Get Your Asana On The Trail

Crane PoseI was tricked. I had no idea what I was in for. She said it was an exercise class. How was I supposed to know we were going to yoga?

I remember how shocked I was that day. Yoga was hard, sweaty and uncomfortable. There I was lying face down on a yoga mat, waiting for the end of class, thinking it shouldn’t have been so hard.

I mean, I’ve always been physically fit and active. I’ve worked out regularly for years and I’m proud of my level of fitness for a guy approaching fifty.

It was almost as if the yoga instructor that day knew every single weakness in my body. He knew exactly where I was inflexible. And he knew just how to throw me off balance. I didn’t stand a chance.

And it upset me!

I always thought yoga was for giiirrrls – and yes, you must draw this word out to get the full disdain I had for yoga. Real men didn’t do yoga. Real men worked out with weights, pumped iron and ran until their knees gave out. No pain, no gain, right?

Ha! That yoga class was an eye-opener. There was a definite shift in my thinking that day. It was a tough class, but I wasn’t going to let it get the best of me.

Halfway through that class, when I could have been thinking I was in the wrong place at theHamstring stretch wrong time, I actually woke up and realized I was approaching my fitness from the wrong perspective. It was time for a change. It was time to man up and give yoga a try.

And, you know, I’m so glad I did. What a change I’ve seen in my body and my fitness level. Big improvements and I’m not done yet. Nope, far from it. There’s still room for more.

Fortunately, in the past three years, my flexibility has greatly increased, especially in my hamstrings and low back. When I started yoga I could barely reach my knees in a forward bend. Seriously!

I’ve also noticed I’ve gotten significantly stronger throughout my body without the typical joint pain and strain I used to experience with weight lifting.

This is all well and good, but, honestly, and I didn’t see this coming when I started doing yoga regularly, I’ve experienced the biggest improvements in my hiking and backpacking activities.

Going up and down mountains is much easier on my knees than it used to be. My hips are stronger and more flexible, making my stride longer, faster and stronger. And my spine, from my neck to my low back, no longer feels compressed. Hiking is a pleasure again.

Bound Side Angle PoseYou should try yoga. Seriously! I’m sure you’ll get equally fantastic benefits – on and off the trail.

And don’t worry. I wouldn’t trick you.

After all, when I stop and think about it now, I wasn’t tricked either. I truly believe I was in the right place at the right time. You will be too when you go to a yoga class.

See ya’ on the trail


Eleven Yoga Benefits for Hikers – As I See It

Me, a yogi? Pft, no way! Far from it actually. A student, maybe. Yes, a student of yoga. I can live with that.

From where I stand in mountain pose, the more I learn about yoga the more I realize there’s…more to learn. I can’t imagine anyone ever “mastering” yoga. Every pose is never ending. Every pose can always go deeper.

Yoga’s great because it reminds me to breathe and let go, both physically and mentally.

It exposes my weaknesses, which is something most of us don’t like, but then turns them into strengths, which is something we all value and could benefit from.

And, for some odd reason, something I expect other yoga practitioners might understand, I’ve come to enjoy the physical challenges of yoga and actually have fun attempting some of the more difficult poses. I know – call me crazy.

But, honestly, yoga is the sanest thing I’ve ever done, especially as an avid hiker and backpacker.

Get this. I no longer have knee, hip and foot pain. No more tired shoulders or an achy back and neck. And no more holding patterns that limit my hiking ability.

Holding patterns, as my massage therapist calls them, are those tight, achy muscles we get from repetitive motions and postures, like sitting at the computer typing all day.

I’ve read enough trail journals to know a large number of hikers suffer greatly for their beloved hobby. But one doesn’t have to suffer – unless you’re into that sort of thing.

So, as I see it, here are the eleven benefits yoga provides to those of us who live on the trail.

