Safely finding and pushing your limits as a hiker

North Loop Trail PanoramaIt’s not always easy to find our limits as day hikers.  Some physical limits can only be defined in extreme conditions, maybe only under the harshest weather or terrain.  Mental limits can present themselves regardless of the conditions, terrain, or activity.  And of course, self-imposed limits are whatever you want them to be and can restrict any aspect of an adventure that you want it to.

So how can we safely find and push our limits as hikers?  Here’s how I did it.

Finding and defining my limits

I really started hiking regularly just a few years ago during a transition in my professional life.  I had hiked as a teenager in central Pennsylvania but the terrain around me now is much different.  My backyard today is the desert around Las Vegas defined by high peaks, bare rock, and long approaches.  As I began to explore the canyons in the Red Rock NCA it quickly became clear that basic climbing skills were imperative.  Red Rock is where most hikers spend their time in the Spring and Fall.  During the Summer, we head for the higher ground in the Mt Charleston Wilderness which, along with Red Rock, makes up the Spring Mountain Range.  Peaks in the Mt Charleston Wilderness reach above 10,000 ft with Charleston Peak, the highest in southern Nevada, topping out at 11,918 ft.  These two areas, separated by just a dozen miles as the crow flies, offer two very different trail experiences and require very different skills.

A friend from back east asked me about the trails I was hiking.  As I explained the terrain, the requisite skills for each, and shared my desires to go farther, I realized that to do so would require that I develop some skills.  In Red Rock, I needed to be comfortable with some level of exposure.  Many of the peaks require Class 3 scrambles to reach and I hadn’t done much of that up to this point.  Mt Charleston presented different problems.  Trails are longer, gain more elevation, and also start about 7000 ft for the most part.  Higher elevations required better conditioning and better planning.  Temperatures are cooler, weather is a bit more unpredictable, and food is a consideration for hikes of 15-20 miles.

My limits had been defined on that call…

  1. I felt comfortable with a 10 mile day.
  2. I would climb if the fall was less than 10-15 feet (nothing like assuming the worst!)
  3. I hiked trails; route finding was not something I’d had any experience with.

So had my desires…

  1. I wanted to go farther.
  2. I needed to go higher.
  3. I had to develop skills.

Pushing my limits

I began to dog ear pages in my guide books and prepared an ordered list of the hikes I would do.  I also planned to evaluate the list after each hike to ensure that the next one on the list was the right fit, the best progression.  I worked through most of those hikes in 2010 covering all but a handful that I originally selected.  I’ve generated trail reports for most of them and I’m happy to report that I was able to go farther, higher, and tackle them with increasing ease.

One of the benefits to my strategy was that the steps up in difficulty from one hike to the next were manageable.  The scrambles were a bit more technical, the distances a bit longer, and my skills a bit more polished.  2010 was a great year and one that I have identified as perhaps the defining year for me as a hiker and maybe for Trail Sherpa as a business. It helped to define what I wanted my trail experiences to be and how I would use Trail Sherpa to share my stories.

  • I attempted Bridge Mountain for the first time but failed to bag the peak (exposure on a 150 free climb up a crack)
  • I went deeper into Pine Creek Canyon and Oak Creek Canyon (lots and lots of scrambling)
  • I bagged Charleston Peak which was a new limit for distance (18 miles) and the highest peak I’ve ever bagged (11,918 ft)
  • I completed a 3 day backpacking trip to Havasu Falls (mental limits – food poisoning the first day)

My development as a hiker continued in 2011 despite getting a late start this year as we had our second son in May.  I became much more comfortable with exposure and learned to be a bit more efficient on the trail.  I credit this growth to my friend Brian and his climbing friends who welcomed me into their yearly climbing trip.  The 2011 trip was held in late Mach in Joshua Tree National Park and introduced me to a completely different mind set about exposure and how to assess it.  I learned more in those five days than I had during any other outing.  I’d encourage any hiker that wants to develop basic climbing and scrambling skills to find a group of climbers to hike with.  The lessons are invaluable and taught me about balance, holds, visualization, and overcoming fear.  Those lessons prepared me for a second attempt on Bridge Mountain.

That hike is now the new standard for my limits with big exposure, tons of scrambling and Class 3 climbing, and more than 11 miles all wrapped up in one very challenging day hike.

I am a day hiker at heart.  That truth became evident as I worked through my challenges in the last year or so.  I think 2012 will help me define more of my mental limits and will take me to parts unknown.  I feel a sense of ownership over the trails in my backyard and I am grateful for such a great environment in which to develop as a hiker.

But I want more.  I want to learn how to hike more efficiently so I can see more and feel less.

Now it’s time to get stronger, become more confident as a climber, hone my navigational skills, and see some of the other great places that you all have been sharing here on Trail Sherpa.

