Underestimating a Hike

by A Manly Guest Contributor on September 29, 2010 · 24 comments

in Blog

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Chad S. Ritchie.

It happens to almost everyone eventually. You’re in a new area, a friend of a friend tells you about a great hike, and you jump in. You’re told it’s an easy climb from 8000 ft to 9500 ft. No big deal-back home you’d climb 1500 ft to get a Twinkie. Next thing you know the two day out-and-back you’ve planned for is really a three day hike, and the 1500 foot elevation gain you can easily handle is actually 9000 feet of elevated incline when you include the numerous ups and downs from valley floors to mountain tops. You start to feel like perhaps you are in over your head. So what do you do?

First things first. Look at the person leading the trip, and calmly say, “Carry me?” This may or may not work depending on whether or not you are holding a firearm at the time.

Next, if you start to feel tired, unexpectedly winded, or just “off”, stop and remember some important tips when backpacking:

Don’t Panic

Douglas Adams said it best. Don’t Panic. Even when you are miles from civilization and you find yourself out of your element, never, ever panic. And if you do panic, do so in a way that resembles someone who has to pee. It’s much better for everyone else if you just cross your legs and hop up and down for a bit until you can calm down. Still, make sure you tell someone you are having trouble.

Assess Your Situation

As soon as you feel you may be in over your head, stop. Assess your situation:

  • How far are you from your camp?
  • How is the weather?
  • How are your supplies?
  • Are you feeling fatigued?
  • How is your heart rate?
  • How is your breathing?
  • Are you sweating?
  • Have you stopped sweating?
  • Are you feeling nauseated?
  • Are you feeling dizzy?
  • Are you feeling lightheaded?
  • Do you have a headache?

These are important questions. For example, if you are hiking above 8000 feet for the first time, you could succumb to altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness). Back home hiking 10 miles in a day may be a warm-up for you. After all, you’re the kinda guy who walks to work and then busts out a set of 100 push-ups before you sit down to your desk and work 12 hours straight without getting your shirt wrinkled. But above 8000 feet you have 30% less oxygen in your lungs. You can find yourself winded much sooner than you would expect at your normal elevation. Altitude sickness affects 70% of people who are active above 8000 feet up to the first several days. Also, it can strike at any time. Just because you feel fine for the first day, doesn’t mean you won’t feel like hell the next day.

Make Changes to Your Plan

If you are feeling symptoms of altitude sickness, heat exhaustion, or any other signs of illness, stop. In the case of altitude sickness, the best thing to do is get down to a lower elevation, but make sure you are capable of doing so in a safe manner. If you’re starting to feel faint or dizzy, take your pack off, drink plenty of water, and rest for an hour. Then decide if you want to continue or head back.

If you are feeling overheated, stop, find some shade, get your pack off, and rest. Loosen your clothing and try to get your feet up. Drink plenty of fluids and try to cool yourself off with cold water. Heat exhaustion can turn into heat stroke if not treated, and heat stroke can kill you … very quickly.

If you ever find yourself in over your head, remember to stop, assess, and revise your plans as needed. A plan is after all, only that, and should always be open to change. You always have options. And the most important one is: at any point, you can stop and rest or even cut the trip short and head back. Sure, it may not seem like the most manly decision. After all, you’ve set a goal, and you want to reach it. But in the backcountry ego can kill you. There is nothing unmanly about realizing you may be making a mistake and that you need to re-evaluate your options before that mistake takes a toll on you that you cannot walk away from.

Be safe and know your limitations. In the end no one really wants to drag your dead body out of the wilderness, so good friends will most likely just let the bears eat you – and that’s awkward to explain to your loved ones:

“Sorry Mrs. McKay, Brett was … eaten by bear.”

“How could you let that happen?!”

“Well, he decided not to let anyone know he was getting sick and he sorta just… you know… started hopping up and down like he had to pee… then a hour later he was dead from heat stroke.”

“… like he had to … pee … and died from heat stroke?”

“Yeah, it was a hell of a thing. And as you know he’s not exactly a featherweight… we tried to stuff him in the pack, but it was no good. So we threw some bacon bits on him and let nature do it’s thing.”

“Bacon bits?”

“Oh hey, look at the time… gotta run.”


In glorious hand-to-claw combat Chad Ritchie almost defeated the legendary Grizzlephantasaurus in the artillery-shelled mountains of West Virginia.  He also writes in-depth backpacking gear reviews at http://itestyourgear.com/

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 digital_dreamer September 30, 2010 at 1:08 am

LOL! Loved that ending story.
So, is Brett okay? LOLz.


