Cabin fever is beginning to set in.
On your 4.30 am walks around the neighbourhood streets, you’ve started carrying a potty trowel. Upon returning home, you’re eating your morning cereal out of a reconstituted Talenti Ice Cream jar, and during the day you’re wearing trail running shoes – with gaiters – around the house. At night you’re brushing your teeth with a sawed-off toothbrush and using an inflated Platypus bladder (wrapped in a 100 wt fleece) as a pillow.
Perhaps most concerning, your significant other has made it clear that you can either “remove all that backpacking shit from the living room floor” or else relocate for the duration of the pandemic into a single-wall shelter in the back garden. You’re in two minds about whether or not to take them up on their ultimatum.
As we collectively try to navigate the newly muddied waters of COVID-19, many folks are feeling the restlessness and irritability associated with cabin fever. What follows are fifteen mostly hiker-centric tips that will help you stay productive (and maybe even hopeful) in the challenging days ahead:
1. Trip Planning – Irrespective of how many hikes you have done or places you have visited, there will always be more incredible wilderness areas around the world just waiting to be experienced on foot. Now is a great time to start mapping out your backpacking dreams (e.g. route choices, cultural considerations, language basics, gear lists, resupply options, etc). From a personal perspective, it has been 22 years since I spent a summer in Alaska and the Yukon, and I’m beginning to feel like I’m overdue for a return trip.
2. Gear Repairs: I enjoy sewing about as much as I like out-of-the-box YouTube gear reviews, nonetheless, I have a list of items that need some TLC including my decade-old – but still in relatively good shape – Patagonia R1 Hoody, and the two original Adapt-a-Caps that have been with me since 2003 (Note: The more recent models are heavier and don’t fit as well).
3. Wash Sleeping Bags and Clean Shelters: Over the past two weeks I’ve washed all three of my Katabatic quilts. I’ve been blown away by the continued puffiness of my nine-year-old Palisade 30F and Sawatch 15F – each quilt has at least 14,000 kilometres on it and is still going strong.
4. Work on Your Tarp Pitches: Every time I see a poorly pitched tarp (or tent) out in the boonies a little part of me dies. For backyard COVID-19 bonus points, practice setting up when it’s cold, wet, and windy. Keep repeating until you can achieve a taut pitch in under two minutes. To reach Tarp Nirvana, do it with your eyes closed.
5. MYOG projects: It’s not really my thing (see Gear Repairs above), but if you’re ever going to get around to making that pack or shelter you’ve been dreaming of, now would be a good time to give it a go.
6. Learn and/or Practice Knots: Knowing some basic knots is an integral part of any hiker’s backcountry skill set. Equally important is being able to recognize which knot is appropriate for which task. Here are six knots that I have found useful for backpacking over the years.
7. Work on Your Core: A strong and stable core promotes better posture, balance, and breathing, all of which are fundamental to one’s hiking (and overall) health. An excellent all-around exercise to improve core strength is the plank, which is suitable for everyone from beginners to more advanced folks. Looking for something extra? Try hanging leg raises.
8. Balance and Ankle Strength: Whether you are negotiating a talus field, fording a challenging river, or splish-splashing across boggy tundra, strong ankles and good balance can be worth their weight in backcountry gold. The Tree is a simple yoga asana that is beneficial in both departments, while simultaneously improving your powers of concentration. To increase the difficulty factor, try closing your eyes.
9. All-Around Strength: Physically I always feel at my best when I’m working my entire body, not just the lower half. When I’m out on trail for extended periods, I’m regularly doing push-ups, sit-ups, dips, and planks. When I’m not out in the boonies, I enjoy doing yoga, swimming, boxing (heavy bag), and simple bodyweight exercises, all of which I can do at home. In regard to the latter, one of my favourite workouts is a 20 to 30-minute circuit consisting of continuous rounds of 40 squats, 30 sit-ups, 20 push-ups, and 10 chin-ups (Note: If you don’t have a sturdy bar or suitable tree limb from which to hang, try using a multi-grip chin-up bar that adjusts to fit most doorways).
10. Stretching: There are differing schools of thought in regard to the benefits of stretching. Some experts claim it provides little to no advantage, while others maintain that it can help in preventing injuries, in addition to reducing muscle soreness and increasing flexibility/range of movement. I fall firmly into the latter school, as long as some common-sense precautions are taken (see below). When out on the trail I regularly stretch both during breaks and also at day’s end. When I’m at my non-wilderness home, I only ever stretch after finishing a workout. See Physioadvisor.com.au. for a wide range of suggestions. Three tips to keep in mind when it comes to stretching:
A. Never stretch vigorously first thing in the morning. Your muscles will still be stiff from the evening’s sleep. This particularly holds true for folks that are getting up there in age. Gentle loosening stretches are fine, however, over-stretching tight or cold muscles is one of the most common ways in which strains and tears can occur.
B. Don’t bounce or rush any of the stretches. All stretches should be done slowly and with control. Focus on breathing deeply.
C. All stretches should be pain-free. Only once you are able to relax in a position should you try to extend the stretch a little further. Listen to your body. If you are feeling pain, then you are over-stretching and putting yourself at risk of injury.
