The Blog (archived)

Category: Hiking

Is It Ever Too Cold To Go Hiking?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

My personal preference for hiking, and exercise in general, is “the colder, the better”. However, most people I know avoid outdoor activity when they feel it is too cold, and think it strange that anyone would want to go hiking in the middle of winter. So is there any truth in the belief that it can be too cold for exercise?

I found some enlightenment recently in a New York Times article titled “Too Cold to Exercise? Try Another Excuse“, in which some cold weather exercise myths are dispelled by experts. Some relevant points from the article are:

  • Lungs are not damaged by cold - by the time cold air reaches your lungs, it is at body temperature
  • Cold air does not induce asthma - airways narrow in response to the dryness of the air, not its temperature
  • Our bodies do not need to acclimatize to cold, as they do to heat
  • Unfitness is not an obstacle to coping with cold - the physically fit are no better at adaptating to cold than the sedentary
  • More people are injured exercising in the heat than exercising in the cold

A walker in cold conditions
A little bit of snow, cold,
wind and poor visibility
didn’t stop this fellow
going out for a walk

The concensus among the doctors and exercise physiologists interviewed was that it is never too cold to exercise. Cold-weather risks like hypothermia and frostbite can be avoided with appropriate clothing and common sense. Ironically this includes not overdressing - sweat soaked clothes can lead to chilling. As children are taught in Sweden: “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing“.

My own experiences affirm this. The middle of winter is my favourite time for hiking the Bibbulmun Track, in shorts and T-shirt regardless of how cold it is (I just rug up at night). I’ve hiked happily in New Zealand’s south island in winter, been camping in -10 degrees in Australia, and enjoyed winter walks in the Canadian winter in temperatures below -20 (with wind). By dressing appropriately I’ve done all this in much greater comfort than any walk on a hot day.

Eskimos have lived safely with cold for millenia, and numerous explorers and researchers have survived outdoors in Antarctic winters. The temptation to avoid exercise on chilly days in more temperate climates probably has more to do with comfort, convenience and personal taste than safety. I’ll certainly be continuing my winter outdoor activities, reassured that it really is never too cold to exercise.


Welcome Back Toenail

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Last June I wrote about how one of my toenails came off due to squashing on a bushwalk (see "Goodbye Toenail"). I’d read that a new nail takes about six months to regrow, and was hoping this was true.

pinkytoe.gifNot everything you read on the internet is accurate (gasps of disbelief erupt from the audience), but I’m happy to report that in this case it was about right. My toenail took seven months to regrow to the point where it resembled a normal closely trimmed nail, and has just had it’s first trim (pictured). All is right with the world again!

This may not seem important, and it isn’t compared to people starving in Ethiopia. But in this era of technical marvels it’s all too easy to lose our sense of wonder at the seemingly small intricacies of the natural world. I think the automatic regrowing of any body part is an example of how cleverly and remarkably designed our human bodies are - right down to the details of our little toenails. This is something to be thankful for … I know I certainly am!


Spring Delights

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Baby ducks at Lake MongerSpring has arrived, and my regular walks around Perth’s Lake Monger are less comfortable. There’s more sweating, the pollen in the air requires hay fever medication and eye drops (for me at least), and the flies have begun their annoying return. It’s not all bad though, as the lake at this time of year has some treats.

One delightful sight is all the freshly hatched baby birds that start popping up at this time of year. Yesterday I found the duck in the photo taking her new chicks for a swim, which they seemed to be enjoying. The pitter patter of other tiny webbed and clawed feet should arrive soon, including the fuzzy brown balls that grow into black swans. It’s hard to imagine anyone not finding them cute.

Lake Monger drying up
Lake Monger in March 2007 (left) and October 2007 (right)

Another pleasant sight is the healthy rise in water levels. Back in March the lake was drier than it had been for many years, with large areas of mud, algae, and exposed lakebed. A winter of near-average rainfall, consistent enough to maintain good runoff, has filled the lake again. The surrounds are green and lush, and there’s a feeling of abundance that was hard to imagine just six months ago.

I may not enjoy the walking conditions as much in spring, but I can appreciate the lushness and baby birdlife. As the young ducks grow up during the coming dry months I’m sure they too will be grateful for the extra water in the lake this summer.


