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The Long Distance Day Hike


An alternative to backpacking, the long-distance day hike allows us to get deep into the wilderness with less complication and in tighter time frames. Here in Colorado, for example, if you have a car with a bit of clearance, you can drive to 10,000 high in many mountain ranges, and hike to the peaks or passes from there. That was my own plan early in June. Drawing on that and many other experiences, I have some tips for anyone who wants to try long distance day hikes.

First, a definition. For the sake of this article a long distance day hike is any hike that is more than ten miles. And, of course, it must take place during one day. However, the trip to take the hike might be more than a day. For my hike to Hermit pass in the Sangre de Christo Mountains I drove up to about 9,000 feet the night before, and slept in my van. That way I was able to sleep according to my normal schedule (more or less), and still be hiking by 5:30 AM.

This is strategy works particularly well if you have limited time and/or limited equipment. Any car can be slept in if necessary. Just bring a pillow and blanket, plus food and water. I also brought a thermos full of hot tea for the morning.

The advantages versus backpacking? You don’t need to carry a tent, sleeping bag, or large backpack, so the long miles are much easier. Also, with only one day off you can still have a great wilderness experience. Pack in the morning if need be, and take off directly from work when you finish. In the summer you can leave at 5:00 in the afternoon and still be hours away before dark. The next day you can hike 25 miles if you like, and still be home before dark.

On my recent trip I hiked about 14 miles, getting up at 5:00 in the morning, and hitting the trail by 5:20. I planned to go to Hermit Pass (about 13,000 feet), and then to Hermit Peak (13,200 feet). After fog and rain followed by hours of falling snow (in mid-June), I did make it to the pass, but unable to see even 100 feet in front of me, I decided against the scramble to the peak. I was back to the van and driving home by one in the afternoon.

It was a great hike despite the weather, and it reminded me of some of the other advantages of day hiking, as well as suggesting some tips for preparation for days like this. For example, I loved the fact that facing a day full of rain and snow, I did not have to set up a wet tent at the end of it. Also, it was easy to travel fast and far due to the light weight of my pack. I had snacks and water, the usual rainwear and survival/first aid kit, as well as a hat, gloves and sunblock (but I never saw the sun once).

The fog did disperse long enough for a few great views of the surrounding mountains. I wouldn’t have planned to backpack in such conditions (too messy in rain and snow), so the strategy opened up an otherwise delayed hiking experience. Here are some tips for your next long distance day hike:

Wear the lightest shoes that are practical. I only use running shoes for backpacking or hiking. If you need more ankle support, get the lightest hiking boots that give you that and fit well. Long days are much more possible without too much weight on your feet. I also keep the socks light, using nylon dress socks. This strategy has prevented me from getting blisters for years now.

Keep it light. It is not just a matter of comfort to carry less weight. It also enables you to get off the ridges and peaks quickly when storms come, and to go long distances. A light pack - in conjunction with light footwear - opens up a lot of possible destinations. Balance on scrambles is improved with less weight as well.

Hydrate before hiking. I like to drink as much as I comfortably can before hitting the trail. It is easier than carrying extra water in a pack. I still carry two half-liter pop bottles full of water, along with some iodine tablets for purifying more when necessary.

Eat heavy the night before. Eating a good and large meal the night before allows your body to stock up on energy-producing glycogen. I had a subway foot-long sub in a cooler in the van for dinner, along with crackers, cheese, and nuts. Even though breakfast was nothing more than orange juice, I did quite a bit of hiking in the morning before I was hungry.

Plan well. I had a map and compass, of course. These days, although I have never had to use one on a hike, I also carry a cell phone for emergencies. A long distance day hike is a great way to pack adventure into limited free time, but it can turn into an overnight suffer-fest pretty easily, and long distance implies a long way from help, so be prepared for almost anything.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | The Long Distance Day Hike