Walk the walk: 7 hiking tips for beginners

It's not quite as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, you know.
Forest hike and all things nice © Loren Kerns
By James Shackell

Hiking is like walking, only much further, harder and higher, and with better photos at the end. Unfortunately many travellers approach hikes the same way they approach hotel pools: "it’s the mountain’s job to just be there, all I have to do is show up and look suitably Instagrammable." Not a good idea.

Good preparation for a trek like Basecamp, Kili or Kokoda should really start months, not weeks, before you go. Don’t be that guy that ‘takes the stairs’ in the days leading up to your flight to Tanzania and thinks ‘I’ve got this’. Good gear is also vital, but sometimes not as much as the adventure stores would have you believe. Want to do it right? We’ve got 7 top tips coming at you.

1. Do some walking

Funnily enough, the best preparation for mountain trekking isn’t watching Into the Wild while eating Doritos. Three or four months before you go, start doing at least one or two long walks a week. You can start small if you want, in fact it’s better if you do. As your fitness improves, try doing 5-10km hikes on consecutive days – you’ll need to get used to backing it up when it comes to the real thing. No ‘rest days’ on Kili.

Wilderness = bliss © Paolo Chiorino

2. Every day is leg day

Although there’s no substitute for actually walking, any leg-based exercise is going to pay dividends. Games like soccer, football and squash are particularly good because they strengthen the smaller supportive muscles around your knees and ankles (that is if you don’t, you know, get cripplingly injured and all…)

Or if you’re after some low-impact training, swimming and cycling will help build your strength and aerobic stamina at the same time.

3. Learn how to walk. Again.

It sounds weird, but a lot of people don’t walk right. They slouch their shoulders or dip their head. They land all their weight on the balls of their feet or let their core muscles slob around. That’s fine if the furthest you usually walk is the fridge to the couch, but over a hundred kilometres of rough trail the tiniest defect in your stride will add up to shin splints, torn muscles or twisted knees.

Touch your heel to the ground first, then roll onto your toes and push off from the front of your foot. Keep your head high and level, and bring a pair of walking poles to take the stress off your knees and ankles.

Up in the clouds © Meghla Akashe Pori

4. Emulate the right conditions

Unless you’ve planned an exotic trek around a carpark, training on flat cement isn’t going to do you much good. The idea is to mimic the conditions of your trek as much as possible in your training.

If you’re heading to the Himalayas, Mt Toubkal or Kilimanjaro, find steep rocky slopes with loose shale. If you’re doing the Kokoda Track, you want to find muddy tracks with branches and leaf mould. Walking Patagonia? Look for alpine meadows and rocky river tracks. It’s all about prepping your ankles and knees for the kind of stress they’ll get on the trek.

5. Throw on the backpack

You’ll be trekking with a backpack, so it makes sense to train with one too. You can fill it with chocolate and sherbet for all I care, but your body needs to get used to feeling the weight on your shoulders. The heavier the pack, the more it’ll affect your stride as well.

Make sure you invest in a decent pack that has a stomach strap to distribute the weight, but you don’t need to go full on and get one with an in-built water bottle. That’s why God invented water bottles. And hands.

A good old fashioned ice hike © Borja Garcia de Sola Fernandez

6. Eat the right stuff

Obviously, if you can slow down on the family pizzas and jumbo Boost smoothies in the weeks leading up to the trek, your body will thank you in the long run. But don’t think you have to go gym crazy either: you want light, lean muscle. Massive pecs won’t help you much on Day 7 when you’re passing 4,000m.

Fuel for the trek is also important. Carry a mix of ‘scroggin’: usually mixed nuts, chocolate and dried fruit. It’ll give you a good combination of easy energy, fibre and protein.

7. Don't skimp on the shoes. Or socks.

Don’t rock up in your Dunlop volleys, but don’t fork out $800 for the top-of-the-line hiking boots either (seriously, the sky’s the limit with those things). A good $150-$200 pair of boots (Keen or Teva are good brands) will do you fine.

Pack six or seven pairs of nylon/wool blend socks, and wear a couple at a time if you’re worried about blisters (sports tape on the heel is also a lifesaver). Wear your shoes in well before you travel, at least a couple of months if possible. Take them on every training run. Wear them to work. Wear them to bed. Just don’t unbox them the day before the trek and hope everything will be fine; seriously, it would be less painful to just amputate your feet.

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