Conditioning For Backpackers and Hikers: How Heat Helps
Regular sessions in a steam room can help acclimate the body for those arduous outdoor excursions. Here’s how.
The summer of 2018 has been a scorcher. In almost every part of the country, people are baking and wilting under higher than normal temperatures. When submerged in the humid gusts of 80-plus or 90-plus degrees of Fahrenheit fury, you often hear this comment: “Feels like I’m in a steam room.”
Well, as they say in the Boy Scouts, “Be prepared,” because a logical step in your preparation for outdoor activities is to use a steam room.
Heat acclimation has more benefits than simply conditioning your physiological systems to withstand extreme weather conditions. Research has revealed a range of benefits associated with steam rooms that are valuable for outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you’re hiking the Appalachian trail or taking an hour-long afternoon trek, you’ll have more spring in your step after a bit of thermic conditioning.
The Joys and Challenges of a Long Hike
Hiking can be as casual or hardcore as you want it to be. It’s up to you if you ‘re up for a two-hour trek around a lake, or want to take on the challenge of a lifetime.
One of the newer outdoor activities growing in popularity is thru-hiking. Sometimes spelled “through-hiking,” this is when you decide to commit to long-term excursions, such as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or Continental Divide Trail. We’re talking hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles of rugged trail that traverses multiple terrains and geological formations.
Obviously, thru-hiking is for the seasoned outdoor athlete who has time and resources on hand. You should already be an experienced hiker before taking on one of these long-term journeys. You’ll need plenty of practice, social support, and financial resources to do it right.
Hiking website Clever Hiker offered some suggestions on how you can be prepared for brief nature walks or epic thru-hikes or something in between. Here are some of their recommendations, paired with the ways steam rooms support the physical demands required.
Stretch Often to Reduce Stress Injuries
Flexibility and supple joints are important when you’re lugging a backpack through unstable surfaces. You’re lunging over logs and crevices, stepping on rocks, and maneuvering around streams and thick brush. Regular stretching in the morning before the day’s hike is a good idea.
How steam therapy helps: Heat acclimation has shown to help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. These effects can help increase your body’s anti-inflammatory response and boost your immune response. Research also shows that thermic conditioning can help relieve pain from osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other musculoskeletal conditions. This is crucial for hikers who need functional durability to contend with sudden inclines and other unexpected stresses on knee and ankle joints.
Practice to Build Up Endurance
Hiking is, if anything, an endurance event, even if it’s just a short trek. High temperatures can turn a 30-minute hike into a serious challenge to the entire body’s biological system. Some experts suggest that serious hikers engage in cardio workouts and leg exercises to get them ready for a challenging hike, especially a thru-hike. This means high-intensity interval training (HIIT), barbell squats, lunges, box jumps, and the usual selection of functional training techniques common in CrossFit programs and heart-rate training.
How steam therapy helps: One way to increase endurance is to increase lung capacity. Steam rooms have received high marks from researchers when it comes to promoting better lung function. One study found that steam therapy can help reduce airway inflammation in your respiratory system. Research has also found that steam rooms can help relieve the symptoms associated with asthma and bronchitis. The humid air in a steam room dislodges phlegm and other obstructive fluids that build up over time. To have a better maintained respiratory system is a tremendous advantage for hikers, and steam therapy can help you get there.
Heat acclimation has also been found to help increase endurance in athletes via a recovery mechanism called heat shock proteins (HSP). HSPs help muscle recovery and reduce protein degradation after muscular exertion. Hyperthermic conditioning can also help reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the “day after” aches and pains that can slow down a hiker who is on a multi-day excursion. This combination of increased lung function, enhanced muscle recovery, and reduced soreness is critical for the endurance necessary for a tough hike.
Strengthen Mental Resilience
Communing with nature is a mental health booster. That’s one of the lures of hiking. In fact, there’s a type of psychological counseling called “wilderness therapy.” Currently there are more than 100 Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare programs in the U.S., many of them devoted to teens and children who lack access to nature environments. These programs have produced promising results across the board, according to Psychology Today.
As therapeutic as a trip in the wilderness can be, hiking experts warn that long hikes can sometimes create mental fatigue that leads to injury or bad decisions. Maintaining a level head and strong decision-making skills are essential in hiking trips, especially if you’re walking alone. Positive attitude and mental toughness are crucial.
How steam therapy helps: Mental acuity is closely associated with mood and balanced neurochemical levels in the brain. Steam rooms have been shown to help increase serotonin, the famous “feel good” hormone, that helps regulate mood. Steam does this by affecting heat-sensitive neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus region of the brain. Thermic conditioning has also been found to help increase endorphins and regulate cortisol in the brain. By helping to keep your brain’s delicate chemical structure intact, you’ll have a much better chance of conquering mental fatigue and maintaining good decision-making.
Remember: It's About the Journey, Not the Destination
Hiking is a terrific way to get exercise while reaping the benefits of communing with nature. It’s a break from technology and you’re not going to be tempted by fast food restaurants while out in the woods. There’s a reason why people spend millions on sound machines of singing birds and babbling brooks. But nothing beats the real thing.
Tranquility, relaxation, a break from technology—that sounds like a session in a steam room. Steam rooms are gaining traction among a lot of Americans seeking an enriching and effective way to augment their overall health and wellness program. And as you’ve learned, steam therapy is terrific for helping to improve your body mentally and physically for a range of activities. Hiking is just one of many.
When you break it down, every hike requires the same physical demands no matter how long or short. Longer hikes just take more out of you. No matter how long you plan to hit the trail, make sure you’re prepared and think safety-first.
For help planning your hiking excursion, visit the website for the National Parks Service. It’s a valuable resource that is easy to navigate and offers a state-by-state listing of parks and other attractions. It will give you plenty of ideas for the best destination for you and your family. Also, groups or associations you may belong to (such as AAA) offer special packages of wilderness adventures. Check them out.
What's in Your Backpack?
When you hit the wilderness, you need to have supplies for the unexpected. Here’s what you should have in your backpack, whether you’re planning an all-day hike or a two-hour trail walk.
- First-aid kit. An obvious no-brainer. Assemble your own, or pick one up at the store. Make sure it has the basics: Band-Aids (different sizes), gauze, antibiotic ointment and antiseptic wipes. See redcross.org for more.
- Canteen full of water. If you’re a little more hardcore, water purification pellets are available that help make wilderness water more potable.
- Dry snacks: Nutrition bars, dried fruit, jerky, nuts or other light, nutritionally dense foods will help keep your energy high.
- Pocket knife: Better yet, invest in a Swiss Army knife or other multi-tool implement that can be utilized for any eventuality.
- Rain poncho. You never know when Mother Nature may turn on you, so pack a thin, light, easily foldable waterproof covering.
- Matches. Again, stuff happens. If you get lost and become cold, a box of matches can be a godsend.
- Compass and area map. You may have a portable GPS, or even your smartphone with you, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll have a signal, so pack a reliable compass.
- Bug repellent. You’re going to need it if you’re trudging around swampy areas or places that have a lot of streams, lakes and ponds.
- Sunscreen: Obviously, if you’re hiking in a heavily wooded area, this isn’t as essential, but if you’re in desert terrain or walking across large, treeless areas, you need to protect your skin with a minimum of 15 SPF—30 SPF for those with sensitive skin.
- Local knowledge: This may not be something you carry in your backpack, but you should take a few minutes to learn what potential dangers (e.g., poisonous snakes) or poison ivy or other hazardous plant life may be lurking out there.