  1. Strength: The isometric contractions from holding deep poses, combined with working all of your muscles through their full range of motion, creates incredible strength without amassing big, bulky muscles.
  2. Flexibility: Like strength, flexibility improves in increments. Taking your asanas, or yoga postures, to “the edge” and then letting go of any tension allows you to gradually stretch deeper without pain and discomfort.
  3. Balance: Being sure-footed on the trail can save your life. Yoga offers challenging balance poses you can practice in a safe and controlled environment with all the benefits spilling over to your trail activities.
  4. Better posture: Have you ever seen a hiker take off their pack and stand as though the weight of the pack was still causing them to lean. That weight can take its toll on your back, neck and shoulders. Yoga will counteract this pull, help you stand erect and prevent back and neck injuries.
  5. Endurance: Through yoga, your muscles will become accustomed to sustained contractions, greatly improving their ability to perform for long hours without fatigue.
  6. Fewer Injuries: Hiking long distances takes its toll on the body. Yoga, through proper conditioning and toning, will greatly decrease your chances of stress related injuries, keeping you on the trail longer and with more enjoyment.
  7. Improved Cardiovascular Health: Many yoga poses twist, bend, fold and invert your body, causing your heart to have to work harder to pump blood to these tissues. The result of his is a gentle, yet powerful strengthening of the heart and circulatory system.
  8. Greater Lung Capacity: Yoga encourages proper use of your breath, or Pranayama. Learning breath control will give you greater endurance and keep you from getting “winded” when climbing hills and mountains.
  9. Universal Practice: No matter where you are, yoga is unique in that you can do it anywhere. You don’t need a studio or a gym, machines, weights or much paraphernalia at all. What you need is a soft surface and a willingness to practice. Some hikers even take their yoga mats with them on the trail.
  10. Inexpensive: As an activity goes, yoga is cheap. Sure you can invest in all sorts of props and clothing, but compared to backpacking and many other sports, yoga requires very little investment. Save your money for more gear.
  11. Instant Community: Yogis are literally everywhere. Finding a group to practice with is easier than you think. Even on the trail, it’s not uncommon to see someone go into downward-facing dog. The point is, yoga is an individual pursuit but you never have to practice alone – unless you want to.

I’m sure there’s more – much more – and I look forward to discovering them as I deepen my understanding of yoga and spend more time on the trail.

If you’re a hiker, I invite you to explore the world of yoga. Your body will repay you ten times over.

See ya’ on the trail


The Enlightening Powers of Darkness

It’s not every day I get invited on a night hike. And as much as that sounds like a simple statement, it’s actually a veiled request for more invitations – hint, hint.

I know. It’s not very subtle, but night hikes are fun. In fact, in my opinion, which is what you’re going to get since this is my blog, they’re the second most fun thing you can do at night.

What makes this night hike so special? Glad you asked. It was my oldest daughter’s idea.

Photo by Rob Gasbarro

She’s my outdoorsy kid. Well, all my kids will go outdoors and on hikes – when I ask, but my oldest daughter will ask me to go on hikes. It’s nice. She loves hiking and being in the woods. And I love seeing her excitement.

So, last week, she came to me and asked me to go along with her on the Outdoor 76 Night Hike. She read about it on Facebook. I didn’t have to think about it. Of course, I would go.

I’ll admit, though, I was a little surprised that she was interested in a “night” hike. This is the girl who won’t take the dog out after sunset even with all the outside lights on. Or walk into the dark garage. It’s a big step and I was absolutely not going to let slip by.

But I wondered what could have motivated her enough to hike in the dark?

You know, the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was more to this invitation than just a chance to hike at night. It’s possible she knew her brothers and sister would never consider doing a night hike and it would give her some individual, quality time with Daddy.

This isn’t unique to her. They all do it. I’m just grateful they think I’m still cool enough to hang out with.

Anyway, I asked her to gather all the details and we carved our plans in stone. This date was not going to be broken. So, Friday night, December 14th, we were hiking to the top of Silers Bald in the Nantahala Mountain Range – not to be confused with Silers Bald in the Smokies, although it is the same family.

Reservations were required, so my daughter made sure I was the first one to call. All that was left was hammering out the details. (You can see our Fourteen Essentials for a Night Hike here.)

We made a trip to Outdoor 76, our local, community oriented outfitter, so she could pick out her very own headlamp. It was an event. You would have thought she was picking out a prom dress – or, at least, how I imagine other 16 year old girls are about picking out prom dresses.

She inspected every detail and component. She tried them all on – in front of a mirror, looking at herself from every angle. She tested the lights and moving parts. She even read the packaging. And in her ever practical way, she picked the medium priced headlamp that provided the most options and output. See. Not your typical teenager.

While we were there, three of her friends, who were window shopping for clothes, saw her and came over to chat. My daughter’s not your typical girly-girl. Sure, she loves clothes, and dresses, and fashion, and being a girl, but it’s not her whole life. She also loves camping, getting dirty and following the trail less traveled.

