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From a single valley in east Africa, our ancestors spread to nearly every nook and cranny on this planet, walking all — or at least most — of the way. Today, a bicycle may take you further, and a car may get you to your destination more quickly, but there’s no better pace to travel than the speed of a walk. But when I take on long distance walks, it’s not for some abstract connection with ancient humans. It’s for the experience itself.
Some of the best travel memories I have come from walking trips. Bunking down in unlocked one room schoolhouses during a three week ramble through the Indian Himalaya state of Sikkim, only to be awoken each morning by schoolchildren stoked to play a bit of cricket with the oversized foreigner still dozing in their classroom. Or settling in for a tea around a campfire during a 5-day hike on central Australia’s Larapinta Trail, only to watch the celestial spectacle of a full lunar eclipse unfold in the inky outback sky.
When you spend your day meandering through this big, wonderful world, you just see more, smell more and feel more of your surroundings. No other means of travel even comes close to the sensory experience of being on your feet, propelled along by your muscles alone. Unfortunately, that sensitivity also means that you can feel more of the heat, rain, wind and sleet.
Every good walking trip has a point where the whole idea seems to have been some ill-conceived mistake, and you just want it to end. Great ones often have two. Awful ones, even more.
Part of the difference between an unforgettable trip, and a trip that’s memorable for all the wrong reasons is the equipment you’re using. It isn’t always the fanciest, most expensive gear that is most important to trekkers. Oftentimes, it’s the little things that make a walking journey infinitely more comfortable.
What hikers wear, what they carry and what they drink are all important. A good walking trip requires a compromise between equipment weight and creature comforts.
In recent months, we’ve had long distance walking gear out on the Appalachian Trail, the Wales Coast Path, the Utah desert, along Arkansas’ Buffalo National River and in our Gatineau Park backyard. I’ve put a lot of products to the test, but these stood out above the rest.
You get further in life if you’re flexible, and the same can be said about hiking. If you can’t adapt to the conditions you’re in, you’ll have a miserable time. By fastening on to the exterior of any pack, anywhere, MSR’s Hydromedary helps you adjust the weight you’re carrying. (Zipties or string can fix it in place.)
Since it’s meant to fit in any pack, its weight can be shifted to different bags, depending on how strong the people in your party are feeling. This isn’t a blinged-out accessory, but its simplicity works well. It’s easy to fill and ties easily to a wide variety of backpacks. Its cover screws on securely and it’s durable. It’s also made of BPA-free plastic.
External frame or internal frame? Neither, thanks. When you need to go ultra-lightweight, go Granite Gear. The innovative Minnesota-based backpack maker has removed rigid frames from their gear, and replaced them with an air bladder made by Klymit. This makes the pack significantly lighter and changes the way the way the load is transferred to your hips. It’s less tiring in those moments when you’re posture is less than perfect, but works best with other ultra lightweight gear, whose low weight pulls on backpacks less than traditional, heavier gear. The airframe comes out relatively easily and can double as a pillow or seat when you stop for the night, even if you’re probably not going to find yourself longing for your backpack-frame pillow once you’re back cozied up in your own bed.
Sometimes the best gear is the simplest gear. This kettle is ultra light, highly durable and boils water extremely quickly. Its design allows for use as a pot, a kettle or a bowl, keeping your pack weight down. I’ve had this in my kit for two years, and use it not only when I’m backpacking, but when I’m car camping too. It’s a great buy for any camper.
I’m tall. Not freakishly tall, but definitely tall enough that there are a lot of things that don’t fit quite right. At a certain point, I just accepted that I was never going to be able to sleep with my legs extended. I think I was 13 years old, and 189 cm (6’2”) at the time. Today, I’m a little bit taller than that, and I still curl into a comical ball to get my z’s each night. So when I took my Klymit’s XL sleeping pad out of its (very tiny) box, I was shocked. This sleeping pad is actually taller than I am. A longer pad would normally add weight, but the Klymit design cuts out sections that aren’t needed for support, creating a honeycomb effect. If you aren’t an oversized camper, the normal version is even lighter. If you are, your prayers have been answered.
