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Extreme Day Hiking Tips


Go Early:One key to a successful long and satisfying day hike is to start in the night.  (Hey, DayHiker) I thought you said it was a "day" hike?  Lose some sleep. Deal with it.  It’s OK. Think about it. Would you rather start out in the dark or end in the dark.  You can always sleep after the hike is over. Getting on the trail at 3 or 4 in the morning sounds extreme, but it really makes sense.  High altitude hikes can be prone to afternoon thunderstorms.  It’s much better to reach the summit by 10-11am and be well on the way back down during vulnerable afternoon hours.   Another benefit of heading out at or before dawn is cooler weather.  Less heat means less sweating, therefore less water needed and a lighter load.

One of the classic "day" hikes begins around midnight ascending Mt Whitney to watch the sunrise.  Hiking on a trail at night during a full moon is an adventure everyone should experience.  A flashlight is hardly needed.

Go Light:It’s simple: carry less, go further. A minimalist approach is suggested to food, clothing, and other items.  Each hike should be planned considering the risks involved. One advantage to extreme day hiking on well-established trails is the reduced need for survival items since its harder to get lost or hurt yourself.

No one is suggesting you should not bring your single lens reflex camera with tripod, arctic parka for that summer blizzard, first aid kit capable of heart bypass surgery, enough food to feed everyone on the trail, and enough rain gear for the 100 year flood.  However, every pound you carry will decrease the probability of your success.  Of course, the tricky part is, the extra one pound you do carry could save your life.

Go Fast:Actually don’t go fast.  The goal is to minimize time on the trail by developing a consistent pace with a minimum of rest stops.  One can usually spot a novice hiker by bursts of speed, followed by many rest stops.  The net effect is usually a slower trip.

Go Far and Go High:  Early+Light+Fast enables one to go Far+High in one day and return to the creature comforts of a roof and indoor plumbing.  A marathon-like distance with large elevation changes are made possible by this thinking.  The personal challenge is to go as far and high as you can ... what someone else does is not the point.

: Trail Mix may not be the best food on the trail for a hike that has high levels of aerobic and anaerobic exercise.  Nuts and other oily, fatty foods are harder to digest when your body is using your oxygen elsewhere.  Also, fruit in excess can cause digestive distress.  DayHiker has found the best foods on the trail are sport bars like Clif Bar, Promax, Balance Bar, etc ... and, for a sandwich that travels well and always seems to taste good: PB&J.    Please post your favorite trail food on the DayHiker forum.  

Water:By studying the weather, the water sources, the trail, one can carry the minimum amount of water, which is probably the heaviest thing one carries on a day hike.  An interesting idea is to stash water bottles on the way up, to be retrieved on the way down.  A water filter may be an efficient way to go to minimize weight of carried water.  The disadvantage is the time it takes to find water, stop and pump.  Water above 12,000 feet is often drinkable from streams.

Clothing:If you have cotton or wool clothes don’t even think about hiking with them.  Burn them, or give them to homeless street people who are cold and don’t move fast. This may be tax deductible.  Consult your tax attorney.

There are many high tech fibers that wick (transport your sweat into the air) and are warm (since not wet it feels warmer) and are incredibly light.  Some of these trademarked fibers are coolmax, utralight mircrofeece, microfiber (microprocessors in these?), capilene, polartec, ultrawick, tactel, spandex, supplex, gortex, and lycra.

By layering these materials it is possible to hike with incredibly light clothing, even in freezing weather.  Try it.  It works.  There is a company, GoLite, that has adopted Jardines philosophy about light weight hiking.   Check them both out.


Hats:This is easy. Wear the largest, lightest brim hat you can stomach. Yes, it’s dorky looking but do it anyway. It keeps you cooler and lessens the chance for wrinkles and skin cancer.

