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Going the Distance

Endurance Hiking

By: Michael McGuffin


The blend of forested valleys and high country catwalks between Rainy Pass and Harts Pass had placed this thirty mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail high on my hiking wish list. When I proposed a four day trip to my friend and hiking partner Jeff Stevenson he listened attentively, then casually asked, "Why not just do it in one day?" With a simple question Jeff had thrown down an irresistible challenge, and we immediately began drafting up a training schedule.

Now that our trip had been reduced to a day hike, weighty overnight items such as a tent, stove and sleeping bags could be left at home. By paring down our equipment list to only the barest of essentials we realized that such a trip would not only be possible, it just might be enjoyable.

Carrying two quarts of water, a water filter, a handful of Power Bars, two headlamps, a light first aid kit and emergency clothing, Jeff and I said goodbye to our understanding wives at the Rainy Pass trail head and began jogging up the trail. Ten hours and thirty miles later we were reunited. By traveling fast and light, Jeff and I experienced a remote wilderness area while remaining free of the cumbersome trappings of an extended outing. In the years following that eye-opening trip a group of friends and I have applied this fast and light approach to other marathon-length hikes, an activity we refer to as endurance hiking.

Most people in fairly good shape are capable of hiking thirty miles provided a willingness to accept physical suffering. The adequately fit endurance hiker, however, should be able to reach their destination before nightfall without suffering extreme exhaustion. Like all wilderness activities, an endurance hike must be undertaken with an attitude of personal responsibility; prevent accident-prone situations through physical fitness.

Anyone with the desire to undertake an endurance hike should specifically train for it. A gradual buildup of lengthening hikes and trial runs will build both physical strength and backcountry confidence. Keep a training log to show improvement and maintain motivation. Physical and mental fitness provides the foundation for traveling further, faster and lighter.

Regardless of fitness level, a thirty mile day hike would prove nearly impossible while weighed down with a forty pound backpack. Therefore all extraneous equipment must be culled prior to embarking on an endurance hike. Pack a lightweight nylon windshirt instead of a heavy parka; bring tights instead of windpants. Eat cold foods, and filter water in order to eliminate a cooking gear. When packing for an overnight endurance hike, follow the practice of mountaineers and use a bivi sack in place of a tent. Simply a large nylon bag, a bivi sack will provide shelter from wind and rain at a fraction of the weight of a tent. A final suggestion is to reduce the weight of the pack itself. Because your load is now smaller and lighter, consider using a lightweight daypack or possibly one of the large lumbar packs now widely available in hiking and mountaineering stores.

Now that your backpack has gone on a diet, trade those stiff leather boots for all-terrain running shoes or lightweight hikers. Heavyweight hiking boots are designed to provide support while carrying heavy loads over rough terrain at the expense of comfort and weight. Paring down your pack weight, and keeping to well-maintained trials, such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Mr. Rainierís Wonderland Trail, greatly reduces the need for heavy duty hiking boots. Popular convention states that shedding a pound from your feet is equal to ten pounds off your back, so leave those clunky boots at home in favor of a pair of cushioned trial hikers.

The long days and colorful alpine meadows of late summer, as well as the cool temperatures and blazing colors of early autumn make August and September the ideal time to undertake a marathon hike. When considering a late season hike, however, be aware of the short days and the possibility of dangerously cold temperatures in the high country.

Endurance hiking escapes trail head congestion and opens access to our remote wilderness areas, while avoiding long days of labor beneath an oppressive backpack. By adopting a fast and light approach, the physical act of hiking becomes an enjoyable part of the wilderness experience instead of a necessary evil. We in the Pacific Northwest are fortunate to have quick and easy access to an abundance of well-maintained remote wilderness trails, endurance hiking offers yet another way to enjoy the wonder and beauty of our own backyard.