Tag Archives: Tech Tips

How should I train for the John Muir Trail?

If you are like us, you are already fantasizing about you upcoming summer trips. Your daydreams contain images of early morning mugs of coffee, spectacular alpine views, and high-fives as you summit a particularly challenging pass. This begs the question: How should I train for the John Muir Trail?

At SYMG we strongly believe that training can be FUN while also being effective. In general, the best way to train for hiking is to get outside and hike. However, there are some nuances that we would like to share. The difference between someone who has trained and someone who hasn’t is generally noticeable on day 1 of the trip. While we don’t offer a prescribed outline for training, we do offer general guidelines that have been “time tested” over the years. These guidelines can be typically summarized in five different categories:

  1. Cardio (aerobic capacity)
  2. Muscle strength (not just your legs!)
  3. Endurance (elevation not just distance)
  4. Acclimatization (easy to forget)
  5. Mental (head in the game)

Cardio: For most people, training for cardio can be the most accessible in terms of options. You can train for this in your living room, at your home gym or even a neighborhood park. There are a number of ways to train for cardio, so find one that fits your style best. Cycling, swimming, running or even just a fast walk on hilly terrain can all get the job done. The main thing with cardio training is to start with a set workout and then slowly increase it. You should feel your heart rate and respirations increasing without going “anaerobic” (panting for breath). The goal is to maximize the amount of time before you become anaerobic and to minimize your recovery time once you do. If you have access to a heart rate or power meter these can be helpful tools to monitor your progress. Otherwise, using a notebook to track your progress can also be beneficial.

Muscle Strength: Besides cardio training, it does help to spend some time specifically focused on building muscle strength. While many people still find climbing that first big pass to be tough, getting your muscles ready can help “soften the blow”. It’s easy to put all of your attention on building leg strength. Legs certainly do a lot of the “heavy lifting”, but you want to also consider shoulder and back exercises. These muscle groups do their fair share of the work as you’re lifting and carrying a backpack. Strong core support is also important to balancing on uneven terrain. Again, start with a baseline routine that feels moderately challenging and then take it up a notch each consecutive workout (while also listening to your body). Adding weight can also be valuable with your end goal to be at or beyond your anticipated total pack weight (including water weight).

Endurance: Building endurance takes time. It cannot be accomplished overnight, and this should be a key component to your workout plan. There are many ways to build endurance but you should consider the amount of time you are able to exercise for (at a moderate to difficult level) and what your recovery time is after your workout. This recovery time includes not only energy, but muscle strength and stability. Scheduling consecutive days can imitate what its like on some of our longer trips. We often remind people not to forget about training with elevation gain in mind rather than just distance. To be able to hike up 3,000’ ft to the top of a 10,000’+ pass (or even two) with a pack on, at elevation, is what you should focus on. The key is to be able to do this on consecutive days and still feel like you are having “fun” while doing it.

Acclimatization: This can be difficult to train for depending on what type of access you live near. If you have the ability to workout at a higher elevation you can incorporate this into your plan. If you live near sea level and don’t have access to elevation, increasing your cardio workout is helpful. Some guests have planned to arrive early to start the acclimatization process. If time doesn’t allow for this, not to worry! Many of our itineraries take this into consideration with shorter mileages and elevation gains built into the first couple days of your trip. Another tip that can help is to keep close tabs on your hydration on the days leading up to the trip and even during the first days while you are on the trip. Eating carbohydrates may also help the acclimatization process.

Mental: Mental training can be achieved using a few different methods. Having put the time in to train is certainly one aspect that can help you fee ready mentally as well as physically. One recommendation we give to newer backpackers is to take a personal trip using all of the gear and equipment they plan on using during their trip. This can really help familiarize with the camping essentials and make the transition between the trail-to-camp, and back-to-the-trail, a much easier process overall.

With any training plan, the main goal is that you are as prepared as possible for the investment of time and resources you have already made. Evacuating a trip is not anyone’s idea of a good time and is something we try to avoid if at all possible. Putting the time in before you arrive allows you to not only complete your trip but also have FUN while you are out on the trail. Being able to be fully present in the experience and appreciate the landscape makes putting in the hours to train totally worth it!

