Wow—that was an experience. After failing to get out of bed before sunrise on Monday morning, I walked 22.7K steps this evening—with my backpack on for the very first time in years. This was a great shakedown cruise, and I learned several things.
1. Jury-rigging my hip belt was the right thing to do. I took my thick leather belt, slid it (with some difficulty) through the various straps and loops of my backpack's hip belt, and used that belt—with its buckle, tongue, and punch holes—to cinch my hip assembly tighter than I could have with the factory parts alone. The hip belt that comes with my otherwise-lovely Gregory backpack is one of those tough, military-weave cinctures (a word that is related, through Latin, to the French ceinture) made of some synthetic material—probably nylon. The buckle is essentially a two-part snap made of heavy plastic, and the belt has adjusters that allow you to cinch it tight. The problem with the factory belt is that, with my fat stomach constantly rippling and sloshing and pushing against it, the whole assembly tends to loosen over time, centimeter by centimeter. This is because the belt's nylon is slippery against the smooth plastic buckle. For years, I've grumbled to myself that what I need is a traditional buckle on a belt with holes. Then, the other night, I had an epiphany, and voilà: I jury-rigged my hip assembly. Problem solved... as long as the leather doesn't weaken and tear.
Having a good hip belt is essential for modern backpacks: the hip belt creates a tight, body-hugging loop that settles the backpack's weight onto your pelvic bones (technically, the iliac crests), and this alleviates pressure on your shoulders from the shoulder straps. Less pressure from the shoulder straps means less pressure on your spine. And trust me on that: if you hike along with your hip belt unbuckled, your breathing will become labored as your upper body is compressed by the exigencies of gravity. I know this well from 2008.
Anyway, with my hip belt now properly secured, I was able to maintain a very good pace on level ground. In fact, I almost felt light on my feet. The bulk of my backpack felt well balanced, and I leaned forward only slightly during the walk. We'll talk about what happened on the staircases in a moment.
2. I can walk three hours straight with almost no foot pain, as long as I walk at a pace that's comfortable for me. Not a single blister in sight tonight, although the sole of my left foot began to hint at some irritation—probably caused by the extra weight of the pack on my back. I've told myself that I'll be walking around 7 hours a day, but that walk will be broken up into roughly 3-hour or 3.5-hour bits, with significant rest periods in between to give the feet and legs a chance to breathe. I realize that, in doing this for nearly four straight weeks, I'll still end up with raw patches and blisters; that's just the name of the game, and as I've said before, you simply walk through those.
I did feel a twinge of hip-joint pain (left hip) tonight, but not enough to worry me. I'll keep an eye on pain levels as I continue to practice with the backpack. For now, I'm assuming that my body simply needs to adjust to the realities of wearing a backpack, and that any attendant pains will disappear as I re-accustom myself to the encumbrance.
Perhaps the best walking advice I've ever read—and I think this comes from hiking guru Colin Fletcher—is that, when you hike, your legs should simply swing forward from your hips like a pendulum. The stride should be loose-limbed; this isn't about powering your way across long distances. I tried practicing that tonight, and I think the practice was beneficial.
3. With thirty pounds on my back, staircases become a real workout. I sweated and puffed tonight the way I sweated and puffed last summer, in all that heat and humidity. Christ, that was hard. This actually makes me worry about when I reach the Baekdu Daegan mountain range. I'm hoping, though, that two things will have happened by then: (1) I ought to have gotten almost halfway through my food supply, so my backpack should be lighter, and (2) I ought to have lost significant amounts of weight by then, given my 7-hour walking schedule* and much-reduced food intake (eating small meals, one meal a day, every other day), so I should be lighter as well. In any event, now that I've started creek-walking with my backpack, I'll continue to do the staircases in order to condition myself.
If we think of the staircases as mini-hills, then tonight's workout is making me think I should invest in another decent set of trekking poles. I won't need them for most of the walk, but I think it'll be easy to lose steam once I hit the mountains, and trekking poles can definitely help me push my way up a hill. Costco is currently selling proper-looking lightweight trekking poles for about W40,000. That's roughly what I paid for my poles in the States.
4. I need a sack for my water. I have the bladder, but no outer sack. (That sounds nasty, I know.) My original Camelbak had its own mini-backpack, which I attached to my larger backpack somehow. I'm thinking, this time, that I'll buy a mini-backpack for my new CamelBak knockoff, then strap that puppy to my front. It'll act as a counterweight for as long as there's more than a liter of water in it, and the drinking tube will be more easily accessible than if I were to do the over-the-shoulder thing with the bladder on my back.
5. In thinking over the final day of my walk, I think what I might do is stay overnight in Busan at a hotel near the big train station. I think there's a Toyoko there; a night in a hotel might be a good way to cap off the journey before training back to Seoul the following day.
And that's it for my insights. Tonight was merely the first night with the backpack; there are plenty more such nights to come, and more things to learn as my body adjusts to encumbered walking. I know I said that the next Walk Thoughts would be about the specific legs of my trip, but I lied. That info will be coming soon, though. I promise.
*I'll be walking at slightly less than 3 miles per hour with the pack on. My step rate was still 100 steps per minute (before midnight: 21274 steps in 213 minutes, or 99.88 steps/min.), but I'm sure my stride length decreased thanks to the added weight of the pack.