Recently I hiked over 5,000 metres to the snow line of Nevado del Tolima in Colombia. Before that I spent 5 days trekking to and from Colombia’s Lost City. And before that I completed my longest trek to date – a 6 day hike up and down Mount Roraima in Venezuela.
This recent bout of hiking brought back memories from when I used to hike as a teenager. 10 years ago I used to regularly go hiking with Girl Guiding UK. I hiked at different difficulty levels and in different countries including; England, Switzerland, USA, Australia and Thailand.
During the 10 year gap some of my hiking knowledge faded. However, having just done 3 hikes in 3 months it’s all come back; whether I wanted it to or not!
Below you’ll find the hiking knowledge that has gotten me through hikes over the past decade. It might apply to wider slabs of life but I take no responsibility for the consequences!
1. Never take your shoes off
No matter how much your feet hurt do not take your shoes off to “just look”. It’s the worst thing you can do. I’ve witnessed multiple breakdowns caused by people looking at their feet and seeing something painful. Pain can be more easily ignored if you don’t know the source. If you look you’ll confirm the source, eg. a blister, and then you can’t get it off your mind! Trust me, it’s better not to look. You’ll only feel sorry for yourself and putting your shoes back on hurts. My advice is only look at your feet when you’ve finished walking for the day. At that point you can rest them and treat any injuries.
2. Hiking is a roller coaster
One minute you love it and the next 60 you hate it and want to be flown home by helicopter. The secret is knowing it’s a roller coaster and that the existence of both the ups and the downs is what it’s all about.
Here are some examples of the downs:
• 4 hours on and you’re still walking in knee-deep mud
• You have to wear wet boots all day as they didn’t dry during the night
• Your waterproof jacket isn’t waterproof
• You ran out of trail mix 2 hours ago
• You fell waist-deep into a bog
• There’s no shade and the midday sun is beating down on you
• You have an upset tummy from drinking contaminated river water
The downs are plentiful but don’t let them stop you. To overcome them think of the ups (unless, of course, you can afford a helicopter).
Here are some examples of the ups that make hiking worth while:
• The views
• Burning off so many calories that you can eat whatever you want afterwards
• No pressure to shower or do your hair
• Having an “I fell into a bog” story
• Making up funny jokes and songs (in 2008 whilst following the Butternut Trail up a mountain in the hope of some good views, I prepared a song in case the views were rubbish. The lyrics were: “why do you build me up, build me up, Butternut Trail just to let me down, let me down”. Pure genius, right?)
• Pushing your body to the limit and not dying like you thought you would
• Spotting animals you’ve only seen on TV before
• Making it across the ridiculously narrow log bridge without falling into the river (in this video you can see me cross a one-log log bridge).
• Feeling like Tarzan when you make a shelter out of banana tree leaves to avoid torrential rain
Hiking wouldn’t be enjoyable if it was a roller coaster of just ups. The ups would soon become boring and ordinary. The downs add in a bit of challenge and adventure. Getting through them creates a sense of achievement and often the downs turn into stories that you laugh about afterwards.
3. Mr Grumpy isn’t invited
Don’t moan. Whatever is bugging you -try and keep it to yourself. Negativity is a downer. You won’t enjoy the hike and you’ll bring other people’s moods down too. It’s important you stay positive. Positivity comes from changing your outlook, eg. seeing the steep hill as great for your gluts rather than torture. If you change your attitude you’ll change your experience of the hike. You decide whether you enjoy the hike or not.
4. Achieving the impossible
Don’t let your brain quit before your body. Your body will do what your brain tells it to do. You just have to be positive and keep moving. When you push your limits and do what you thought was impossible it feels amazing!
5. Bye bye comfort zone
Some of my favourite memories are from when I’ve left my comfort zone. Jumping off really high cliffs into rivers or climbing near vertical rock faces. It’s not easy – in fact it’s often very scary. But it’s worth it – for the sense of achievement and personal growth.
6. Spice up your life!
Hiking is more fun than being stuck in an office, doing the weekly shop, or sitting at home watching people butcher Adele songs.
Further, absence makes the heart grow fonder. All those luxuries you’ll miss (the internet, hot bubble baths, decent coffee, GHDs) will be even sweeter when you get back. So be grateful you’re not in a meeting, queueing, or listening to Louie Walsh!
7. Everest wasn’t climbed in a day
If someone in your group is dropping behind put them at the front and walk at their pace. This will stop them from feeling left out and reduce the likeliness of them quitting. It will also make you appreciate your surroundings and the company of others more. *Corny time* hiking isn’t about the destination; it’s about the journey.
