October 16, 2008

Advice for the out-of-shape hiker

This weekend, I went hiking in the Columbia gorge. Even fairly fit people find some of these hikes to be a bit strenuous -- at least, I noticed even athletic people were breathing heavily. Also, the faces of the people going up the hill (okay, cliff) were invariably serious and fairly quiet. People coming down again were smiling and chattering.

Taking lots of small breaks gives you a lot of time to think about things. In particular, I found myself thinking of ways to deal with the issues of being an out-of-shape hiker going up a hill with fit companions.

Some ideas:

1. Nag your friends to keep up. If you do this right, with a finely tuned combination of seriousness and sarcasm, they won't feel guilty about forging ahead while you catch your breath. It's awful to be the one holding the group up.

2. When going up the trail, get behind a slow poke. You're not going to get there faster by pushing yourself. (Unless it's a realllly small hill.) Out-of-shape hikers are usually much worse at pacing themselves than in-shape hikers.
I'd like to hike behind these guys
Photo credit: aussiegal

3. Bring a camera. That way, it's not a break, "I'm just stopping a moment to take this shot." (The drawback here is that if you're panting really hard, your hands might shake. Blame any blurry photos on very minor earthquakes.)
(You get extra points for unusual shots, such as shooting a waterfall from above.)

3a. In particular, take pictures that show how steep the path was. This tends to impress the sedentary folk back home. Tales about hiking are like tales about the fish that got away. No one tends to believe you without evidence.

4. Don't stress. Everybody has somebody faster than they are. In particular, it's pretty likely that your husband/wife/partner will have different views in regards to fast/slow. (It's a written-in-stone rule of the universe that couples will disagree in some fundamental area of life, such as hot/cold, budget/splurge, tastes great/less filling.)

5. Enjoy yourself. Hiking provides its own rewards.

6. Also, it's a good idea to develop an interest in botany or geology. Or any other damn thing that gives you a reason to catch your breath.

7. Write a blog post about hiking. That way, you can take a break to scribble notes on the hike, which gives you a chance to catch your breath.

Serious note: After the hike, when I got to the bottom again, I saw an ambulance and paramedics. In this case, they were there because of injuries caused by rock falls, but it is true that not everyone who goes up these hills is in shape to do so. In a way, exercise-induced asthma can be quite helpful -- long before my heart gets overworked, I have to stop to breathe. Be careful.

Are there any other out-of-shape hikers who have some hard-won advice they could share? Or any in-fit hikers who could share what it's like to be a fit hiker with a slug companion? When it comes to this topic, I have a lot to learn.


  1. Wow, what gorgeous pictures!!!

    Hiking is one of the few fitness activities I actually enjoy, though that doesn't keep me from griping about many aspects of the experience. (Lack of toilets and presence of bears, among other things).

    Love your ideas for making a strenuous hike with annoyingly fit companions more tolerable.

    The only thing I'd add: pack a lunch with Well Deserved Treats!

    And good for you for challenging yourself. It's especially daunting to go with people who are in great shape. I tend to avoid those situations myself!

  2. I second the suggestion for bringing some tasty snacks. Also, a camera is essential. After all, that's what hiking's all about - being (and peeing) in the great outdoors and taking the time to enjoy it! What's the rush?

    Another thing I'd add.. make sure all hikers have GOOD SHOES and comfortable breathable clothes. This will make or break a trip for anyone. And a pair of good shoes may be just the encouragement every couch potato needs to convince them self they can do it!

  3. Even though I walk all over town, call it a HIKE and my flesh starts to crawl. Hiking implies needing to squat in bushes and not having a hot cup of coffee when you want one.

  4. Congrats on making it up (and down!) the hike in one piece!

  5. Woo, hiking!

    A tip for the shaking hand camera. Most cameras nowadays have a little screw hole in the bottom so they can be put on a tripod. But nobody is gonna haul a tripod while hiking that kind of trail, right?


    Make your own tripod out of a long piece of string and a screw!

    Find a screw that will screw into your camera. Fit is important.

    Tie the end of a long piece of string up against the screw head.

    Insert screw into camera, trail the string down on the ground. Step on the tail of the string. Lift camera until you get a nice, snug resistance on the string.

    Take picture. Voila! The string and resistance gives you a pseudo tripod.

    It's nowhere near as good as a real tripod, but it's a LOT cheaper, and it can be a lifesaver when you're looking at the PERFECT shot, if only your hands weren't shaking so hard that the waterfall is going to look like a candid of bigfoot.

  6. Ahem. That last bit about the string and the screw was from me. I musta hit the enter key by accident.

    or was it intentional? dun Dun DUUUUUNNNN!

  7. A great friend moved from Florida to live in that area about a year ago! She loves it!!

  8. Did friend move for the hiking?

    I mean, it's warm and lovely, but Florida really doesn't provide any opportunity to hike up steep hills, does it?

