Selecting a Hike

 

Choosing a hike is a straightforward, sensible process.

 

 

Gear is assembled for a simple day hike.  This includes hiking boots, layers of clothing, the backpack, backpack contents including the vital emergency kit, food, water and hiking poles.  The hiking boots are tied properly and excitement is building about practicing the Sherpa Step on the downhill.  All that remains is selection of an appropriate hike. 

Begin by taking time to architect a potentially great experience every time.  Unless the hike is well known from many previous experiences, full due diligence is sensible so a plan can be assembled.

The three most obvious characteristics of a hike are distance, elevation and elapsed time.  In this part of the world, the length of the day is important in winter.  Winter days are short in Calgary and wonderfully long in summer. 

How far and long is the drive to the trail-head?  The return trip will double that length of time. 

The second component is the hike.  If the full round trip distance of the hike is 8 KM (5 miles) on good, relatively flat trail and average walking speed is 5 KM per hour (3 miles per hour), plus extra time along the trail to take photographs, enjoy the view and the outstanding, creative lunch in the backpack, accumulated estimates will arrive at an estimate.

The estimate for this excursion length is 1 hour for the drive to the trail-head, 1½ hours for the 4 KM to destination, a ½ hour for lunch, 1½ hours hiking back to the trail-head and another hour to drive home.  Total time is 5 ½ hours.  Assuming lunch will be enjoyed around noon, the start time for the day becomes 9:30 AM and your finish time may be near 3 PM.  This is a very simple example but the process applies to every hike attempted. 

Exaggerate times in favor of underestimation.  It is important.  Too much time is not an issue.  Lack of time can get ugly.  Start with a popular, low elevation hike.  Perhaps your second hike will be less distance with some minor gross elevation. Over YEARS, gradually increase distance, elevation and complexity as skill sets build.  Attempting to ramp up this process rapidly can be counterproductive, even dangerous and irresponsible.  In the beginning there is a natural stress factor that saps energy in addition to the physical and mental component. 

As skill, knowledge and experience are gained, hiking days will become more comfortable.  Knowledge and ability will increase as stress factors diminish.

 

Consider the following fictional story.

The first sensible hike is planned for a half day hike along Heart Creek.  A fundamental wilderness course has improved knowledge and confidence.  Two close friends have agreed to be hiking partners.  Everything has been carefully considered and planned.

The day before the planned hike, another close friend, who has done a lot of hiking, calls to tell you they just completed hiking the summit of Cascade Mountain in Banff National Park.  They say it is a great trail.  Not only that but you get to drive halfway up Mount Norquay to the trail-head which begins at the ski resort.  After a half hour of your friend raving about the fantastic views, you decide your first hike will be a midsummer hike to the summit of Cascade Mountain for the fabulous views of the Town of Banff surrounded by a 100 KM (62½ miles) view of mountain summits in every direction.  No planning is necessary because a friend would not lead you astray.  Right?

The plan is abandoned for the short, easy and entry-level hike along Heart Creek and the new hiking partners are convinced to join you on an alternate, highly recommended and more exciting hike to the summit of Cascade Mountain overlooking the Town of Banff in Banff National Park.  You are not completely stupid and you know you must start earlier to be home by 5 PM to remove the turkey from the oven. 

The drive from Calgary to Banff is joyous, bordering on euphoric, with anticipation of a wonderful day.  Skies are clear.  Temperature is cool and perfect for hiking.  The drive from Calgary to the parking area on Mount Norquay takes a half hour more than you expected, and admission to Banff national Park is an unexpected expense but parking is plentiful at the off-season ski resort.  In spite of forgetting the hiking guide and map, you finally locate the trail-head towards the other end of the road and begin the long, beautiful descent into the valley, through lush forest and past babbling brooks to Forty Mile Creek.  After hiking over the picturesque, wooden bridge you begin the relentless climb on excellent trail over many switchbacks.  You are getting a bit tired but are elated when you catch the right direction at the Elk Lake Trail junction.  The trail is much more rustic now and covered with exposed roots. 

Five hours after leaving Calgary you arrive at the spectacular Cascade Amphitheater.  In the distance you can see the mountain summit.  Look!  There are other hikers on the ridge.  The fact they are all returning does not ring a mental chime.  You are determined to get there.  This prize will not be snatched from your grasp.  You are tough, stubborn and re-energized by the beautiful scenery and lunch.  You will get this done. Two hours later, at the Notch, you realize it is not going to happen and decide to turn back.  The sun seems very low in the sky.  

Ten hours after leaving Calgary you are back at the bridge over Forty Mile Creek on exhausted legs hiking in darkness.  The food and water are gone and you remember you cannot risk drinking the water from the creek.  That original, initial descent to Forty Mile Creek is now an ambitious climb.  On the crawl up the perpetual hill, you are using all the profanity you have ever learned and inventing some new stuff. 

