Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hiking For The Slightly Neurotic: Some Tips, Reflections, and Observations

The author, far left, on hike to Osborne Ridge, Lake Alpine, CA. 2017

Towards the end of 2016, I joined Meetup in order to try and find some other people who wanted to hike. I had been walking regularly on a trail near my home but wanted to expand my efforts and didn't feel comfortable hitting the trails by myself. I joined a couple of different groups and started to go on some "hikes." (I put that word in parenthesis because even after a year's time I really can't define what a hike is.) 

It's been a little over a year now since I started this hobby of mine. I have learned some things by watching and talking to the people in my hiking group. Being an introvert, I have also engaged in personal reflection and have come up with some ideas. For people like myself who are nervous about starting new things or are just a tad bit neurotic in general, I thought that sharing some of these observations might be helpful.

1. Going for a walk doesn't require much in the way of equipment: 

When I realized that I was actually interested in walking around for longer than an hour and on terrain that wasn't asphalt or small compacted gravel, I thought perhaps I needed specialized equipment to take things to the next level. After a few longer hikes, I quickly discovered that my own body is the only equipment that I really need. Putting aside overall fitness level, dexterity on rocks, and agility crossing streams, I'd say that the single most important thing to help me get from point A to point B is my feet. For me, my feet are the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story. If they hurt or are very cold or aren't stabilized in my shoes properly, then hiking around on uneven terrain in the mud just isn't any fun. Shoes that fit properly and that are suited to the terrain are pretty important. Poorly fitting shoes will quickly affect your knees and your hips and, over time, will cause pain if not outright damage to your body. Blisters are reasonable sometimes but shin splints and sore toes and hurting knees aren't so great. Of the money that I have spent on my hobby so far, I'd say good shoes are probably the best investment.

2. Going for a walk does require specialized equipment!: 

Ha! A contradiction. Having tried on lots of different backpacks and having purchased innumerable pairs of shoes and other miscellaneous hiking paraphernalia, I have found some things that I really like having with me while out for the day. The items help to reduce the anxiety associated with being far away from my car and home. Kind of like a security blanket!

* Well fitting sturdy and reliable shoes suited to the terrain.
* Hat for keeping the sun off of my face and neck, gloves for warmth, neck gator to keep the  cold off of my back and shoulders, and cap to keep my head warm.
* Good synthetic socks that fit and that are appropriate for the shoes being worn. (Synthetic if you have a sensitivity to wool or other animal products or are vegan.)
* Water and food and snacks.
* Layers of clothing that can be shed easily and stuck in your pack-a waterproof layer is helpful.
* Hiking pole(s). Poles provide stability on uneven terrain, slow you down so that you are forced to pay attention and also aid in being able to look around, knowing that the pole is a kind of "third foot."
* First aid kit-band aids, aspirin, Benadryl, hydration tabs, tweezers, scissors, feminine products, tp and a plastic baggie. (Items that are unique to your own needs.)
* A good fitting pack specific to your torso size. (Not over or under stuffed-both cases are uncomfortable and won't carry on your back well.)
* A lightweight cloth napkin for nose blowing. (The napkin can be wet with water too and tied around the neck for cooling in hot weather.) Chapstick and eye drops.

3. Water: Packing too much or too little?:

Probably the second biggest thing that I learned (next to having good shoes) is that water is critical. Duh! Right? As a person who doesn't drink much water, (and also as a middle aged woman who pees a lot), I suppose I thought I could just skate by this requirement. Wrong! One of the scariest moments I had while hiking was when I realized that I was dehydrated and didn't have enough water. I could feel myself sort of shutting down and I wondered seriously if I would be able to finish the hike. I learned first hand that fluids keep the body moving. Hydration is necessary on a cellular level and is critical to keeping the body's chemical functions in balance. Water is heavy though and it is tempting to want to bring less. (Your equipment, including water, adds up quickly). Always take more than you need, particularly if there is no water source or no potable water. And remember that once you realize you are dehydrated, you likely have been in trouble longer than you think. It's best to stay ahead of the curve.

