Thoughts on Trail Life, Part 4

In the 4th of 6 articles I wax philosophic.

Part 4: The right way to do a hike.

Spend much time at all reading about long distance hiking and you’re sure to come across the abbreviation HYOH. It stands for “Hike Your Own Hike” and it’s one of the central philosophies of the hiking community. Well, maybe “philosophy” is a little strong. It’s not saying something super profound like: “If you long hike the trail, the trail also hikes you.” It does, though,  say something about what we consider the “right” way to go about a hike. The short explanation is that there is no “right” way, or rather, there are lots of “right” ways. How many? At least one for every hiker on the trail. As a culture, we uphold this principle. As individuals though, we’re not always great at sticking with it. We each put a tremendous amount of research, time, money, and effort into our particular approach so there can occasionally be a tendency to get attached to it with a little bit of unwarranted zeal. I think that’s more of a human trait than a hiker trait though. You find what works good for you, and believe it will work just as well for anyone else.

To begin with there’s the very basic matter of how you are physically covering trail miles. We have terms that refer to how much of the trail you’re hiking, what direction(s) you’re traveling, and how consistently you’re doing either of those things. People have all different kinds of approaches depending on their circumstances and desires, and they can sometimes get pretty opinionated about it. For example, most thruhikers go Northbound. You may decide, however that Southbound is the way for you. Or perhaps you prefer a flip-flop, which is a combination of the two. Yet another approach is to skip around and do the trail in an undefined manner. The choice is yours, but whichever way you go, your experience will be substantially different from one who takes an alternate approach.

Not all hikers are thruhikers though, and for many a section of the trail is all they are able to, or interested, in doing. But maybe you are up to a bit more than most and would like to do a longer section. Well then you can earn the title of “LASHer”, which stands for “Long-ass Section Hiker.” Or, if you do a 500 mile or longer section we might call you a “SLASHer.” (Super Long-ass Section Hiker)

So if a Sobo thruhiker meets a Nobo SLASHer, which one will be the first to accuse a flip-flopper of yellow blazing? ?

After you’ve determined what kind of hike is for you, there is, of course, the matter if choosing what gear you’re going to carry. Going “Ultralight” is popular with the kids these days and some have been known to approach it with a zeal that borders on religious. Generally “Ultralight” is defined as having a pack base weight of 10 lbs or less. (“Base weight” means the weight of your pack without food and water.)

Is going Ultralight for you? If you’re a photographer like me, probably not. If you like hot meals, probably not. If you like to sleep comfortably and stay warm when the temperature unexpectedly drops, probably not. However, if you need almost no creature comforts, can sleep anywhere, are okay with a meal of cold-soaked ramen, and want to cover lots of miles quickly, then maybe it will be your thing. Just maybe don’t get on a pulpit about it, OK?

On the other end of the scale you have people who like to be prepared for anything. They’re willing to carry the weight so that they have everything they might possibly need. It seems like these hikers tend to get trail names that reflect that decision, so if you meet Just In Case you’ll know why she has that name. Her pack is not nearly as stuffed though as an individual called Kitchen Sink, and absolutely no one out-carries Metric Ton. (No, you don’t need an axe on the trail.)

Most of us though, fall somewhere in the middle. We don’t go completely bare bones, but we do try to keep our pack weight down to a reasonable level. It’s not unusual for hikers to carry an extra item that isn’t totally necessary for their hike but, for their own reasons, is something they want with them. Cameras are fairly common, as are musical instruments. I’ve seen people with stuffed animals, baseballs, playing cards, and in the case of a hiker known as “15 Foot”, a fifteen foot section of garden hose. If you ask him why he’s carrying it he will tell you that he needs to get it to Canada. Ask why and you will get nothing but a confused look. He’s an interesting character.

“Hike Your Own Hike” effects day-to-day trail life as well. Get up when you want to. Hike at a pace that is right for you. Carry the kinds of food that work for you. Take days off when you need to. Choose resupply points that make sense for you. You’ll make friends on the trail and it’s tempting to try to match your habits and decisions to allow you to stay with them. But if their approach isn’t right for you, you could end up not enjoying your hike, or worse, injuring yourself. Not a few hikers have had to get off the trail because they hurt themselves trying to keep up with other hikers.

There are all kinds of other things that come into play with HYOH. Really, the factors you weigh and decide upon in the course of your hike are too numerous to list. At the end of it all though, you’re going to craft an experience that is uniquely yours. And what that looks like comes down to you, the trail, and how you chose to hike it. And because of that experience, when your adventure is over, in some way, nothing will ever be quite the same again. The world is going to look a little different to you. You’ll see people in a different light. You will never again be quite the same person you were before.

You know, I guess that is kind of profound.


Up next: A glossary of hiker speak (just for fun)