Sunscreen: See the part of the last sentence on hats.  High altitude and summer time are brutal to the skin.  Low altitude and any sun are brutal to the skin. Put on sunscreen on all days, cloudy or not, preferably a moisturizing sunscreen to provide extra relief against the damaging UV Rays. Consult your local dermatologist.


Shoes:The success or failure of an extreme day hike is tied to shoe selection.  Heavy, stiff hiking boots are at a decided disadvantage to a light, flexible, comfortable shoe.  Every pound of shoe is equivalent to carrying 7-9 pounds on your back. Minimize shoe weight by selecting a cross-trainer with ankle support, a trail-running shoe, or one of the lighter hiking shoes that are readily available.  

When you go to buy a "hiking" shoe you will almost always be encouraged to buy one with "great ankle support" and a steel shank so you won’t "feel the rocks."  This makes sense if you are carrying a 60 pounds pack and are going through scree (small rocks) and other rugged cross-country terrain.  This also makes sense if you are the shoe salesman trying to make a $225 sale as opposed to a $85 lighter shoe.  If you are hiking on a trail these are not a priority, and a cheaper shoe will do. 

"But I have weak ankles," is the lament.  Fine: see Trekking Poles article.  DayHiker suggests walking on a very hard surface with a full hiking boot for a whole day is not comfortable for a lot of people.  The bottoms of your feet are in pain and blisters are usually not far behind.  Comfort rules on a trail.

Regarding weak ankles -  Consult your physician first, then consider this possibility:  Rigorous exercise may correct your perceived impediment.  Light jogging down hill or over a dry river bed full of smooth rocks may be just what the doctor ordered to get those ankles in shape.

Sale Alert - 30% Off Select Trail Running Shoes & Hiking Shoes at Eastern Mountain Sports

Socks: It’s amazing how important sock selection is when engaged in an long day hike of many hours.   The coarse threads of hiking socks will eventually begin to dig into your skin causing much discomfort and blisters.  Avoid this by wearing a thin nylon sock, a liner, as a first layer, or just on pair of light ones.  Bring an extra pair for replacement half way.  There is something really refreshing about putting on a pair of socks half-way through a killer hike.

One more thought:  Before undertaking that marathon hike consider this - new socks, old shoes.  It's not a good time to see if those new shoes work.

Get Good Socks - KEEN Socks for Men & Women 

Hiking Poles:This is the best-kept secret for success on the extreme day hike.   Common in Europe, and mandatory equipment for mountain climbers, trekking poles give an advantage, which most people don’t understand until they try them.  The uninformed usually comment or think, "Where’s the snow?" "Aren’t they heavy?" "Do they help? "Are you really a wimp?"

It is estimated the use of trekking poles can add up to 20% efficiency to the body by transferring some of the load to your arms.  Even more significant is the stability the poles provide, greatly reducing the need for leg muscles to continually provide balance.  The chances of a sprained or broken ankle, the bane of a hiker a long way from help, is greatly reduced by the use of poles.  Stream crossings, wet rocks or logs, ice, loose rocks, and steep areas are made safer.   Using a very light shoe that does not have much ankle support is made possible with poles.

A single walking stick is better than nothing, but is more awkward than two lightweight trekking poles.  Additionally, telescoping poles can be stowed in your daypack at times when they are not needed.  Some models have shock absorbers built in which allows less stress on the wrists when stroking hard with the poles.  Another feature is a slight taper on the hand grips which make for a more ergonomical grasp.

See latest 2014 day hike of Mt Whitney on this site for a description of very light and effective hiking poles.


A carefully planned long day trip must have an estimated time that you stop and go back to civilization no matter what.  Since you have no overnight equipment, food and water are minimal, and you are dressed lightly, it’s imperative to stick to a deadline for reaching your goal.  In most cases you should be on your way back by noon, at the latest- especially when at high altitudes and/or when thunderstorms are probable.  

If you don't do this, you might be the subject of a newspaper article chronicling the pros and cons of your survival techniques.




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