Tuesday, March 18, 2014

High Mileage Day Hikes: Methods and Strategies

It's not the miles,
     it's what's in 'em.  ~DS
I've been asked a number of times to write about what works for me on those long, hard days. How do you train? What do you carry? What do you eat? What's on your gear list? What supplements do you use? How much water do you start with? How do you know you can get away with what's on your agenda?

Those questions have all popped up a number of times in individual emails and posted comments. I've always hesitated to write a real response to these and similar questions because, who am I to say what will work for anybody else? I am not in the business of telling others what they're doing right or wrong. I figure the results often speak for themselves.

For that same reason I am reluctant to debate the merits of one brand's piece of gear versus it's competitor's model of the same item. Everybody has their favorite gear, foods, tricks, etc... I am not in the business of product endorsement. There are brands I won't buy, sometimes because I don't trust that company's product to meet my demands for serious gear that could save my life, sometimes it's the sales experience, sometimes it simply comes down to the degree of bang for the buck. That being said, I am very loyal to only four brands: Arcteryx, Mountain Safety Research [MSR], Black Diamond, and The North Face. I've never felt that any product from these companies has let me down, and I'm hard on everything I take to the mountains. What I do not like and do not support are pretentious companies that offer a boutique sales environment staffed by authentic looking people who don't know shit, and charge up the wazoo for that treatment. Additionally, some companies use proprietary fabrics/shell material which they designed, and which they can consequently make claims regarding. Be skeptical. For instance, when a label says a product is both waterproof and breathable but the material isn't GoreTex ProShell, don't believe it. That one comes from experience and I've learned the lesson. Be leery of such claims. Better to pay for the right product once than get caught outside with crap gear. And be aware of the marketing employed to make you feel like buying a certain brand. These companies sell a lifestyle that you want to have. To that end they employ professional photographers and professional athletes to make you feel like you too could be living the life portrayed in the catalog. One company even calls their professional athletes "ambassadors". Try to see through the marketing, and before buying any high end product do some research and see what others are saying about the stuff. Numerous online sites cater to the mountain community, make use of the experience of others. This advice may save you and your wallet some grief.

Now that I've got that out of my system I suppose it's time to address those questions mentioned above. No, wait a second. I want to start by saying that the world really opens up for those who can routinely do twenty miles in a day. The door opens even further for those that don't require the company of others to have a good time. 

Twenty miles is a very nice range to feel comfortable completing in a day. If you think about it, that's not all that much for someone who isn't lugging overnight gear and all the extra food and comforts that go with such a pack. I've found that the most self-limiting hurdle to extending what is perceived by the individual as their maximum range comes down to will. All outdoor recreation, or any hobby/activity for that matter, can be taken to extremes, but it's up to the practitioner and what their goals are. There is a bell curve in any activity. We all know this. In the case of hiking, one end of the curve is populated by those that just want a short walk in a natural setting, nothing too strenuous, just a pleasant walk. That's great! And it suits their purpose to be this way. Most people who populate the middle of the curve want to have a special experience in the woods, are willing to walk a moderate distance to reach their aims, willing to tolerate some real struggle or discomfort along the way, and generally seek a reward in reaching a reasonable yet personally challenging goal, usually one with a summit box, waterfall, or stunning vista. That's great! More power to them! This writing is for those in that group who'd like to expand their concept of what can be accomplished in a day, and maybe pick up some suggestions that might assist that aim.

The other end of the bell curve is reserved for the people the others consider crazy. What is the difference between this last group and the others? Is it fitness? To a degree, but we're not talking the IronMan here. Is it superior gear? Or a vast wealth of experience? Those can certainly play a role. The answer is in the immeasurables. Those people have the drive to push themselves beyond pain, beyond the elements, beyond the grade, beyond those others. Will, desire, and drive. Three difficult words to quantify. I remember many times when I've looked at a map and immediately thrown some ridiculous idea out the second story window. I assumed I couldn't do it. Years later I pulled that same idea out of the trash and gave it a second look, a serious look, one that asked "What if I could do it?". Suddenly that goal became 100% more attainable than it had been when I'd thrown it out the window.

Will. Desire. Drive.
Will: Is this goal something I'm willing to put my brain and body through? Free your mind and your ass will follow. Big days are equal parts mental and physical.

Desire: How badly do I want to do this? What will I get out of it? Is it worth the pain, misery, danger, or effort to attain this goal? Does the idea of winning in this endeavor excite you and add to your motivation?

Drive: Presuming that this is within the outer edges of my capability to accomplish, can I make myself do it? Can I overcome fatigue, pain, and fear in the service of accomplishing this goal? Can I simply make my body do this thing? You had better be solid on your answer to that last question, else you could bite off more than you can chew.

Experience plays a huge role in what one thinks they can or cannot accomplish. Experience in this sense has little to do with knowing how to pack for a day, or how to read a map. I'm talking about trail time, and a lot of it. I mean knowing how your individual body works, what your pace is, how long you can sustain it, when it is likely to conk out on you, what your weaknesses are and when they will crop up. To address this I recommend doing miles, and do them alone. Remember, we're talking about upping your game here. 