  9. Please tell me that the large snales are photoshopped or angled. That would be one of my worst nightmares! (yes, I probably could out run them, but if they're that big they'd probably seem like they're booking it!). Besides, they have rodents that size in Brazil. Anything is possible after that.

    Ok, with that out of the way. Congrats! It must have been gorgeous and so rewarding....afterwards! Love, love, love the pic from the top.

  10. Thanks for this post Merry. I want to be an "Adirondack 46-er", meaning someone who's climbed the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondacks, but don't enjoy the hike.

    Now I'm going to look at it as a very long picture-taking chance.

  11. wow, I am so incredibly jealous!

    Way long ago I went hiking in Utah with my very out of shape husband. I couldn't understand why he couldn't keep up, we were just walking!

    Fast forward a few years and I did the same hike while 7 months pregnant. I thought I was going to die and realized how my hubby must have felt years earlier.

    So if you are in shape and go with unfit friends, be nice and set a slower pace.

    and if you are unfit, don't give up b/c it WILL get easier. :)

    (back to shed tears over those awesome pics. I have NOTHING like that where I live.)

  12. You can never have enough water when you are hiking.

    A few years ago, my husband and I were too cheap to pay for the 2 mile uphill gondola ride at $35 each. The nice lady at the park told us that most people hike up the hill and take the gondola down at $5 each. 'Most people are able to get up there in 40 minutes and it's only 2 miles.' Hmmm...

    Before setting off, we debate whether or not to buy more water since we only have a 32 oz bottle with us. 'We'll be fine. It is only 40 minutes,' said my husband.

    My husband down half the bottle before we even made it pass the halfway point. By the time we made it to the half way point, the women that started at the same time as us had made it to the summit and back while we were taking a break.

    Two hours later, with a husband limping from a groin pull, I decided that I am never, ever going to take exercise advice from a couch potato again.

  13. What a beautiful hike...I'm jealous. Hiking is one of my favourite things...anyone can do it, you're outside and you only go as fast or as far as you feel like.
    I don't usually (unless it's Johnson Canyon) hike uphill for a large part of a hike. The way back down is always nice, but it really is a hard trek, perticularly when you're not in great shape. I like ~ 8-10 Km hikes.
    My solution? Break every 15 minutes, even if it's just to sip water. We bring along fruit, fruit snacks/rollupas, cheese sandwiches or cheese bacon chive muffins(yum) and the secret weapon: salted mixed nuts. Oh yes. I've found that when I get low on salt I lose energy...and um...am not very nice. So, nuts are full of energy and the salt I seem to lose when hiking and sweating a bit.
    And I second the good shoes...I've seen people hiking in flip flops. Ow.
    That's my way of hiking...oh, and there *has* to be coffee at the end of it. Period.

  14. Heh...fruit rollups, not rollupas. Sounds like a new mexican fruit snack...:)

  15. Didn't even notice the rollupas... got distracted at the thought of people hiking in flip flops. Seriously? Hard to believe.

  16. They also make hiking poles that you can unscrew the top of and it turns into a camera tripod. Woohoo for multifunctionality!

    I went hiking last summer with my father and a friend of mine. She wasn't in shape for hiking, and started really struggling part of the way up. She wasn't sure if she could make it, especially when she started getting dizzy. But as soon as she had a snack and some water, she felt better, so food and water is really important! Then we got to the top and she let on that she's really afraid of going downhill. But kudos to her for doing something that frightened her!

  17. I always hike with a couple friend of mine. If they go together without me she ends up crying and telling him that he's a jerk because he tells her that he thought she'd do better. When I'm there I set a pace inbetween both extreme's and tears/arguing it kept to a minimum.

  18. Beautiful pics! Definitely wear comfy shoes, good socks and bring water and snacks. My last "hike" was actually the Avon 2 day walk (26 miles 1st day, 13 the next) so I learned lots about being comfortable during a walk!

  19. and fit is such a relative thing huh?
    you can be fit in one realm and completely SUCKITUP in another.

    not that I have any idea about THAT.


  20. that's where I got married! I love that hike - although we usually keep going after getting to the top of the waterfall. (and once, I ran all the way up that hill - and then I died.)

  21. I LOVEOVELOVE hiking! Something about it can keep me going for hours. It's fantastic.

    Such beautiful pictures!

  22. Multonah Falls! I was there in May, and went as far as the bridge. My friend was on crutches, though. Oh, she didn't go there, I went up with her daughters!

