different in 70̊ F with sunshine. I might have gotten more pictures on a bright, sunny day, but I also may have gotten more fatigued (and sunburned) in the heat. Yes, Saturday’s rainy weather affected my hike–I hiked in wet shoes and socks most of the time and got more muddy–but I had a really good hike. The last mile might not have seemed so long if I’d had company, but the taste of victory was no less sweet by myself. Going on a good hike is better than waiting for a perfect day to hike.
Don’t under estimate hypothermia.
This is especially important if you’re hiking solo because later stages of hypothermia affect your cognitive skills and you start making bad decisions that get you in real trouble. Honestly, it was one of my biggest concerns as I considered hiking solo. Hypothermia doesn’t just happen in the winter with snow; it can happen with rain on a 60̊F day in autumn. With hypothermia, an ounce of prevention is totally worth a pound of cure, so avoid getting chilled in the first place. If you are getting chilled, a general rule of thumb is get as dry as you can, eat something, and get moving. This is why I always carry a little more food than I think I’ll need that day; if something unexpected happens, I want to make sure my body has plenty of energy to deal with it. (Click here for more info about hypothermia prevention and treatment.)
Do dress in layers.
I had started hiking with a thin, long sleeve, synthetic blend shirt under a tee shirt and a rain jacket. After climbing the first big hill, I was way too hot for that base layer, so for a while I hiked in the tee shirt and rain jacket. After an adrenaline rush and a faster pace on a later section of the trail, I got really sweaty in the jacket, and stripped down to the tee shirt. Somewhere in the last three miles, I noticed my arms were cold. (Hypothermia prevention time!) I put on the jacket again, but the still damp sleeves were cold and clammy against my skin. So I went back to the rayon base layer under the tee shirt and finished the hike in comfort (temperature-wise, that is–I wouldn’t describe my feet as “hiking in comfort” that last mile or so).
Don’t forget to enjoy the view.
If you’re just wanting to put miles on your shoes, any indoor track will do for that. In the midst of managing weather conditions, hydration, and calorie intake, remember to enjoy the view!
Do follow the map (and not some random teenager).
At the last creek crossing, I took time to explore among the boulders that in a wetter season would have had water cascading over them. I emerged on the opposite bank close to a group of boys setting up camp for the night.
“Sorry about setting up my tarp right on the trail,” one of the teenagers said. “Don’t trip over the tie-down string when you come around it.”
“So this is the trail?” I asked him.
“Yeah, you’ll find it along here.”
So I picked my way along the edge of the camp and found the trail. Except that the trail was running parallel to the creek and on the map it looked like the trail turned away from the creek and headed back uphill somewhere near “The Falls”.
To be fair, when the creek you’re crossing is dry, it’s not as obvious where “the” crossing is (and thus where the trail picks up on the other side). Likewise, when there’s no water running over the rocks, it’s not as obvious where “The Falls” are since there isn’t an unmistakable cliff the water pours over (this is a “shut-in” type of waterfall). Nevertheless, I knew pretty quickly that the trail I was on did not match what was shown on the map. The wise thing to do would have been to backtrack from as soon as I realized this, but I continued on because I assumed that this group must have hiked in to the campsite on the trail that I wanted to hike out on. My moment of truth came when the trail that was “supposed” to take me all the way back to the Trailhead ended at another creek crossing. I knew the Trailhead was on the south side of the creek, not the north side where this trail was going, which meant that I was undeniably on the wrong trail.
Do depend on the kindness of strangers.
Shortly before my “moment of truth” I had met a father and daughter on the trail. As we chatted, the dad mentioned how he had been bringing his son to hike here since he was six and now this was his daughter’s first hiking trip with dad. Backtracking to where they were, I asked if he knew where the trail turned back uphill because I’d missed it.
“Well this trail doesn’t. It isn’t an official trail, but if you follow it, it will still take you close to the Trailhead and you’ll recognize the area where you started,” he replied. Then he proceeded to describe the landmarks I would need to follow as the trail cut in and out along the creek.
“I’m not very good at bushwhacking,” I confessed.
