The REI commercials never show someone like me conquering a mountain, yet still, I hike. As I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a story all about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I got jealous of her body’s ability to function in a way mine couldn’t.
The truth is, between my asthma, stomach, and immune issues, something like the Pacific Crest Trail is probably always going to be out of my ability. But I was letting the fact that one of the longest, hardest hikes in America was out of my reach keep me from tackling the hills near my house.
I saw the biggest mountains and knew I couldn’t make it to the top, and for years I let that keep me from trying even the smallest hill. My friends would take off hiking and invite me, but even though I longed for the woods I’d never go with them, afraid I’d hold them back. Finally, I had to say $#@! it, I’m going hiking! Little by little, I gained my confidence and now I hike at least twice a month, everything from steep, rocky mountains to flat, lazy trails.
It wasn’t easy, transitioning from someone who looked at hikers with jealousy to someone who hiked consistently, but with a little patience and a lot of self-love I’ve learned to trust my body’s ability and know my own limits – two very important skills to have in all of life.
Here are some of the tips I’ve learned from hiking over the years. I hope they help you gain your footing. I’m always looking for more, so if you’re a hiker, please share your own tips!
Tips for (Fat) Hikers:
Give up your preconceptions of what makes a hiker.
Hiking is not a race reserved for only the top athletes. Hiking is a universal sport anyone who wants to connect with themselves and nature can do, no matter what your body size or ability. There are even wheelchair accessible hiking trails!
Practice will never make perfect in hiking, every trail is new, every day different. There is no perfect hiker, so let the idea of being a svelte machine easily traversing the toughest terrain go.
I’ve got a secret for you: all hikers are awkward and uncomfortable while hiking. That’s kind of the point. Hiking takes you out of your normal comfort zone and into nature, where things are weird and different and that’s what makes them unique and special.
Embrace the difficulty! Go into a hike knowing you can take as many breaks as you want. In fact, the breaks I take to catch my breath allow me to pause and see the scenery more than those who never have to stop! I used to feel self-conscious hiking with my super athletic ex, but she actually liked that my slower pace allowed her to slow down and appreciate the hike more.
The best way to get confident doing something is to do it over and over again. You’ll never be fully comfortable hiking – mostly because hiking is all about stepping out of your comfort zone, in a good way – but you’ll start to trust that you won’t fall off a cliff, be eaten by a bear, or sprain your ankle. It’ll get easier, you’ll get more comfortable, and you’ll learn to love the moments of triumph when you stop to catch your breath at the top of a mountain and are greeted by a breathtaking view.
Choose the path you’re on and take it one step at a time.
That’s how babies learn to walk, and they fall down a lot too. This might mean treating yourself like a baby for a while, choosing the easiest paths, until they feel easy, until you feel ready for a challenge. Just like the rest of life, some days you can handle a long, uphill battle, and other days you need to rest on the couch. Pick a good local hiking book for beginners and choose some easy paths at first. As you get more confident, you can build up to your local Mt. Everest, but never feel like you have to conquer a mountain to be a hiker. Simply strolling along a short, flat forest trail may be all you need to feel reconnected with nature.
Get the right gear.
Going out and buying all of the most expensive hiking gear will not guarantee a happier hike. But there are some essentials that are worth investing in, especially as you start to hike more.
In the hiking world, there is the famous “10 Essentials” list that you should have with you at all times. That list is a bit outdated, so REI came up with this more modern one:
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies (especially an antiseptic cream)
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter (space blankets are perfect for this and sound cool)
- A comfortable, supportive pair of shoes (I added this one)
That list sounds like a lot, but really, when you’re starting off you only need this to cover it all: your fully charged phone if it has navigation (assuming you’re starting somewhere in cell phone range, which I highly suggest doing) and a flashlight feature, sunscreen, a sun hat, sunglasses, walking or running shoes, a sweater, a couple bandages, a couple alcohol wipes, a protein bar or some nuts, a water bottle, and a backpack to put it all in. I bet you have all of that around your house already!
In the summer, I wear :
- A turquose SPF Sierra brand sun protective long-sleeve shirt that has buttons where I can roll up the sleeves and air ventilation slits. (It’s been really hard for me to find one in my size – 18 in the USA – that wasn’t super loose – something you don’t want with hiking gear. But after trying a few on, I found one at REI. They have a great return policy, so I like shopping there knowing I can take it back even after a few hikes if it doesn’t work for me.)