Her friends had a hard time understanding why in the world she would want to hike…at night…in the dark…on a Friday…with a bunch of grown-ups. It didn’t bother my daughter one bit.

Photo by Rob Gasbarro

She actually looked very pleased by their reaction. I could tell by her piercing blue eyes and her confident, yet gentle smile she was thinking to herself, “You silly little girls.”

Yes. The force is strong with this one.

The day finally came and it was the best hike ever. There were about 30 of us in all. Spirits were high. The temperature was great. The campfire was toasty warm. And zillions of stars were twinkling in the sky.

I’ll never forget the cool mountain air on my cheeks. I’ll never forget the view of the lights of Franklin, shining in the valley below. I’ll never forget the new friends and hiking buddies we met that night.

But there’s much more I’m taking away from that night. I knew my daughter was amazing, but the whole process of planning this trip, climbing to the top of Silers Bald, the way she was with people of all ages, the strength with which she carried herself and overcoming the dark, left an indelible image in my mind.

It was one of those rare experiences where you get a glimpse of who your child is going to be as an adult. And, I like it. She’s going to be even more amazing than I could have ever imagined.

See ya’ on the trail


Fourteen Essentials For A Night Hike

Doing it in the day time is hard enough. Hiking at night, well, that creates its own set of unique circumstances.

Here’s my list of the fourteen essentials I take on a night hike to ensure I always have a fun and safe walk in the dark.

It’s not the end-all-be-all list; just a list that fits my needs. You’re welcome to adopt it if you want. Or change it. Your needs and comfort level may be different. It will at least give you a start.

  1. Appropriate clothing: Consider the season. Get a weather report, but don’t necessarily trust it. Pack a jacket in the summer. Pack a change of dry clothes in the spring and fall. Pack an extra layer in the winter. And consider bringing some rain gear, even if it’s a large green garbage bag.
  2. Trekking poles: I find them handy for rocky, rooty paths and steep grades – anytime, but at night they’re particularly helpful to keep you sure-footed and help you maintain your balance in low light conditions.
  3. Headlamp: The hands-free lamps are liberating and come with a multitude of settings to suit your needs.
  4. Extra batteries: Do I really need to explain this one?
  5. Back up light: I always bring a small flashlight just in case my headlamp fails and because someone else invariably forgets their headlamp. It’s the Boy Scout in me – you know, “always be prepared.”
  6. Daypack: gotta carry your own weight.
  7. Trail mix: Or any other snack you like. I prefer the basic nuts, seeds and dried fruit kind of trail mix. It’s more nutritious than the kind that has candy in it. And, in the spirit of being prepared, consider a little extra. You might get hungry if you’re unable to return for any reason.
  8. Water: Very important! I suggest you take enough for your hike AND even a way to purify additional water. You never expect to running out, but if you do it’s nice to know you have a back up plan. For purifying, I prefer AuqaMira drops. They’re effective, light weight and easy to pack.
  9. First Aid Kit: Another one I don’t need to explain – I hope.
  10. Pocket Knife or equivalent: Let’s face it. These just come in handy in the woods for so many reasons. Don’t underestimate their value!
  11. Toiletries: You never know when you’ll have to go and, believe me, it’s better to be prepared when Mother Nature calls. I keep a Ziploc bag with tissues, wipes and hand sanitizer in my daypack. Just be sure to use proper “Leave No Trace” ethics when using the woods as a potty.
  12. Hanky: Or something similar. Hankies, like pocket knives, come in handy for a multitude of purposes.
  13. Waterproof matches: Or some other reliable way to start a fire. This can be for your campfire once you arrive at your destination – laws permitting, of course – or serve as an emergency source of heat if you get lost or stranded. I take my Exotac NanoStriker fire starter. It’s lightweight, waterproof and always works.
  14. Cell phone: Even if you don’t use it, at least you have it if you need it. If you don’t have some form of communication, then at least leave a detailed itinerary with someone responsible enough to look for you or alert the authorities if you should not return. And stick to your plan. It makes it easier to find you.

There you go – your fourteen essentials for a night hike. I suggest you do your night hikes on a trail you’re familiar with. It cuts down on surprises and the potential for getting lost.

If you’re not familiar with the trail then be sure to include a map of the area and a compass. I’m sure there’s at least one person who would love to see you come home.

See ya’ on the trail,