High Time for Hiking

Getting set for fall hiking, with a little help from the ladies

This is, hands down, the ultimate time of year for hiking in New England. The bugs are minimal, the air is crisp, the trails are in great shape, and if we’re ever going to be in hiking shape, then right now—after a summer of scampering around—is our best shot.

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After getting acquainted with the White Mountains through the quest to hike all 48 4,000 ft peaks in New Hampshire (it’s a thing), it’s hard to sit through a beautiful fall day and not dream about being on the trail.

Just a few years ago, when I started going on 4,000er hikes with my son, I coaxed him up the trail with patience and promises of an end of day Coolatta. By the time we were halfway through the list we had drawn even on our pace and then, in an eyeblink, I was solidly in his rear view mirror. Now, even if our schedules matched, our paces do not. Hiking with either of my boys ranges from comical to inhumane. Cue the sad music.

But then… ta dah! I discovered the ladies, and a more civilized way to hike. In addition to bringing conversation and companionship back into my hiking experience, they also turned me on to some gear and hiking habits that range from comfy to brilliant.

Going up...way up...with the ladies

THE BASICS: If you’re lucky enough to head out on a big hike day, you need to have the regular things in your pack, plus a few extras as the days get shorter and cooler. On one mountain summit I got chatting with someone on search and rescue, who described not only the manpower it takes to evacuate stranded hikers but also how many such emergencies can be avoided with decent preparation. Since then, even on a beautiful day, my pack errs on the side of over-prepared.

A few of the basics for the trail

The basics include: an extra layer or two, a wind or rain shell, a head lamp, a hat, light gloves, some kind of first aid kit, snacks, a knife, a map, a whistle and water.

Of course, you’ll have personal twists on your basics. My first aid kit includes dental floss (for MacGuyver-like solutions and rogue beef jerky or trail mix bits), nail clippers (don’t get me started on long toenails) and marshmallows (keep reading). Instead of bringing the entire guide book I snap pictures of the route description on my phone for easy reference. And I always bring a bandana, just because (see MacGuyver above and this handy bandana guide.)

THE BASICS PLUS: This time of year, you’re going to want to beef it up a little: 

  • Shorter days, and falling leaves that obscure the trail make it especially important to have that head lamp, with working batteries. Bonus prep points for extra batteries. As I read in some guidebook, a headlamp can make the difference between a comfortable night at home and an extremely uncomfortable (and even life-threatening) night outdoors
  • A waterproof bag for your fully-charged cell phone. A Ziploc baggie will do.
  • An extra set of warm socks, preferably thin and wool, and definitely high enough to stay up and keep out grit.
  • Long tights and a warm hat.
  • A warm, dry, comfy set of clothes in the car, to go with your flip flops or comfy shoes.

EXCELLENT EXTRAS: Hiking with the ladies gave me some breathing room, literally, to notice things other than my galloping heartrate.  Here are a few of the things that can raise your hiking game.

Flashy Gaitors: Dirty girl gaitors are pretty cute and totally useful at keeping pebbles and sticks out of your shoes. I didn’t know I needed them, but once I saw them I became hyper aware of the grit in my shoes, and my boring socks.

Hiking poles: Not old ski poles or the first generation protoypes you got as a giveaway 15 years ago. Proper hiking poles collapse nicely to be attached to your pack on the way up, and lock firmly at the proper length for use on the way down. I’m still coming to terms with poles and there’s even a lively debate about them like this one on “slackpacker.” But the bottom line: for anyone with bad knees, hiking poles take off as much as 20 percent of the load on your legs and even more on the downhills. They can make excellent tent poles too.

Gear Ties: One avid hiker told me that on longer and overnight treks she always saves bread bag ties, clipping or attaching them to her shoes. “There are so many ways they are useful!” she assured me.  Alternatively, with one or two of these gear ties in your pack, you can easily attach anything from faulty hiking poles to flip flops to pots and pans to your pack. Smaller ones make great emergency ponytail holders.

LifeStraw Water Filter: So far, I haven't been in a situation where I have run out of water, or needed to use a spring. But at $20 this water filter is a cheap, easy to carry insurance policy. 

Chocolate: Before the ladies, I survived on PBJ sushi (slices of pbj/tortilla roll-ups), apples and coffee nips. I have to say, though, that a solid piece of chocolate, or a chocolate-themed energy ball does wonders for your will to live on a long return trip.

Marshmallows: These are my own secret survival weapon, discovered by accident on a hiking trip long, long ago. These babies add next to no weight and will literally save you from a world of hurt if you start to get a blister or a hot spot. Marshmallows are pliable enough to pad any sore spot and viscous enough to maintain their integrity under pressure. And they make your socks smell good.

Après Hike Cooler: This is sheer brilliance. Really, a civilized little post-hike tailgate makes the hurt go away.

The well-earned and all-important tailgate

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