Know Thyself
Alone. There is no better way to learn what your comfort zones are and what you are capable of. For a long time, when out with others, I've told people to hike their own hike and I'll hike mine. People have different strides, different old injuries, different efficiencies and strengths. Pairing with someone on a trail is not and should not become a competition, and yet there is a dynamic that tells one to wait up for the other hiker, or conversely, that I'm holding the other guy back. This isn't a big deal if you intend on staying in the middle of the bell curve (which is just fine), but if daylight and energy are being wasted this dynamic can become a problem. And it's difficult to really tune into yourself and how you're functioning when the other guy just won't shut up (this falls under another of my rules which says, "Less talkin', more walkin'."). No, in order to learn how you function in your best zones, and with your best efficiency on big days, you need to spend some serious time with your own self and your own goals. Achieving something you thought was outside your range is a huge accomplishment, especially if the goal involved was set by you, and with the intent to push your own personal limits. Start with hard days that you are confident you can accomplish. In other words, be realistic but bold. And don't put yourself way out on a limb until you are pretty confident in what you can do, that's my disclaimer. I won't take the blame for you spending the night in the woods.

Before any long day I prepare myself...mentally. I study the maps and satellite images, reducing the day into individual stages, and making smaller goals within the context of the larger goal. An example would be the The Ojai Triple Crown. I envision the route broken into it's parts. First, the long, steep run up to White Ledge Camp. Then the hardest part of the day, up to the ridge and over to Hines. Then Topatopa Bluff, and so on. This is a subtle trick which makes the scope of the day seem more manageable. I try to imagine how I'll be feeling at any given time, and where in the day I will have to struggle the hardest. In that way I am better prepared for the fight. And make no mistake, most really long days will demand that you fight with yourself about what the hell you're doing this for anyway. 

There are a handful of items that go in my pack every single time I go out, and I mean every single time. I'll try to rate them in order of personal priority. Remember, this is largely based on the presumption that I find myself in a bad way and really have a need.
  1. BIC Lighter. You can survive a lot of perilous conditions if you can make a fire. Without it though...
  2. Gerber multi-tool. Lightweight, made of aircraft aluminum and American steel, this is my second most essential item.
  3. Map and compass.
  4. Bandana. Too many uses to enumerate. 
  5. First aid and minor surgery kit. With Quick-Clot, Vaseline gauze, suture, cloth athletic tape, and tools. I don't bother with Bandaids and such. My first aid kit is stripped down to essentials for treating significant injury. I also carry repair items like sewing needles, dental floss, baling wire, and cloth tape.
  6. Headlamp with extra batteries. 
  7. GPS with extra batteries
  8. SPOT emergency beacon (which I will hopefully never use, because that would mean I really f**ked up, which would be embarrassing)
  9. Meds: Advil, Excedrin, Zyrtec
Nonessential Gear
Stuff I could live without, but the lack of which would hamper the day.
  1. Trekking poles. I use the Black Diamond Trail Shock. The beauty of these sturdy, shock absorbing poles is that if you tweak a segment of the poles you can simply order just that replacement part instead of have to get a whole new set. I have difficulty getting the Sunday paper without them.
  2. Gaiters. I use the Black Diamond Talus. I have, of course, modified the gaiter so that instead of the fly-weight yarn that comes with the pair, I have 3/16ths braided steel cable swaged through the grommets. Nothing slows your day down faster than rocks in your shoes or yucca needles in your socks.
  3. Shoes. I am on my seventh pair of The North Face Hedgehog II GTX. Warm? Yes, but they're tough, protective, and grippy. I love this shoe, but I do augment the stock insole with a simple Dr Scholls pad. I virtually never wear boots in the Los Padres. 
  4. MSR Dromedary hydration system. Tougher than any other bag system on the market, this bag also connects compatibly with MSR's gravity filtration system. Many of their products are integrated to work seamlessly with their other products.  

*It is your responsibility to understand what you are putting in your body and how it affects your physiology! I recommend studying sports physiology if you're going to start using these or similar products.
  • S!CAPS: High quality electrolyte replacement for endurance athletes. Dampens lactic acid buildup and improves cellular function.
  • Performaxx: Cordyceps sinensis herbal supplement. Supports and improves oxygen uptake at the cellular level.
  • ProLab Caffeine 200mg: The "Hero" pill. I use this sparingly, and seldom in the front half of the day. 
People that spend the day out with me often remark that they never saw me eat anything, usually while pulling out a foil-wrapped sandwich. Eating on the trail means something very different to me than it does for most people. My calorie needs and strategies have changed over the years, adjusted to the type of day I plan on doing. I consider it "calories", and eating is not an "event" to me. Plenty of time for that after the day is done. On the trail I prefer to feel light, and seldom eat anything on the way to the trailhead and usually not until several miles are behind me and I feel warmed up. I generally take in 100-200 calories per hour during the day. Most of the time I eat on the go. And I seldom bring anything other than what's on this list. 
  • GU gels. I prefer the GU Roctane series. 100 calories of complex carbohydrate for sustained conversion to glucose. I avoid simple sugars until I'm over the "hump" of the day.
  • GU chews. The citrus flavors leave a nice aftertaste.
  • Clif Bars. Complex Carbs and a bit of protein.
  • Protein Brownies. Tasty blocks with 20gms of protein.
  • Nature Valley granola bars.
  • Yogurt pretzels. Crunchy, salty, sugar. What's not to love?
If you run out of water in the Los Padres you're well and truly fucked.
I use a lot of water. Know your water needs in various temperatures. My water needs are one of my first considerations when planning a big day. If I know there's a clean, reliable water source somewhere in the day, that factors into my math. If not, I adjust how much I start with and study where I might be able to stash water if there is a return trip back the same way. Most day hikes, by their in-out nature, afford that opportunity. Planning ahead and stashing water has saved my bacon numerous times. 

