Shilletha Curtis’s lungs were screaming and her legs were cramping. “I was like, I’m not ready for that!” remembers. He had just arrived in Georgia to hike the approximately 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, and although he trained on local Pennsylvania backpack trails six days a week, the much steeper 5,000-foot climb south of Apa began in April. is struggling. “I did not have the muscle tone. I did not have my abs,” he says.
Six months in the White Mountains of New Hampshire: “My feet were like rocks,” Curtis recalls. “My hands were fit to use my poles to push me up the hill. I was carrying maybe 25 kilos on my back and I felt like nothing. And instead of needing a break in each flame, it was more like every 10 or 20 hell. ” (Flames are path markers, FYI.)
Unsurprisingly, starting a hike – a backpacking trip from end to end on a long distance trail – changes your body. The health effects are both physical and mental, with effects that last long after the hikers return home. “Being in nature and doing something difficult for so long helps you learn to be more in the moment,” says Cory Nyamora, PsyD, a sports psychologist and founder of the Endurance-A Sports & Psychology Center. “It helps you develop a sense of self-confidence and resilience – and the ability to endure pain or suffering.”
Hikers get ‘footprints’
No matter how much hikers train, nothing really prepares your body to carry your life on your back, except to do so. “You will feel a lot of pain at first,” says Kristi Foxx, DPT, a physiotherapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “It’s called ‘taking your footprints’ and it usually takes five to seven days, depending on the individual.” The calf muscles, quadriceps, glutes and smaller supporting muscles of the legs and ankles hit hard until they get used to the whole hike.
“It also increases the control of your core and spine, because you control a heavy bundle on your back,” adds Foxx.
This was the fight that Curtis faced when she landed in Georgia in February 2021 and felt that her muscles and endurance were missing. Gail Storey, who attempted the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail with her husband Porter when she was 55 (and wrote about it in her memoirs) I promise not to suffer), says it took two weeks of hiking 20 miles a day before she got her feet. He had trained by doing six miles of hiking with a full backpack daily, plus strength training and sometimes doing two Jazzercize back-to-back lessons. “But I did not have much experience in long-distance hiking,” he says. “I had to figure it out on the path.”
Eventually, the muscles adjust and become much stronger. “All the girls I walked with on the trail look built to the end,” says Curits. “Men looked like bearded skeletons.”
Although the muscles usually fade to normal after the end of the hike, the intense physicality lasts. “Even now I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been,” says Story, now 74. “The path taught me about the mind-body connection. And it helped me embrace the adversities of growing up. I like to have this kinesthetic relationship with my body as a woman.”
Appetite increases — and becomes necessary
Because hikers have to carry multi-day meals and have to eat much more than usual, eating can be a challenge.
“My appetite for the jump was outrageous,” says Curtis. “I ate 15 to 20 snacks a day.” He also felt strange cravings, such as raw lemons and candies. “I’m usually very wary of sugar just because diabetes occurs in my family, but in the woods I got a serious acid bear.”
The craving for sugar and fat is typical because the body wants – and needs – this quick energy. But consuming so many processed, high-calorie foods causes its own problems. “Digestion is a big problem,” says Foxx. “You should have light snacks with you. Only when you get off the path can you get some healthy fiber things like fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Foxx, who hiked the 273-mile Vermont Long Trail in 2019, also felt the acute effects of not getting enough calories: At one point, she became so tired and miserable that she just “sat on the trail and cried,” she says. She called her brother, an experienced hiker, to tell him he was going to give them up. “He said, ‘You have to get a Snickers at the next stop,'” he recalls. He listened, refueled and continued.
For Story, however, not being able to eat enough ended her journey after three months. “I was so thin that I was losing muscle,” he says. At a refueling stop in the northern High Sierra, he decided that weight loss had become too extreme. she did not want to slow down her husband and possibly put them both at risk of getting stuck in dangerous conditions. So she returned home, regained the weight and finally met her husband again for short walks during the remaining two and a half months on the trail.
