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Get “Summer Strong” for Paddling Season with Sarah Miller Histand

Sarah Miller Histand with Summer Strong paddling training for backcountry packrafting.

A Q&A with Sarah Miller Histand, multi-sport adventurer and fitness trainer

An an outdoor athlete from Alaska, Sarah Miller Histand’s experience in the backcountry includes multiple finishes at the Alaska Wilderness Classic and big multi-sport adventure traverses of some of the world’s most expansive landscapes. We first met Sarah at the McCarthy Whitewater Festival, where she smashed the race and took first in the women’s category. Dedicated to helping others grow both physically and mentally, she started training programs at SMH Training. In this blog, Sarah shares some of her backcountry travel techniques and how she prepares for her big packraft and multi-sport adventure trips.

Sarah Miller Histand with her world-class smile on a backcountry packrafting trip! 📸: Luc Mehl.
Sarah Miller Histand with her world-class smile on a backcountry packrafting trip! 📸: Luc Mehl.

Outdoor & Packrafting Experience

Alpacka Raft: What is your background in outdoor travel? Where did it all start?

Sarah Miller Histand: I’ve been playing in mud puddles, picking berries, and wandering in the woods since I was a little kid growing up in Alaska. One of my first memories is being pulled on a sled behind my parents on a cross-country ski trip… and getting tipped out of said sled into a very cold puddle. My family’s version of outdoor travel was pretty mellow: canoeing, cross-country skiing, and day-hiking, and I didn’t start into the more remote backcountry kind of travel until after returning to Alaska post-undergrad.

AR: What’s your packrafting background?

SMH: I bought my first packraft in 2012, and right away got myself into a couple of sketchy situations in it. A total novice to river travel and whitewater, I made some bad decisions that I was lucky to get out of. That right away gave me a healthy respect for water. So, I slowed down, took some classes, found some mentors, and eventually built my skills and confidence back up.

Since then, I eased my way into the bigger adventures and races, mostly traveling with others whose skills I trust and trying to follow all of their lines through the trickier rapids. In fact, I planned to do that for the McCarthy Packraft Race, but when I got to the river there wasn’t anyone in front of me to follow. So, I just had to go for it and trust my own abilities! It was a great push for me (a little outside of my comfort zone, but not too much to be dangerous). It helped me see that I was capable of more than I realized.

Sarah Miller Histand packraft training.

Most Challenging Trip

AR: What is one of the most difficult trips you’ve been on? Why was it difficult, and did you walk away with any lessons learned?

SMH: One of my most difficult trips was a summer traverse from Nebesna to McCarthy, through Wrangell St. Elias National Park that I did with a friend, Meg. We had a limited number of days off work to do the trip, but both had been dreaming of the route for years. So, we went for it. We put in long days and lots of miles, and made great time through different terrain even though it was rainy and cold for most of the time. We did a lot of twerking to stay warm on our breaks.

Then we came to the Chitistone River, which was in flood stage because of all the rain. We bushwacked downstream a while to try to get to calmer water, but that really challenged us, too. We were pretty tired… When we came to a point where we were going to have to inflate our boats just to cross a tributary, we decided to put in on the Chitistone instead.

Pretty quickly we were in bigger water than either of us was ready for, and then Meg tipped. I couldn’t do much to help her because I could barely keep myself upright. She had a really hard time getting to shore because the river was so high and all of the gravel bars were under water. She swam for a long time, and when she finally got to shore she was pretty hypothermic.

I’d just taken my Wilderness First Responder class and was super grateful for the training about how to re-warm people who are too cold to take care of themselves. It all worked, but we were pretty freaked out about continuing on. And, Meg was still wet and cold, so decided to get picked up there instead of finishing the trip to McCarthy.

The funny thing was, when the plane showed up we ran over to meet it. In the running Meg warmed all the way up and felt totally fine, warm, and back to her bubbly self.

One of the big learnings from the trip was about how fatigue can influence decision making. We made the decision to put on the Chitistone before we were really ready for it because we felt tired and didn’t want to do the work of inflating, then deflating, then more bushwacking.

It’s super easy to get caught in that decision trap, picking what might be “easier” but also higher risk, especially when one is tired. And the post-crisis lesson… well, sometimes things seem worse than they are at first, when our adrenaline is high and things are still on the verge. After we’ve recovered fully, and calmed ourselves down, the situation might look differently. It’s always worth slowing down a bit before making decisions we can’t go back from.

Sarah Miller Histand packraft training.
Sarah paddles an Alpacka Classic in New Zealand. 📸: Luc Mehl.

Training for Trips

AR: How do you prepare yourself for your bigger trips, both physically and mentally?

SMH: I’ve learned over the years that the hardest trips for me are the ones when I’m not feeling strong physically. Not feeling strong influences everything from how well I keep up with others, to my mood, to how my body feels during and afterwards. I now take preparation pretty seriously, because I want to have as much fun as possible when I’m out there.

My training usually involves bodyweight high-intensity-interval workouts three times weekly. I do the kind of functional fitness workouts I teach in Summer Strong & Ski Babes because it’s been so effective for me and so many others. It builds the kind of dynamic strength and balance you need to do this outdoorsy stuff well.

I do yoga a few times a week as well, for mobility and recovery. And I try to do some long days outside and a couple “mini-trips” before a big one, with the purpose of training my feet and shoulders for the work of carrying a pack and traveling for lots of hours in a row.

The mental work has been super critical for me, as a recovering perfectionist and someone who’s fairly risk-averse. I work on a daily basis, particularly within my workouts and in my time outside, to expand my zone of tolerance and my comfort with discomfort. And my trips always go better when I spend time beforehand on expectation management. Getting clear about what we’re trying to do, and what we are and aren’t willing to do to accomplish it ahead of time helps my mindset considerably.

Sarah Miller Histand packraft training.

SMH & Shattering Personal Glass Ceilings

AR: When did you start your SMH Training? What was your motivation behind starting your training program?

SMH: I started SMH Training two years ago, after I’d had a couple of super-empowering experiences on the Wilderness Classic. The first year my team and I finished blew my mind, and the second year we won, really blew my mind. It made me realize that so often we’re capable of more than we realize. It just really fired me up for helping others have their own version of that glass-ceiling shattering moment in which they realize their own capacity.

The fitness and mindset training I’d been doing with myself and my in-person clients had been effective. So, I was pretty sure other outdoorsy types would be really psyched with the kind of strength they’d develop with it, too.

I also wanted to connect with the other like-minded people out there in the outdoorsy world and share these training tools–both fitness and mental training–that had made such a big difference in my life. I love how the online model can help take away barriers to exercise. It’s so convenient you really don’t have any excuse not to do it. And it can help us connect to people who are like us around the world.

How You Can Get Involved

Sarah’s “Summer Strong” training program includes 35- to 45-minute workouts that fit into a busy schedule. You’ll use your own bodyweight and a few simple exercise toys to pack maximum benefit into a short amount of time, with mobility tracks for different fitness levels. There will be three Rounds of Summer Strong training this year, with an open enrollment for joining in.

Sarah Histand is a personal trainer, mental health counselor, nutrition coach, and outdoor adventurer. Her online training community helps people build mind & body strength so they can keep up with their friends, prevent injuries, and have as much fun as possible in their outdoor adventures and their daily lives. Check out her summer training opportunities: Summer Strong: Mind & Body Training for Summer Adventures