How a Hike in California Tested my Fitness Limits

I drop onto my knees and plant my hands into the arid yellow grasses of Los Padres National Forest in Ojai, Calif. Hall Newbegin, a self-proclaimed “wilderness freak” and founder of Juniper Ridge, a trail-inspired fragrance distillery, has instructed my fellow hikers and me to “awaken our animal senses” by sniffing our environment.

“Get your nose close to the ground and breathe in deeply,” he says, as he lies down flat on his belly. “Just like animals, we can really get to know nature via our nose.” He then breathes in the aroma with the enthusiasm of a hungry baker.

My enjoyment isn’t yet at that level. The sweet smell of the flora tickles my nose hairs, and the burrs, which are now piercing my knees, have me second-guessing my decision to wear thin camouflage leggings. After 15 meditative minutes, we begin our ascent of Horn Canyon, a boulder-dotted eight-kilometre trail that I later find out peaks at 4,232 feet and is rated as moderate to difficult.

Photography by Matt Alberts

Newbegin’s eccentricity has charmed me, so I break from the pack to walk in the front with him. As we’re chatting, he periodically stops to point out plants, such as yerba santa and black sage. After 30 minutes of walking up a gentle but unrelentingly pitched slope, I’m finding it difficult to continue talking. My heart is also beating madly from exertion and my fear of heights. I fall behind like a marathoner who starts out too strong. Classic rookie mistake!

In addition to awakening my inner animal, I’m also here to test out Keen’s new hiking boot, the Terradora from the TrailFit line. Despite having an extensive 12+ athletic-shoe collection, I actually don’t own any hiking shoes. Most styles are designed to be worn by either men or women, but the Terradora was created specifically to accommodate our higher arches and longer calf muscles. Its lower back, or collar, also reduces the pain and pressure on the Achilles tendon, which you sometimes get with higher boots.

Nol Gerritse, director of outdoor marketing at Keen, says the Terradora is designed to bridge the style and performance gap between the gym and the outdoors. “We see [TrailFit] as a movement,” he says. “It’s fitness, but it’s about your workout outside, whether that’s in your city, in a park or on a trail.”

Photography by Matt Alberts

Back in the city, I’m no stranger to punishing boot camps, five-kilometre runs and spin classes. And while I was aware that one can burn about 400 calories an hour hiking, I thought walking the trail would be a breeze. Instead, I found myself falling to the back of the pack and wishing I’d brought along my puffer.

I watch in amazement as Chelsea Yamase—a hiking enthusiast, Instagram star (@chelseakauai) and Keen ambassador—ascends with ease (as do many of my other fellow hikers). I later ask her what I could have done to physically prepare better. “Hiking is all about the slow burn, so endurance exercises help, along with anything that builds your core, quads and glutes.”

That evening, Yamase shows us some photos from her adventures, from deep-sea diving in her native Hawaii to winter camping in Alaska. I wonder aloud what drives her to endure the physical discomforts—from seasickness to blisters—that come with these wild endeavours.

“Even at my most miserable, at times when I’m freezing, there’s just something about it,” she says. “I think everyone gets their happiness or their sense of what makes their soul feel alive in different environments, and mine happens to be at the outer limits and the outer boundaries of what I think I can do.”

At roughly 3,500 feet, we spot the tops of the trees at the Pines Camp and know that we’ve almost reached our destination. There, we sit on fallen trees and eat our packed lunch of niçoise salad and green juice. I take off my backpack and sunhat and marvel at the fact that I’m drenched. My heart rate returns to normal and I take in the horizon: green zigzags of trees against a pale blue backdrop. I almost forget the effort it took to get here because the feeling of accomplishment is sky-high.