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How To Hike in the Mountains

Mountain hiking embodies what hiking is all about: breathtaking views, fresh air, and a good workout. Here's you're guide on how to hike the mountains safely.

Planning a Mountain Hike

The first hiking tip has more to do with expectation setting than technique. If you normally hike at about a 2-3mph pace (which is pretty normal), expect to cover 0.5-1.5 mph when hiking up a mountain. If the trail is good, your decent can usually be at your normal pace, but if the decent is rocky or tricky, expect to go about as slow down as you did going up.

It’s important to get rough estimate of how long you think you’ll be on the trail so that you give yourself enough time to get back before dark or bad weather. This uphill hiking calculator works well, but learning how to estimate your time in your head is a simple and good skill to have.

planning a hike on a laptop
I use online tools like GaiaGPS and GPS Visualizer to plan my hikes, then send them to my hiking GPS.

You also need to align your expectations with the physical effort. Mentally accept that you will sweat a bit, make sure you have eaten, and have food and water with you. At higher altitudes you can loose appetite, so know that and force yourself to eat a regular interval.

Mountain Weather

You’re going to want to check the weather for the mountain that you’re hiking. A simple Google search will usually do the trick. The important thing to note is that the weather is often colder and windier in the mountains, and the weather can change quickly.

In general, you can expect the temperature to go down about 5 degrees F for every 1000 feet that you climb. If you are hiking above 5,000 feet or so, the trees will thin out and disappear as you cross the tree line. Once you’re past the treelike, the trail is more exposed, the winds are stronger, and the wind chill drops the temperature even more.

rime ice on mount washington
Rime ice on the summit of Mt. Washington on July 4th.

Because mountains force the air up and over them, the weather can also be unpredictable, with storms and lightening common. I’ve started a hike in 80F weather on July 4th to find a blizzard at the summit. So you need to prepare for the worst.

thunderstorm in mountains
A thunderstorm is about to rock my world. I try to do my mountain hiking early to avoid late afternoon thunderstorms.

Mountain Hiking in the Winter

Unless you have experience hiking mountains in the snow and ice, don’t do it. Most mountains have snow and extreme conditions from the fall to late spring. For example, in Southern California, the Mt. Baldy hike is a fun, scenic day hike in the summer, but in the winter, hikers have died. Do yourself a favor and save the hike for when the weather is better. Generally the mountains start thawing out around late May.

hiker in snow hiking mt whitney
A friend of mine who hiked Mt. Whitney after it snowed. Notice the drop on the right hand side. The hike normally takes 12-15 hours. It took him 22. Not a fun day in my book.

Gear for Mountain Hiking

You’re going to want to carry extra warm layers, and a waterproof shell. A winter hat holds in your body heat and is easy to slip on as you hike. Prepare for winter-like conditions. Generally you’ll sweat on the way up, so you’ll want something warm to put on when you reach the summit with a wet body exposed to the wind.

cris hazzard on mountain
A lightweight puffy jacket is a perfect layer to pack for the top of a mountain. This down jacket from REI (for women too) is affordable, built tough, and works well.

Make sure your base layer is a synthetic or wool fabric that wicks away moisture. I also wear a visor to keep the sweat out of my eyes. I prefer lighter hiking boots. Every ounce counts when you’re lifting and dropping your feet thousands of times.

Since you’ll be sweating and exerting yourself more than on a regular hike, you’ll want plenty of water and food. I have a insulated water bladder and eat nutrient-dense superfood bars. Sometimes I also bring my Jetboil stove and something warm to eat. There’s nothing like having a hot meal on top of a cold mountain.

cris hazzard eats from jetboil stove
Enjoying some hot backpacking food out of my Jetboil stove in the Catskill Mountains.

Hiking poles are another option. I generally use them when climbing in the mountains. They help “pull me up” on steep sections, but I really value them on steep downhills when it’s hard to get your footing on loose dirt or rocks. The allegedly help the strain on your knees as well, but it’s not something I can prove. Hiking poles are super light these days, and if you don’t want to use them, they collapse and fit onto your pack. Give them a try.

I also travel with a small emergency beacon. It’s the size of my fist, works anywhere in the world, and alerts search and rescue at the push of a button. It’s an insurance policy for the unexpected. If I fall and break a leg, or if a friend falls, hits their head, and goes unconscious, I can call for a rescue. It’s well worth the cost to me. I also carry a small emergency kit in my lightweight pack.

acr resqulink is small
The emergency beacon is really small – throw it in your pack and know you’re covered.

Uphill Hiking Pace and Rhythm

A big mistake that people make when they are hiking uphill is that they take big, bounding steps. This will quickly tire you out, since you’re activating your bigger muscle groups like the hamstrings.

The insider hiking tip is to take smaller steps (I like to call them ‘baby steps’) as you make your way hiking uphill. Start by halving your normal stride length. It will feel weird at first, but just stick with it. Focus on stepping down on the middle to front of your foot. This activates your calves and smaller muscle groups, which are built for small frequent activity.

Once you have your stride down, you need to pace yourself. Make sure that your short strides don’t lead to a very quick pace. Keep your strides at the same or slower rhythm than you would normally walking. The idea is to never go ‘into the red’ zone where you are getting winded or your legs are burning. You want to focus on short, easy, regular steps. Again, this will feel awkward at first, but it’s the way to go.

