Marylyn Connors, 30, of Newark, New Jersey, carefully entered the Ute Mountaineer Outdoor Store in Aspen, Colorado. There was an expression of despair on her slightly sunburned face. Immediately she approached the counter and said, “I need to speak to someone from the hiking department.”
Behind the counter stood the shop’s hiking expert, popularly known as “Dennis von der Ute”. Dennis replied, “What can I do for you, ma’am?”
Connors described how she had just done a four hour hike on the continental divide that was as far from a “Rocky Mountain High” as she could imagine. Her feet were bruised, her ankles were swollen, her knees ached, and her back had a sharp pain in her lower vertebrae. On top of that, she hobbled around with quarter-size blisters on her heels, and now her vacation, where she’d been expecting to hike for days in the Colorado highlands, had suddenly become a hiker’s nightmare. She came into the outdoor store looking for advice on how to get through the rest of the week without further pain along the way; otherwise she would take the next flight back to Newark.
According to Dennis von der Ute, Connor’s story is typical of many would-be hikers on vacation. “Some people come here to train. You can burn between 350 and 500 calories per hour hiking in the great outdoors. That’s true, but a lot of people expect trail hiking to be just like the treadmill or stair climber they used to train on at home. But it’s completely different. ”
Loose ground, hilly terrain, variable running surfaces and wrong clothing choices can make your workout a breeze. Yes, trails can give you a great, pain-free, calorie-burning workout, with the added bonus of fresh mountain air and stunning scenery – but if you don’t take a few precautions, you could be on the trail after just a few miles.
Dennis suggests three things a first-time hiker can do to avoid the pitfalls of pain for those more familiar with cardio machines than calluses: choose the right footwear, use trekking poles, and wear the right clothing.
Those comfortable running shoes that are still clean and shiny after miles on the treadmill might be the obvious choice for getting out on the trail – but think again. “Your typical running shoe has a soft sole that doesn’t give your feet as much protection as you might think,” says Dennis. “Rocks have jagged edges that pierce soft soles and can injure the soles of the feet. Imagine a field of shark teeth trying to bite your shoes and strike your delicate arches. Here they are not called the Rocky Mountains for nothing – rocky trails are unavoidable.
But no matter where you hike, if you have rocks, running shoes just won’t be enough. What you need are sturdy walking shoes or boots with stiffer soles. Choose a hiking shoe or shoe with a polyurethane sole that gives your feet more protection. 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 – much like ski poles – can really help hikers, especially people new to outdoor trails. If you work out on a treadmill or an elliptical machine or a 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 sticks while hiking can help you stay stable, just like with the cardio machines.
“Trekking poles distribute the weight more evenly, so that the hiker can use both the upper body and the lower body for balance. What we see here is that hikers who use sticks have less pain in their ankles, knees, hips and lower back. “
Recent research supports Dennis’s claims. According to a study in the UK, hikers using sticks reported less perception of exertion and less muscle aches and pains during and after climbing 3,400-foot Mount Snowden in Wales.
In addition to providing additional stability and reducing discomfort, according to some small studies, trekking poles can actually increase cardiovascular workload as the upper body supplements the work of the lower body.
Dennis von der Ute adds that there are many different types of sticks with springs and shock absorbers and different angles to suit any hiking style.
“Cotton kills” is the common phrase used by hikers who are “in the know,” says Dennis. According to Dennis von der Ute, clothes made of cotton can cause more problems than a kitchen full of rats. “What people need are socks and underwear made from quick-drying synthetic materials,” says Dennis. Cotton socks hold moisture, and this moisture increases the rubbing in the footwear, which leads to blisters.
The phrase “cotton kills” applies to almost all hiking clothing. Instead of a hoodie and T-shirt made of 100 percent cotton for a hike, choose clothing that “wicks moisture away from your body and breathes,” says Dennis. Softshell tops made of wool and synthetic as well as rain jackets with underarm ventilation ensure that hikers feel comfortable and dry during their hikes, without materials such as cotton cooling down and rubbing. “It’s always better to be warm and dry than cold and clammy,” he said.
One thing that is certain about hiking in the great outdoors is that you don’t want to end up like Marylyn from Newark. Before you head out, take the right precautions because your next trip to Aspen (or wherever you choose to go) should be as light-hearted as possible.
Speaking of walking in three easy steps. Walking speed, walking sticks and shoes. Harvard Health Letter March 2011 www.health.harvard.edu
Medicine Science Sports Exercise, 43: 140-145, 2011.