“It will take longer, but you can hike back to The Falls and pick up that trail if you want. From what you described of where that group is camped, if you head uphill from there, you’ll hit the trail.”
“Thank you so much!” I said as we shook hands.
“Good luck!” he replied.
It was nice to know that I wasn’t alone, even though I was hiking solo.
So about that adrenaline rush that I mentioned earlier. It had started at my “moment of truth” and was in full force by this point. When the dad wished me good luck, my disjointed response was “I will. I mean I will take…luck…ah…I will take good luck with me. Thanks!” I had already turned and begun taking flying steps back upstream.
How much time had I lost? How far was I having to backtrack? I missed the trail the first time. What if I couldn’t find it this time? I knew this trail wasn’t going in the right direction. Why didn’t I turn back sooner? What if I wasn’t able to finish the hike before dark? After a few minutes filled with a few lifetimes of worst case scenarios, I was back at the boys camp.
“Don’t panic, Jen,” I told myself. “Breathe. You know that the trail is here. You know what direction you need to go to look for it. You are not alone. You can ask for help if you get stuck. It’s still daylight now, and you’ve hiked in the dark before. You can do this.”
And I did. I hiked a little farther upstream from the boys and found a (rather inconspicuous) trail marker that indicated “the” creek crossing. I hiked uphill from there and found another campsite. Following the path led off from there, I found myself directly above the boys camp at a signpost announcing the start of the trail that would take me home.
Do remember to bring bug spray.
You would think this goes without saying, but this is the second hike this year that I’ve found myself in the woods without bug spray, so apparently some people (like myself) need to be reminded. If you want to avoid spending the ten days after your hike trying not to scratch your ankles raw (like I am doing now), bring bug spray!!
Do pack enough water to stay hydrated.
When I decided that I wanted to hike more this year, one of the reasons that I challenged myself to do at least one eight-mile hike is that was the distance one of my 70-year old friends hiked last year and I’d like to be able to keep up with my elders. The other reason was the personal bragging right to say I’m in better shape now than I was my twenties. That was the last time I hiked more than two or three miles, and it was brutal. By my own admission at the time, I was not in great shape (and I had lobbied for a four-mile hike, but was overruled). It was a six-mile hike and the last half of the trip was putting one foot in front of the other through mental force of will until I reached the next mile marker. There I would let myself rest long enough for my feet to stop feeling like leaden weights (for at least the first few steps of the next mile), while I talked myself out collapsing in the grass and sleeping in the park that night.
So I worked out and went two other hikes to get in shape for my trek this weekend. And while I literally began singing the iconic refrain from “The Hallelujah Chorus” when I sighted the Trailhead, there was never a time in the hike when I doubted whether I could/would make it. I never experienced the crushing exhaustion or the every-muscle-aches-with-each-step that I remember from that exhausting hike in my twenties. And with hindsight, I’m beginning to suspect the particular brutality of that six-mile hike was due to dehydration. While it’s true that I am in better shape now than I was in my twenties, it was also ludicrous to hike six miles in 90̊ F heat and 80% humidity with only 16 ounces of water! No matter how good of shape you’re in, you won’t get far without enough water.
Do hike your hike.
I chose to do this hike because I wanted to prove something to myself and because I wanted to spend time enjoying the wilderness. The first reason dictated the route I chose. The second reason dictated the pace. Although I had hoped to complete the hike in about six hours (it took eight hours), once I checked in with my husband via text at the Trailhead, I put my phone in my pack and never looked at it again until I sent him my victory text at the end of the trek. If completing the hike in six hours was the goal, then keeping tabs on the time would have been important. But that wasn’t my goal for this hike. So I paused to watch the creek run and listen to the water chattering over the stones. I stopped and ate whenever I was hungry (and could find a good “sit stone”). I took photography interludes when something caught my eye (and it was dry enough to get the camera out). It was a longer day than I expected, but I have no regrets.
When you set out for a hike, know why you want to go and what you want to get out of it. Make choices based on what’s important to you for that expedition. Then hike your hike.