And other creative hiking techniques
We hike just about every day - and hiking to us is more than just a walk in the park. It's a training exercise - how you walk can mean the difference between evasion and detection, not to mention the safety considerations. There are a number of different types of terrain we cross over in the course of a single afternoon - hard pack, grassy, brush, swampy-muddy-mush, woodland.... and all of them present their own special brand of training experience. As you've probably already guessed, the first kind of hiking I'm going to talk about is swampy areas...
Walking through a swamp or wetland area requires more than just tucking your pantlegs into your boots. The idea is to keep your boots from getting sucked off your feet by the muck, while making as little noise as possible when lifting your feet out of that gooey vacuum. Here are a few things I've learned about making a relatively quiet and uneventful march through the marsh:
Your boots are waterproof (or they'd better be!): your pants aren't. Tuck your pantlegs into your boots or roll them up past the top of your boots. There's something about swamp mud that makes keeping it off your clothes a good idea - it's a tossup between the lingering dampness and the pervasive odor. If you're hiking in fatigues this is an easy task - if your hiking attire runs toward the Levi's look, make sure you can cuff your jeans before you leave the house. Hiking as a training exercise has nothing to do with being stylish - it's all function and loose clothing is infinitely more functional than from-fitting jeans. Chinos are preferable to denim; they'll dry faster, breathe better, and generally be more comfortable than jeans. Fatigues are great - if you're trying to "stealth" avoid rip-stop as it can be a bit noisy.
I remember reading the advice of one expert who suggested carrying extra shoelaces so you could knot your laces to avoid having your boots sucked off in muddy areas. His idea was to just cut the laces when you reached your destination and replace them. I beg to differ - a square knotted shoelace will stay tied and keep your boots on in the stickiest situations, yet allow you to untie the laces when you decide to. I always square-knot my laces and tuck the ends inside my boots. My laces are paracord and long enough to wrap them around my boot tops twice before tying; they're durable and multi-functional.
Use whichever law of physics it might be that says if you're headed north and your toes are pointed east or west, resistance is lowered and energy is conserved. I really don't have a clue why this works, just that it does. As you walk, you should cross one foot over the other to maintain balance - and don't yank your foot out of the muck: lift it slowly heel-first to muffle that wretched sucking sound. (I like to use the cross-over step when I'm on patrol too - especially when doing a 360º turn. It's much smoother than trying to take three times as many steps to make the same circle and it allows you the flexibility to quickly reverse direction if need be.) If you're playing follow-the-leader, keep an eye on the front man's footprints - sometimes you get lucky and find that he's already compacted the mud into terra-semi-firma.
Normally we hike with our rifles slung, which allows us to have our hands free to keep brush and twigs from poking our eyes out! When you get into bog that's working its way up toward your knees, it's wise to unsling your rifle and carry it in front of you. If you meander into one of those devilish little pits along the way, you can just hoist your rifle over your head until you get back to the shallow muck. Since your rifle is a tool and not a coffee table, you can also use it under these circumstances to move the brush and twigs out of your face. If your barrel happens to end up in goo, rinse it out in the first 'clean' puddle you come to so it won't dry caked full of mud.
Swamps and bugs go together, so make sure you DEET yourself and take some extra along with you when you head off for a hike. The last time we were out my boyfriend looked at me and said "You've got 50 million bugs flying around your head" - he was right; another 50 million were crawling around my ears, up my arms, and into my eyes. Another lesson learned the hard way... You can buy bug repellent in containers that are small enough to stash in your compass pouch or other web gear location, so there's no excuse for leaving home without it. This applies to any hiking, and especially in the spring when bug clouds are thick and dynamic.
Another wet stroll, but this one is cleaner. From an evasion standpoint, it's also much safer. Not only are there no footprints to follow, but small trees, brush and undergrowth tend to be extremely dense near creeks. It's not the kind terrain that infantry or motorized troops want to fight in - which means you're less likely to meet up with them there. Since dehydration is one of most serious dangers facing hikers (and armies), walking creekbeds is tantamount to a guarantee against dehydration. You should find lots of edible plants along the creek banks too.
As with swamp stomping, you need to keep your pantlegs dry. In this case, if your boots aren't waterproofed, it won't take long to find out! While walking creekbeds is a good way to cool off a couple of degrees, you don't need your boots to "squish" when you finally emerge onto dry land. Nor do you want the insoles pulling out along with your wet socks - so keep the waterproofing up to snuff at all times. Make it a habit to re-spray your boots with silicone after every hiking trip just to make sure. Keep your pantlegs rolled up - and you're certainly better off to wear something besides jeans when you're going creekbedding. Jeans take forever to dry and are very heavy when wet - you have enough to carry without adding unnecessary water weight.
It goes without saying that you'll want to square-knot your bootlaces here - and everywhere you go, so I won't repeat this tip again. Same goes for DEET - it doesn't need to be repeated - just use it wherever you're hiking to.
Slippery Rock is more than a college in Pennsylvania - it's also the biggest hazard facing you when creekbedding. Algae tends to build up in fine coats on rocks, especially those in streams that are little more than trickles unless there's been rainfall in the past 24 hours. Watch your step - going down in a creekbed can result in serious injury or death, either from contact with sharp stones or by drowning after you've knocked yourself cold from a backward tumble. Tenuous steps are preferable to bold advance in this situation - and watch out for those pools that appear under your feet without warning. You can go from ankle-deep to waist deep with one step, so always be ready.
Because of the slippery rock/hidden pool factors, it's best to carry your rifle in front of you when creekbedding. The water won't create a jamming hazard like mud will, but there's no sense in dunking your weapon if you don't need to. Keep the safety on/chamber full or the chamber clear/safety off - this may keep you from inadvertently shooting one of your hiking partners if you take an accidental dive.
Be extremely cautious about natural hand/footholds along creekbeds. Water tends to rot wood very quickly, while trees along creek banks generally have very shallow and loosely-bound roots. Don't depend on wet wood for a step down into the next lower level of the creekbed or you may find yourself down for the count. Any deadwood that's gone mossy should be considered off-limits as well, since it's probably going to break through the minute you put your weight onto it. You're better off taking your time and making sure you have firm footing and solid balance at all times - don't take any foolish chances here (or anywhere else for that matter!).
A Walk In The Park
As I've already mentioned in previous articles, we live on the edge of a large state forestland. There are a number of marked paths cleared for horseback riding, snowmobiling and hiking. Aside from the occasional mud puddle, these paths are so 'civilized' compared to the swamp or creekbed that it's easy to get lulled into complacency - right before you catch you toe on a tree root. Remember - this isn't the sidewalk down main street or the bicycle path through your town park. You're in the woods - a living, dynamic environment. The trail you've walked 50 times before can change over the course of a week into an obstacle course - always stay alert.
Trail-walking is the coffee break of the hiking set. You can usually make pretty fair time and not wage constant war with brush and twigs. Since we have so many trails in this 9000+ acres of forestland, we try to take a new one every time out - just to see where it goes and what kind of shape it's in. Since this also means some new directions, it's best to take some compass readings along the way - or you may end up taking a wrong turn. This is especially true if you like to combination hike - taking part trail and part bushwhacking hikes. The bushwhacking part can land you 'turned around' if you're not careful - but it's also one of the best ways to find those special camping spots. While doing a combination swamp/creekbed/trail hike one afternoon, we happened on a chain of mini-meadows running through a pine forest - it was the nicest spot we've seen to date and that area has been mentally mapped for our next bugout camping trip. If you wonder what a stroll through the park has to do with training - the mental mapping and managing to steer the correct course is part of it - along with the physical workout.
Speaking of workouts..... we're fortunate to have the steepest trail in this state forest just half a mile from our house, so we get to 'enjoy' it almost daily. The idea of this one is simple - sling your rifle and take the hill..... then come back down to the bottom and do it again. By the third time through, you should be ready to lean your rifle against a tree and run up for the final 'assault' on Suicide Ridge! I guess if you can do this one, you can go just about anywhere with ease - I'll let you know when I "get there"...
Hiking steep hills can be made a bit easier if you remember to keep your back straight and your chin up - look ahead and slightly upward if possible. Climb using the same motion you use to climb stairs - it saves energy which you're going to need to make it to the top. On your way down, minimize 'braking', which is also strenuous, by walking downhill flat-footed with relaxed hips and knees. Gravity will do most of the work for you, and while it might seem that your chances of slipping are increased by walking flat-footed, it actually gives you much more solid footing that the natural tendency to 'dig in your heels' when heading down a steep grade.
Night field patrol is one of my favorites. This involves covering an open field by patrolling along the woodline on both sides of the field, crossing over and meeting in the middle at some point, then continuing along the perimeter to the top center of the field. The patrol then covers the center of the field in a V-formation heading downhill. *
The idea of this one is to clear the field - make sure there are no hostiles in your territory while keeping your own location concealed as much as possible. We do this in camo, using 40 channel hi/los and prearranged signal locations and modes. Even in fairly bright moonlight, it's virtually impossible to spot your team members without night vision.
Reason #1 - Of all the ways you could get seriously/mortally wounded, being shot in the back by your team members is the most insulting. The diagonal allows room for weapons firing while reducing the chances of a friendly-fire mishap.
Reason #2 - The diagonal formation puts team members out of the line of each other's incoming fire. It makes playing 'brave little tailor' and felling two (or more) with one round much more difficult for the hostiles. It also puts you out of fatal range of grenade/mine impact while keeping you within safe 'assistance distance' to your team members.
Reason #3 - In the event one of your team members goes down, the 10-meter diagonal allows you to move to each member's last known position and 'drop' by doing a 9-meter stride-count in the appropriate direction. This allows you to maintain visual contact with the surrounding area while you move, instead of having to search for your fallen team member.
*Of course, on the final leg through the center of the field, we're in the open, but this is just to practice keeping a consistent distance between team members. To check, you can step off 10 meters on the diagonal, then hold your hand palm inward and fingers pointing to the side - see how many fingers it takes to cover all but your partner's head. You can then use this "ruler" as a guide to check your distance as needed.
The Rest of the Story
Walking through other types of ground (either soft grassy areas or ones that are covered with last year's dead weeds, dried twigs, crackling leaves, and other debris designed to announce your presence miles ahead of your arrival) in the course of your hike could take up a few more pages. Suffice it to say that you need to adjust your speed, stride length, and other controllable aspects of your movements to the situation at hand; for example, you need to tread lightly in noisy spots whereas you don't need to be overly concerned with this in soft grassy meadows. Watch out for (and avoid stepping on) branches, twigs, and dead leaves if you're trying to move quietly. When possible, avoid the occasional wet spots that lurk in low areas of hiking paths - there's no sense in leaving footprints behind and, unlike grass, mud doesn't "spring back" after your feet have vacated the premises.