-Graham Ottley

SYMG Guide and General Manager

 

Crag Pack Essentials

When it’s time to pack for a day at the climbing crags we all know to pack a rope and anchor set-up, but so many other things can sneak into your bag! There are lots of other pieces of gear out there with the potential to make your day safer, more efficient, and more fun. The trick is to make thoughtful choices that will improve your experience without overloading your pack. We’ve asked SYMG Rock Guide Riley West to share some insight as to what he carries in his Deuter Guide 35+ cragging pack.  

Through my years of guiding and climbing, I’ve experimented with many different pieces of gear. I’ve gone ultra light, ultra heavy, blue, orange, big, small. Name a piece of gear and I probably have one buried in the back of my closet, waiting for a yard sale. After sinking all my expendable income into aluminum and nylon whatchamacallits, I’ve finally settled on six staples that make it into my pack every time I go climbing, whether leading Guided Rock Climbing Trips or just with my own friends.

The Essentials

  1. ATC Guide

I’m not talking regular old ATC or gri-gri. The plaquette device, as it’s also known, serves purposes beyond giving a top rope belay. My ATC Guide is an important rescue tool when used in “guide mode”, enabling me to work hands free. I can haul someone through a tough section, belay off my harness, and rappel with two strands of rope, all with a reliable piece of metal.

  1. Prussik Cord

Every time you rappel, you have two options: rely on your superman grip strength to hold the brake strand, or put a friction hitch on the brake strand. A small loop of 5mm cord is all your need to back up your rappels. They weigh almost nothing, cost almost nothing, and keep you safe. I promise it’ll be the best 2 dollars you ever spend.

  1. Double Shoulder-length Sling

A sewn 48-inch runner, as it is also known, is the transformer of the climbing gear world. I use my 4 -foot slings as anchors, friction hitches, chest harnesses, tethers, and ascenders regularly. I think this is a piece of gear that will always exist, purely because of its versatility. For a few ounces, you cannot find a more useful piece of climbing gear.

  1. Belay Gloves

As a full time rock-climbing guide, there are certain things that need to keep working every single day. My hands may look broken, cracked, and callused, but they are my most precious resource. They pay my rent and keep me safe. I use my belay gloves every time I belay or rappel to prevent the all-too-common cut, scrape, or nick. And as an added bonus, I don’t have to scrub aluminum and dirt from my palms every evening.

  1. Camera and Phone

My favorite pastime is to text my parents pictures of me swinging around in scary places. They love it, I’m sure. And if you take nothing else from this article, at least remember to send your mom pictures now and then. Joking aside, it’ll be pretty hard to call for a rescue if you forgot your phone at home. Don’t get stuck without a way to call for help.

  1. Snack

I get really hungry. Not like waiting for delivery pizza hungry, more like a hobbit skipping second breakfast hungry. Hunger leads to afternoon yawns and yawns lead to me dropping carabiners, cams, etc. My suggestion is to buy a handful of Clif bars and distribute them among your climbing packs as a secret stash of energy in the event you forget lunch (or second lunch).

How to get in shape for your next adventure!

By SYMG Guide Scott Morris

You’ve decided where you’re going, and you’ve decided when you’ll go there. Your travel plans are coming together and you’re wrapping your head around the packing list. One important step remains – in order to get the most out of your mountain adventure, you may want to revisit your fitness before you arrive in the Sierra.

Lifestyle
Before starting any kind of fitness regimen, examine your lifestyle, and ask yourself if your daily routines are setting you up for success. Getting the right amount of sleep, drinking enough water, managing stress, and eating a diverse diet of healthy foods are all going to have you getting more out of your fitness work and will have you arriving on the first day of your trip ready to immerse yourself in the splendor of the High Sierra.

Light Cardio

If you’re just starting out a fitness regimen, it’s important to have patience with yourself. Everyone is starting out at a different point, so if you haven’t exercised in a while, start out with a thirty minute walk on flat ground, a few times a week. Add ten minutes per walk or an extra walk each week until you’re at an hour of swift walking five days a week. Once this is comfortable, aim to maintain sixty minutes of active movement most days, but work to increase the intensity. To do this you can add a day per week of running, cycling, or hiking, whatever you feel comfortable with and enjoy. You can expand your walks and get into some hillier terrain, always shooting for that goal of sixty minutes of challenge per day in the weeks and months leading up to your trip. Cycling is a popular way for many people to increase their cardiovascular fitness. It’s a good next step because it simultaneous engages respiratory endurance with the muscular systems of the leg that are relied on while hiking.

