Lessons from a Born-Again Hiker

I hadn’t really hiked since I left Colorado in 1997. But after discovering my pup loves hiking, we set out to tackle the 52 Hike Challenge last year. With my pup Peeve by my side, we set out to hike at least one mile each week in 2020. We started in larger Chicago parks, then worked our way up to local forest preserves and eventually hit a national park and part of the Appalachian Trail on a road trip. Here are a few things I learned along the way that might be helpful to other new or renewed hikers.

Max Patch on the Appalachian Trail

There’s nature in Nature
I love the fresh air, beauty, peace and calm that comes with hiking. But not always the “nature” that comes with it — ticks, critters, wild animals, murderers. Ok maybe not that last part, but don’t recommend true crime podcasts on the trails. A few months into the challenge I didn’t need the crutch of that one earbud and ditched it all together.

I definitely got more comfortable with some nature aspects as our journey went on — didn’t even flinch when we spotted a snake on the trail in September. But that foggy day loop on the Appalachian Trail with mama-elk-in-the-area warnings was the fastest three-miles I’ve ever done.

Illinois is a Very Flat State
You know this if you’ve ever flown into O’Hare or Midway. Or driven across the state. But who knew Illinois is the second flattest state in the U.S., right behind Florida. Consider yourself educated! Was grateful for this fact early in our adventures, but looking for more challenging terrain with elevation gains got more and more difficult as the year went on.

We’re looking forward to venturing to southern Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan to find hills, maybe even mountains!) once its safe to travel.

Plus Size Gear and Clothes are Still Lacking
Ugh I hate writing this part, it feels so 2019. But it’s still so true. And so frustrating. While many brands are getting better about this, there’s still much work to be done. Particularly in daypacks. I tried no less than six packs before finding one that would fit both boobs and a belly.

Rumor has it Gregory is launching more inclusive sizing in 2021 and I’m here for it. Merrell also recently launched a new extended sizing shoe in partnership with Unlikely Hikers. But all shoe brands need a wide shoe in better colors than boring beige.

My Preferences Developed Quickly
I like looped trails versus out-and-back. Less crowded weekday hikes and less crowded trails are my jam. Which completely contradicts my nature fears, since we were often the only people on the trail. Yup, it can be scary, especially the first time on a trail. And if you’re prone to fall, like me who drags her feet when she’s tired and trips on tree roots, rocks and the dog leash, you spend a lot of time wondering how you’d get back to your car.

Tracking the hike (via the All Trails app) helped a lot and looking at more than one map (e.g., All Trails and forest preserve map) before heading out gave me more confidence. But I’m definitely adding a basic compass skills course to my 2021 to-do list. And a knife for my pack. And maybe a hiking buddy.

You can catch a glimpse of all 52 of our hikes (in 45 seconds!) here. See you on the trails in 2021!

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