8. “I know you can do it!”
Motivate your hiking buddies by giving them encouragement, eg. telling them how well they’re doing. If you’re lucky they will return the kindness.
Receiving encouragement from your hiking buddies feels great and helps you to keep going. I remember a guide handing out high 5’s to each person as they reached the top of the 500 steps at King’s Canyon, Australia in 2007.
More recently a friendly told me he nearly died climbing Cotopaxi. He’s one of the fittest guys I know – he was in the Israeli army. I said if he found it difficult I could never do it, to which he replied “I know you can do it”. Now that is motivation.
9. Forget the kitchen sink
Don’t pack non-essential items such as hair straighteners, books or your entire medicine cabinet. Your backpack might feel light worn around your living room but after an hour hiking you’ll hate it and every damn item in it.
10. Nothing dries – like ever
When choosing between having the lightest backpack ever and having enough dry, warm clothing – go with having enough dry, warm clothing. It’s near impossible to dry clothing whilst hiking. So pack spare clothes in case stuff gets wet and also bag everything. Backpacks aren’t waterproof no matter what the label says.
11. Never look up
Whenever you encounter an incline resist the temptation to look up. Looking up makes it harder. You’ll start to walk slower and stop more often. Just look at your feet and before you know it you’ll be at the top.
12. “Cuánto falta Tony?”
I know next to no Spanish, yet the above phrase is burnt in my brain from a short walk (< 40 minutes) at Angel Falls, Venezuela.
Knowing how much longer you have to go doesn’t help. Just keep moving your legs and enjoy the ride; it will be over soon enough.
The main reason not to ask Tony, or anyone else “how much longer?” is that it’s difficult to accurately calculate times and distances. There are lots of variables, such as the pace of the group and how many breaks you take.
And, if Tony tells you it’s 2 hours until the end and your still walking after 3, you’ll be angry. So just keep walking, be prepared for walking in the dark (if it comes to that) and enjoy the ride.
13. Yeehaw cowboy!
You should stretch your upper body and legs at the start and end of your hike. If you can’t be bothered to stretch at the start at least stretch at the end. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is at the end. If you forget your likely to find walking painful and cowboy-like the next day.
14. Flip flops
Nothing feels better than changing your shoes after walking all day; especially if your shoes are wet. So pack some flip flops to change into. It won’t be trendy but you can even wear socks with them. That way your feet will be warm and dry.
15. Mmm sweets…
For the times when you’re calculating the cost of a helicopter have a bag of trail mix at hand. You can make it yourself or buy it ready made. Common ingredients include nuts, dried fruit, dry cereal and chocolate. It will give you an energy boost and take the edge of any difficult moment.
16. Never trust a stone
Big, small, wet, dry. Boulder, rock, gravel. Flat, round, jagged. Never trust it. It will move and take you with it. Always test suspicious looking ground with the tip of one shoe before putting your whole weight on it. Having said that…
• Trust your hiking boots
They gripped like there’s no tomorrow; it’s their job. Once you trust your boots you’ll find hiking quicker and easier.
• It’s ok to fall
If when you fall – laugh it off. It happens to everyone, all the time. Don’t worry.
17. Hiking isn’t a pageant
Just walk in the mud, through the bushes and across the river. It’s quicker and easier than trying to avoid them.
18. The only way home is through the show
Unless you’ve got deep pockets the only way home is your own legs. So there’s no point sitting around wishing things were different. Get up and keep moving.
I had to tell myself this on Day 3 of the Nevado del Tolima hike. I felt super tired because I’d walked 5 hours the day before starting the hike, then 8 hours on Day 1 of the hike, 10 on Day 2, and Day 3 was set to be 10 hours too. On top of being tired I had an upset tummy from drinking contaminated water on Day 2. Mentally this left me weak. I didn’t feel like walking. I’d struggle to get up after each break. I just wanted to sit there. But I couldn’t. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was no helicopter, or horse, or person to carry me. I had only my legs. So I sucked it up and got on with it, and I tried my best to keep my bad mood to myself.
What have I forgotten?
There must be more tips out there for surviving a hike. What are they? Please tell me. I need all the help I can get – especially as I’m going to do the Salkantay hike this week.
This tip isn’t about how you can survive hiking but how nature can survive you!
19. Leave No Trace (LNT)
LNT is the idea that when you go into the wild you should leave no trace of you having been there. For example, no litter, no tent pegs, no toilet paper, no orange peel. It’s really tough but really important.
Thanks for reading one of my favourite blog posts,