2 Native Son September 30, 2010 at 1:15 am

Went on a “beginner’s day hike” with a certain conservation organization one time. 4-5 miles, 1,000′ maximum elevation change. Only problem was, the elevation did change only about 1,000′….seven times in the 4 miles.

3 kyle. September 30, 2010 at 1:36 am

last fall i did mt. whitney in 1 day with a friend (and a friend of his) the week after the first snowfall. what should have been a long day with a pretty tough hike turned into a really long day that was extremely tough… especially when one guy forgot his sunglasses and i forgot sunscreen.

4 Mark P September 30, 2010 at 1:38 am

Always carry fire starting devices when venturing into the bush. Matches in a waterproof container are best. Next is a simple Bic lighter. With fire comes warmth, a way to cook, and a way to boil water to decontaminate it.

5 Gal @ Equally Happy September 30, 2010 at 1:44 am

You’ll have much better success getting rid of bodies in the wild if you sprinkle them with a bit of honey or some fruit jam. Not that I’ve ever done this mind. Well, not recently. Er… what I mean is I hear things you know and err… GOT TO GO!

6 Anna September 30, 2010 at 2:46 am

Fantastic. I admit, I’m a beginner when it comes to hiking, so I never sign on for anything over 10 miles or 8 miles with 2000 ft rise or more. However, this article is good guidance for multiple-day trips, so long as you know the effects of your pack as well (I know I can easily hike 10 miles in a day with minimal or no pack, but that 20 pound pack full of food and sleeping gear will definitely affect my constitution).

It’s always good to see moderation advised in the effort towards manliness though – as a woman, it affects me less, but every person should know their limits and be able to call them, regardless of gender.

7 Timothy Covington September 30, 2010 at 9:01 am

When I was working in Yellowstone National Park, I oversestimated a hike and had to turn around and come back. It was a good thing too. It turned out that the camp site I had reserved was in the middle of a forest fire.

8 Brian September 30, 2010 at 10:09 am

While much of the advice in this article is sound the timing of its publishing is rather unfortunate given the recent death while hiking of film editor Sally Menke, especially considering the flippant tone of the writing.

9 JG September 30, 2010 at 10:21 am

Underestimating a hike happened to me. The hike was waahila ridge. A fun day hike if you do the whole thing -or so I thought. I underestimated the weather, climate, and conditions. Toward the windward end of the trail, it gets steep, cloudy, and rainy. The largest thing to hide under is a solitary stunted tree with pointy spikes for leaves. The trail is mud. The first time I hiked it, I spent half an hour sitting under that tree waiting for the rain to let up. Being inside a rain cloud is a cold experience. you don’t get rain falling on you, it forms on you. The second time I hiked that trail, I took a ponch and a shovel. I dug tiny little toe holds in the last muddy slope, being careful not to fall off the thousand ft drops on each side of the trail. I dug to the top, only to find that it was not the last slope. There was a saddle and an even higher slope to the top! Then another beyond it! I eventually sat on top of oahu, looking down on the windward side to the east and down on the skyscrapers of Honolulu to the south.

10 Martin Schatz September 30, 2010 at 10:52 am

Been guilty of underestimating a hike several times. Very funny and entertaining read.

11 Brucifer September 30, 2010 at 11:34 am

I usta be in the Adirondack Mtn. Club and I can’t tell you how many times I’d run into city folks, especially from like NYC who were blithely unprepared for their hike in “nature’s wonderland.” They’d usually look at the trail miles sign and figure it like city blocks, not taking into account the terrain. And they’d either be woefully unprepared, hiking in flimsy sneakers or even flip-flop sandals, and with no water or other supplies. Or else, they’d have bought everything under the sun at some pricey upscale outdoors boutique and be literally staggering under the weight of all the fancy-schmaltzy outdoorsy gear they figured they would need … just in case of that bear that ate Bret or sumpthin. Often, I’d spend some of the greater portion of my own hike, helping these nimrods sort-it-out.

12 Samuel Kordik September 30, 2010 at 11:57 am

I’ve now underestimated two hikes…but everyone survived, and I learned valuable lessons both times.
In 2005, I had just gotten out of Basic Training and felt pretty gung-ho. A friend and I did a three day backpacking trip along the beautiful Pictured Lakes National Lakeshore in upper Michigan. I was overestimated our hiking abilities, and we ended up doing a 17-hour day to get done in time! Not fun at all. I learned to make a better estimate of hike time, using AMC’s formula: 2 miles/hour + 30 minutes for every 1000′ of elevation gain. Google Earth makes it easy to calculate total elevation gain.