My views on taking breaks has also evolved over the years. Breaks can be counterproductive on gnarly days. They take time, for one thing. Your body cools down. Lactic acid settles into your legs as your heart rate slows. They nibble away at motivation, and if you've learned to manage a pace that you can keep up for miles, frequent breaks should not be necessary. What do you really get out of a break? Ask yourself that before you take one. Will you really feel all that refreshed and recharged at the end of your break? I recently did a 26 mile day in 10:45 with just two 20 minute breaks. All other breaks I kept to under three minutes. That's me, but it works for me. I had paced myself, and my water and my calorie intake so well that taking breaks would have been counterproductive.

Mostly I train by doing. I have an inconsistent schedule and about the only thing I do with 100% regularity is breath. I have access to trails in Ventura that climb all over the foothills and provide excellent cardio and strength training. When I start feeling a little saggy I haul myself to the gym and go hard on the Stair Master and treadmill. For the most part though, I prefer to get my exercise in the mountains. I stay tuned up with the assistance of regular chiropractic and, more recently, every three months (at the change of the seasons, and as needed) I see a practitioner for energy work and an acupuncture treatment. I also have a dry sauna in my home which I use at least four times a week. Besides the obvious health benefits, I feel that this helps me train for the heat.

There. Hopefully I've answered some of the common questions I receive. These opinions are just that...opinions. These are habits and strategies that have a proven record of success for me and me only. Should you choose to adopt some of these behaviors in the effort to get faster in the mountains and extend your range, I wish you complete success. Get confident. Up your game. 

I am always open to questions and will answer not stupid questions to the best of my ability. I am also open minded and receptive to not stupid suggestions. Bring it. And remember another of my rules.
No Whining. You wanted this. So own it.


  1. Excellent breakdown David, nice to get in a small glimpse at what makes you "tick" Really appreciate your focus on the complete package (inclusive of will, desire and drive). As you conveyed, success should not rely purely on physical things such as fitness, gear, and food..... Above All You Must Want It! (inclusive of all accompanying collateral)


  2. "Free your mind and your ass will follow..."

    Pure. Gold. From the SLP Swami.

    I'm dying over here.

  3. Joseph,
    I wish I could take credit for that quote, but it's origins stem from the title of a 1970 album by Funkadelic. It was also a line frequently repeated by the late, great John Bachar. I first saw that line on a Boreal climbing shoe ad in Rock&Ice, circa early '90s. Which makes sense because Bachar was sponsored by Boreal, along with other Yosemite luminaries like Peter Croft. I used to meet those two with regularity while working for Gramicci, which was owned by Mike Graham, another Yosemite legend. -DS

  4. David,

    I agree about rarely taking breaks. Most of my breaks are during super-steep parts of the trail when my heart rate skyrockets. A minute here and there keep me from passing out. I rarely ever sit down, even at the peaks.

    I also agree, one of the main reasons that I hike alone is to tune into the environment, and to tune into my body and how it is doing. I feel much safer and 'present' when I am alone in the wilderness. I've never gone the wrong way while alone. I can't say the same thing while in a group.

    And I agree most of all, you cannot underestimate the power of will. Even without regular training, I am amazed at the distance I can do.

    Remembering landmarks for the way back to the car is one of the best morale-boosting habits you can do.

  5. Thanks Derek, it's nice to get some of my own habits validated by another goer. -DS

  6. Great post. I kept reading thinking, yes, yes, right, yes. Lots of good tips and some stuff in your supplements section I haven't heard of before worth checking out.

    The crux of the whole article for me was this:
    "especially if the goal involved was set by you, and with the intent to push your own personal limits." My whole approach to serious day hiking began with that idea. See what you can do, then push the limit a little more, then a little more. While I sometimes get distracted chasing lists, the desire is always for the next challenge, the next thing that will test me or force me to learn a new skill. That attitude is what I like about your posts.

  7. Thanks Tekewin,
    I've bumped heads with my limits more than a few times now, and it wasn't necessarily about the miles involved. Each case was a valuable revelation. -DS

  8. This is my favorite post on your blog. I still visit this page every once in a while...