Hiking, backpacking, and trail running are some of our oldest recreational activities. For the outdoor enthusiast, few things are more enjoyable than gearing up and hitting a trail solo, with friends or with a faithful pet. It’s an activity that anyone can enjoy regardless of age and it has very real physical, mental and spiritual benefits.
For me being on the trails is my preferred way to stay in shape. I started out years ago just hitting casual places with friends, and as the years went on I took advantage of the intensely verdant region of Pennsylvania that I now call home and started hitting more challenging spots. It’s a whole body physical challenge that is both aerobic and anaerobic and gives you a more well rounded workout than isolated weight training or flat treadmill/pavement running. It uses a full range of motion and works out complimentary and underused muscles that results in a very solid core. On a mental and spiritual front, being in the woods deepens my connection to the environment and often puts whatever is at the forefront of my mind into proper perspective. I always return clearer and more grounded, with a focused energy and ease that carries throughout the entire day.
Most people have at least casual experience with trails, and most of us would agree just how fulfilling it is. I thought I would expand upon that and put together a primer for both people starting out or interested in going a little harder. Then as the weeks go on I will spotlight some of the best trails in the area with some pictures and details. Think of it somewhat like Skare’s “Where I Live” post, except I will be highlighting what I love best about where I live which is the Middle Earth like environs! With all that exposition out of the way let’s gear up!
If you’re planning on hitting a long, few hour, several mile trail that features a challenging terrain you want to plan ahead. Just showing up in jeans and sneakers is asking for trouble. I recommend a light weight but hardy, weatherproof backpack with multiple compartments. It should be snug and unencumbering especially on your mobility. Weight when full is also a consideration as too much puts a strain on the bank and alters your balance. Don’t overdo it, the terrain is the challenge and you want to feel as free as possible when you have to scale a fallen log or climb across slippery rocks. Here are a few things I make sure to have along:
- Bottle of Water – staying hydrated is key but it’s important to not wait until you’re thirsty to hydrate. Prehydration prior to hitting the trail is crucial and will stave off cramping and improve your performance.
- GPS/Phone – if you’re going off trail or even not, having a locator and phone can be indispensible especially if you’re solo in case of injury or you become lost. It can also open you to the wonderful activity of geocaching which brings a treasure hunting magic into being in the woods.
- Flashlight – when you’re in the woods, you lose light fast! The overhead canopy blocks a lot of light on the brightest day and the sunset is a fast and palpable event. Make sure you account for this in your return trip. If you don’t have a light and wait to turn back when the sun starts to set you will find yourself in pitch blackness quickly. Learn to notice the changes in the hues of light and react to dusk quickly. If not, a flashlight is super useful in a pinch.
- Pepper Spray – and not for the obvious thought of fighting off muggers although that is certainly a consideration. I pocket this more for animals like unleashed and aggressive dogs and wild assholes like skunks. If you’re in an area of bears and mountain lions this item should move to the top of your list. It’s humane and nonlethal and will give you time to get the hell out. Pack toilet paper while you’re at it.
- Plastic Grocery Bag – Be a good steward. Not everyone who hits trails has the same respect for them as you do and many leave trash and cans behind. Bring a bag and scoop up debris you see. It keeps the trail from being unsightly and protects the flora and fauna from shit they shouldn’t have to account for. It’s good karma and helps to ensure that the precious commodity of greenspace continues to be a resource for future generations.
Wearing the right clothing for the task is important. You wouldn’t wear heels or penny loafers to play basketball, and the same rules apply here. If you are challenging yourself you are going to encounter terrain that will expose the limitations of slick running sneakers and heavy cotton clothing. Take a look at where you are going and plan accordingly.
- For clothing, I prefer dry fit gear. Nike makes a great line of synthetic fabrics that wick away moisture and dry quickly. This is great for staying cool in the heat and fast evaporation also helps cool the body’s temperature. The dry fit fabric is great in amphibious trails where some swimming and wading is involved, ensuring that you don’t get slogged down with water weight. It comes in all types of tops and bottoms, is durable and comfortable. In the colder temps, you can switch to thermal tech that is lightweight yet insulating. The key here is to minimize your weight, allow for mobility and stay dry.
- Shoes – shoes, shoes, shoes. This is the most important part of the trip for me. I can’t stress it enough, get a pair that is comfortable and appropriate for the terrain. They should follow the same principles as the clothing but also be protective. Pay close attention to the tread. What you’re looking for is something that will mold and grip and not a smooth surface that is more built for speed. You can cut corners on a lot of things but this is one area where I suggest dropping the cash on a good pair of Merrell’s or Vibram Five Fingers. I own a pair of Five Fingers and although they look odd they are unlike anything I’ve ever worn in terms of mobility. Your feet hug the ground and your toes are allowed to spread giving you better surface area for balance. You get the added perk of a barefoot sensation which heightens the connection to the trail. The pair I have are amphibious and give me great grip on slick rocks since I can’t resist traipsing through creeks and streams when the opportunity presents itself.
- Along with that, gear yourself up mentally for the process. This is a different type of terrain with often unpredictable pockets and hidden trouble spots. Shorten your stride and stay more compact especially on precarious edges and overlooks. Keep your center of gravity low and shift your weight when going up and down steep inclines to minimize your fall risk. Above all play it smart. Explore and have fun but don’t overestimate what you can do.
That’s my primer for you, hope you enjoy the views! I’m always interested in hearing other people’s favorite spots, gea, tips and experiences so please share them in the comments section. In the meantime here are a few pics from some of my favorite local spots: