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BACK 40: How to hike 500 miles

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Story and photos by Aaron Hussmann Explore Big Sky Contributor

The summer of 2013 brought a borderline unhealthy obsession with the one-hit-wonder tune “500 Miles” by wailing Scottish band, The Proclaimers. To be fair, I didn’t actually walk 1,000 miles and fall down at anyone’s door, but I did walk a demanding 500 miles and I’m damned proud of it.

After working 60-80 hour weeks for nine months, living in a crowded city, and becoming one of the thousands of tired, nerve-shaken souls John Muir spoke about, I realized the famous naturalist was right when he said, “going to the mountains is going home.”

I packed my old Subaru full of my worldly possessions and headed back home, to South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Breathing in crisp mountain air and soaking in the stillness of the granite peaks surrounding me, I resolved to drag my city-slicker feet over 500 miles of trail that summer.

Hiking 500 miles in one season isn’t the most difficult task in the world, especially if you’re a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker, but it’s also not the easiest task. It can be difficult to stay motivated, to get out of your tent and hike every day. Hiking 500 miles requires a steady balance of careful planning and wild spontaneity. The end result, however, is an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment, a rewarding connection, or re-connection, with the natural world, and a new appreciation for a slower pace of life.

Here are five tips to plan for and stay motivated during a 500-mile season, but feel free to liberally apply these tips to any hiking adventure.

Invest in solid hiking boots and socks. I can honestly count my blisters on one hand after almost five years of dedicated Oboz boots use. Oboz is a Bozeman-based footwear company that plants a tree in communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America for every pair of shoes they sell. Your feet OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAare your most valuable yet underrated piece of gear on the trail, and your fancy, ultra-light thingamajig won’t do any good unless your feet are comfortable, dry and blister free. Seriously, try caring how many ounces your titanium spork weighs when your feet are covered in blisters.

Small hikes add up, so get outside often. Researchers at the University of Michigan and Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom have found that weekly walks in nature significantly reduce stress and lower depression. These short walks also significantly add to your 500-mile goal for the season.

Rediscover the familiar and explore the brand new. When embarking on your 500-mile ambitions, ease into the season by hiking familiar trails with a new eye for discovery. Consider buying a guidebook and map for hikes in your local area. Don’t be afraid to wake up in the morning, unfold your map, close your eyes, and drop your finger on a new destination.

Learn the local flora and fauna. John Muir taught his children the names of dozens of plants and animals on their Martinez, Calif. ranch that served as a powerful lesson about respect, wonder, and interconnectedness with nature. Pick up a guide to the local plants, trees, flowers, and wildlife in your area and bring it with you on every hike. Each step down the trail becomes a learning experience or a reacquaintance with a familiar friend. Plus, you get to look like a nature badass for knowing what all those different pine trees are.

Learn to love (and hate) hiking. You’re likely reading this because you’re already a fan of hiking. Yet no matter how much you love it, at some point you might want to tell your hiking boots and trekking poles, “Just because I love you doesn’t mean I have to like you right now.” For me, being stuck in my tent for 30 hours of torrential downpour, having my “waterproof” rain fly soak through, and hiking through seven miles of trail-turned-river is one of these moments. But as my father always says, “The misery makes the memory,” and my miserable hiking experiences are ones I will cherish for a lifetime.

In the end, whether you’re hiking 500 miles or 50, when you connect your boot soles with trail dirt, you’re also connecting your soul with the natural world. With these five tips in mind, the only step left is to lace up your boots, grab your map, and hit the trail.

Aaron Hussmann is the Community Engagement Associate with the League to Save Lake Tahoe and author of “500 Miles of South Lake Tahoe Hikes.” This article first appeared on in the “Trail Tales” section.

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