Hike Like a Pro

How do you get good at hiking? Hike a lot. And we haven't met anyone who's logged more miles than Cam Honan.
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How do you get good at hiking? Hike a lot. And we haven't met anyone who's logged more miles than Cam Honan.
hike like a pro

Self portrait of Cam Honan

Over the last 20 years, Cam “Swami” Honan has trekked 50,000 miles. The 44-year-old Australian has hiked in more than 50 different countries. And no, he didn’t win the lottery. Most years, Honan crams work into two- to three-month chunks of 70-hour weeks, exporting handicrafts from his home near Guadalajara, Mexico. He spends the remaining months in the field. Honan’s most recent long trek, from July 2011 to December 2012, was a North American tour de force—15,000 miles and 28 pairs of shoes. En route, he hiked 12 long trails, including the PCT, CDT, and AT. On the big three, he set a new Triple Crown record—236 days. With that much time on the trail, you can be sure he’s picked up a few tricks. Here are his top tips.

Hike at a Consistent Pace.
Sounds easy, but backpackers waste a lot of energy by starting too fast. Start slow, 1-2 mph (should feel easy), and then settle into a day-long, sustainable pace (2-3 mph for most hikers). Two tips to stay in the zone: short breaks (10 minutes max) and regular calorie intake (snack often). Whether you’re going 10 miles or 30, Honan says, “Aim to finish the day at the same pace you’ve been maintaining.”

Adjust your pack often.
There is no “perfect setting” for an entire trip. Every couple hours or so, make small tweaks to your pack’s harness, hipbelt, shoulder, and stabilizer straps. Alternate the load between your shoulders and hips.

Mix up your hiking stride.
On flat, well-maintained trails, using the same muscles in exactly the same way—hour after hour, day after day—is a recipe for injury. Try taking shorter and longer strides; get up on your toes, and then back on your heels.

Eat well.
On long treks (think weeks, not days), you need a steady supply of fuel. Honan aims to consume 4,500 to 5,000 calories per day on the trail. Even after weeks of 30-mile-plus hiking days, the 6-footer stays within 2 to 3 pounds of his 178-pound norm. “A hiker losing a huge amount of weight is a hiker who will soon be off the trail,” he says. Top snack: trail mix—with M&M’s, yogurt-coated raisins, or peanut butter-filled pretzels. Top breakfast: Granola or muesli with NIDO full-cream powdered milk. Dinner: dehydrated beans (he ate 120 pounds worth on his 15,000-mile trek).

Carry less water.
This is a judgment call—you never want to get dehydrated—but savvy hikers try to avoid carrying more water (8 pounds per gallon!) than they absolutely need. Honan’s strategy: In dry terrain, where refill opportunities are far apart, drink at least a liter of water at the source before leaving. And then carry that much less. Of course, always err on the side of caution if you’re unsure of the next source.

Choose campsites wisely to boost warmth on cold nights.
Avoid camping in valley floors, where cool air collects. Look for sheltered spots under trees, which means less dew.

YOUR FEET
Choose the right socks.
Shoes are important, but so are socks. “The idea that you need thick, padded socks is one of the biggest myths in backpacking,” Honan says. Not only can you save several ounces per pair by switching to thinner models, but with the right socks, you’ll also spare yourself heat-accelerated blisters. Honan likes REI’s Merino Wool Liner socks ($11; rei.com). “They’re not too thin (like synthetic liners), and not too thick,” he says. He wears them alone, and says they’re durable, affordable, and dry quickly. And be aware that your feet may swell on hikes—growing as much as two sizes. But most hikers stop with buying larger shoes. “Get socks that fit, too.”

Keep your feet clean.
Honan maintains a three-step routine:
1) Air feet out at least once a day.
2) Wash them every evening (sponge with a bandana even in a dry camp).
3) Wash dirty socks.
“A pair of socks is always hanging from my pack. I look like a walking clothesline,” Honan says. “In the southwest U.S., I wash a pair every day or two because of the extra dirt and grime. In Appalachian Trail conditions, it’s normally every three days.” (He usually carries two pairs, but adds a warmer midweight pair for really cold weather.)

Stretch every day.
Avoid tight, sore muscles. During each break do some light stretching; add 10 minutes of more comprehensive stretching at the end of each day. work your calves, hamstrings, groin, quads, and glutes. “Think of it as an investment in your on-trail health,” Honan says. (Though limit stretching on cold mornings before you’re warmed up, he warns.) See backpacker.com/stretch for technique tips.

Use a sleeping mat
no more than three-quarter body length.
Sleep with your feet resting on top of your pack. “When your feet are elevated, there’s the added benefit of reducing swelling in your lower extremities,” Honan says.

Ditch the sleeping bag stuff sack.
Use your sleeping bag as the ultimate pack filler. “Instead of cramming your bag in a stuffsack placed at the bottom of your backpack, use it as a filler for the outer sections of the pack.” Pack your heavy items first, exactly where you want them (near your back), and then stuff the sleeping bag around them. This secures the weight in the mid and upper regions of the pack. Benefits: “Packing this way helps maintain the bag’s loft long term,” he says, “and it keeps the pack’s center of gravity near your back.”

Stay Cool.
When it’s really hot, you know to dip your shirt and hat in water, which greatly enhances evaporative cooling. when water sources are scarce: “Soak an extra shirt and place it in a zip-top bag; stash it in your pack to put on later.”

Downsize your first-aid kit.
Honan’s 1-ounce kit: antiseptic wipes (3), 3M micropore surgical tape (tiny roll), ibuprofen (8 tabs), 3-by-3 inch piece of gauze, sewing needle, and dental floss. He uses this for all trips and replaces supplies as needed.

Pack gear that serves double—or triple—duty.
For cathole digging, Honan uses a tent stake instead of a shovel. More multitasking: a pot that serves as a bowl, cup, and washing vessel; socks double as mittens; and a poncho tarp. Of the latter, Honan says, “It’s my shelter, pack cover, and rain protection.” He likes Mountain Laurel Designs Silnylon Pro Poncho Tarp ($165; mountainlaureldesigns.com) because of the effective hood design and many guy-out options, which improve protection in a storm.

Use ultralight rain protection.
“Line the inside of your backpack with a garbage bag. It’s light, cheap, and does the same job as a pack cover or pricey liner.” Trash compactor bags are the most durable. Exception: In the foulest weather, Honan uses a multipurpose poncho-tarp-pack cover.

Carry an umbrella.

Sounds like a luxury? Honan considers an umbrella so valuable—to protect against both desert heat and bone-chilling rain—that it makes the cut as part of a sub-8-pound base weight (all his gear, minus food and water). He recommends the GoLite Chrome Dome ($25; golite.com).

Don’t cook.
“I go stoveless in three-season conditions. I rehydrate my beans/pea soup/lentils in an empty Gatorade powder container (the one with a wide lid).”