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.