There’s this term I keep hearing from friends when I ask them to go for walks in the woods.
“I’m not really in hiking shape.”
Nearing 50 years old, I know I’m a shape, or rather a mishmash of various shapes, but in what shape must one be to go hiking?
I’ve been in a better state of fitness at times in my life. A lifelong athlete, I’ve played team sports, run the Windermere half-marathon twice — at no record speed, mind you — and spent my share of time in a weight room.
Lately, though, I’ve found myself beaten up by hiking trails around Spokane and North Idaho.
Hikers should take their activity more seriously than a “walk in the woods.” It can be as easy or as strenuous as a hiker wants it to be. Take, for example, Coal Creek in the Panhandle forest north of Kingston, Idaho.
The trek starts off deceptively easy, meandering along the creek and through a lush forest carpeted with ferns and moss. After Mile 1, though, the trail goes up a narrow, steep hill.
Recently, we made it 3.22 miles in, 1.3 miles shy of the junction to Graham Creek, and turned back. The last incline we faced was more daunting than we expected, and my hiking partner, Tamara McKenna, found her bag of nopes.
“I have to work tomorrow,” said McKenna, a dog groomer and co-owner of Laundramutt in Coeur d’Alene. “I cannot stand all day and manage dogs if I do that hill.”
The trail gains 3,200 feet before the junction, a solid task for the hamstrings.
“Hiking shape is funny,” McKenna said. “It really depends on what you’re hiking. Most people don’t think I’m in ‘hiking shape’ because I’m chunky. But I can do an 8- to 10-mile hike, and I can do steep trails most of the time.”
By comparison, Bella, my 6-year-old Maremma sheepdog, and I did Mount Kit Carson trail at Mt. Spokane State Park last week. It’s a 5.4-mile out-and-back trail that gains a mere 1,384 feet.
It was a gentle, enjoyable walk in the woods and with a view at the top that can’t be beat.
The All Trails hiking website rates both Kit Carson and Coal Creek “moderate.”
So is the Liberty Creek and Edith Hansen Loop, an 8.5-mile trek with a 1,374-foot gain. Longer than Kit Carson but with a similar elevation gain, Liberty Creek was punishing. My friend, Terry Sasser, and I — along with Bella and Sasser’s Pembrooke Welsh corgi Maverick — started on the equestrian side and the trail took us straight uphill with few switchbacks to ease the climb.
“Every time I go hiking, I complain I’m not in shape for this hike,” Sasser said. “I enjoy hiking and sometimes we have to cut out a section of the trail or go part way. ‘Hiking shape’ is no reason to stay home.”
It’s therapy, he said, for the mind and the body.
“You just choose the hike that fits your conditioning,” he said. “I feel anyone can hike and the more hiking you do, the better you feel. The better you feel, the more hiking you can do.”
The smile on Bella’s face when we’re hiking is different than her everyday smile.
She’s supercharged and ready to explore every sniff spot and jump in every creek. She’s a big part of my inspiration to get out and hike, and every dog lover knows a tired dog is a happy dog.
“It’s good for them,” said McKenna, who hikes with her American Staffordshire terriers Ethel and Wally. “They push me to look for new places to go and explore.”
“Maverick motivates me to be active in many ways,” he said. “A responsible pet owner does more than provide food and water. We should also provide our dogs with plenty of exercise and stimulation.
“Sometimes I spend too much time on my computer or phone, and Maverick will get in my lap or face almost like, ‘Come on, Dad, let’s get out of the house.’ ”
Daily walks and outings to the park are key to his dog’s exercise, but hiking is a special part of the bond they’ve built since Maverick’s “gotcha day” almost three years ago.
“To really get the blood flowing, a hike provides exercise and the stimulation they crave with something new around every corner or beyond that rock ridge,” Sasser said. “You will get a happy dog and a great night sleep when the hike is over.”
Mind your dog’s fitness level, too. Dr. Ginny Schulken, a veterinarian at Pet Vet Hospital and Wellness Center in Spokane Valley, gets her dogs out for long hikes. She takes Lady Bug and Maiya on regular excursions around Dishman Hills and Mirabeau Park.
“It’s such good stimulation for them,” she said. “Our dogs are so happy. I just know they’re thinking, ‘This is the coolest thing ever!’ ”
She noted brachycephalic dogs, the “smushy-nose” types like pugs and boxers, aren’t good candidates for hiking, especially in the high temperatures of Spokane’s climate.
“They don’t breathe well and they overheat too easily,” she said. “If you want to hike with a brachycephalic dog, keep your trails short and limit them to days around 70 degrees.”
Schulken reminds hikers to bring lots of water on the trail, enough for themselves and their dogs, and a first aid kit is not a bad idea. Up-to-date vaccinations, especially leptospirosis, are key, too.
Hikers should ensure their dogs are fit for certain trails, she said, first noting if the dog has reached full growth.
Strenuous exercise, she added, can prevent growth plates from developing completely and put a dog at risk for injury.
Small breed dogs are fully grown around 1 year old, while large breed dogs often don’t reach full growth until 2, she noted.
“It’s a good idea to start your dog off with short hikes, too, around a half-hour to an hour, and then gradually increase the distance,” Schulken said. “Take breaks along the way and watch how long it takes for his panting to go back to normal. That’s how you know you’re not overdoing it.”
So how is it that a corgi can keep up with a Maremma sheepdog, whose legs are longer than the tips of the corgi’s ears reach?
“Maybe it’s like short people keeping up with tall people,” Schulken said, laughing. “I’m 5-foot-2, so I take bigger and more steps to keep up with people who are taller than me.”
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