I admit it. When I walk by Lush Cosmetics at my local shopping mall, I run away as fast as I can. (Metaphorically, of course. I can run fairly fast, and that looks pretty sketchy in a mall. I might get tackled by a particularly zealous mallcop.) I find the collective smell of all those scented products pretty revolting, even if they can be pretty pleasant individually. I mean, have you tried their bath bombs?
For obvious reasons, Lush is not a company I normally look to for outdoor gear, but my girlfriend had their Toothy Tabs lying around the house and they’re pretty lightweight, so I took them out this spring for a week on the Wales Coast Path.
Toothpaste in your bag can be disastrous. It often ends up spread all over other gear and in a wild camping environment, opening your bag to a mess after walking through every ounce of energy you have can be utterly devastating, if only for a short while. Toothy tabs are dry, meaning they never spill and can go through airport security without counting towards your liquid amounts. These tabs also worked well in campgrounds, where you often get stuck with one tube of toothpaste and two bathrooms.
The Toothy Tabs themselves seem great for scrubbing your teeth clean in adverse conditions, but their cardboard matchbox-style container could definitely be improved. If you are bringing them along be sure to put them in a different small box or Ziploc bag for storage. Otherwise, they may end up spread throughout your bag much like their pasty predecessor, albeit without the accompanying mess.
When you get out on the trail for days and weeks at a time, nutrition and hydration become key. Tailwind nutrition powder is little bit like Gatorade, but with extra nutrients that provide a caloric boost as well as electrolytes. While designed with intense training in mind, it also works well for long distance walking. It can eliminate the craving for a sugar pick me up and helps keeps hydration in a healthy place. Tailwind is pretty bland, but not disagreeable in flavour, and its light, resealable package is backpacking friendly.
7. Nakd bars
Our brains may be marvels of evolution, but our bodies can be a bit daft. When you’ve exerted yourself all day — climbed hills, made your quads burn- your body needs protein. So what does your body crave? Sugar.
Its easy to convince yourself to eat a chocolate bar or handful of candies — especially you’ve got a twelve year old candy lobbyist walking with you, which I often do. Nakd bars fill that treat craving, but are made of fruit and nuts. They’re probably still a bit higher in sugar than is strictly necessary, but they provide great trail energy. A newcomer to Canada from UK-based Natural Balanced Foods, Nakd bars are also lactose free, gluten free and wheat free. So they work well for many of those who struggle to find good eats because of food allergies and intolerances.
On the trail, I’m a bit like a pack mule. I barely notice when extra weight gets piled on my back. So when I’m traveling with family or friends, I like to shoulder as much of the load as possible. These past few months, Mountainsmith’s Apex 80 backpack has been helping me do just that. Its huge capacity will hold a ton of gear, and lets me take a bit of the weight off of the shoulders of others. The straps on this pack aren’t adjustable, so make sure it’s a good fit before you buy it. I like the way it fits, but I’m also pretty tall.
Good shoes are key when you’re on the trail, and the way they fit and feel is a pretty personal thing. Some people love the traditional high-topped hiking boot. They’ve never been my preference. Strong ankles, I guess. I prefer a trail shoe that’s lightweight, grippy and quick drying. No one likes cold wet feet, after all. My choice for most of my trail walking this year was Merrell’s Proterra Sport, and they served me well.
For better and for worse, my tablet computer has become part of my travel kit. It functions as a basic word processor in a pinch, and helps me keep in touch when I’m on the road. Moreover, apps can help you map your route and make sure you’re performing first aid properly. But since my tablet isn’t anything approaching waterproof, keeping it in working order in the wet weather you encounter on the trail requires yet more gear. OR’s sensor dry envelopes are a simple way to keep your tablet safe on the trail. Essentially an iPad-sized dry bag, the OR sensor dry envelope has a clear, touch sensitive plastic window that allows you to perform simple tasks without even taking it out of the bag. It’s a very cool idea, but the window isn’t that touch sensitive, so if you need to do anything very involved, you will need to take your tablet out.
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