It’s your turn

I hope you enjoyed my story.  What’s your story as a hiker?  What are your limits?  Have you created any self-imposed limits on what you will do on the trail?  How do you test your limits?  How do you plan to prepare to push your limits next year?

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I'm the founder of Vestor Logic, the digital strategy and web design firm that created Trail Sherpa, ParksFolio, and Modern Steader. I'm a day hiker, top chef in camp, doting husband, and father to two headlamp wearing boys. My work in digital media brings those experiences to life.

  • Thanks for sharing — interesting read.  I love topics like this.

    While doing any outdoor activity I’ve become pretty good at listening to my inner voice that will speak up at times and say “This is potentially a very stupid thing to do.”  If I ever find myself thinking that I stop doing that potentially dumb thing and look for alternatives, even if that means turning around.  I’m not willing to put much risk into my outdoor activities. I also don’t yearn to climb challenging peaks, so I’m ok with this limit.  As a hiker I prefer backpacking trips, and I do try to push my backpacking limits because I want to be able to go farther, see more, and spend more time away from civilization.  This next year I’m focusing on doing more backpacking trips (rather than doing longer trips, it is difficult for me right now to get away with long trips!).  I am going to try to do one a month, though some of those may be only overnighters.  

    • I agree Sonja.  With Bridge Mountain, I told my hiking partners that will likely not do it again.  I listen that my inner voice too.  But I do think limits can be pushed in a responsible and safe way particularly with the climbing skills that we need out here in the desert.  Half of our hikes involve canyon scrambling and there are tons of beautiful things to see if you can go deep enough.

      • I live in the desert in New Mexico, so i know what you mean!  I’ve faced some climbing challenges in the canyons near my house.  So it is very responsible to learn the skills to navigate these places!  I just am too afraid of heights to do much climbing.  

  • busybee2

    Wonderful post – I think I’d love to do any of those hikes.  You do a really nice job describing them and I love seeing the pictures.

    • Thank you.  I appreciate the kudos.  We’re playing around with a few new formats for trail reports, photos, videos, and gear reviews.  Keep shooting me your thoughts.  And if you’re ever out here in LV we can certainly show you some of these great hikes.

  • Tim

    I guess around here there are some scrambles but I don’t reckon it’s anything like there out west. We can always try to push farther. I guess the biggest challenge is in getting up earlier. Of course in 2012 it will be a challenge just to get to the trail with the wee little one expected in December, but you can bet your sweet bippy that she will be a trail girl as well and that will be a Fun/Worthwhile challenge.

    • Getting up earlier is certainly going to be harder for you moving forward.  Or, maybe you’ll already be up!

      • Tim

        Ain’t that the truth. 😛

  • ADKinLA

    I too am finding myself wanting to go further. Not necessarily up to going rock “climbing” yet but I do appreciate a good “scramble”. I am thinking about going to some indoor rock climbing classes to get more comfortable with the whole concept. Hiking longer is good not only for the exercise but also getting you to more interesting hikes. Great article!

    • I totally agree @22633db063b2b427fb5bf280506b1811:disqus.  It seems out here the best stuff is beyond the end of the trail.  The tourists stop there and go back.  We forge ahead.  It takes a lot of skills to make that happen though.

  • Interesting subject Tim. I think about this often. I want to stretch my limits as I develop more skill, get more physically fit, discover my capabilities. But I don’t want to get stupid and try things I have no business doing, and it’s totally irrational to succumb to peer pressure on the trail.

    Like you, my limits are getting longer and higher with time and experience. I too am a day hiker, and 7-8 hours seems to be my high end for comfort, with 5-6 hours being more of a sweet spot. From a distance perspective, I really don’t like going much more than 10-12 miles, but I’ve done 18 miles in one hike and know now that I can in a pinch.

    I spent a couple weeks in Colorado this summer and did most of my hiking there above 12,000 feet. Thin air introduces a whole new set of challenges. I found that I felt reasonably comfortable up to about 13,200 feet, but anything above that I seemed to struggle. I went as high as 13,600 but if I ever intend to bag a Colorado fourteener, I definitely need to work on my lung capacity. Getting younger somehow would be a nice feature too.

    It is tremendously advantageous to have hiking companions with near equal limits, which my regular trail friends do. It isn’t good juju when one particularly athletic hiker is goading the rest of the group to try things beyond their capabilities. Conversely, while it is fun to teach and share with trail newbies, it’s a good idea to leave them at home on the more challenging hikes.

    Thanks Tim for putting your thoughts in words. As we become more skilled as hikers, it is also a natural tendency to try more dangerous hikes. We must remember… safety first.

    • Great comment Jeff.  If you find that fountain of youth before to post it here on TS first!  Long hikes and deeper canyon hikes don’t have to be more dangerous either.  The skills, like you alluded to, make you more prepared and lower the risk.  I think my sweet spot is 10-12 and 5-7 too.  Thanks for jumping in.