- Nike sports bra and a zip-up hoodie, often tied around my waste.
- My turquoise Ahnu hiking boots. (Which are the most comfortable hiking boots I’ve ever worn and I love them! Why? Because they offer just enough ankle support that I don’t have to worry about rolling my ankle – something I do a lot when I hike in tennis shoes – yet are soft enough that my ankles don’t hurt from being held in a stiff boot.)
- Old Navy Boyfriend Cut jeans with torn slits in them to let air flow through without the sun getting on my skin. (I still haven’t found SPF pants that work for my body.)
- A sunhat, cheap sunglasses (I drop them on rocks a lot) with UV protection, and an Osprey Rev 1.5 backpack with hydration pack (I chose a runner’s backpack versus a hiking one because it is lighter weight and more comfortable for me for my day hikes).
In the winter, I wear:
- Thermo stretchy wicking running pants (I got them years ago and can’t read the label anymore to tell you from where), or my snow bib (also gotten so long ago I don’t know where).
- A fuzz-lined toque (think Canadian baseball hat) with flaps that come down to cover my ears if I need them.
- An Eddie Baur water wicking down-lined jacket with hood (I stole from my mother years ago and it’s been through a lot – proof a good jacket is worth the cost).
- Any long-sleeved shirt I have.
- The same backpack, bra, sunglasses, and shoes as above.
In fall and spring I wear somewhere in between the two, taking layers off as I go and tying them to my backpack.
Put your phone and camera away.
Unless you have to have it for navigation, turn your phone on silent and put it away. I try to limit myself to one photo a hike. Yes, I often take more, but what I found myself doing was trying to capture the moment for later instead of being in the moment. Now, instead of taking a photo of the scenery, I allow myself to be a part of it.
Going for a hike might not feel great the first time, but the first time driving a car probably felt pretty scary, right? I know that my desire to have the freedom of driving helped me overcome my fear at doing it right. Here, my desire to be in nature and feel vibrantly alive is helping me overcome the physical discomfort of not being used to being in the woods. Every time I go to hike, I spend the first 15 minutes smiling (see below for why) and the second 15 minutes grimacing. But usually by about half an hour in, I’ve found a rhythm and feel confident enough in my footing that I can focus on the beauty around me.
Lately, I can’t stop giggling for the first mile of my hikes. The weather has been so great, the forests in such bloom, that I feel like I’ve wandered into a fairy tale. My heart is so full of joy, I can’t help myself, laughter has to come out.
But when I’m out of breath, in pain, and on the floor having tripped for the third time, I also have to laugh. Because really, there’s nothing serious about hiking.
Even when you see those ultra-marathoners with water bottles hanging off them, the ones who rush past as if they’re on a mission to plant their flag at the top before anyone else, you have to smile and keep going. Because while that’s great for them, that’s not you. Everyone is on a different path, love the one you’re on.
- If you’re hiking uphill, lace your shoes more loosely to allow for blood flow and circulation to keep you cool. When you’re going downhill, lace your shoes more tightly to keep your feet in place and not rubbing the toes of your shoes. It’s also smart to take baby steps downhill to keep your gravity low and reduce the risk of losing your footing on loose rocks.
- For longer hikes, it’s good to rest every hour or so and elevate your feet for 5 -10 minutes to help the blood recirculate through your body. This makes a big difference in how the rest of you feels, and in how long you can hike for!
- In cooler climates, it’s great to have a bottle of water with you to sip at regular intervals. It’s easy to get dehydrated even on a short hike, and the bottle gives you a chance to rest and take in the scenery. In warmer climates, and especially in the desert, a camelback-type hydration bladder is almost necessary. It makes constant hydration easy, and replenishes the water you’re losing without even realizing it.
- It’s wise to take layers no matter where you live, no matter what time of year. Being able to strip down is important, as is being adequately warm. Having a windbreaker can be a lifesaver at the top of the hill.
- Snacks! Hiking makes you hungry and some of my favorite snacks are dried fruit like unsulfured apricots, home-dried prunes and dried mango – yum! I also like to snack on protein, so jerky or a Tanka bar can be just the thing. My stomach doesn’t handle protein bars very well, so I tend to bring a container full of nuts, chocolate covered blueberries, dried fruit, and jerky with me, and then a snack for when I’m back in the car.
Are you a hiker? Share your tips with me below!
Do you want to be a hiker? Let me know what’s kept you from taking it up.
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