Last month our main post covered 9 hiking tips based on the experiences of an Army Officer who is now an avid hiker. Continuing on this month we have another 9 not so obvious tips for hikers to make their journeys more enjoyable and comfortable.
All too often society views retired members of the military as only possessing infantry skills which are incongruous with the civilian world. It is precisely these skills, however, which translate well to many sectors outside of the military, especially outdoor pursuits of course. Many Army Officers in particular are inherently rather entrepreneurial, with more than a few of my former colleagues now running their own businesses or working as freelancers, in both office environments as well as the hiking and adventure industry. Here are 9 more such tips continuing on from last month’s post.
Update your first aid kit
Whether in a group or hiking solo, at least one member of your team should always have an emergency medical kit at hand. A core component of basic training in the military is first aid, and when hiking in the civilian world it is likewise crucial for at least one group member to be halfway proficient in handling minor injuries. Apart from the usual items found in a kit, here are a few not so obvious things to include: Salt and sugar sachets. Grab a few of these when you’re next having a coffee or a meal out. When you perspire on a long hike you also lose a great deal of your body’s salt content. Not everyone realises that as your salts reduce, your ability to actually absorb and retain the water you drink also diminishes. This is why rehydration powders such as Dioralyte contain large quantities of vital salts and electrolytes. Sugar sachets are also useful if you need a quick energy boost should you feel yourself running on empty while trekking along. Another handy item is a high visibility vest or foldable marker panel. When a soldier is particularly well camouflaged they need something to signal a helicopter or other troops from a distance. Hikers in distress will find a fluorescent object equally handy if they need to be spotted by a mountain rescue team or helicopter. Finally, a ‘space blanket’ or survival blanket should be packed when hiking in colder and rainier climates. They get their name from the thin, heat-reflective material they are made of – the same material utilised on spacecraft.
Waterproof your gear… and yourself!
Keeping your spare clothes dry in your pack is extremely important, and easier than you think. Don’t merely rely on those pack covers. Whether it’s an in-built rain cover which handily pops out of the bottom of your pack, or a separate one altogether, you always run the risk of having water run down your own back and enter weak points along the backpack’s seams, eventually drenching your crucial spare clothes as they soak it up like sponges. Not only does this then negate that mental boost you’ll later receive from putting on warm and dry clothes, but you’ll also be carrying a few extra kilograms worth of absorbed water on your back. During my time in the Army I was always amazed at how your own clothes, boots and webbing (ammunition pouches/vest) seemingly double in weight after enduring a torrential downpour or having just forded a river. So, on top of utilising a pack cover, it’s best practice to also put all of your gear inside a thick garbage bag within your pack itself. You can line your backpack with one and then tie it off. For very important gear (especially anything electronic) you should also seal these off inside additional plastic bags, with ziplock bags and even condoms proving rather useful to this end! And even if you’re hiking in warmer and drier climates, such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain, always bring at least a compact emergency rain poncho. A simple garbage bag with three holes cut into it will also suffice. Allowing yourself to become soaked unnecessarily can prove a real drain on your own psychological well-being, resulting in an overall loss of morale in your group.
Pack an emergency shelter…
… and learn how to keep it dry too! You probably know it as a tarp or groundsheet, but in the Australian Army we always called it a hootchie, and this simple rectangle of waterproof plastic folds up to the size and weight of a small Apple iPad. It can then be unfolded and possesses ample fabric straps and metal rings to allow you to tie it up as an emergency shelter for one or two people. Again, even if you’re in a drier area or staying in bed and breakfasts overnight, it’s no harm to have a plan B for inclement weather. Additionally I also carry a bivouac – or ‘bivvy’ – bag which is effectively a rainproof cover for your sleeping bag, plus a small trowel or entrenching tool to build a trench around your shelter in order to whisk away excess rainfall runoff once the ground becomes completely saturated. There’s nothing worse than forgetting to do this and feeling a river of cold water begin to run down underneath your tent or bivvy bag. All of these items can be readily found in Army surplus stores or online.
Learn how to navigate
We are all glued to our phones today, and they do possess amazing GPS and mapping capabilities. But apart from the benefits of having a ‘digital detox’ while hiking, it is also extremely important to at least possess a rudimentary understanding of using a paper map and compass. I suggest the following: Learn how to properly orientate yourself and your map. Read the ground as you move in order to recognise key features and realise if the surrounding terrain matches your intended route on paper. Learn the difference between an animal track and a hiking track. Practice triangulating your position based on three landmarks which you can find in person and on the map (e.g. radio mast, mountain peak or spot height, and a road intersection). Acquire a sense of visually judging distances and determine your pace count over one hundred metres, taking into account pace variations based on ascent, descent, pack weight and ground type. Count your paces (100 metre intervals) by shifting small pebbles from one pocket to another. Finally, waterproof your map in a plastic sheet or pouch, or by laminating it.
