You’ll find plenty of good advice about how to train for and practice before a long / big section / thru hike: exercise, footwear, tarp pitching, cooking; take a first aid class, brush up on map and compass skills, etc.
Here’s a few other things you might not think you need to practice, yet you will do them every single day on your hike.
1. Practice Not Stopping
Practice not stopping so much. This means practice doing things while continuing to walk, even if you would ordinarily stop, even briefly.
For instance, you should be able to do these things while walking or even not breaking stride:
- Drink water
- Eat food
- Take off / put on gloves, hats, windshirt, rain jacket or poncho
- Getting things into or out of your pack
- Stowing and retrieving hiking poles
The key is a light pack you can easily swing around onto one shoulder. Find the sweet spot location for each gear item until you can manage them without halting.
For how-to tips, see “The single-shoulder carry” (p. 61 of the 2002 paperback printing) in Ray Jardine’s classic Beyond Backpacking or check out how Mike Clelland does it in this video on clothes (at 7:51).
2. Practice Hydration and Water Treatment
Practice your water collection and treatment methods. You will do this every day on the trail, several times a day. Practice it when you do your training hikes.
The best way to do this is take minimal or even no water with you from the trailhead on your practice and training hikes.
Start by cutting down your starting water on hikes to a liter, half a liter, then none at all.
Can you start your hike with empty bottle and pick water up along the way? Try it.
Try bad water sources with lots of floaties to see you how your filtering method works. Try sources hard to reach. (I once refilled a water bottle by dangling it 25 feet off a railroad trestle into a creek.)
Practice with your filter or chemical treatment until you are comfortable with not just the method but the amount of time it takes to filter certain amounts of water.
Emulate your night time water filtering amounts, whether one or two liters, that would would normally do in camp. How much do you really need to cook and clean with?
3. Practice Pooping
You will poop in the woods every day. If you get sick with diarrhea, you’ll be doing it a lot more often than that. So practice.
Unfortunately, certain bodily functions don’t just happen at will, but they tend to do things on their own schedule. My technique to help practice this is to delay my usual morning poop and save it for the trail. Actually, this is another good reason to get out to the trailhead for your practice hikes well before the crowds. If you’re at the trailhead at 6:00 or 7:00 am, then odds are your body will oblige you with the needed urge right around the usual time for you.
Speaking of technique, personally, I learned to poop the way it has always been done before the aberrational and dubiously wasteful invention of toilet paper. I learned it living in India, but the basic technique is explained well in Tip 116 in Mike Clelland’s book Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips.
Humans have been producing human scat for tens and hundreds of thousands of years, and millions of people all over the world do it even today without the need for modern resource intensive aids. You can do it too: liberate yourself from TP.
All you need is something to dig a cathole with, water in an open container (in India a lota is used; on the trail I use a Pack Bowl, see below), and soap. Soap is very important for hand hygiene when pooping. Always wash the hand you may have helped poop with.
Never be without some liquid soap. If you doubt the power of soap to keep you healthy, see this study. (If someone proclaims proudly to you on the trail that they never use soap, don’t accept food or water from them. Unless, you want to eat some of their leftover poop that is.)
Learning to squat helps, and that is a skill completely lost on modern Americans who were potty trained on a chair with a hole in it (a.k.a. the flush toilet).
Don’t be one of those people who poops on themselves while re-experiencing potty training on the hike: get comfortable with it before you go (pun unavoidable ;)
(Also, hiking in a kilt helps too. We kilt wearers may have our issues, but by gorram, pooping on our kilts isn’t one of them.)
4. Practice Getting Funky
You will get funky. You will smell.
Get used to it.
Showers: Go without a shower for a week. If you are a daily shower person, well, I have news for you, showering is not that easy out of doors. Lakes and streams are available sometimes, of course, in good weather, but are cold.
Chemicals: Give up the deodorant, shampoo, and other chemical concoctions that make you smell differently than you actually do.
Socks: Practice wearing the same socks day after day: hang them up at night, put on your night socks when you go to bed, and then put on yesterdays socks again when you get up in the morning.
Underwear: Practice the same with your underwear (if you are into that sort of thing on the trail, of course.)
Start with one or two days, then stretch it to be able to go a week. Don’t offend your coworkers or lose you job over it, but try and see.
You’ll be surprised to find this is not really that bad or difficult do. You’ve been trained by highly expensive marketing to feel you need to plaster yourself with chemicals or people will shun you as a social leper. And that is just baloney.
The goal is to know how far you can go until it really irritates you, and then start to find ways around it using ONLY the gear you will have with you. Give yourself of body bath at night in your house with just your water bottle and bandana, or whatever gear you will have on the trail.
Get used to it; work out the way you want to do it on trail.
TIP 1: Personally, I like the Pack Bowl, made by Backpacker’s Pantry as a water bowel for washing myself, washing my socks, for post-poop cleaning, and for water collection. Some people use milk jug bottoms or folding plastic water container bottoms to do the same thing. I like the Pack Bowl because it folds flat for easy storage in a side pocket around a bottle or in a hydration sleeve, but when unfolded stands upright on its own; it holds 3 liters yet is very lightweight at 33 grams.
TIP 2: I put one of those car fresheners that hang from your car’s rear view mirror into each resupply box. Weight: < 7 grams in package. When I’m reaching a road and getting ready to hitch into town, I take it out, hang it around my neck and make myself smell good… er, not as bad. Then I leave it as a thank you gift for the wonderful driver who gives me a lift into town to resupply (unless they don’t want that thing sticking up their car, of course ;)
5. Practice Sleeping
Well, you say, I know how to sleep in a sleeping bag – or, since you are probably a cool person – a quilt.
Sure you do. But you also know how to walk, yet will be be training to walk, too, right?
So practice sleeping in your gear. Get used to the bedtime and morning time routine with them.
Put your sleeping gear on your bedroom floor and sleep on it, not for a night or a brief test, but for a week, two weeks, three weeks, and get used to it. Be as comfortable with your pad and quilt as you are with your bed.
Why the bedroom floor? Because it is one bad case scenario for sleeping on something hard and unforgiving (well, it is flat, not rocky and lumpy, so let’s give it that advantage.)
Now, it won’t help with sleeping in almost total dark, and it won’t prepare you for all the things that go bump, hoot, howl, and rustle rustle rustle in the night; only test overnights will do that.
But it help to will work out your sleep gear and help makes those final gear decisions easier: pillow or not, pack under the feet or not, big blow up pad or foam pad, etc.
Why practice all this?
Efficiency, in one word, efficiency. And efficiency brings confidence.
The more you have practiced before you leave, the more you develop good habits that lead to better efficiency on the trail. And the goal of that is to allow you to concentrate more on the hiking itself.