Muscular Cardio
The last step of preparation is muscular cardio. There’s two exercises here I’ll recommend above all others, and the first is swimming. Swimming provides a good combination of muscular endurance and cardio, all while providing a full-body workout to a range of muscular systems. If you’re not an experienced swimmer, get a kickboard and hold it in front of you while kicking with your legs; you’re strengthening the muscles of your core and legs and getting a cardio workout at the same time.

The second and, in my opinion, best way to prepare for a backpacking trip is to move your body uphill with a bit of weight on your back. Start small – just a few books in a backpack is a good place to start. If you live near a steep hill, make a few laps up and down with your backpack on, while wearing the shoes you’ll be using for your trip. If you don’t live in hill country, go to your local gym with your pack and boots and get on a Stairmaster machine, or a treadmill that has a variable inclination function. As this becomes more comfortable, add more weight – books, water bottles, whatever you have at hand that’s heavy – and do more laps. After a few stories on the stairmaster or laps on a steep hill, your lungs will start to burn, well preparing you for the challenge you might find at the end of a day in the mountains, at altitude. Remember that lifestyle is an important part of preparation: get into the habit of staying hydrated, and always make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to recover after each workout.

The Take Home Message
Physical challenge is an important part of getting into the mountains. If that which is gained too easily is esteemed too lightly, then by working to get to these places we’re increasing the payoff for ourselves. It’s a challenge, but a manageable challenge, and with a bit of preparation beforehand you can arrive for the first day of your trip confident, ready to dive fully into the adventure and appreciate your surroundings for all they have to offer.

SYMG Guide Scott Morris specializes in our long-distance backpacking trips. He has through-hiked Vermont’s 280-mile Long Trail in just 9.5 days, has participated in several 100-mile ultramarathons, a few Ironman Triathlons, and many more trail races. You can read more about Scott and the rest of the SYMG Guide Staff Here.

Tech Tips: Alpine Daypack Essentials

Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada certainly have their share of classic Alpine Mountaineering Peaks. Mt Conness is certainly one of our Yosemite favorites that quickly comes to mind. While the immediate planning requirements surrounding these trips become route choice and technical gear choices, choosing what to bring in your pack is just as important. Following are some considerations for single-day alpine pushes:

SYMG Guide David Merin on the N Ridge of Yosemite's Mt Conness

SYMG Guide David Merin on the N Ridge of Yosemite’s Mt Conness

 

