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The Fat Girl's Guide to Hiking in Challenging Conditions
Posted by Toni in Sports + Recreation
Image by LizMarie

Seasonal transitions can make heading outdoors to walk or hike downright intimidating: What if it rains? What do I do about mud puddles on the trail? How did I get roped into doing this 5K walk in the park for charity? What's this snow doing here--I thought it was too late in the year for that! Wherever you'll be hiking or strolling outdoors, it can be scary worrying about getting wet, being cold, or falling or twisting an ankle. We've got good news - it's possible to hike comfortably in any weather with a little preparation and know-how--read on for some solutions to get you past many of the most common hiking hurdles.

First, get your head in the game.

I'm not much of a sports fan, nor do I play one on TV, but I did marry one. And something I've observed while watching heated competitions with my husband is how vital the mental component is to any sport. If a couple of players start looking defeated when they fail to score, you can see it reverberate throughout the team. The most important piece of gear to pack is your brain. I understand the fear of falling, possibly more than many people after breaking my leg slipping on ice. While pregnant. (Good times). Carrying extra pounds can skew our center of gravity and affect how we judge our movements, especially if we haven't been active in a while and need to recalibrate our responses. Hiking with that knowledge in mind is important, but shouldn't be a deal-breaker. Based on my own trail-tested trial and error, if you're taking baby steps and worrying over every ice patch or root hidden under leaves, how much fun will you have? Also, I think if you invite disaster, it's more likely to get a nasty toe in the door, so whenever possible, be careful but carry an "act as if" attitude that you're safe and strong and moving with purpose, and you'll enjoy your experience much more.

Outerwear

We've covered hiking wear basics in our Guide to Hot Weather Hiking and the companion  Guide to Cold Weather Hiking (what can we say? We really like hiking, and we cover it here often because just about anyone at any fitness level can do it). To put it simply, dressing for the weather will guarantee a comfortable, and therefore enjoyable, hike. For rainy weather, there are some choices in plus size rain gear, but as usual, the big outdoor retailers like REI don't seem to offer much. There's  several to choose from at Land's End, which ranges up to size 3X, this packable one from Travelsmith goes up to 3X, this one from Woman Within comes in 4X, and I hope you're sitting down (to lace your hiking boots), because Junonia's Cloudburst comes in a 6X! As seasons change you can often find steals in colder weather clothing so look for deep discounts on fleece layers - you want a breathable-but-warm fabric that doesn't stay wet when it gets wet to prevent hypothermia on the trail.

Boots or shoes

This is not the time to stroll outdoors in your 5-year-old Keds. For hiking any distance, particularly on tricky terrain, you'll want boots or shoes with serious ankle support and soles with a good grip. I'm a fan of trail runners and mid-height hiking boots, and there are ample brands to choose from. I know Keen is good for wider feet, though I haven't found them to be as sturdy as I'd like (please feel free to correct me here), and I love Montrail for my narrow size 10s. For a truly nerdilicious resource, Backpacker magazine runs an annual Gear Guide every March that's packed with hiking boot and shoe reviews (worth checking out at your local library or you can order back issues here for $7).

Hiking gear

Depending on the trail conditions, there's more than one item that can keep you safely on the trail. Like these awesome little workhorses called YakTrax, which attach to the bottom of your boot or shoe to provide traction on slippery surfaces. Trekking (or hiking) poles are another item worth a serious look, but they come with a bit of a learning curve and should never serve as a substitute for carefully planting your feet with every step. What trekking poles can do is take some of the load off your knees during steep inclines and downhills, and they do help stabilize you on uneven ground. Backpacker magazine's gear editor, Kristen Hostetter, shows how to use hiking poles in this brief video, and good outfitters will offer demos and tips in stores before you buy.

Moves to strengthen your body for hiking

Backpacker magazine has a few "spring training" moves for getting into trail-ready condition (if a full lunge is too much for you right now, check out these excellent alternatives and modifications at the About.com guide to Exercise), and here's a great article on strengthening ankles at home. And don't forget to stretch! The Fat Girl's Guide to Stretching is a great starting point.

Here are some specific tips for navigating tricky terrain:

* Ice and snow - If you're doing an early spring hike and there's only a couple of inches of snow to deal with, YakTrax are your friend here. If not, having warm, sturdy, supportive boots will get you through just fine. For deeper snow, snowshoes are a must - check out The Fat Girl's Guide to Snowshoeing and Cold Weather Hiking for pointers on getting started.

* Rocky, root-filled terrain - Here's where getting - and keeping - your head in the game is crucial. I just did a hike on a leaf-covered trail with golf-ball-sized rocks and protruding roots. Sure, I stumbled once or twice at first, but I didn't let the precariousness get the best of me. Wear supportive footwear (this is a case where mid-height to full hiking boots are a good idea), keep a steady pace that feels comfortable for you, and make sure to keep a firm heel-to-toe stride.

* Muddy and slippery, with puddles and wet leaves - If you're hiking during this time of year, chances are you don't mind a little mud and water; tread cautiously over any slippery patches. If your boots or shoes aren't already waterproof or resistant, you can treat them with products like NikWax. Wearing socks made of non-cotton fabrics (like SmartWool or Thorlo will help keep your feet dry if your footwear gets wet.

* Frequent, steep inclines - Here's where trekking poles can be your friend, but knowing your abilities and limitations is important here, too. Because I have asthma, going higher means I must make frequent stops while ascending steep hills. But for me, hiking is about taking in the scenery and not a race, pausing is a normal and welcome part of any steep hikes I take.

* Stream crossings and/or slippery rocks - This article from the Orange County Register is filled with common sense tips on crossing streams safely - crucial to staying relatively dry and avoiding tragic and often preventable accidents. During springtime, water levels can rise and currents can increase due to runoff from snow melting, so get a really good sense of the current and depth and don't hesitate turn back if you're at all unsure of the safety of crossing.

* Sand - Unless there are nasty burrs or goat head stickers (huh? check out this entertaining description) - i.e., smooth sand dunes vs. wild and woolly desert - you can swap the boots/trail runners for rugged (but super-comfy) outdoor sandals like Tevas or Chacos. To keep ankles steady, focus on walking at a comfortable pace instead of hurrying, which leads to stumbling and staggering instead of striding.

Readers, let's hear it! What's the trickiest hike you've done? How about your favorite hiking gear? Any brands or other resources not mentioned here we should know about? Share them in the comments.