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Vail Backcountry: Staying strong all day in the backcountry

Donny Shefchik
Backcountry Turns
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –There is a story I like to occasionally tell – and it’s telling requires a little latitude, so please bear with me. I base the story on a few hard facts, a bit of nutritional understanding, lots of personal experience and perhaps a dose of embellishment. It goes like this:

I get to tour the backcountry with lots of people – friends and clients alike. When I perceive a long day, I ‘start out slowly then back-off.” Some of my touring partners don’t embrace this philosophy and therefore, I find myself occupying a position in the rear early in the day. I’ll take my turns breaking trail but I keep those efforts short in favor of sharing the physical effort.

Throughout the day I try to minimize effort, eliminate struggle and keep a comfortable, steady pace. It seems I’m always taking up the rear, until later in the day when I’m continually looking back to check on my partners. OK, that’s the embellishment and ‘in my dreams’ part, but this does happen.

But how can we maintain a consistent energy level throughout the day and finish a tour with some reserves on hand?

I’ll focus on several factors that I believe contribute to having a steady, comfortable tour where you conserve energy and sufficiently replenish your fuel load throughout the day. These factors can be divided into two categories.

The first is the focus of today’s article: your physical well-being. That is, taking care of yourself and being mindful of what your body needs to remain strong for the day. The second, and what we’ll cover in the next article, is your touring technique – those skills that increase efficiency and minimize the work load.

Ever heard this saying, “Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty?” I couldn’t agree more. Food throughout the day is what works for me.

Each rest stop includes a few bites of my continual lunch. I’m not a big energy bar or goo guy although these products have their place during the day. I choose a sandwich, some cheese, slice of turkey, salami, fish, something salty and maybe an apple with peanut butter. I try to save the chocolate and various sweets for later in the day.

Fluid intake is perhaps the most critical part of the energy formula. Dehydration can be subtle and lead to lethargy, body temperature problems and poor decision-making. Being hydrated helps maintain efficient metabolism and keeps your energy level at a consistent and optimal level. This means both starting your tour in a well-hydrated state, as well as drinking fluids throughout the tour.

I carry “road water,” sipping on that during the drive to the trailhead, and in my pack I carry a one-liter bottle and often a small thermos of hot, sweet tea. Most importantly, remember to drink what you carry. Don’t save it for the ride home.

Controlling body temperature is also an important element in staying strong all day. Overheating zaps your physical as well as mental energy. Being cold burns fuel reserves at a higher rate, potentially leaving your furnace without adequate fuel. Controlling body temperature during a tour is a learned skill requiring not only the proper clothing but the patience and foresight to deal with the changes throughout the day.

Lastly, taking care of yourself also includes managing your mental well-being. I have seen and felt the tiring effects of anxiety on a tour. Thoughts such as, “I can’t keep up,” “I’m slowing everyone down” and “I’m flailing when others aren’t” are all signs of touring angst that can drain your physical and mental energy. Be realistic in planning a tour, being aware of all skill levels in your group along with each member’s fitness and overall touring shape. Agreeing on a pace that works for everyone is an important factor.

Lastly, if a rest stop or lunch allows the time, sit down for a few minutes. Hours of standing up is tiring. Put your hat on, maybe a sweater and enjoy the view.

Donny Shefchik is a senior guide and field director for Paragon Guides. He has spent nearly 30 years earning his turns in the Vail backcountry and Tenth Mountain Hut System.


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