Before You Set Out on Your Next Hike, Read This!

I'm off to southwest Utah next week, to visit Red Mountain Resort and feast my eyes on the land of red rocks and picturesque awesomeness.
 
But before I go, I want to be well prepared. I'm thinking about the trip I made to Beaver Creek, Colorado, a few years ago with my older son. We were excited about it all, especially the hiking … so excited that we neglected to consider the fact that we were more than 8,000 feet above sea level. We chose not to think about the fact that you do not set out on a big hike the very first day you arrive. And you have to climb a little at a time—not conquer the whole mountain in one fell swoop.

It took me just a few seconds to realize that I probably was not suffering from a sudden, rare lung disease that rendered me breathless and exhausted before I did much more than start out; instead, what I was suffering from was a little altitude sickness. Needless to say, the hike was a bit of a challenge (and that's a bit of an understatement!). There's nothing that can ruin a much-anticipated exercise-induced endorphin rush faster than being unprepared for the upcoming challenge.

So this doesn't happen again—to me or anyone else out there who is planning on either traveling to a place above sea level, taking a long challenging walk or hike or just exercising outdoors—I've gathered some fabulous tips from the folks at Red Mountain. Now that I have them, I'm hoping to hike to my heart's content. Of course, I'll report in about my experiences when I return, but in the meantime, if you're curious and don't want to wait, you can look for periodic updates on Twitter at @sherylkraft.
 
Q. What is the rule of thumb for preparing to hike above sea level? What's the best way to break yourself in?

A. High altitude sickness occurs at high altitude places, such as the Colorado mountains, when people from low-level or sea-level locations don't allow time to acclimate to the higher altitude. Acclimation can take days or even weeks, depending on the fitness level of the individual. At our elevation—3,000 to 4,000 feet—guests can experience some shortness of breath, but it is not debilitating and usually takes a day to acclimate.
—John Ibach, director of outdoor recreation
 
Q. If there is no place to hike, how can one prepare for a hiking experience—at their gym, perhaps? Are there other activities one can do to get in shape for a hike?

A. The best way to prepare for a long hike is to do a short hike and work your way up to longer hikes. If you can't get to the mountains, try to find a park that has hills and unstable surfaces, like sand and gravel. Do the things you would do on a hike, like pull yourself up onto monkey bars, mimicking climbing onto rocks, or hop and jump over obstacles mimicking rocks, brush or streams. If you climb up onto rocks, you will have to climb down. Try climbing backward off of the stairs from a playground slide or scooting down hills of grass.
 
The gym workout would be similar to any full-body workout you may already do. To prepare your hiking muscles, you will want to strengthen your major muscles, improve your cardiovascular endurance, increase your stability and agility.
—Kim Watters, fitness manager
 
Q. What is the best way to dress for hiking? Layers? If so, can you be specific: sweat-wicking materials, how many layers, hats, scarves, socks, pants, footwear?

A. On our coldest mornings, the temperatures are from the low 20s to the mid 30s Fahrenheit. We would suggest three upper layers: one shirt that can wick sweat away from the skin; the second layer is a thermal layer to keep you warm; the third layer is a wind-resistant shell that helps hold heat in. On cold days, I want my ears, forehead and hands covered. Footwear: Our guests show up with all kinds of footwear for hiking, many of them wear running shoes, and while they are OK, a good hiking boot with Vibram sole is much better for the varied terrain Red Mountain hikes on.
 —John Ibach, director of outdoor recreation

Q. What about protecting your skin when you hike? Is there a danger of sunburn or windburn and, if so, what's the best protection?

A. Wear SPF 45 or higher, remembering to reapply every three to four hours. Wear sunglasses and a hat; the more coverage the better. Use a soothing mask afterward that has lots of antioxidants to repair any free-radical damage that may have occurred from the sun exposure. Windburn would simply need rehydration with either a facial cream or mask.
 —Kristin Kidder, aesthetician
 
Q. What should you eat before a hike and how far in advance should you eat? Should you bring snacks on a hike, and if so, what kinds? What are the best ways to stay hydrated?

A. We suggest avoiding sugary/sweet foods, which lead to an energy crash during an activity and foods that you know affect your bowels. For mornings before hiking, a light breakfast (oatmeal, non-sugary cereals and eggs) work best. Ideally you should eat at least an hour before activity. We stress the importance of carrying energy snacks and plenty of water on our two- and four-hour hikes, especially as we move into hotter weather.

Water remains the best choice for hydration, but we use a product called Emergen-C; it mixes with water for a quick energy boost. The best advice is to hydrate before the hike and drink before you are thirsty. In hot weather, this is a huge problem for our guests.
  —John Ibach, director of outdoor recreation

Q. What's the best way to replenish after a lengthy hike?

A. Proteins and complex sugars are good after-hike choices. Energy bars provide this. Sugary drinks (sodas) are the worst unless you're drinking lots of water after sweating a lot; then the soda acts to replace sugars/salts. And of course alcohol is a no-no for before, during and immediately after an activity. Save it until after you're done and have had something to eat and drink.
  —John Ibach, director of outdoor recreation

Q. Can you suggest some before and after stretches or warm-ups?

A. You should warm up before hiking (or any exercise) and stretch after the cooldown. The warm-up should be similar to the activity you will be doing, so just start off at a slower pace and then add speed and hills after you have been walking for 5 to 10 minutes. You work all of your major muscles during a hike, so you should stretch all the major muscles after a hike. We have stretch classes scheduled after our hikes so everyone can stretch their major muscles in class. It is a nice way to relax after a long hike.
—Kim Watters, fitness manager

Thank you for your great advice, Kim, John and Kristin. Now I feel ready to conquer those red rocks!

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