4. Electrolytes and food: 
Learning about electrolytes while being in the beginning stages of dehydration is not quite the right time to get some schooling on the subject. Here is a link to a good article that explains what's what. I learned from my hiking buddy that carrying some kind of electrolyte tabs to add to your water in an emergency is a good idea. (Caution of course should be exercised since you are fiddling with the balances of something in your body.)

In addition to the proper amount of water, I feel that food also is critical on longer hikes. What I learned though after a year of observing what people bring to eat while hiking, is that every person seems to need a different amount and type of nutrition to keep going.  There is also a lot of information on the Internet about the "perfect" foods for hiking. When I first started going on longer day hikes, I had an incredible amount of  food with me. (I am an anxious eater who gets insane when hungry.)  And because of the increased activity level, I was hungry all of the time and worried about running out of food. Over the past year or so I have gotten a little less anxious about things. Most of the time though I still have more food with me than I need. I have also worked on the types of food that I bring. Taking along nutrient dense snacks and other items that contain water (such as apples) seems to work well for my energy level. Getting enough nutrition to stay energized and to recover from a hike is something I am still working on. (If you'd like to read a little more about balanced nutrition please see this post by food blogger and certified nutritionist Gena Hamshaw.)

5. Being self conscious of your skill level is natural:
Comparing yourself to others can be self defeating and discouraging. It's a really natural thing to do though, especially when embarking on a new activity. Can you keep up? Do you have the "right" equipment? Can you hike as far and for as long as the rest of the group? It can take a very strong self esteem to not feel like everyone is watching and judging. So it's just as well for me that I am fairly self focused. While huffing and puffing up the hills, I am mostly concentrating on my own efforts. I don't have time to look at what others are doing because I am busy trying to keep my lungs from exploding! There have been several instances where I have fallen down or when my scramble over a rock or creek crossing was less than graceful. Luckily for me, I haven't been seriously hurt yet and no one has laughed at me too much, at least not out loud. It's been my experience that people step up to help and say reassuring things when you appear to be floundering. I try too to turn these "failures" into opportunities. Slow down a little on the hills but keep a steady pace. Make conscious decisions about where to step when crossing on rocks over a stream. Watch what others do too-oftentimes their successful moves can be mimicked. 

6. Know your limits (but test them too):
The truth is that for most of us, our eyes are bigger than our plates! Either that or we tend to underestimate what we can do. I fall into the latter category and temper those tendencies with a touch of actual realism and experience. I have completed some longer hikes, surprising myself in the process. It's a nice combination of confidence and discovery, knowing that I can hike a certain distance but also knowing that under the right conditions, I can push myself a bit. Each person falls into one category or the other and sometimes in between. It can be enlightening to listen to others describe the hikes they have been on, how far they have walked, and what they might be willing to try. My best hikes have been ones where I was able to push myself without killing myself and that is a fine line!

7. Hiking in a group can be social:
For an introvert, hiking in a group can be both beneficial and also overwhelming. I tend to pick outings with fewer than 15 people. More than that number is a little much for me. I probably would end up keeping myself to myself in a larger group. Under that number is good though. The exposure to others is enough so that talking is almost mandatory. It would be embarrassing to not be social!  And people will approach you also to make small talk. The subjects for discussion are ready made too: the trail conditions or route, the Meetup experience, gear and clothing, food and water, and other hiking experiences are all good topics that offer shared experiences. The upshot is that you end up meeting some like minded people which makes it possible to explore shared interests for a few hours, which is nice.

8. Craft your experience:
As I get older, I feel that it is important to pick and choose what I do, how I do it, and who I do it with. When I look at hikes being offered, I try to judge whether or not they are for me. Everyone has different criteria but here is some of what I use to make a decision:

