Happy New Year!
As cliché as it may sound, one thing this hellacious last year has given me is a deeper appreciation for health and for quality time outdoors, hiking with my family and friends. It’s no secret that hiking is tremendously good for you, in fact, some doctors are even prescribing time outside as a way to lower your risk of heart disease, improve blood pressure and sugar levels, increase bone density, improve cognitive function, combat depression and attention deficit disorder, the list goes on. But aside from what the doctors have to say, the simple truth is it just feels dang good and I’m committed to making it more a part of my life in 2021. You with me?
Below, you’ll find my list of hiking tips — ways to improve your hiking experience this year. I was lucky to spend the better part of my twenties hiking the soggy coast of southeast Alaska and the mountains of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, so I’m pleased to share these battle-tested insights from Mother Nature’s school of hard knocks. Whether you’re brand new to the activity, a seasoned veteran or just curious and want to learn more, we’ve got a little something here for everyone:
Fog rolls along the ridgeline at Castle Rock State Park. It’s all too easy to forget the expansiveness of the open spaces within the Santa Cruz Mountains. Since 1977, POST has protected more than 80,000 acres throughout the region. And the trails await!
Choosing a trail that’s the right level of difficulty is a critical step for a successful hike. A little simple planning could be the difference between the highlight of the weekend or the suffer-fest of the decade. I suggest aiming for the former, and the three main criteria to consider are time, distance and elevation change.
The general rule of thumb is that, on average, people walk about three miles an hour on flat ground, and it takes about an additional hour for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained. So, for example, a three-mile hike with a thousand feet of elevation gain would take…you guessed it, about two hours. Of course, things will vary depending on the trail, fitness levels, quality of snacks worth stopping for and so forth. But it’s a helpful reference point when choosing an appropriate hike.
To get you started trail shopping, we have a host of resources on our website where you can find hikes to choose from. I suggest starting with our Hiking Guide and going from there (organized by “easy, moderate and hard” hikes). And plan to keep it easy if you’re new to the activity and work your way up.
Every hike is a chance to reset — a chance to get in touch with the benefits of nature and feel a sense of renewal. It’s too easy to be distracted these days, living in a world where computers and cell phones are constantly demanding your attention. If I’m not intentional, I can quickly lose focus on the reasons why I like to hike in the first place: the feeling of awe, of experiencing something bigger than myself. Whatever your reasons, take a moment to allow yourself to be fully present in the beautiful network of open space we’re working so hard to protect.
Watch and learn from Rachael Faye, POST’s Public Access Program Manager, how to pack your backpack like a pro. It’s as easy as ABC.
One of the most beautiful things about hiking is its perfect simplicity, and I’ve learned over the years that I tend to have the best experiences when I maintain that simplicity and go light. If you can, stick to the essentials and pack lightly — you’ll be so much more comfortable and more apt to take on longer hikes.
Parents with small kids, I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes or perhaps even just broke down crying at my suggestion of “going light.” With two little boys myself, I get it. It’s hard to leave the house without feeling like we need to take every piece of clothing and a few Target aisles worth of supplies. For our family, “going light” now means taking the double stroller and keeping it under the 300-pound weight limit. But, hey, that’s as light as we can swing it and we’re lucky there are trails wide enough to accommodate our extremely adorable payload.
It may be tempting to think you need that three-hundred-dollar waterproof jacket and Italian mountaineering boots. How quickly we forget that we’ve been walking outdoors for millennia without any of that expensive gear. That’s not to say you shouldn’t buy those things — my point is that you don’t absolutely need them to have a great time. Really!
Keep it simple: Find some comfortable, sturdy shoes that have a closed toe and a good sole. I’m very attached to my beat-up old leather boots with a bit too much character, but I switch to simple running shoes when the weather warms as they breathe better and I don’t get so hot. Whatever you choose for footwear, make sure it’s comfortable, worn in and not going to give you blisters.
When it comes to clothing, you can also keep it simple. Wear pants (pants are better for avoiding ticks and poison oak) or shorts (best for hot days) that don’t restrict movement as your lower body does most of the work. Bring lightweight layers (here’s good post on clothing and layering) that pack well so you can mix and match as needed. And don’t forget a good hat and the few essentials.
That’s it, really.
Take a deep breath. No, I’m not a yoga instructor (that’d be pretty cool), but I’m starting to sound like one. One thing I have learned over many miles of steep trails with heavy packs is to let my breath set the pace. It’s pretty simple — just find a pace that allows you to breathe comfortably and stick to it. Doing so will allow you to move at a pace you can sustain and make the experience so much more enjoyable.
There’s good science behind this too. Turns out when you focus on your breath, your mind becomes less cluttered and you can actually lower and stabilize your heart rate. This helps balance your adrenaline and cortisol levels, making you less prone to fatigue. Breathing easy kind of seems like a no-brainer, right?
One last thing on this which is critically important: Don’t beat yourself up if breathing easy means falling behind when hiking in a group. You do you in 2021!
Mask up! Please wear a mask when six feet can’t be maintained from folks outside your household or pod. Learn more here.
With the recent shelter in place orders, my family and I have been careful to always wear masks and follow current guidelines while on the trail. To combat feelings of fear and isolation, we’ve gone out of our way to be super friendly to other folks on the trails. My young boys are especially talkative and it always feels good to connect.
I’ve come to learn that maybe it’s not just our good intentions driving this friendly behavior. There’s research that suggests exposure to nature can help our relationships by making us more empathic, helpful and generous. Spending time outdoors can also increase your attention span and creative problem-solving skills by as much as 50 percent. There are real, measurable mental health benefits to time on the trails and, friends, that’s worth celebrating with one another.
Before we finish I have to come clean. Despite my persona as enthusiastic outdoorsman, my wife will attest that when it comes to taking the family hiking on the weekends, I frequently drag my feet. Turns out I’m not alone. Procrastination and a sense that “there’s not enough time” is repeatedly what land managers hear in surveys about why folks don’t go hiking more often. Every time I find myself putting off an outdoor adventure, I hear my wife’s calming voice in my head reminding me, “make the time.”
So, friends, let’s make the time! Block it out on the calendar (like go do it right now), make it a regular event, hike the same trail ten times to keep it simple, whatever it takes to do what you need to do to get out there and make the most of your precious time.
Download your seasonal hiking guide to the Peninsula and South Bay.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 86,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more