Lay off the caffeine before you start a long hike
Refraining from your daily coffee ritual, or at least reducing your intake for a few days before embarking on a multi-day hike, will help lower your established tolerance for caffeine. With a diminished tolerance you’ll be able to have a cup of coffee (or strong cup of tea in Ireland) and receive a much more noticeable boost afterwards. This in turn will help you on your way should your energy levels wane after a fair distance has been covered on foot.
Bathe like a Bird
Our helmets doubled up as a great receptacle for holding soapy water to use for a quick bird bath. Even if you’re staying in proper accommodation along your hiking route, longer and warmer days can lead to the necessity to invest some time in personal hygiene. A quick rinse of the face, armpits, hands, feet and groin area can help you freshen up for the rest of the day. If you have enough time and happen to be next to a running river or clean lake, why not take a quick dip and dry off in the sun or with a micro fibre travel towel. Leaping into a chilly lake will give you a far superior wake-up than that cup of coffee you may be foregoing as well. Let the towel dry off on the outside of your pack while continuing on your way afterwards. Quick tip from a time-strapped officer – baby wipes are definitely the fastest method.
Work on your fitness beforehand
You don’t have to be a fitness guru or athlete to head off on a multi-day hike. A basic level of fitness and the stamina and motivation to keep at it day after day is all you need. On Europe’s stunning hiking trails the views are more than enough to keep you going if your legs start to succumb to the miles. If you’re a little out of shape but have just booked your hiking tour, all you need is some practice with the same pack and boots you’ll be bringing with you. Simply load your pack up with some water, food and clothing and start breaking in the boots and dusting off the cobwebs. Find your nearest hill and head straight up the side of it. If you live in a fairly flat area, just find the tallest flight of stairs you can. And if you live in a city you don’t need to walk the entire way up a skyscraper, just enough to stretch those legs. In the Army you quickly see the fitness benefits of moving some weight up a steep incline.
If you’re embarking on a hike with a larger group, it’s also beneficial to ensure the group’s fitness level is somewhat even. If there are any major differences at all, a good idea is to divvy up group supplies and equipment in order to spread the weight out evenly and allow the stronger hikers in the group to carry a little extra. This will in turn aid towards all group members being able to comfortably maintain a similar walking pace. If your group spreads out over time, make sure to take regular rest stops. And don’t head off again as soon as the last member catches up. Allow everyone ample time to catch their breath and enjoy the scenery. In terms of hiking pack weights, a great way to keep your overall load right down is to book a package hiking tour where your overnight accommodation and food are already catered for each day. This way you can bring a far smaller pack and leave tents, sleeping bags and meals behind. Another rule is to avoid exceeding a pack weight of more than one-third of your own body weight.
Early to bed, early to rise
I have to admit that sleep deprivation was one of my least favourite components of officer training. As such I do appreciate the ability get a good night’s rest and to sleep past 5.30 am these days. However, when you’re out for a multi-day hike it’s a good idea to hop into bed early, sleep a full eight hours, and then wake up bright and early to start the day. On busy routes you’ll beat the traffic. In summer you’ll also manage to beat the heat of the day and be the first to put your feet up at that evening’s accommodation. One of my fondest memories of my time in the Army was seeing the sunrise each and every day. Now as a professional photographer I appreciate the difference between sunrise and sunset. There’s just something particularly special about the light first thing in the morning, plus that cool, misty feeling in the air as the sun breaks over the horizon.
Learn the local language
Despite certain stereotypes about the Army, we are in fact given training on how to best conduct ourselves once we are in foreign lands. Officers in particular must make themselves familiar with the local language and customs, as well as any taboos to avoid. Thankfully most areas in Europe these days are accessible with English only, however picking up some basic Spanish would be very useful when hiking the Camino de Santiago. Speaking of Spain, it’s also handy to think about whether or not you’ll pass through specific parts of the country where Spanish is actually not the main language. This includes the Basque region in the northeast and Catalonia in the southeast. The picturesque Camino Frances is located entirely within the Spanish-speaking northwest of the country. Alternately, if you are planning a hiking tour in Scotland or Ireland it’s still no harm to learn a couple useful phrases in the local dialects of Gaelic, even if it’s just to have ‘the craic’ in Ireland (Irish Gaelic for ‘a bit of fun or banter.’)
That concludes the two-part series providing a total of 18 tips for hikers from a former Army Officer. Keep an eye out on future blog posts though as we’re sure to have further unique insights like these. Happy hiking!
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