They say that if you can walk, you can hike. Clearly, "they" don't live in Wisconsin in the winter, when even an innocent stroll down the sidewalk is often compromised by human-size snowdrifts, meat-locker temperatures and ice. But for those who have their sights set on a hiking trip later this year - whether a long-distance trek like the Appalachian Trail, an inn-to-inn trip through Europe or New England, or a series of day hikes through a national park - winter can't be a time of hibernation. So how do you prepare for that planned-for-spring hike without freezing your butt off?
"You need to be honest with yourself about your abilities and level of fitness," says Kirstin Doernbach, executive director of the Milwaukee-based hiking organization Journeys to Inspire. Doernbach, who leads and advises others on hiking trips, offers his own variation on the idea that anyone can hike: "Anyone can hike long distance within reason," he says. "The biggest mistake we make is assuming we can do something just because we see someone else do it, straight off the couch and to the trail."
Moving through a place by foot is a great way to travel, giving you a perspective, views, and experiences often impossible to replicate any other way. But just because you can walk a mile or two on the sidewalk comfortably doesn't mean that you can walk five to 10 miles a day (or more) on rocks, over hills and on uneven terrain, multiple days in a row.
Be honest and ask yourself what you are willing and wanting to do. Do you want to sleep in a rustic hut with no electricity or running water, or a lodge with all the comforts of home? Would you rather walk from one town to the next, comparing the flakiness of croissants at small cafés, or follow rough trails along steep hillsides through the Great Smoky Mountains to your next campsite?
Once you've determined the kind of trip that appeals to you, you can determine how much training you'll need to be ready. Doernbach likes to say that hiking is two-thirds preparation and one-third action. Learn about the area and the conditions you may encounter, including weather, elevation and daily mileage. Many travel companies offer walking and hiking trips, and can advise you on what kind of shape you should be in to enjoy the experience. Some even offer training programs.
Doernbach advises going on long walks almost every day, even in the winter, and especially in the snow - because struggling to keep upright improves your balance and core strength.
A strong upper and lower back, abdominal muscles and legs are important for hiking. For most short trips (not more than a week or two on trails less than 200 miles), it's okay to start training a month or two before you leave.
Longer trips require more preparation, although according to Matt Jensen, who through-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2007, most everyone serious about making it all the way catches up after a few 8- to 12-hour days of hard hiking. "Those days in the gym probably helped the first week because early on it's physical, but it quickly becomes more of a mental challenge," says Jensen.
But for those with less ambitious plans than a 2,000-mile journey, lifting weights at the gym, walking on a treadmill or using a stair stepper are all good ways to increase your stamina this winter.
Capital Fitness offers a class called "Trek" that features guided treadmill training for walkers, hikers and runners. And if you still aren't ready to venture outside, there's always mall walking. Hilldale Mall is open to walkers every morning at 7. The local group Dairyland Walkers offers a number of indoor winter walks.
Other options to get you moving are winter-fitness Mini Courses offered by the Wisconsin Union, as well as the events and trips sponsored by the UW Hoofers Outing Club. In other words, any aerobic exercise will help you get in shape for your hiking vacation. It doesn't have to be hiking.
Regular aerobic exercise can be aided by healthy eating habits, which can be tough this time of year. But your diet is important to the get-fit equation.
While some hiking tours will transport your bag for you (heck, some will even pick you up if you decide not to hike all the way), many hiking trips involve carrying a bag. So get used to carrying a loaded backpack while you walk, if you are planning anything more than a day on the trail. Doernbach recommends weighing it down with a brick or two, so you can get used to the weight and feel of hiking with gear. Pack weight makes a tremendous difference and is therefore an obsessive topic of conversation among hikers, especially those on longer treks like the Appalachian Trail. Jensen managed to cut down his backpack's weight from 35 pounds to 25 over the course of the trail. Talk to other hikers or tour operators to get tips on what to bring.
The Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation is a tremendous resource for hikers here in Wisconsin and has even established a network of local bed-and-breakfasts to shuttle and accommodate hikers in comfort along the trail.
Madison's REI store also offers a number of classes on hiking throughout the year to give you ideas and tips for potential trips.
Both Jensen and Doernbach stress the importance of research. You can't know how to prepare unless you have some idea of what you are getting yourself into. And winter is a great time to plan ahead for warmer days in colorful places.
Ways to get in shape
Hilldale Hikers Walking Club
UW Hoofers Outing Club
Wisconsin Union Mini Courses
www.union.wisc.edu (everything from dance to yoga to martial arts)
The Walking Site
Appalachian Trail Conservancy
Ice Age Trail Foundation
Journeys to Inspire