The legs are particularly hit
Few hikers cross a path unscathed. Hiking in the mountains with a heavy bundle puts a lot of strain on the body — especially downhill. “You have to make sure you stretch the muscles, keep them moving with a gentle range of motion,” says Foxx. Injuries from slipping and falling are not uncommon. “Everyone on the trail gets a ton of ibuprofen. We call it ‘vitamin I,'” says Story.
Probably the most common part of the body to receive a beating is the legs. “My thighs got stronger, my arms got toned – and my legs got thinner,” says Curtis. Wearing the wrong shoes, she left plantar fasciitis, or inflammation of the foot, and by the time she reached Pennsylvania, her ankles were also starting to lock. With no access to the ice, she improvised by dipping her feet in cold water whenever she camped near a river or lake.
Sweat blisters and stiff shoes are more likely than not. “You have to protect your feet,” says Foxx. “Wash your feet, look for skin damage and let them breathe.” (Although this can admittedly be more difficult in colder weather – Story remembers waking up in the icy mountains with her socks frozen.)
The skin can both wear out and shine
If hikers can avoid sunburn, they can find nature as the best skin care program. “I usually struggle with acne, but my skin glowed in the path,” says Curtis. She attributes this to the fact that she did not touch her face as often as usual, and only took a shower every three to seven days. “I also put a lot of mud on my body to shield it from the sun and mosquitoes.” Not only did the tactic help prevent burns and stings, but he believes that not rinsing the good bacteria had healing effects.
Not all skins are so good. In addition to blisters on the legs, squeaking can be a problem when the herd of hikers hits their chests and backs (especially for women with larger breasts who find it difficult to find a good fit). “It can be very rubbing and damaging the skin,” says Foxx. “You have to make sure you have the right application.” If you are looking for a package with an adjustable chest strap, as well as one around your waist, it can offer extra support and allow you to adjust the fit to the shape and size of your body.
Mental strength is highly questionable
There is a common proverb on the path: “Embrace the rug”. Although those who are stuck behind computers can romanticize the idea of being in nature 24 hours a day, 7 hours a day, the constant reversal and battle against the elements can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. “Sometimes it’s hard to be out there,” says Foxx.
Hikers have to come to terms with giving up control over things like the weather and injuries, Story says. “Being so vulnerable increased my resilience, resourcefulness and self-confidence,” he says. “I learned how to be happy even in intense discomfort.”
Dr. Nyamora suggests hikers make a plan in advance for when things are not going well. “Be prepared to want to give them up,” he says. “And be clear with yourself — these are the reasons I will give up.” The temptation will happen, he says, so it is necessary to prepare for it (and also for hikers not to let perfectionism exceed their healthy limits).
However, constant exercise and exposure to nature also has its benefits for mental health. Curtis, who lives with depression, ADHD and panic disorder, found that hiking gave her the opportunity to practice more in her mind. “Being out on the trail was the best thing I could ever do,” he says.
Social ties are accelerating
Dr. Nyamora points out that not only do hikers have to learn to rely on themselves, but they have to rely on others sometimes — either for a walk in the city, for tips for the next pass, or just for someone to talk to. “You’re pushing to connect with strangers,” he says.
The emotional experience makes everyone very raw and many open up to each other in ways we do not usually experience in everyday life. Some hikers end up staying together as a “tram”. “It’s like a socialist society in the woods – we help each other,” says Curtis.
The biggest challenge may come after the finish line
After spending so much time focusing on a goal – and getting used to a steady stream of endorphins from regular physical activity – getting back to “real life” can be the hardest part. “Moving from a place that was so meditative, where you took a break from juggling all the details of our normal lives, can be annoying,” says Dr. Nyamora.
Subsequent depression can hit hard. Story was missing so much for hiking that she was found going with a backpack to the grocery store two miles away in her shorts and hiking shirt. Curtis says she “felt like a puppy thrown into the world” and did not leave the house for a month, explaining that she was not able to relate to other people who had not experienced what she had just been through.
“I “Do not think that you’re ever really the one after doing something like this,” he says.
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