    Two years ago our family went to Colorado Springs for vacation, and the four of us took an eight hour hike, up to about 12,000 feet, overlooking the Garden of the Gods. I ( who works out 4 days a week and strength trains) had to frequently stop to catch my breath. I didn't mind so much that my sons (14 and 19 at the time) practically ran up, but I was REALLY pissed that my non-working out husband appeared to do just fine. I've since read that women's lung capacity has a lot to do with that, but I still didn't like it. On the other hand, the next day I had NO muscle aches, and he was pretty hurting, so there's that. It was our favorite outing of the trip, even better than the rafting we did later in the week.

    Unfortunately, I live in Central Illinois, so there's not much of that sort of thing around here.

    ~ Peggasus

  23. I remember hiking half way down into the grand canyon some years back, and of course back up again. Husband much fitter than me, party of much older people who were hiking all the way from the bottom overtook us, one woman was running the trail! But I did it, one step at a time, with plenty of water. My tip is to ignore the companions- or make sure they understand that you are doing this at your pace- they don't have to wait. Personally I find lots of stopping is counterproductive. I do better putting one foot in front of the other, over and over, without too many stops, but quite slowly.

  24. The one time I hiked up a trail that vertical, I was considerably younger and lighter. Asthma is a real kicker though when you exert yourself. Of course, our trail was just a goat track, no paving there. If I were to try such a thing again, I would have to have a walking stick and good shoes, snacks and lots of water. Don't forget something to keep the sun off your head.

  25. multnomah falls. oh man, I haven't been there since like 2004, when I moved away. Good choice for a place to go hiking. I love love love it up there. It's one of those places that my parents took me to a bajillion times and I have tons of great memories at.

  26. You have no idea how happy I was to open this page and see beautiful Multnomah Falls glowing in front of me...One of my favorite favorite places in Oregon. And although I do hate the hike up MF, I love it too. Asthma kills me, but I do it, an sometimes I even remember to bring my inhaler.

    Water is a must, I completely agree with that sentiment. I never go anywhere without my Nalgene in hand. Good shoes too, I've done MF in flip-flops (a whim climb on a bored summer afternoon in high school) and it sucked mucho mucho butt...

    Hey, if you want to see more beautiful pics of our Oregon treasure, go type "Columbia River Gorge" into google, click on images and sit back in splendor...


  27. I did a 6 mile hike (without mountains but some small hills and no shade) recently. My advice...
    The best shoes money can buy
    Water breaks but not too much at a time
    A banana
    lip balm
    good music
    a friend........I was alone :(

  28. Words of advice to share, ohhhhh sure!!! When the trail map reads that it's not an easy trail - BELIEVE IT! It wasn't supposed to be a long one, but let me tell ya, after CLIMBING OVER LOGS and some of the roughest "natural trail" - I'd never do it again. I couldn't even make it to the end of the trail. Geezz...

    But.. those pictures make it worth it. Loved your commentary along the way! Nice to know I'm not the only one to feel that way and OMG - those SNAILS!

  29. Love the post and the photos, Merry!

    Love the string tripod too, excellent idea.

    And my take is that it's not how long you take to get there, it's that you have the willingness to DO it and enjoy the hike at your own pace!

    My usual advice to self: make sure shoes are decently soled and properly laced to prevent blisters and to provide solid footing. Take more water than you think you will need. Take pain relievers along (and one before starting helps reduce inflammation). Take chocolate or candy bars or glucose packs, but don't keep the chocolate next to your body! (It will be soup ;D). Sip and snack while taking panting/wheezing breaks. dehydration can make one dizzy, and "bonking" (sudden low glucose) can be miserable and feel scary. Be sure to pee before you start out, even if you think you don't have to go! It does take awhile to warm up and get a rhythm, so I try not to push too hard until I get to that point.

    My last hike like that shown was in Yosemite up to the falls, a loooong switchback. I was pretty slow compared to usual; even my hubby who "tacks' up hills (like a sailboat, side to side) to lessen the incline had to go straight up the path and was still quicker, usually I am the one waiting for him. I was definitely under the weather, but the peer pressure was intense, there were 8 of us in our group, and I was one of the youngest (but also the most physically compromised from old injuries). I popped some Advil and kept climbing. I only made it halfway up, half of us went farther, but it was an hour and a half or so going up, maybe 30 minutes going down. The park's youth corp was training, they had long pants and packs and they went up at at a forced march or faster pace, and were coming back down at a trot from the top while we were resting halfway! Just watching them made my knees hurt!

    I will say I was shocked at the number of foreign tourists wearing rubber flip flops. There was a group of Norwegian teens wearing them and they climbed better and faster than anyone else on the trail though, except the corp.

  30. Florida's got a hilly section near the Alabama border in the panhandle. Hard to imagine, I know! Really, that area should be Alabama. I have no idea how Florida managed to get all that beach front! We even have state caverns in that area also. It's not Mammoth cave, but it's still worth the visit!

  31. Actually, it makes more sense for the in-shape hiker to carry the camera. When I hike with my husband, my camera breaks allow him to catch up. Otherwise I'd just be standing around waiting for a bear to get me.