Just this fall, my brother, sister, and I hiked a 12-mile loop in the Ouchita national forest in Oklahoma. I knew in advance how long it would take, and made all of our plans for an overnight trip, with about 2,000′ of elevation gain. We were adequately prepared and made the first half (going up the mountain) with little difficulty. However, we got to the top and discovered the spring we were counting on for water was dry. And then a thunderstorm rolled in. We assessed the situation calmly, took stock of our resources, and decided to make a course change towards a river we knew would be flowing. We were low on water, it was a very hot day (110ºF heat index) and we knew water had to be our first priority. As we progressed along the trail towards the stream, we ran into a forest fire, with 30′ flames and a wall of heat. Drawing on my wildland firefighting training, I decided to get out of there in a hurry. We reassessed our plan, and then decided to navigate crosscountry to the river. That went well, but after filtering enough water to last the evening, we realized that there was no chance of decent shelter on the rocky hillside. At that point, we decided to just scrap the remnants of our plan and just head back to the trailhead and camp there. We ended up back at our campsite three hours after sunset, exhausted, hungry, but happy.
The biggest lesson I took away was the importance of recon’ing water supplies in advance and having a water contingency plan. And of course, if all three of us were not thoroughly proficient in backcountry navigation and hiking, the trip could’ve turned out much worse.

13 Chris R. September 30, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Ahhh heat stroke…. I wound up spilling my guts in a planter in front of a Carrows one evening after a 4×4 trip from heat stroke because I refused to let me help me change a tire. I felt bad because I did not come prepared with the right kind of tires and was in the way of enjoying the trail.

Underestimating a hike has happened to me I had plans for taking one trail that connected it to another trail I was familiar with, but I missed the fork and didn’t have a map on me. I wound up hiking all the way to the top of the range where a road was. This road was in the middle of no where, nor was it a road that people would happen to be driving on while going from point A to point B. Due to it getting dark and heavy fog misting my glasses I wandered off the trail. By the time I hit the road I had no idea where I was, nor could I find the trail head to head back down. not to mention because I was at the top of the ridge there was no cell phone reception. I knew the road I was on but I didn’t know where along it was, nor how far either direction I was to the road that would head back to my car, of classically I went the wrong direction, the closer of the two was two bends away, vs probably 10 miles. I started to panic but right about that time a couple of guys pulled over down the road a little ways, they just happened to trying out their new GPS unit and was checking out a road they thought might lead to a normally closed off area. I basically ran towards them flashing my almost dead flash light so they wouldn’t drive away. Fortunately for me they were kind of enough to give this idiot a ride back to civilization.

As dumb and stupid as it was I don’t think I will ever look back and not smile at this experience.

14 Nick Lowery September 30, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Excellent advice.
An Eagle Scout myself, the only situation I’ve been in to use these tactics was of contrived desperation, but they helped!
I experienced altitude sickness once when I moved across the country and climbed a mountain the next week, it was awful, while your advice on taking a break is good, it didn’t work for me, I had to turn around after my hour break.
Definitely agree with the “dying is not manly” idea, a recreational hike can end dangerously if one’s ego gets involved.

15 Mike September 30, 2010 at 4:32 pm

I did just this when I decided to go hiking by myself in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I had my eyes fixed on reaching the summit of Mt. Laffayette. The summit was at 5249ft and I figured no problem. I woke up that morning and headed for the parking lot and that’s when I noticed there were going to be a few problems. Problem 1: the weather. It was very cloudy and beginning to rain. Problem 2: improper clothing. I was wearing a t-shirt and khaki pants. With my young adventurous spirit I decided to forgo these challenges and headed up the mountain. During the climb I realized I was way out of shape… but I kept going. I finally reached Greenleaf Hut, about a mile from the summit after two and a half hours of hiking. During that time, I had become light headed and my ability to maintain a steady footing was severely compromised. I stuck around the hut for a good hour so my clothes would have a chance to dry and I could get something warm to drink. Some hikers were just coming back from the peak and they talked about how the weather was terrible; frigid temperatures and sleet. With this news, I decided to put my pride aside and head back down the mountain. Better to live to fight another day than not live at all. I had driven from ohio to connecticut to visit friends, than from connecticut to new hampshire to climb a mountain; spent hundreds of dollars on gas and lodging only to be turned back by the weather a mile from my goal. A lesson in humility? Maybe. But it was one hell of an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything

16 Thomas September 30, 2010 at 9:45 pm

I wouldn’t say I underestimated the hike, but I was caught off guard by some of the things that happened to me because of a hike up a 12,000 foot mountain in Arizona. I was in shape for the hike, but the lunch I brought was too small to fill me up and I didn’t fully hydrate myself. When I got down from the mountain, all I wanted to do was eat and drink. I never saw that side-effect coming. For two days, nothing would fill me up; I probably could have done one of those “Man vs Food” challenges with time to spare. It was crazy.