* Length of hike and duration: how far and how long?
* Terrain and altitude: just how high up will we be? (Altitude sickness is real!)
* Distance to travel: traveling far for a short hike may not make much sense.
* Weather: I don't "do" snow in most cases and active heavy rain and wind doesn't work for me; likewise temps. over 80+ won't work either. Check the weather before you sign up for the hike and check it the day of the hike too.
* Time of day: I am an early to mid morning hiker-by the afternoon I am pooped out!
* Do I know anyone on the hike?
* Pace: It's possible to get an idea of this if the organizer of the hike indicates both the duration and mileage of the hike. As an example, six miles in two hours over uneven terrain is likely a little too fast for me.
* Can I easily find the start point of the hike and can I print out a map of the route?: I have stated that I am an anxious person and so being able to do these two things helps. I am also trying to learn about trust-is the organizer able to lead the hike and can I depend on that?
* Are there gas stations and services nearby?: I like to get gas in my car before I go or at least have enough to get to the hike and back. I also check to see if there are places to stop for a bathroom break.
* How many people will be on the hike?: After awhile, you learn just how many of your closest friends you want to spend the day with. For me, the number is about 10-15, maximum. 
* What do you want to get out of the hike?: This sounds sort of existential, but really, what gets you excited about hiking to begin with? Is it seeing a new landscape? Enjoying peace and quiet? Looking for birds and flowers? Or maybe it's just something open ended like "I'll see what I see." Figure out what you like and don't like and then go for that experience.

Keep in mind that even if all of the above criteria can't be met, the hike may still be possible. It's important for me to try new things but to also be safe and secure in doing so. It isn't possible to plan for every scenario but it helps to be a little prepared. And knowing why you want to hike, or at least having an inkling, can go a long way towards getting a lot out of your experience.

9. Be cognizant of your own pace and the group pace; tardiness and promptness:
People talk. There isn't any way around this fact. People are also pretty polite and forgiving. They may not say anything to you or it may not matter to them. If you care though about working in a group and getting along, there are two things to consider which impact the hiking group as a whole. 

The first thing is pace. It's nice if your pace fits somewhere into the group pace. There's no need to be the person in front but it sucks to be the person that everyone else is waiting for. And it's difficult to hustle up over hard terrain, especially if  you aren't in great shape. (I speak from experience!) With that said (and recognizing that this can't always be helped and recognizing that it stinks to be discouraged from doing something), there are many groups and organizers that account for slower paced hikers. Organizers will oftentimes designate a "sweep" person who will go back and locate people who have fallen behind. Sometimes falling behind doesn't matter because the trail is well marked or you may already know the trail well. But if you are hiking in a new spot, keeping up can become critical. There are also lots of hiking groups that encourage slower paced hikers-or faster paced hikers if that is your thing. I have not found a solid solution for this pace thing yet but my best advice is to go back to the above points in #8 to see if the hike you are considering is the right hike for you. I hate being embarrassed or hurting myself trying to keep up so I try to figure things out beforehand. And I would add that it is OK to turn around or to not go once you get to the starting place. It could be just as OK as going on the hike too and finding that you can keep up after all. 

The other thing I have learned is that everyone has a different idea of what it means to be "on time." For some, on time means the exact start time, no more or no less. For others, a 10-15 minute window either way is fine. And still others think that arriving 10-15 minutes early is absolutely necessary. It's no secret that stuff happens. Cars don't start, directions lead you astray, and sometimes just getting out the door is tough. So yes, stuff happens. For me, being early is OK. Waiting around for the start  time is alright. I always bring a book to read just in case. I check and double check my departure time too. I'd rather wait for others to arrive than be late myself.  Impacting the group negatively matters to me but not everyone feels this way. So, I look for hiking experiences that offer exact times or windows of time in which to arrive and start. And I try to find groups or other hikers whose ideas of "on time" are similar to mine. It's a work in process and an exercise in getting along with others. All I can say at this point is that I am still trying and learning!

10. Hiking can help you discover what you are capable of: 
Growing up as an indoor, introverted kid, I never spent much time being "athletic." My family certainly never went camping or hiking and in general, recreating outdoors wasn't on our agenda. As a young adult, I rode my bike on trails and went for walks but working for a living kind of curtailed any further exploration of those activities. About 10 years ago, I was laid off from my job and didn't go back to work. I had time to walk more and ride my bike on some local trails. But it wasn't until we moved to our current location in the CA Foothills that I discovered hiking. And it wasn't until I joined Meetup that I discovered group hiking, longer hiking, and hiking on different terrains. It's all been about discovery for me. I never dreamed that I could walk 10 miles anywhere. Period.  It would have never occurred to me that I would obsess over backpacks, try and find new trails, plan trips around hiking, or actually enjoy being tired and sore at the end of the day. Climbing up and over smallish rocks, hauling myself in and out of granite bowls, and peeing in the woods successfully just were not things that I thought I would be capable of. And all of that is pretty tame in comparison to what others do, which, is OK for me. After all, it's my experience. I like what I do and who I am. Hiking has helped to hone and affirm those things.

