As I crested the hill on the slopes of Mount Hood, working my way slowly through alpine meadows and quiet forests, I leaned up against the trunk of a tree to rest and was hit by an unsettling realization: My body was not prepared to hike.
After an entire spring spent stuck close to home, wandering my neighborhood streets in Portland, I wasn’t quite prepared to hoof it up steep mountain trails or rocky paths. My legs felt like clay, my mind like putty, struggling to do an activity that for years now I’ve done professionally.
It’s not an uncommon issue these days. The coronavirus pandemic not only barred Oregonians from some of our favorite trails for months, but it’s left us reeling from an inordinate amount of stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue.
Hiking a little bit better does not — and frankly should not — top our list of concerns at the moment. But finding more comfort on the trail can open a wellspring of joy and relief at a time when we could use it more than ever. Whether you enjoy the physical activity, the natural beauty or the sacred communion, hiking offers a release valve from the troubles that weigh on us.
For hikers just getting started, or those with some experience looking to take things to the next level, we’ve put together tips to becoming a stronger hiker. It’s important that you not read this as a list of “shoulds” but as a collection of suggestions.
Everyone is different, and has their own path to take to finding strength and confidence on the trail. These are just a few helpful tips to get you started.
Before you head out there, check out the trail openings and closures around Washington and Oregon, and look at our list of considerations to take for outdoor recreation during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hydration is important in all aspects of your life, but especially so when hiking. Drinking water while you’re on the trail is important, but it’s just as important to stay hydrated the day before and morning of your hike. Showing up hydrated can make a world of difference. Also be sure to bring along a large, reusable water bottle with you for any day hike, and take along a water filter for backpacking trips. Consider keeping extra water in your car just in case.
2. Eat well
Your body needs good fuel to move efficiently, which makes proper nutrition important both before, during and after your hike. Everyone has different needs when it comes to food, so listen to your body. In general, nutrient-dense meals will serve you best.
Some basic stretching is vital before hitting the trail, especially if you’ve spent a couple hours sitting in your car to get there. Everybody has different needs, and stretches will vary based on the kind of activity you’ll be doing, personal preference or previous injuries. Focus on your quadriceps, hamstrings and calf muscles, as well as your ankles and hips.
4. Show up prepared
As with any outdoor activity, preparation is vitally important. Fill your day pack with the proper supplies (including extra layers, food, water and first aid), and carry the 10 Essentials, especially if you’ll be going into more wild environments. These days, you’ll also need a face covering and hand sanitizer. Masks are necessary when passing others on trails, so carry a face mask with you or wear a neckerchief that can easily function as a mask. Even if you don’t end up using some of the items you carry, you can hike more safely and confidently knowing you have them with you.
5. Find your breath
It’s easy to get stuck huffing and puffing as you hike, leading to discomfort and frustration. Take the time to focus on your breath, feeling your lungs as you inhale and exhale. Allow your body to do what feels natural, rather than force a “correct” technique on yourself. If you can fall into a comfortable rhythm of breathing, it will become easier to push yourself uphill and farther down the trail.
6. Know your limits
There’s no shame in calling it quits and turning around. Pushing your limits will certainly lead to greater strength and a sense of accomplishment, but knowing when to stop can save your life or prevent an unnecessary injury. If a little voice in your head is telling you to stop, you should probably listen.
7. Work your way up
Just as you learn to walk before you run, you need to work your way up before tackling some of the bigger and more challenging hikes in the Pacific Northwest. Start with what’s comfortable for you right now and slowly ramp it up. Fortunately, there are hikes of all levels across the region. For a little bit of everything, explore the trails on both sides of the Columbia River Gorge.
8. Turn off the music
For some people, music can be a fun or motivating addition to the hiking experience, but it can also rob you of trail awareness. Take your earbuds out, leave the speakers at home, and turn your music off completely. Allow your senses to tune into your surroundings — as well as your body — as you move through the natural world.
9. Skip the trail beer
Cracking a beer at the top of a mountain or on the base of a waterfall is a time-honored tradition for Pacific Northwest hikers, and while there’s not necessarily anything wrong with treating yourself at the end of a hike, alcohol can hinder your balance and awareness — both of which are crucial on more treacherous trails. If you’re trying to keep your body fit and mind sharp, skip the beer (or joint for that matter).
10. Enjoy the experience
At the end of the day, hiking should be something that’s fun to do. If you find yourself struggling, drop the expectations and tap into your inner child to rediscover the fun. And if you find you just don’t enjoy hiking, give yourself permission not to do it. Hiking isn’t for everybody, despite the images you may see splayed across advertising, social media and dating apps. If you’re hiking just because you feel like you “should,” consider finding a different activity that’s more fulfilling.