Hikers and backpackers are constantly outside and being active, even in the off season. The physical impact of carrying weight, working muscles repeatedly, and being exposed to uncontrolled conditions can take its toll both in the short and long term. Being able to hike, backpack, snowshoe and do whatever outdoor activities you choose is a special thing, and calls for attention to remain possible, comfortable, and enjoyable.
To stay healthy and protected from injuries, here are a few self-care tips to keep you doing what you love.
Though I rarely drink the amount of water I should, the differences in my hydrated and dehydrated self are evident and powerful. Hydration keeps your blood flowing freely, making sure that every part of your body is supplied with the oxygen it needs.
A lack of hydration can cause a variety of symptoms including:
Hydration is crucial for everyone, but outdoor adventurers need to be especially mindful about their water intake. Heavy breathing and sweating drains your internal water supply.
To care for your hydration pre-hike, drink at least two liters (that’s two Nalgenes, hikers!) every day, whether you are exercising or not. For every cup of coffee or tea you have in the morning, drink extra water. Before you go on your adventure, you should be visiting the restroom often and getting light yellow to clear results. Herbal teas are another great way to hydrate and offer other benefits as well.
On the day of your hike, continually drink water. Pay close attention to how you are feeling, how much you are sweating, and the amount you drink. Always take more water or have water carrying capacity for more than you think you will need.
After you hike, maintain hydration to help your body recover. Lemons can aid in prolonging hydration, so throw in a little squeeze for flavor and added benefits.
There, I said it. The thing that many hikers and backpackers know they should but often forget. It's easy to blow off stretching prior to activity, especially if there are other people around. However, stretching prevents sore muscles, encourages blood flow, and protects your muscles and ligaments from damage.
Before striking out on the trail, stretch your calves, quads, glutes, back of legs, and back. Hold each stretch for twenty seconds, breathing deeply and not pulling or leaning past the point where you feel your edge.
Throughout the day, notice parts of your body that feel tight. Pause a moment to stretch these muscles again, and be sure to keep breathing deeply and drinking water.
Back home or at camp, take time to do a full-body stretch. Now that your muscles are warm, you are more flexible and able to hold positions longer. Focus on points that always bug you after hiking, and do not let incongruence throw you off: if your right quad takes longer to recover, pay special attention to those muscles. Yoga is a great practice of stretching, breathing, and allowing your mind and body to stay healthy. Try a restorative or relaxing session, and notice the difference in your recovery time.
Most outdoor lovers have at least a base knowledge of proper nutrition, many having made the transition from a “less calories = always good” mentality to a more holistic, health-based perspective. Calories are your energy, which translates into the fuel you need to finish the last mile or the warmth you need to venture out in the winter. While food for multi-day trips can get tricky, there are plenty of resources for finding light weight, nutritious, and even delicious meals for backcountry endeavors. Pre-adventure, make sure that you have a day prior of full meals featuring plenty of fruits, veggies and proteins.
In general, your menu on the day of an adventure should offer ample calories (best when restored throughout the day in snacks), nurturing your body with positive fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Try to pack in as many whole foods as you can, and remember that when you are hungry while burning calories, you should eat.
To build muscle, have protein within half an hour of ending your activity. Antioxidants (often called “superfoods”) are crucial in helping your body to recover. Load up on leafy green vegetables, berries, turmeric tea or mango to protect cells from oxidation after prolonged physical stress.
While hydration, stretching, and nutrition all factor heavily in injury and pain prevention, hiking and backpacking- specific steps can make the difference between going again tomorrow and staying home to rest. There are a few types of prevention to consider:
-Muscle/ Ligament Injury
First, consider the points where pressure will be consistently placed on an area of your body. The obvious first candidate for hikers is the back, where weight is carried while climbing and covering uneven terrain. To protect your back, pay close attention to how you pack your backpack. The heaviest contents should be placed as near to your back as possible, helping the weight to rest evenly down on your hips without pulling you back.
Adjust your bag to fit your body, and re-adjust your straps while hiking if the carriage becomes uneven. Try to rest at least 70% of the pack’s weight on your hips by buckling your hip belt first, then move up to the shoulder straps, and finally your load lifters. If you never had your bag fitted and have been experiencing back and shoulder pain, you might have the wrong size or need a different back panel structure to fit you better. Any gear shop that sells backpacks will be able to fit you for free.
Lastly, consider using trekking poles. For me, back and shoulder pain comes from slouchy posture on the trail. Trekking poles are a great support in difficult areas, help your back to stay straight, and give additional contact points for weight distribution. Though you might feel silly when you first use them, the benefits of using poles on long days are compelling enough to feel.
Support your other muscles and ligaments (especially in your feet and legs) with high-quality hiking shoes or boots that fit your foot structure. Find shoes that cushion your weight, allow your toes to spread naturally, keep your heel securely in the heel pocket, and give the lift you need at your arch and beneath your ankles. If you have not invested in a pair of good hiking boots yet, stay tuned for the next blog post for a guide to fit and quality.
Long days in the outdoors call for extra immune help. To keep yourself from getting sick, take along a vitamin C supplement (I enjoy Emergen-C packets on the trail).
Hygiene in the wild definitely takes on new faces, so create a hygiene kit for yourself. Use hand sanitizer before touching food and after every trip to the restroom. If you have dishes or laundry to do, wash carefully with environment-friendly soap (Dr. Bronner’s is safe to use outside).
Take a trowel to bury your waste, including toilet paper, tissues and feminine care items. Remember that six inches is the minimum depth that these should be buried at, and honor the safety and health of other backpackers coming through.
Lastly, know how to use your water filter if you are going to refill directly from a natural source. Pay attention to how you pack it after use, making sure that no contamination could occur in your bag.
Swelling in legs, feet, and hands is common for hikers. Along with hydration, give a pair of compression socks a try to stimulate blood flow (recently, I have been loving these compression socks).
Caring for yourself on and off the trail as an active adventurer is really all about attention. It takes your attention to select a trail and day, to pack well and remember the ten essentials. Hiking and backpacking themselves are self-care, providing a freeing outlet to escape and breathe and drink in the beautiful power of nature.
For the best hiking and backpacking experience, try to give it your full attention. Notice what your body needs, and practice retrieving your thoughts from the far places they scatter. Take time to hear the beat of your steps and heaves of your breaths. If you need to stop a moment to tune in to the sounds around you, sometimes that is more valuable than making a strong mile time.
I hope these tips help you to stay happy and healthy on your adventures. Do you have any tips or practices that work well? Share in the comments below!