  • Pack. 25-40 liters is typical. The larger volumes make sense if you need to pack climbing gear to the route.  I prefer a very streamlined pack with few features. One big compartment, maybe a second zippered lid for small items. Top-loading is the way to go, as zippers will undoubtedly be the part of the pack that fails.  The waistbelt and harness system should be thin and not restrict your movement. Always choose fit over styling when purchasing a pack. Lately I’ve been using the Mountain Hardware Summit Rocket, which fits the above description plus is made from reinforced fabrics for durability and has hauling loops for more difficult climbing sections. It also has a removable framesheet that doubles as a sleeping pad for unexpected bivys. And it only weighs one pound.
  • Raingear. You’re probably not planning on climbing during a storm, but mountain weather is notoriously unpredictable. Storms do kick up and ultralight rainpants and jacket are essential for survival. You can improvise a lot of things in the backcountry, but waterproof isn’t one of them.
  • Extra clothes. Let’s face it: We’ve all been benighted. Perhaps you underestimated the time it takes to complete the route, or maybe there was an accident requiring you to spend the night or hike move slowly in the dark/cold. A wool hat is essential. Most of the guides here also bring a lightweight wool under-layer to throw on. It weight only ounces and adds an exponential amount of warmth during an unforeseen bivy. A synthetic “puffy” jacket, preferably with a hood always makes the trip, regardless of the season. If you’re not already wearing a mid-layer piece (my favorites is the WildThings power-stretch hoody), pack that in your bag too.
  • Headlamp. Get one with varied beams. Save battery life with weaker settings and route-find with the strong beam. Lots of time can be lost searching for descent routes and/or rappel stations with a weak beam. Make sure you have fresh batteries.
  • Food. High calorie snacks with a good mix of quickly digestible sugars and slow-burning fats. Consider some Gatorade to make a weak mix for flavor, enticing you to drink more often and for an electrolyte boost.
  • Small first aid kit. Everyone has his/her own acceptable level of risk. Some folks bring cigarettes and a flask whiskey. For others, gauze, athletic/duct tape, and alcohol swabs fit the bill. The key is to minimize weight and space while bringing along more essential items.
  • Route map/description. Consider covering it with clear packing tape for protection.
  • Compass/whistle. A compass is always a good idea, and you should know how to properly use it (by the way “orienting a map” using a compass does not constitute knowing how to use it). Get a compass with a mirror for signaling in the event of an emergency. Also bring a whistle for the same reason. These two methods are much more effective than trying to yell to rescuers (and your injury might dictate you not being able to yell).
  • Water. Nalgene and stainless steel bottles are fine, but heavy. Try an old Gatorade bottle with a custom (re: dirtbag) duct-tape handle. An extra 2-liter soda bottle can ride in the pack for refills and crushes down to save space as water is used. In springtime or in rainy/wet regions, consider bringing a straw. Keep it in your chest pocket and drink as you go when trickles and pools turn up on the climb. This can save a lot of water weight in your pack, but don’t depend on it entirely. Personally, I’m hard on my stuff and I’ve had so many issues with various bladders that I wrote them off years ago.
  • Knife/multitool. Terribly useful.
  • Sunglasses. Easy to forget during those 3am alpine starts.
  • Sunscreen/chapstick. Depending on the region and weather.
  • Cellphone/camera. Sure, why not. For a few additional ounces an iPhone or equivalent does double duty for documenting and checking in with your support crew.
  • Bivy/Foam Pad. For really big days in less than ideal conditions and/or when there’s a good chance of getting benighted, a lightweight bivy sack and ½ piece of foam pad will keep you warmer and drier than your clothing alone can provide. It just may be the difference between a comfortable night vs emergency situation. For bivy’s forget about comfort features. Get something lightweight and small because chances are you won’t actually use it. I use the MSR E-bivy. For really lightweight packs, the insulite pad also does double-duty as a back pad/structural component and makes for a nice seat in spring snow conditions.

Of course, don’t forget to leave a few celebratory Sierra Nevada Pale Ales in the car for your return!

Tech Tips: Down vs Synthetic

SYMG Guides Colby and Laura wearing Columbia's Ultrachange synthetic jackets on a damp and snowy day in Yosemite Valley

One questions we get a lot in the SYMG office is regarding down vs synthetic insulation. These are fill choices for all of the sleeping bag and “puffy” jackets. Let’s explore the differences of each and discuss situations where each one excels.

Down fill is very light and compressible. It is typically given a “fill” rating between 500 and 900, indicating the quality of the down. The higher the number the lighter, more compressible and more expensive the piece will be. For any given temperature rating, down is lighter and more compressible than a synthetic fill. It also has a longer lifespan. The major drawback of down is that if it gets wet, it is utterly useless and takes a very long time to dry, even in ideal conditions. A waterproof dry-sack will keep your bag dry even when dunked in a creek, but humidity is more difficult to contend with, and accidents do happen.

Synthetic fills are man-made hollow fibers that trap heat. Their major benefits are that they retain up to 60% of their warmth even when wet and are less expensive than down for any given temperature rating. The downside is that they are heavier and less compressible than down.

So, which to use? I like to think of my gear choices in terms of a system.  In this case, we want our system to be lightweight, take up a minimum volume in our pack, and we need insulative value even in the event that our gear gets wet. Packing a synthetic bag and jacket will certainly keep us warmer if wet, but will be heavier than we’d like. All down runs the risk of having no insulating pieces if it gets wet. So, the combination that works best is perhaps a down sleeping bag and synthetic jacket. Since the bag is heavier and bulkier than the jacket by nature, it’s a good candidate for down. Meanwhile, the synthetic jacket will work if the down bag gets wet.

Especially in the sunny Sierra, this system works great. However, there are times when other systems are preferable. For instance, on kayaking trips or backpacking in rainy, wet forests of Olympic National Park, you may prefer to have all synthetics since there is a good chance of getting your stuff wet. On winter mountaineering trips, all down might be best because there’s little chance of getting them wet (everything is frozen). This minimizes weight and space, making room for all the extra winter gear.