If the hike is long or your are starting to go into the red and are getting tired, you need to stop and rest. There is no shame in stopping to catch your breath. Let your heart rate settle back down to a level where you could converse with someone easily before you start again.

cris hazzard rests on mountain
Leaning up against a tree is a nice way to take a break on a tough climb.

Rest breaks are not only a time to catch your breath, but also address food, water, and clothing. If you are hungry or starting to stuffer from low blood sugar, you need to eat something immediately. Likewise, take some sips of water before you are thirsty.

Hiking at Altitude

Don’t underestimate the effects of altitude, especially if you’re hiking somewhere higher in altitude than where you normally live. Most (normal) folks can start feeling the effects of altitude at around 8,000 feet. At altitude the air gets thinner, there is less oxygen getting to your lungs, and therefore less fuel for you to use. I live at sea level and can definitely feel the altitude when I travel to places like Salt Lake City or the Rockies to hike.

cris hazzard on mt whitney
To prepare for Mt Whitney, I usually hike to about 12,000 feet two days before, rest the day before at around 8,000 feet, then do the climb to 14,500.

There are a few ways to prepare for altitude. The most straightforward way is to spend as much time at high altitude as possible. There’s an old mountain climbing adage, “climb high, sleep low.” So let’s say you want to hike to 10,000 feet. The day before, try hiking to say 8,000 feet, then descend to somewhere around 5,000 feet, and the next day hike to 10,000 feet. These numbers are all hypothetical, but you get the general idea.

The other thing you can do is improve your fitness. Incorporating cross-training into your week will help your body process oxygen. So you can do more with the limited oxygen you’re getting. And this may be obvious, but the more body weight that you’re carrying up the mountain, the harder you will have to work. So loosing weight will help.

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness or AMS, can kill you. It’s no joke and occurs when you ascend to high before your body is ready. The initial symptoms can be headache, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath. After that, expect irrational behavior, loss of balance and coordination, severe headache, vomiting, and extreme cases, coma and death.

I’m always amazed when I see people ignoring the signs of altitude sickness and continuing on. By doing that, you’re not only endangering your life, but also the lives of those that may come to save you.

The correct thing to do when you notice signs of altitude sickness is to descend immediately. You can also take Diamox or Ibuprofen to alleviate the symptoms, but you still need to go down. If your symptoms are extreme, seek medical help immediately. Otherwise the symptoms should subside over the next few hours or days.

Lastly, stay hydrated at higher elevations. The initial signs of dehydration can be similar to the signs of altitude sickness.

I’ve had AMS and it’s not fun. Sometimes it just happens, no matter how much you prep. Accept it and treat it seriously.

The Summit

The best part of mountain hiking, is, of course, getting to the summit. I always celebrate the top of a climb with a rest, some photos, and a bite to eat. After all, you just burned some serious calories. Now’s the time to live it up!

Remember to put an extra layer or two on so that you don’t chill. Some hikers also take their boots off to let their feet breath. The important thing is to stay warm and refuel for the descent.

cris hazzad on san gorgonio
Don’t forget your camera for your summit shot. If you are using your phone camera, put the phone in flight mode so the battery doesn’t die. Batteries drain quickly when you are out of cell tower range because the phone is continually looking for a signal.

Heading Back Down

The descent is where most problems happen for hikers. Hikers get tired, hike fast because they’re going downhill, and can slip or roll and ankle. It’s happened to the best of us.

It starts with eating. Make sure you’ve eaten at the summit and you have the energy to focus on your way down. Be extra vigilant with your footing. Use hiking poles to balance yourself on steep or loose sections of trail. If you don’t have hiking poles, there’s no shame in squatting down for a butt-slide.

If you’re doing an out and back route, remember that the trail can look different going down in the opposite direction. Be aware of the trail and periodically check that you’re in the right place on your GPS or map.

cris hazzard on cucamonga peak
Mountain hiking is so worth it. Make sure you prepare, get ready to sweat, and have fun!

A Cautionary Tale

Let me tell you what can happen when you don’t take a mountain hike seriously. I was recently hiking in some high mountains. The weather was great and it was a good day for hiking. When I reached the summit (at 14,252 feet), I found two college students. They looked like they were going to die. They only had one small water bottle with them, which was now empty. They were in jeans and sneakers. They saw the trail on a map and just did the hike without preparing. I gave them an extra 1.5 liters of water and food, and then they began to head back down.

I caught up with them a little while later, one of them couldn’t continue. He was disoriented, vomiting, and had lost his balance. I told them to make their way back as best they could, slowly and safely, and I would call for help when I got in cell phone range. Luckily I knew that I had cell reception on a specific point on the trail. I called the ranger, explained the situation, but they couldn’t get to the hikers anytime soon because of the remote location. Luckily a military helicopter was training close by and had a medic on board. The helicopter found the hikers, accessed the situation, and ended up flying the sicker hiker to the emergency room right away.

helicopter rescue
Not the way to end your hike.

Even if you’re not as dumb as those guys, no matter how much you plan or how many times you’ve done a mountain hike before, make sure you do your due diligence by preparing correctly, being cautious with the weather, and taking the endeavor seriously.  You never know what can happen.

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