Driving home to Calgary in the dark, you phone a neighbor and ask them to take your cremated turkey out of the oven.  Following your release from the hospital you make a firm resolution to never hike again as long as you live and put all your gear up for sale on E-Bay.  Your neophyte hiking companions never speak to you again.

The situation is not funny but it has happened many times.  It is very important to nurture your growth gradually with a sense of purpose.

The family hiking motto is, "Too stubborn to quit; too stupid to fall down". 

Very big mistakes can result in serious harm.  In cases of extreme stupidity it can cost you your life.  Slow and steady.  One step at a time.  Have respect for the environment and understand your capability to function within it.

 

  • Select a reasonable first hike.  Conservative is better than aggressive.
  • Research your hike in hiking guides.
  • Make a plan with exaggerated time estimates.
  • Talk to Park Rangers.  They will size you up quickly.  They will also know current trail conditions.
  • Make sure someone knows where you are going and your estimated completion time.
  • Carry hike documentation and maps.
  • Start with more supplies than anticipated requirement.
  • Have plenty of extra water and electrolyte in the car.
  • Carry your phone and all emergency numbers.
  • Do everything humanly possible to avoid a serious problem.
  • If weather turns ugly or your hike is different from expected, turn back.
  • Always err on the side of caution.  Exercise common sense.
  • Mountains are like great friends. They will be there another day.
  • Gradually build a portfolio of amazing hikes, memories and stories. 

 

Best wishes.  Happy trails and stay safe.

 

 

 

 

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Comments

Thanks for your comment, Katie. Do not be too tough on yourself. It is a common mistake; everyone, including me, has made it. There is probably a club you can join and, a long time ago, I believe I might have been the President. It is less common for people to be afraid of heights and more common to be afraid of falling. So, you learned Mount Lady MacDonald was a bit aggressive for your current skill level. It will make it easier to choose your next hike. I am glad you haven't given up. At the beginning, I believe it is better to err on the side of caution and build the skill and knowledge sets gradually. Anyway, congratulations. If you keep after it, there may be a great reward in store for you and your husband. In ten years, you will look back at this preliminary experience and marvel at the growth achieved over time. It transcends into all aspects of life. When I look back over the past five decades I can recount experiences that, at the time, were just plain ugly. When my son and I were hiking up the North Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon in 120 degree heat, there was a point where either one of us would have paid anyone good money to shoot us. That was our Millenium project, and now, that trip is one of our most exciting and memorable experiences. It took us a while to realize that, but now, when I think back, many of the most difficult experiences of my life were the greatest character builders and out of adversity comes growth, and strength, and new power for the next experience, on a mountain, on a trail, on an icefall, or just in life in general. It is an incredible journey and I am really pleased you are not ready to pack it in. And thanks for being candid and truthful. Another reader passing through here will learn from your experience. There are plenty of good trails in the Canmore area and in Kananaskis that are less aggressive. Good luck and always, stay safe. That is what you did. Smart move.

Hi Barry, Chuckled a lot reading this post, while also recognising how serious it is. Today my hubby and I hiked OUR first hike: Mount Lady Macdonald (just to the "teahouse"). Probably a bit too ambitious for a first hike (wow...steep! And it doesn't stop being steep!) but it was one of the few hikes near Canmore with decent views that wasn't flooded or snowy or having avalanche risk. I realised something about myself - I knew I had a fear of heights, but now I know how paralysing it can be. I didn't quite make it to the teahouse - apparently where I gave up was only about 15 minutes from it, but I was becoming quite petrified with all the steep short switchbacks through large rocks, and worst of all on the edge of the exposed mountain. So I can get a good look at exactly how far I'll fall if I slip on the slightly wet trail or get dizzy and lose my balance. Yikes. It was actually becoming difficult to make myself take the next step (from fear, not exertion) that I stopped, clinging to a rock, and refused to go further. My husband powered on up though and took pictures for me, while I slowly crept back down to a less exposed area on my butt and hands. *sigh* Kind of embarrassing. The trail wasn't exactly muddy, but had some trickling water and was very moist...which made it more nerve-wracking with how steep it is. But I still saw amazing views, burned some serious calories, and realised that it might take some practice before I'm confident enough to tackle my fears of exposure like that. So that is my "dumb first-time hiker mistake". We were properly dressed and had good backpack supplies, but still...I wouldn't do it again at this point. At least it didn't make me swear off hiking. But I realise now when I look at pictures on cliffs and summits that it is much more dizzying in person than in the photo. My husband thought it was awesome and amazed me with the ease and speed that he zipped up. It was an experience, anyway. Thanks for your blog. It is thoughtfully written, informative and honest.

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