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« The ups and downs of hiking in Montenegro | Main | BFTP: The Flat World Library Corporation »

Rating my hikes

Descriptions of physical activities - hikes, bike rides, etc - often use a rating system to help the reader determine the degree of difficulty or physical strength/stamina needed to happily complete the activity. I usually glance at the ratings and try to avoid those that are at either end of the easy-difficult scale. But I don't know that I've ever given much thought to what makes, let's say, a hike a real heart-pounder or just a walk in the park.

This week I head for the country of Montengro to do a series of daily hikes in the country. The company who organizes these self-directed hikes, rates this adventure as 3 out of 5 "activity level."  Sounds about right to me.

I've done enough hiking and backpacking to know some of the elements that make a hike easy or hard; enjoyable or agonizing. Some that come to mind include: 

  • Supported or unsupported. At a recent meeting of an outdoor club, members were asked to share their favorite backpacking tip. Mine was "Hire a porter." Having someone else not just carry your stuff, but set up your tent and cook your meals turns a hike into a vacation. Increasingly, my preference is to hike inn-to-inn, which lightens the pack one must carry.
  • Distance and elevation gain/loss. Long mileage days can be a challenge of course, but the amount of elevation gain and loss as well as trail condition are just as big factors. Miles that take over 30 minutes to cover are always tough.
  • Heat and altitude. Even someone in top condition (never me) knows that oxygen deficit and heat/humidity can't really be prepared for. One can adjust to altitude, take meds, and "hike high, sleep low" etc., but I know of no way to prepare for those 90/90 heat/humidity days.
  • Boredom. I really don't know how long distance solo hikers do it. I can only hike for so many hours looking at trees and my feet on the path before I get bored with my own thoughts. A companion with whom to talk and interesting sites along the trail are great additions that make a hike at least seem easier.
  • Number of days without a shower. Like most of us, I suppose, a shower or bath is a daily ritual. I am happy to substitute a dip in a lake or river while in the wilderness, but long stretches without bathing makes a hike much less enjoyable. My dad used to say a skunk never smells its own hole. I am not so sure.
  • Your personal physical condition. Is anyone is ever 100% prepared for 6-8 hour days of physical exertion? Despite regular walking (even carrying a backpack), I don't know if I have ever trained enough. But I do know the trips I've taken for which I have prepared are doable. Breaking in shoes and equipment also is a big help.

Here are some very subjective 1-10 ratings of major hikes I've done in the past. Your experiences may (most probably will) vary:

  • Inca Trail 8 This was one of the first multi-day hikes I did and I did not prepare well for it. Although I had a porter (or two), the elevation changes and high altitude (13,200 feet), made this a real challenge for me. One the plus side, the views and a constant Inca ruin sites (including Macchu Pichu) made the trip wonderful.
  • Rim to Rim Grand Canyon 7 Another supported hike with two guides carrying our group of four's tents and food. Again high altitudes and lots of ups and downs were challenging. Hiking with friends make it feel much easier. Oh, and the views were incredible.
  • Kilimanjaro 7 After 8 days on the trail without a bath, I have never felt grubbier. Again this was a supported hike (22 porters for 6 hikers), so it was just a day pack to carry. While the high point was over 19,000 feet, the guides' coaching and some meds made the altitude bearable. The descent killed my knees.
  • Abel Tasman Costal Trail 4 This was an inn-to-inn hike along the gorgeous New Zealand's South Island coast. Mostly flat and good beer at the end of each day, made this hike a real pleasure. Also going with son.
  • Great Glenn Way 6 This hike covered 79 miles in 7 days, so every day was fairly long with hills. Good company, pretty scenery, and nice hotels each night made the days not seem long at all.
  • Isle Royale 7 This was an unsupported hike, so I carried a 40 pound pack with all I needed. A couple 12 mile days of constant hills taxed my strength. But good company and a lovely park helped. 
  • Ciudad Perdida 9 This was not an overly long hike - 4 to 6 miles a day over 5 days - but, man, were those days tough. If you ever see a hike that includes "One hour hill" and "Two hour hill," think twice about tackling it. Rough trails and lots of stream crossings added to the difficulty. Oh, the temp and humidity were both in the high 90s. On the plus side were nightly showers and bunk beds at each campground - and the amazing pre-Columbian ruins which were the goal.

I am guessing/hoping Montenegro will be about a 6. I still feel in somewhat good shape preparing for last month's hike of Isle Royale. And this one is an inn-to-inn and I will have a fine hiking companion. I'll let you know how accurate my prediction was.

What do you find make hikes or other adventures more or less challenging?

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