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Do you really have to have all that stuff on a hiking trip?

Posted: Tuesday, July 30, 2013

One of our guides just returned from the Canadian Rockies Hiking holiday, a hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies, and wrote  "A participant suggested a topic for a blog...basically, it was 'why we are carrying all this stuff and wearing hiking boots when others are wearing flip flops and not carrying a damn thing' ".

It's a great observation!! I immediately started thinking of the time I climbed Mt Katahdin in my early 30s in a cotton tshirt and shorts on a gorgeous hot summer day. We had food and snacks in a pack but that was about it. We got up to the plateau where it started drizzling. Undeterred we walked across to the summit and sat to eat our lunch, while the drizzle continued and the temperature plunged 20 degrees. Deciding we needed to get going, we headed for the path we intended to take down. Unfortunately it was the kind of path that required being able to hold on to rocks. Our hands were so cold that we literally could not use them, so that path was not possible. When I turned to discuss our options, it became clear that my hiking buddy was past the point of coherent conversation and in the first stage of hypothermia, where apathy is the most common symptom. Finding a boulder where we could get out of the wind, we stood and held each other until our body warmth followed by some snacking got her mobile and thinking again. We returned the way we had come, reached the bottom safely, and knew we had been lucky to get away with being so ill prepared.

"Be Prepared" is not just the Boy Scout motto, it's the motto of everyone who spends significant time in the outdoors. What you should have with you will vary with the location and the time of year, so our packing lists are not all the same. But let's look at some of the common items and why we carry them.

    • Hiking poles.There isn't a hiking trip we offer where these aren't on the list. The only difference is whether we put them in the Essential or the Recommended category. Most of our guides use them routinely on any hike for purposes of knee and energy conservation, and getting a great upper body workout. But when you're going steeply downhill or when you're tired, they add a large margin of safety. 
    • Synthetic clothing. When we climbed Katahdin, our cotton clothing got soaked and at that point was actively leaching heat from our bodies. Wearing a synthetic tshirt and having a fleece to pull out of our packs, even if we didn't have rain gear, would have made all the difference. 
    • Rain gear. But we were really dumb not to carry rain gear just because it was a gorgeous morning when we started out. Weather can change quickly and in unforeseen ways, especially in the mountains. Whether you carry a rain jacket and pants or just a jacket depends on where you're hiking, but a jacket at least should automatically go in your pack. One of our guides leading a hiking trip in the Swiss Alps ran into a hail storm on the day they did the 10 mile traverse from Schynige Platte to First. What could have been a dangerous situation remained an inconvenience because they all carried full rain gear and fleece. 
  • Hiking Boots. Hiking boots aren't always essential. If the path is flat and smooth, then wearing flip flops might be all you need. But what flip flops and athletic shoes don't offer you is arch or ankle support, or protection from rocks - all requirements for most trails. A pair of hiking boots that fit your feet well should be comfortable. Yes, I have seen a woman descending a Grand Canyon trail in heels. I can't imagine what her feet felt like on the way out (assuming she didn't break her ankle on the way down).

Probably 49 times out of 50, you will carry more than you end up needing. But that 50th time, when bad weather comes out of nowhere, the trail is unexpectedly eroded or rocky, or what you thought was going to be a 6 hour hike ends up taking 9 hours, you will be delighted to have what you need to stay safe and warm.

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