  32. Sometimes, my shoe laces can't seem to stay tied and I have to stop often to retie them... ahem...

  33. (Dr. J, as the daughter of a south Alabamian, I believe Florida stole all that beach. What I don't understand is how Alabama failed to steal it back. My mother's hometown is the county seat because it stole the court records from another town.)

    The pictures of the falls remind me of how many years it has been since I hiked at Natural Bridge. No water, just air, but very similar steepness.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  34. ooo, pretty waterfall!

    i've used hiking around rocky mountain national park as a workout a few times. walking around on rugged terrain? counts as fitness to me!

    i'm in okay shape with exercise-induced asthma, so i take my time, stop if i need be and stay hydrated. i have no problems pausing for breath, though, especially since a lot of the hikes i do are above 9000 feet in elevation.

  35. "But nobody is gonna haul a tripod while hiking that kind of trail, right?"

    Wrong! My camera and tripod goes with me everywhere. I have a special carry sack for it that spreads the weight accross my back.

    I'm a picture nerd I know, but I am studying photography so that's okay.

    Those pictures are beatiful. The waterfall reminds me so much of Taronga Falls before global warming and the permi-droubt that it broke my heart. It's a nice reminder that some places in the world still have water a-pleanty.

  36. It's a sign that I'm still a Californian at heart, but I looked at all that water pouring down and I thought "All that water! Isn't someone going to turn that faucet off? Do they turn it off at night?"

    One reason I love Oregon is that it doesn't get the severe droughts like Australia or to a lesser degree California.

  37. I do a lot of hiking in CO at altitude. My advice:

    If you are going more than a few miles be prepared with water, snacks, warm gear.

    Hiking poles rock! Your knees will thank you, and your arms will help you get up those hills. If you don't have any try ski poles. A big, heavy stick will not do.

    Hike at your own pace. Tell the faster hikers to wait for you at the top. If you try to keep up with someone faster, they will hike ahead, stop and rest while you catch up, then start up when you get there. They will be rested and chipper; you will be miserable and surly. If you must hike together, put the slowest hiker in the front.

    A good pair of boots or trail shoes are a must. Leave extra room at the toes and you won't lose your toenails going down. Tighten your shoelaces before heading downhill. They will loosen going up.

    If you hike in more than a few miles, you will see sights that 90% of humanity never will see. And you're burning 400+ calories/hr!


  38. I live in Portland & love this waterfall. The whole city is full of spur-of-the-moment hiking trails you can hop on anytime. Great tips!

  39. Are you in Oregon, too? I can think of at lest 5 long hikes that will keep you smiling the whole way without too much elevation. MOst are near the Lewis River in the Gifford Pinchot but I did just do Cape Horn which is a little bit of a roller coaster at moments but has the BEST views of the gorge. Absolutely lovely.

  40. Loved this post! I'm an out-of-shape hiker who loves to hike, and you can bet that I'll use your handy tips. I've also found something else to help -- a dog. My 1 1/2 year old black lab has grundles of energy. I bought a harness for her that we use on bike rides together, but also discovered that it works great for hikes. Because it transfers the 'pull' from her neck to her chest, she can assist me as we go up the mountain together. (It helps a ton!) The bonus is that she gets nice and tuckered out and is docile the rest of the day.

  41. Ack, you exposed all my secrets! Taking lots of pictures, scribbling notes, my sudden interest in examining all plant life and telling the programmer interesting facts about it (and don't forget to take several pictures of all the pretty leaves, flowers, dirt, and small rodents), and taking lots of water breaks (though this can backfire if you're in an area with little squatting cover).

    Awesome pictures!

  42. 100 calorie snacks is just a way for me to justify eating 3 or 4. if everything was in one giant bag or box, i would most definately eat less.

    Kelly Turner

  43. Leave the heavy boots at home. A good-fitting pair of cross-trainers or the like is all you need.

    I believe it's a myth propagated by the boot companies that high top boots protect your ankles - apart from ski boots or plastic mountaineering boots...

  44. The only reason I went hiking in the first place was to protect my teen and her friend from possible coyotes. But it almost killed me, and I'm so glad its over and I'm never going back. From completely sedentary, smoker, obese, to hiking 8 miles with a lot of it uphill....wow, I love my kid! But I survived, thank God, and I'm never going back. At least not hiking...I might enter 10 feet into the trail.

  45. Love the advice while I am not in bad shape it is good to have excuses. If you are in less than great health walking isn't bad ( Often it is about overcoming what you can and excepting what you have to) As a disabled veteran, I can say most people don't know what a blessing it is to walk. Now 12 miles....my feet may not share my heads opinion. It's great getting out into something real and being away from it all. Just knowing you are going on a long hike tends to increase your desire to be in decent shape!


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