Hike, hump, ruck, and if you’re old school, the forced march. These all describe the same activity: strapping a bunch of weight on your back and moving a long distance on foot. Militaries have been performing this activity as long as militaries have existed. But how much better are we at it today than the Greeks or Romans were centuries ago? When I was in the infantry, the extent of hiking instruction given to us was to hydrate and change socks combined with a healthy dose of “embrace the suck.” But there’s clearly more to it than that. Whether you’re currently in the military, prepping for a special unit selection, or just an avid outdoorsman, there are several strategies and techniques that can improve your hiking experience.
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite topic: Gear. There are two main pieces of kit you’ll want to focus on, the first being your pack. Now I’m not going to tell you to go out and buy this or that pack, but there are things you should consider and understand before making your decision.
When I look at packs, I start my decision-making process with the knowledge that I’ll be carrying at least 60lbs. This means I’m looking at packs that have a belt and substantial hip padding. More on this later. Suffice to say, any pack missing these critical features should be avoided.
Warning: don’t fall in to an advertising trap! Some packs are listed as “72 hour” bags, but if they don’t have a belt and hip pads, taking them on any substantial hike is going to put you in a world of pain.
Another consideration when selecting a pack is choosing between an external or internal frame. There are benefits to both. External frames allow for more ventilation which helps your body stay cool in hot climates. These are also typically cheaper. Internal frames are more modern and allow you to carry the weight closer to your body’s center of gravity, thus aiding in balance and minimizing awkwardness with heavier loads. The key takeaway here is to make sure your main pack actually has a frame.
Finally, you should pay attention to the bag’s overall construction with your end use in mind. While something like the Kelty Coyote 80 makes a fine main pack, it’s definitely only suited for light duty. On the heavier side, consider military bags such as the ILBE, FILBE, or MOLLE II, as well as offerings from companies like Mystery Ranch and Exo Mountain Gear. These are heavier duty main packs that while designed for military use, may be too weighty for typical civilian needs.
Overall, experience is your friend here. I highly recommend going to your local outdoors outlet and trying on different packs for yourself. REI is great for this. They’ll measure you and explain what size pack you need for your body. Find out what works for you. What you don’t want is to realize halfway through a 15-mile hike that you chose the wrong size pack!
The second piece of gear you’ll want to give attention to are boots. As anyone who’s been around the block a time or two will tell you, a good pair of boots (and socks) is worth its weight in gold.
I start from the belief that any boot shorter than 8” is inferior and should be avoided. We’ve all rolled our ankles at one point or another. Now imagine doing that with an extra 50-100lbs on your back. An 8” boot gives your ankles the support they need on rough and uneven terrain, and significantly helps minimize the risk of injury.
Next, consider what purpose the boots available to you were designed for. When rucking, you’ll want something designed for heavy duty use; most military boots fit in this category.
Beware of ultralight boots such as the Danner Tachyon that would more accurately be classified as a tennis shoe alterative. While a viable option for every day wear or if you have a lieutenant that thinks running PT in boots and ‘utes every day is a good idea, ultralights offer neither the support nor durability required for long distance hiking.
On the flipside: steel toe boots are for the construction site, not the trail. Enough said.
Some companies offer the same model of boot in either temperate or cold weather varieties, the difference being that on the temperate models, little holes are added near the arch to allow for better ventilation which supposedly reduces heat and helps keep your feet dry. In my experience, the improvement is marginal at best. What these holes definitely accomplish, however, is allowing water to enter your boot when you step in a puddle. So I typically avoid boots with vent holes in them. And if you’re interested in keeping your feet dry on long hikes, the 200 IQ move is to have extra pairs of socks and change them every 3 miles.
On the topic of socks, wool is your friend. If you’re wearing cotton socks on hikes like I did for the 4 years that I was in the infantry, you’re wrong. Wanna get wild? You can blow all your friends’ minds with the two sock method. Keep in mind, you’ll need to get a half to full size larger boot, but it’s worth it. Blisters will be a thing of the past. Check out Farm to Feet, Smartwool, and Darn Tough brands. They’re expensive, but absolutely worth it.
Purchasing the proper pack and boots will put you on a path to success and make hiking a much more positive experience overall. In part 2, we’ll discuss hiking tips and techniques that may come as a surprise to even the most veteran of hikers.
Full Disclosure: I have no affiliation with any of the companies mention in this article. All gear was purchased with personal funds and this review was written without regard for any outside influence.
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