Compared to our forefathers, we live an extremely soft existence today. We have amazing health care, food is plentiful and our shelter is second to none. Technology cares for much of our daily needs and we don’t have to walk anywhere.
So why do we do it? Why do like minded people strip down to the basics and hit the backcountry? That answer is very personal for many and not easily nailed down to one reason. I know why I do it and one prevailing reason is because it is NOT easy. It requires planning, knowledge and fitness. Sometimes guile and always decision making and problem solving. And a big draw for me is consequence; a narrow margin for error in what can easily become an unforgivable environment.
Now the woods are open to all and I encourage everyone to go out and get in touch with this most precious resource. But I also caution those that come ill prepared for the activities and environment. Everyone who goes past the comfort of car camping and well manicured trails and state parks needs to have not just a grounding in the basics, but the ability to withstand the inherent hardships and environment the backcountry presents.
One of the most basic things an individual outdoorsperson can do to mitigate risk and prepare for the inhospitable terrain and weather of the outdoors is to be mentally and physically strong. One needs to maintain a level of fitness and mental acuity that allows for not only the ability to function within the environment, but also not permit unforeseen “events” to consume them physically and emotionally.
I am by no means an expert in fitness, diet or psychology. I am basing my thoughts on empirical evidence only.
My thesis is simple. Along with a “Brilliance in the Basics” approach one must take to field craft and woodsmanship, the individual hiker must build their body and mind through training. Stress inoculation to the body and mind through an exercise regimen is a tremendous force multiplier, as is selecting your training based on your event or activity. With a backpacking trip planned, having an intensive weight lifting routine with limited cardio may not be the answer. I will not come out for or against your tribe in this. If you are a “Crossfitter” then great. If you are a meathead and it works for you, wonderful. Both feed the goal I’m advocating; build up strength, stamina and mental discipline through a routine of pushing yourself. I will say that if you don’t do a little running with the WOD, you will be behind the power curve while hiking the South Rim of the Grand Canyon or like challenge.
Pushing oneself to limits in a controlled environment also allows us to assess our baseline. As backpackers, that is the virtue of day hikes and shorter trips. If you are going to do an epic trip to the “Bob” or bagging Rainer, I suggest you get under way with the weight you will carry in the environment you will face. Again inoculation of stress to the mind and body outside the event will allow you to recognize your limits, benchmarks, strengths and opportunities. Being honest with your assessment during your workup is critical. Track your progress with a journal, set realistic goals, use real weights and keep good times. Also, train regardless of the weather! Two days into a four day hike you can’t quit because you wake up to a layer of snow or a downpour.
I alluded to safety/risk mitigation as the real motivator to doing what I prescribe. Being able to think and act when needed regardless of the “event” is critical. There are other benefits. One of course is you will have more fun. If you aren’t about to pass out when you hit camp, can handle an extra mile, deal with a little less water or food and just generally have the intestinal fortitude to cope with some “suck fest” type weather, you will enjoy yourself more and you will be more enjoyable to have on the trip. Another contribution to strengthening your resolve is you are a much better part of the whole. Do you really want to be “that guy” in your hiking group? The whiner, the non-hacker, the person that needs frequent off cycle breaks, can’t carry their load and holds up the group from enjoying the next vista? Be a good teammate and harden up before you say, “Yeah I’ll join you on that hike.”
Take Aways to include in your training:
- Mental attitude – practice the cup half full mindset in daily life and especially during conditioning both in the gym and on the trail
- Dynamic Problem Solving – in preparation for a trip or potential survival / high risk environment play the “what if” game until you have a game plan for not only the likely scenarios but second and third order effects (Ex. if it is raining how do I stay dry? will the rain impact a water crossing? will it cause a mudslide or flash flood? etc.) – then continue this thinking throughout the trip/event.
- Realistic assessment of your abilities – dissect your strengths and opportunities, then determine goals and how to test and evaluate in a controlled environment (physical ability and fieldcraft) – Examples:
- Physical – How far and fast can you move with the weight you would likely be carrying?
- Mental (skills and agility) – If you have to change your plans do to some unforeseen event can you do a quick map study and determine the quickest route home/to pick up/rendezvous?
- Mindset – Can you move said weight for X distance to that new destination with a positive mindset and continue contingency planning along the way?
- Stamina – Having done all the above bullets – can you now continue to maintain the level required for an unknown challenge or event? How are you mentally “setting your clock” and can you keep moving toward the goal safely?
So I will now put away my soapbox, ensure I am following my own advice and ensuring my teammates do like-wise.