Spring Madness

Friday, September 28, 2007

It’s that time of year again. Spring has sprung, and Perth’s bushwalkers will be dusting off their boots and venturing outdoors again. Multitudes will soon start hiking the Bibbulmun Track, and I’ll be scratching my head, wondering why.

I love hiking the Bibbulmun Track too, but for me winter is the obvious season to do it. The weather is cool enough to do some serious walking without frying or drowning in sweat. Campsite rainwater tanks abound with fresh clean water. Little water needs to be carried because it is so readily available near much of the track. Venomous snakes are nowhere to be seen, mosquitoes are minimal, and flies … what flies?

Lake Maringup, a pristine lake accessible only on foot using the Bibbulmun TrackWith the track also bare of humans, the shelters along the track are never full, so the tent can be left at home. There is room to spread out, never a queue for the pit toilets, and no competition for space at the picnic tables. Then there’s the refreshing peace and quiet. Many find that the solitude of winter raises their enjoyment of the natural environment to a higher level - there’s nothing like having an entire national park all to yourself.

Why then do most people avoid hiking until spring? It might make sense in a cold climate, but we don’t have a cold climate. People speak of spring’s warmth, but that only increases sweating and the need to carry more water. It rains less, but with the influx of walkers that leads to water tanks running low, and the water becoming less than fresh. Snakes - all of them venomous - become active, mosquitoes worsen, and flies return to drive walkers mad. Wildflowers flourish - pretty, but no fun for hay fever and allergy sufferers. Crowds on the track diminish the sense of wilderness, and it becomes necessary to carry a tent in case the shelters are full. Even if they’re not, competition for space - and use of the toilet - can detract from the experience.

As I put away my hiking boots (figuratively speaking) until next winter, people who put their boots away for the winter are getting them out. It’s a sort of changing of the guard, like the winter shift going off duty as the spring shift clocks on.

It doesn’t make much sense to me, but it suits me just fine. The spring crowds are happy to hike in the warm weather, and I’m happy to let them, enjoying peace and quiet in the cool comfort of winter. It reminds me just how different we all are, and how well this can work out.


Goodbye Toenail

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The human body is full of surprises. Just a month ago I had no idea that you could lose a toenail, other than by being tortured. Then one of my own nails decided to drop off, opening my eyes further to the wonders of our bodies’ capacity for self-repair.

It all started with a 48km walk. My boots were probably a little too snug to begin with, but with the addition of an extra sock layer and feet that are enlarging slightly with age, the result was squashing of the little pinky toe on my biggest foot. Once the pain and blistering eased, I noticed the toenail had come loose, attached only at the rear end.

A quick check in Google revealed that toenails loosening and falling out are not uncommon among serious runners and hikers. In fact many comments in runners forums suggest you’re not a real runner (or hiker) until you’ve lost a nail or two, as if it were an initiation into a higher level. I read of one person who, having lost all his toenails, not only kept them as souvenirs but had a necklace made out of them … with extra toenails donated by others! Despite my tendency to collect things like navel lint and beard clippings, I draw the line at toenails.

Fortunately, when an injured toenail detaches, a new one grows in its place within six months with minimal discomfort. I know its a trivial complaint compared to the medical traumas that so many others suffer, but I still find it a little unsettling that something thats always been there can just loosen and drop off. Unsettling, yet the body’s ability to eject and regrow a damaged part strangely fascinates me. We are well-designed creatures.

Being squeamish, I’ve just had my doomed toenail removed properly by a podiatrist. As I watch it regrow over the coming months I’ll console myself with the thought that my credibility as a hiker may have increased!

If you’re really keen, that toenail necklace can be seen by clicking here.


Hiking the Rakiura Track

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

North Arm Hut on the Rakiura TrackAnother highlight of my New Zealand trip was the Rakiura Track. This is located on Stewart Island, which I’ve already mentioned as a highlight, but the track is worthy of special mention.

I visited during the winter off-season and had this three day hike almost to myself … for me the solitude enhanced the enjoyment of what is mostly wilderness with little evidence of humans. Scenery included beaches, quiet inlets and bays, a variety of forests, roaring creeks, and hills. The two well-equipped huts provided a level of comfort I’m not used to on hikes (North Arm Hut pictured). Track conditions varied from gravel and boardwalk to mud and tree roots, but the pure charm of the environment overshadowed any obstacles.

The Rakiura Track shows what much of New Zealand was like before people started destroying the forests. I only did one multi-day hike in New Zealand, and was happy to have chosen this gem.