Thirty-year-old Marylyn Connors from Newark, New Jersey, walked gingerly into the Ute Mountaineer Outdoor store in Aspen, Colorado. She had an expression of distress on her faintly sunburned face. Immediately she approached the retail counter stating, “I need to talk to someone in the hiking department.”
Behind the counter was the store’s hiking expert, known locally as “Dennis from the Ute.” Dennis replied, “What can I do for you, Ma’am?”
Connors described how she had just been on a four-hour hike on the Continental Divide that put her about as far from a “Rocky Mountain High” as she could imagine. Her feet were bruised, ankles swollen, knees ached and her back had developed a sharp pain in the lower vertebrae. On top of all that, she was hobbling around with quarter-sized blisters on the backs of her heels and now her vacation, in which she had been expecting to hike for days in the high country of Colorado, had suddenly become a walking nightmare. She came into the outdoor store looking for advice to get through the rest of the week without suffering more pain out on the trail; otherwise she would catch the next flight back to Newark.
According to Dennis from the Ute, Connor’s story is typical for many would-be trail hikers on vacation. “Some people come here looking for a workout. You can burn from 350 to 500 calories per hour hiking in the great outdoors. That’s true, but many people expect trail hiking to be just like the treadmill or stair climber they have been working out on back at home. But it’s a lot different.”
Loose soil, undulating terrain, variable walking surfaces and improper clothing choices can throw a monkey wrench into your workout. Yes, hiking trails can give you a great, pain-free, calorie-crunching workout, with the added bonus of fresh mountain air and amazing scenery – but if you don’t take a few precautions, you can find yourself miserable after only a few miles on the trail.
Dennis suggests three things a first-time hiker can do to avoid the pitfalls of pain for those who are more familiar with cardio machines than calluses: select the proper footwear, use trekking poles, and wear the proper clothing.
Those comfy running shoes that are still clean and sparkling after many miles on the treadmill might be the obvious choice to bring out on the trail – but think again. “Your typical running shoe has a soft sole that does not give as much protection to your feet as you may think,” Dennis says. “Rocks have jagged edges that can stab up through soft soles, bruising the bottoms of your feet. Imagine a field of shark’s teeth trying to bite into your shoes and bang up into the your tender arches. Around here, they are not called the Rocky Mountains for nothing – you can’t avoid rocky trails.
But no matter where you hike, if you have rocks, running shoes just will not do the trick. What you need is some firm hiking shoes or boots with more substantial soles. Choose a hiking boot or shoe with a polyurethane sole that gives more protection to your feet; it will help you walk long and far without pain.
When hiking over rough terrain, four points of contact with the earth are better than two. Dennis says, “Trekking poles – similar to ski poles – can really help out hikers, especially people who are new to outdoor trails. If you work out on a treadmill or any type of elliptical or stair-climbing machine and are used to resting your hands on bars or handles of any kind, you are a strong candidate for trekking poles. Using poles on a hike can help you stay stabilized, just like you do on the cardio machines.
“Trekking poles distribute weight more evenly, allowing the hiker to use the upper body as well as the lower body for balance. What we see around here, is that hikers who use poles have less pain in the ankles, knees, hips and lower back.”
Recent research backs up Dennis’ claims. According to a study in Britain, hikers using poles reported a lower perception of effort and reduced muscle pain and soreness during and after climbing 3,400-foot Mount Snowden in Wales.
In addition to adding stability and lowering discomfort, according to some small studies, trekking poles may actually increase the cardiovascular workload, because the upper body complements the work of the lower body.
Dennis from the Ute also adds there are many different kinds of poles with springs and shock absorbers and different angles to customize anyone’s style of hiking.
“Cotton kills” is the common phrase of hikers who are “in the know” says Dennis. According to Dennis from the Ute, clothing that is made out of cotton can cause more problems than a kitchen full of rats. “What people need are socks and undergarments that are made with quick-drying synthetic materials,” Dennis says. Cotton socks hold moisture and that moisture increases rubbing inside footwear, which causes blisters.
The “cotton kills” phrase holds true for most all hiking clothing. Instead of a 100 percent cotton hoodie and T-shirt for a hike, choose clothing that “wicks moisture away from the body and breathes” according to Dennis. Soft-shell wool and synthetic tops and rain jackets with underarm ventilation will help hikers feel comfortable and dry throughout their hikes without the chill and rubbing of material such as cotton. “It’s always better to be warm and dry, rather than cold and clammy,” he said.
One thing for certain about hiking in the great outdoors is that you don’t want to end up like Marylyn from Newark. Before you hit the trail, take the proper precautions, because your next trip to Aspen (or wherever you may choose to hit the trail) should be as carefree as can be.
Talking of walking in three easy steps. Gait speed, hiking poles, and footwear. Harvard Health Letter March 2011 www.health.harvard.edu
Medicine Science Sports Exercise, 43: 140-145, 2011.