11. Sunrises and Sunsets: Whether it be from your front porch, your bedroom window, or the neighborhood park, try to catch as many sunrises and sunsets as possible. There is a sense of hope and peace that fills the air every time the sun says hello and goodbye. A beautifully silent harbinger of better days to come.
12. Five Books and a Website: For a combination of inspiration, wisdom, and practical lightweight backpacking tips based upon a great deal of wilderness experience, I highly recommend adding the following books to your Coronavirus reading list: Colin Fletcher’s, “The Man Who Walked Through Time“; Ray Jardine’s, “Beyond Backpacking“; Nan Shepherd’s, “The Living Mountain”, John Muir’s, “The Yosemite” and; Mike Clelland’s “Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips.” On the cyber front, check out the wealth of all-around backpacking information contained in the archives section of Chris Townsend’s website. For additional reading recommendations, see Books for Hikers and Backpackers (2019 Edition).
13. Hiking Humour: Humour has always played an important role as a coping mechanism during troubled times. Laughter can soothe, heal, and lighten – none of which are small things during the days of COVID-19. If you are looking for sources of hiking/outdoor humour, try the following: Boots McFarland Cartoons (Compilation Book, Facebook), Lawton Grinter (“I Hike” Books), Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods), John D Burns (“The Last Hillwalker” and “Bothy Tales“), Ultralight Jerk (Instagram, Blog), Nature RX (YouTube), and Brendon Leonard from Semi-Rad (website and Instagram). The Musings section on the Top Navigation bar also contains a handful of articles that may provide a chuckle or three, including 30 Signs You May Have Taken Ultralight Backpacking Too Far and the annual Crappy (but practical) Christmas Gift Guide.
14. The Big Yellow Taxi Reminder: Folks of a certain vintage will be familiar with the classic Joni Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi“, and specifically the line, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone.” During the current pandemic when our opportunities for wilderness recreation are limited, chances are many people will gain a heightened sense of appreciation for every tree, bird, squirrel, garden, and patch of grass in their neighbourhood. And that’s a good thing. It’s like a nudge from Mother Nature, reminding us that just because something is familiar, doesn’t mean we should ever take it for granted.
15. The Three A’s: Speaking of gratitude, it was during a trek in Bolivia’s Cordillera Apolobomba in 1996 that I came up with the idea of the “Three A’s” – Accept, Adapt and Appreciate. Since that time they have collectively represented one of the cornerstones of all my wilderness trips. I wrote an article on the subject a couple of years ago, but recently the Three A’s have once again been on my mind because the principles behind them also apply to the rapidly evolving Coronavirus pandemic. Below are some excerpts from the aforementioned post:
“Learn to accept the environment on its own terms. The natural world is inherently fluid. Conditions can vary dramatically from day to day, let alone from one season to the next.”
“Adapt accordingly. Once you have made an objective assessment and accepted a situation for what it is – rather than what you thought it might or should be – theory must then be translated into action. Decisions in the wilderness should be based upon two overriding considerations; 1. The conditions you are facing, and 2. Do you have the knowledge, equipment, and experience with which to safely negotiate those conditions?”
“The decision is made; action has been taken. Now it comes down to perspective. Whether the challenge you are facing is simple or difficult in the extreme, nothing will ever be gained by moaning, blaming and second-guessing. By choosing – and it is a choice – to view the tough moments as opportunities to learn rather than obstacles to endure, you give yourself the gift of appreciation.
Think about it. What are the times you have learned the most from out in the wilderness? Is it when the sun is shining, the temps are in the low 20’s C (70’s F), and you are bopping along on a clear path with pretty scenery all around? Or is it when Mother Nature is flexing her meteorological and/or geographical muscles (e.g. extreme heat, white-out, heavy rain and high winds, tougher than anticipated terrain) and you have no choice but to embrace the suck, focus, and do everything in your power to deal with what is being thrown your way?”
I suspect a lot of you were with me for the first two A’s, but maybe not so much for the third. With many folks struggling to adjust, and others fighting to survive, it’s by no means a simple matter to find a silver lining during the COVID-19 pandemic. What is there to appreciate about the world receiving an eye-wateringly firm kick to the nether regions?
It goes something like this. Just as navigating your way through challenging wilderness conditions shines a headlamp on who you are as a hiker, the same holds true for our non-wilderness lives. It’s easy to be a great friend, partner, sibling or workmate when everything is rolling along smoothly. Just as it’s easy to call yourself a “nature lover” when all your hiking is done under blue skies with mild temperatures. However, it’s during the tough times – and the Coronavirus pandemic most definitely qualifies – that you not only find out more about yourself, but you also discover and/or confirm the identity of your real friends.
I call these people “four-season mates”; folks that are there for you unconditionally no matter what. And if you strive to be a four-season mate, there is no better time than right now to go the extra mile in manifesting those aspirations. If we all try to make a difference for the positive by reaching out to friends and family, supporting local businesses, donating if you can, volunteering remotely, and lending a hand to vulnerable neighbours that are doing it tough (e.g. helping out with their shopping, tending their gardens, etc.), then not only will we help to flatten the curve, but we may just come out the other side of COVID-19 more united than we were before. And that would indeed be a gift worth appreciating.