People get better by putting time and effort into understanding and practicing the components that are necessary to complete a task, job, or even a sport, like backpacking. I recently read an article by Tim Herrera in his NYTimes Smarter Living column that challenged my thinking about improving my long distance backpacking skills. Here’s the article: Just Working Harder Won’t Get You Ahead. Working Smarter Will. In sum, Herrera postultates about variables that affect skill levels in advanced performers. Herrera claims that the strongest predictor of skill wasn’t time spent practicing; rather, it was time spent in serious study. Unfortunately, Herrera draws on just one example- the “sport” of chess, as his example.
In my experience hugely more productive to engage in the activities and practice the basic principles that bolster one’s chances of success than spend that equal time in serious study of backpacking books, websites, and videos.
Backpacking and hiking are activities that should be as natural as waking up or going to sleep- after all, once we learn to walk as babies, life is just putting one foot in front of the other, right? Well, yes and no.
Walking is easy until you turn your ankle and sprain it, or worse. It’s easy unless you find yourself off-trail in a unfamiliar area, or if you need to cross a raging stream that has the power to sweep your feet out from under you.
Walking is no problem, until you are walking on ice slanted on an impossibly steep slope, or a bear rips into your backpack at night and absconds with your food.
Experience trumps familiarity, which brings up another pitfall of trying to master a set of physical and mental skills by reading, listening to, or observing others engaged in the practice. You fall into the pit when you follow up unreliable advice that comes your way due to the ability of media to make a pitch look polished and professional when in fact it may even be uninformed ofreven false. For example, I attended a workshop in April 2010 in Southern California as I was starting my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail dubbed ” the foot talk” where a former PCT-thru hiker told us anxious group of wanna-bees that blisters were inevitable. At the time, I had just switched to a pair of military issue desert boots that were supplied by New Balance that were loaded with mesh panels to dump moisture. I was fortunate to complete that hike blister free, as I have with any other long distance hike since then. Sure there were a few more things that I had learned bout taking care of my feet that I applied on my hikes, but the point is that experts don’t know what is best for you, and maybe not even themselves.
I bought a new tent this year- a 12′ diameter tipi , with one 6’10” pole, that required serious study and practice to set up. I brought my new tent to Florida this past January where I was camping with my best friend Edward. I had watched two videos about setting the unit up as well as read the instruction sheet that accompanied the tent. I also read all the customer comments on the website about setting it up. I laughed when I read the comment about the poor guy who took 2 hours to set his tipi up the first time in an actual snowstorm. Would you believe that it also took Edward and me two hours to set up the tent, and that was in warm weather on perfectly flat ground ? The written instructions were confusing, and we ended up devising a much simpler method for doing the job right, getting the setup down to 10 minutes after two hours of actual engagement in the act of putting the thing up taught and secure.
In Zen Body-Being, Peter Ralston writes about developing physical skills, power, and even grace. In 1978 Ralston became the first non-Asian ever to win the World Championship full-contact martial arts tournament held in the Republic of China.
Ralston writes about the wisdom of experience: ” Studying techniques and training ritualized movement may be useful, but these are ‘details’ within a larger picture. We need to be able to discern the sometimes-subtle difference between just thinking about something and truly experiencing something. One of the simplest ways to bridge this gap is to involve ourselves with hand-on experimentation and investigation.”
So, make 2018 the year you experience the outdoors and engage in hiking and backpacking more than you spend those same hours on screen while sitting on the couch. Set a goal to get out for many hours, where you might be blessed enough to be able to walk though rain, snow, wind, cold, and dark and have the realization that walking might just be putting one foot in front of the other, but it isn’t easy, and it doesn’t have to be done on blistered feet.