There’s something to be said for having a goal, and conquering something you thought was beyond your reach. You can use this hike as a metaphor for any challenge you face. The victory is truly in the “trying” not necessarily the outcome.
I questioned whether my 63-year-old body would tolerate the demands of this strenuous Yosemite National Park Half Dome hike. My FitBit Post Hike Stats: 24 ½ miles, over 60,000 steps, 422 floors, 427 active minutes…Yowza!
Not only did I come through, but I came out stronger than the previous two times I’d done this hike. That was unexpected.
Here are some of my best tips in a nutshell, for successfully completing a hike or very long walk and avoiding injury or unwanted pain. I hope my insights might offer you some useful ideas for your next venture.
I want to spare you the mistakes I’ve made in the past. I’ll go into depth with each of these categories below.
- Bring enough WATER with electrolytes and if needed, bring a water filtration system
- TREKKING POLES
- A FANNY PACK or other easy access to your phone to capture awe-inspiring moments
- MUSIC for when the going gets rough
- LISTEN to your BODY
- HEADLAMP: If you suspect you might end up in the dark for whatever reason, get an LED headlamp
1. PREPARE: It’s all in the preparation. As a PT, I tell people before surgery, for say a shoulder or knee, to strengthen the structures around that joint so their post-surgical outcomes will be brighter. It’s a similar concept when preparing for a big hike. You don’t want to crawl off the couch and onto a mountain without any preparation or you’ll be crawling off said mountain!
Make sure your tissues are ready for the load and volume of your anticipated demands.
- Practice putting some weights in a backpack, building up gradually as you tackle your local hills. My neighbor who joined us for his first Half Dome hike, trained by walking around our level neighborhood with hiking shoes and a backpack. He laughed afterward that this in no way prepared him for what was to come.
- Cross-train with strength classes, cardio/HIIT. Make long walks or multiple shorter walks, part of your daily routine so your endurance improves.
Stretch before, perhaps during, and definitely after your hike.
- Always have good hiking shoes that support your ankles and break-in your shoes if they’re new.
- Trim your toenails so they don’t turn black from jamming into the front of your shoes going downhill. Learned that the hard way.
- Wear silk socks under your wool socks to prevent blisters and chaffing. I also learned that the hard way.
Depending on the anticipated weather, it’s good to layer with light quick-drying non-cotton clothing. I wore a sleeveless crop top and started the day with a long sleeve sun-protective nylon top, trekking shorts without zippers or buttons so easy for those impromptu bathroom breaks in nature. My clothing was perfect.
- Coming down the mountain at dusk into nightfall, we encountered a lot of gnat-like flies/mosquitoes that seemed to enjoy buzzing near my mouth. I would have loved a pandemic mask at that moment. Luckily that didn’t last too long.
- If you wear contacts bring spares. Easy to carry and brings peace of mind. I’ve had to use one once in the past so it’s good insurance-you want to be able to see!
- Get to bed early and make sure you get a good night’s sleep. We were in bed by 9 pm the night before and up at 4:30 am to get ready to leave.
2. WATER – Hydrating yourself adequately can mean the difference between headaches and cramps or feeling at your best. The trick for us this time was combining our water with electrolytes, packages of powdered Gatorade, and the like. We used just enough to feed our tissues and encourage us to drink more, but not so concentrated that it tasted sugary. This was huge for us-no one cramped and all drank plenty.
If you’re planning a very long trek and have access to a river, bringing a hand pump filtration system will lighten your load for how much water you need to carry from the start. I had a fanny pack with a water bottle at my waist and a camelback in my backpack. I tell you I bit and sucked on that little tube and barely got any liquid out. Felt it wasn’t worth the effort so I just kept refilling my water bottle from the camelback (which is like a sack filled with water that molds nicely in your backpack.) That worked.
3. TREKKING POLES – I’ve said it before, these are a lifesaver particularly on long hikes.
I found I didn’t need them for the first few hours of the hike. My body let me know when to take them out. They’re great for several reasons.
- They help with balance, at any point one foot and the opposite pole are in contact with the ground. This allowed me to enjoy the scenery more as I wasn’t constantly looking down where I was stepping.
- They help offload your joints by using your upper body to propel you forward or to help you climb to higher elevations. It makes hiking a full-body workout because, at each heel strike, you’re activating the glut of that side and your lat (latissimus dorsi-the muscle that pulls your arm back) on the opposite side.
- If you have bone density issues, trekking poles decrease your risk of falling which is a plus.
- These poles are a similar style and identical brand to the ones I have. (I got mine at REI a long time ago) It was important to me that they were collapsible, easy to store when not in use, lightweight, and had great reviews.
4. FANNY PACK (in addition to a backpack) This is for easy access to items like your bottle of water, trail mix, energy bars, tissues, sunscreen, Blistex…and your phone/camera. You don’t want to have to take off your backpack for every little thing you need.
Of course, also bring a hat and sunglasses.
5. MUSIC for when you’re tired and need some inspiration. On the way down I rocked out on Hamilton, Broadway musicals, and pop tunes. Amazing how inspiring music can add a spring to your step no matter how tired you are. I wore earpods of course so I didn’t bother anyone else. Did I tell you we were 15 hours in total on the mountain?
6. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY – My husband took regular doses of Alleve to prevent back pain that’s been recently plaguing him. He also took a lightweight insulated bag and brought an ice pack in there. He used it at the summit and it was still frozen! Helped immensely. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to complete the hike due to his back but it all worked out. I took 2 aspirin during the hike to fend off an elevation-related headache. Worked like a charm.
The most famous–or infamous–part of the hike is the ascent up the cables. The two metal cables allow hikers to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment.
My neighbor got 1/3 of the way up the cables, He listened to his body, stopped, and said that was it. This is his photo from that spot. It wasn’t a matter of fear of heights but just running out of steam and strength, and knowing we still had a 9-mile trip ahead of us to get back down to our car. Though he didn’t summit, he was victorious and so happy with his accomplishments! He listened to his body.
A little Pilates at the Summit
7. HEADLAMP – On a whim my husband ordered 2 extra LED headlamps from Amazon so we were all equipped. At just 13.99 for 2, these were a lifesaver. Going on this hike with someone who has never done it before motivated us to show Larry a great time and not feel pressured. He had us going at a slower pace which was fine but that meant the last 2 hours of the hike were in the dark. That was difficult but the strong LEDs saved our ankles and our nerves.
Myself, Katelyn, and Tom on the “Diving Board” at the top of Half Dome
I told my husband this is the last time I’m doing this hike. Though exhilarating, it’s also extremely strenuous. Besides, there are other summits to climb and places to explore.
With that said…we just placed our name in a lottery to hike the Grand Canyon next year and stay overnight at Phantom Ranch at the base of the Canyon. That’s like doing half the hike we did in Yosemite, having a good night’s rest, then completing the hike the next day.
I can do that! We’ll see if we get it!