I hope that the above tips, reflections, and observations about my own hiking experiences are helpful. I have written the information from my own viewpoint which is that of a fairly anxious hiking newcomer. In the broadest sense and separate from the joy of being on a hike alone, hiking can be a shared experience on many levels. True that you can hike in a group and be part of the group experience, but hiking is also like the old proverb which states that, "It takes a village."  There is no other activity in which I engage that has taught me so much about learning from others. People are very generous with their own experiences and knowledge and it is this advice and guidance which has steered me in the right direction and filled in the gaps in my own knowledge. And I am only a year or so in to this hobby. Who knows what else I will learn? Only  time (and more hiking!) will tell.

Thanks for reading and please pass the post along to anyone you know who is like me, a slightly neurotic, hiking kind of a person!

Monday, January 8, 2018

You Just Need To Eat Some Meat...

On more than one occasion now, well meaning people, people that I care about, have told me that "I just need to eat some meat." This well meaning comment is usually made during a meal out when I am searching the menu for something to eat that will work for my vegan diet. I try to laugh a bit or say something helpful and explanatory but honestly, the directive just irritates me.  It's not likely that I am going to eat meat just because the menu at the restaurant doesn't cater to my needs. I may be frustrated but it's not likely that I am going to look the other way and just have some chicken because that is the easiest choice. The directive to just eat some meat makes me feel like my friend or relative doesn't quite understand my beliefs or convictions. (It's important to note here that people do care and want to make sure that I am getting adequate nutrition. Not everyone has researched being healthy on a vegan diet so they may not know.) But trust me, I am not going to starve because I am being stubborn and sticking to my principles. I'll simply find something appropriate to eat. (And I will remember next time to try and check the menu in advance or to plan a little better.)

This issue of eating meat though, whether to do it or not, and whether or not it is healthy, is an ongoing debate. The arguments for and against meat eating are contentious and fraught with contradiction, cultural parameters, and societal norms. There is History behind meat eating. Just a quick search of the Internet comes up with many opposing viewpoints. We are meant to eat meat, we are not meant to eat meat. Our ancestors did it so we should do it. Our industrialized society is set up for mass production of meat, it's what we have always done, and we should continue to do it. A plant based diet is our only hope for a sustainable food supply for the future, forget the mass production of meat. Emotions that center around a meat eating way of life run high, especially here in the West where we have a history of cattle  production. The arguments for and against meat as a diet staple seem especially ridiculous too in light of the fact that so many people in the world go without the necessary nutrition and do in fact suffer from food insecurity. It's tough for anyone to make an argument for such a specialized "optional" diet as veganism when people are starving to death.

With all of that said however, and with all the food that is available, why would someone choose to stick to a vegan diet? What's wrong with eating a little meat now and then, especially in a pinch when the food selection is limited? I can only say that for me, the common thread in the argument to not eat meat is choice. I have the ability (and means) to chose. It's that ability to chose that gives me power to support the causes that I feel strongly about and that I would prefer not to compromise on. Just as others choose (for whatever reasons) to eat a diet which includes meat, I choose to eat a diet that does not. And I'll tell you a little secret. I like my choices. I like eating plants. I like not having to eat animals. It all makes me happy and makes me feel like my choices are positive and that at least in this tiny way, I am helping to contribute to something better that I believe in. So no, I won't be "eating a little meat" anytime soon. Not if I can help it and not so long as I have a choice. And now I am off to have my banana smoothie with almond butter and chia seeds. I just know I am going to enjoy it!

Perfect In My Imperfection!

Recent haul from Sprouts market The other day I told a friend that veganism is an imperfect way of living. At best, you can only hope to...