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Long Trails

How to Cope When You're Hiking Slowly

When the going gets tough, the tough start singing—and taking lots of snack breaks.

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There have been a lot of ups and downs on the trail of late—literally and figuratively. As the trail’s been rolling along, getting little treats like the chance to visit the McDonald’s just a bit off-trail at I-15 have been particularly uplifting. But thru-hiking is a primarily mental game, and the mental lows can be bad. 

I’ve had two pretty rough days so far. The first was a “nero”, a near-zero mile day into Big Bear City, and the kindness of the local trail angels and the chance to commiserate with other hikers helped immensely. The second , though, I had to tough it out by myself.

I’d camped 5 miles out from I-15, just shy of a 15-mile, 5,000-foot climb. On average, that’s about 325 feet a mile, which isn’t so bad. But that’s a long time going uphill. And while you technically use more muscles going downhill, uphill miles are harder on your lungs, which are definitely a weakness of mine. So I was doing a lot of stopping, a lot of picture-taking, a lot of adjusting tiny things to make excuses for trying to catch my breath.

About a third of the way through, I saw hiker-written notes pointing to dead or mostly-dead patches of poodle dog bush. It’s a pretty plant when living, but causes irritation akin to poison ivy or oak, and can be much, much worse, occasionally sending hikers to the hospital. Between my constant stopping for breath and focus on the plants overhanging the trail, I felt like I was getting nowhere. It’s easy to get disheartened when you’re moving that slowly

There are a couple of things I do to ease my frustration when this happens. First, I give in and stop, have a bite to eat. (I expect my hiker hunger to kick in any day now, and I’ve already experienced the disgruntled irrationality that comes when my body needs more calories.) These breaks also gives my feet a rest, and give me time to use my tennis ball—an item I picked up in Big Bear and don’t regret carrying—to roll out my arches or IT bands. As I walk, I also spend time planning out bits of writing: what I want to talk about, how to approach it, that sort of thing.

When all else fails, I sing. I didn’t load music onto my phone, so I entertain myself by humming, muttering lyrics, or full-on singing, if I’ve got the breath. I’ll even make up hiking-related lyrics to songs. It’s a little nerdy, sure, but it makes the struggle a little more lighthearted.

I haven’t heard of anyone quitting the trail yet, but tactics like these can help distract from the less-fun times—and hey, I still made 20 miles today. 

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