17 Chad Ritchie October 1, 2010 at 9:30 am

There are some great stories here. I wonder if any of you would mind sharing what you have changed since your experiences? What precautions do you take now that you may not have before?

18 Ryan Stefani October 1, 2010 at 12:54 pm

If you plan on hiking for more than a day you should learn orienteering first. Learning how to orient a map and use bearings are very important skills. While using a GPS is fun and easy, a compass is more accurate when your hiking in less than fair weather, heavy woods, or mountains. Once you get really good at orienteering you can compete in races, which is really fun with friends or family.

19 Chris Kavanaugh October 1, 2010 at 1:37 pm

I recommend THE 2 OZ BACKPACER from 10 SPEED PRESS in Berkeley as a superb guide to hiking. It explains a lot of psychological mistakes and has practical kit suggestions ( except for vapor barrier liners ) and simple tricks to make the experience a good one.
My gripe are people who pull out G.I. Joe pace counting beads and think a walk is a Fort Zinderneuf march or die contest.
The new Zealand kyaking club once gave a superb piece of advise ” Buy the very best equippment you can, but never undertake a trip based solely on having it.”
The local blue hair ladies of our local sierra club hate me. I’m always dawdling on the trail looking at salamanders or gulping from my twin glass bottles of Perrier water ( I hate the taste of iodine tablets.) I’m also the one who spotted a young mountain lion stalking our Fellowship of the Ring. A hike can be right outside your cabin door if you slow down to look.

20 Thomas October 1, 2010 at 5:08 pm


If I ever again do something as hard core as that, I will first find an all-you-want buffet so I know where to go for dinner. I don’t expect the food to be very good, but as they say, “Hunger is the best sauce.”

I would also recommend taking along someone with a Wilderness First Responder certification, if you happen to know one, particularly for multi-day hikes. WFR is a step up from first aid, teaching you how to treat some medical emergencies or at least keep a patient alive until you get back to civilization.

21 Phil October 2, 2010 at 2:58 pm

When I was younger the first scramble I did with my father was Mount Rae (In Alberta)….the book called in a moderate scramble but everybody on the mountain was amazed that it was our first scramble and told us that it was closer to a difficult than moderate.

We turned around part way up the ridge, 20 minutes from the top because the exposure was a little too much for us to handle. We returned a couple years later and knocked off the whole thing and have been scrambling our way up mountains ever since.

22 bagman October 4, 2010 at 8:21 am

Any tips for getting in shape before tackling a climb?

23 Chad Ritchie October 4, 2010 at 4:56 pm


Practice. Before any long trek you should know exactly how far you can hike with full gear and how much elevation gain you can handle. The big climb is not the time to find your limitations. Build up to your goal distance and goal elevation gain for any given day.


Good idea :) Packing on calories before a big trip can be helpful. A tip for everyone else: Drink plenty of fluids though, as our bodies pull a lot of water from our system to digest larger meals.

And either having a WFR certificate, or having someone in your group be certified as a Wilderness First Responder is excellent.

24 Swank October 12, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Underestimating a hike is a scary thing for two reasons mentally beyond all the physical ramifications that have been discussed. The first mental dissappointment is knowing that you have not planned correctly or researched the trail, hike, accomodations (water spots, camping sites, and what not) which is easy to do when you let the manly careless attitude get a little out of control. Remember it is manly to collect data, create the plan off input and then execute the plan . The second reason is finding your own limits were less than what you had anticipated and hoped they would be. As men it is great to push our limits and to metephorically put another notch on the man belt, but what we do after realizing our own failures really define what kind of man we are.
Two friends and myself just completed the Grand Canyon one day rim-to-rim 24 mile hike in ten hours this past Saturday. I really had not put in the time and training this expedition requires but I am active and was able finish. I was well prepared having hiked the South Rim and camped at the bottom several times I knew the best plan was to finish with the South Rim since I knew that trail. 20 miles into this adventure my legs were now letting me know that they were at their limits with every step bringing that uncomfortable about to cramp feeling. This is of course all uphill since we went down the North Rim and now are hiking up the South Rim. I had two things happen to me during this difficult and a little painful 4 mile trek with my legs feeling like daggers were stabbed into them. The first was I was amazed at what we can push our bodies to do with mental strength and second I was inspired to get into better shape so this would be an easier venture so to not think I could take on more than my body is ready for. The trip was a succes with all of us completing this Man-goal we have had for a couple years and the accomplishment was well worth every bit of pain endured.

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