In education, the Zone of Proximal Development is an “I have an advanced degree” way of referring to material that a student has not yet mastered but is close enough (proximal) that with some leadership, they can. After a student learns addition and subtraction, multiplication and division would fit into their zone of proximal development. Calculus would not.

The same concept can also be applied to hiking, especially as it relates to goals for an upcoming year. The best goals are exciting, perhaps a little scary. Achieving them requires leaving the comfort zone. If you have a hiking goal for the new year, what are the steps to doing it safely and successfully?

Just as a marathoner or weight lifter can use statistics to track their progress to new goals, hikers have metrics by which they can gauge the challenge of a hike, providing a sense of where they are and where they want to go. Factors that influence a hike’s difficulty include total elevation gain, distance, highest point, trail condition, terrain, navigational challenges and weather. Everyone will respond differently – some hikers may be more sensitive to altitude; some might have difficulty with off-trail navigation; some might want to avoid bushwhacking; some might be new at hiking but are already living an active lifestyle, so it will come more easily. That said, with the wealth of information in print and online about hiking, especially in the Los Angeles area, with a little research, it is not hard to figure out the ballpark difficulty of a hike. With a little time, you can plan a series of hikes that can get you from the most difficult hike you’ve done so far to the hike that represents your goal for next year, by gradually stretching your zone of proximal development.

Here is a list of several key hikes I did, from my first trip on the San Juan Loop to Mt. Baldy. In between, I did many shorter hikes of varying distances and difficulty that were easier to fit into my schedule, but when picking hikes for training purposes, I went for a personal best in at least one of the main categories: distance, elevation gain and highest altitude reached. My timeframe was well over a year, but someone who is younger than me (I was 32 when I started) in better shape (I was about 20 pounds overweight and was walking a lot but not doing any other exercise) or has more of a sense of urgency (when I first got into hiking, Baldy was a “maybe someday” idea – not a goal on which I was actively working) could likely do it much more quickly.

ZPD graphic

If you are intimidated about the idea of hiking alone – a healthy fear and one that holds a lot of people back – solo hiking can still be safe and enjoyable if you respect your limits and do hikes that are within your zone of proximal development. Hiking on a weekend – especially a busy holiday as I did for Baden-Powell and Cucamonga – is a good option if you can’t find a group to go with.

Is the zone of proximal development a self-explanatory concept when it comes to hiking? Perhaps, but sadly, there are many news stories each year of California hikers who find themselves in dangerous, even deadly situations due to lack of preparation – from winter Baldy accidents to rescues at Three Sisters Falls east of San Diego where summer temperatures can hit three digits and hikers are unequipped for the steep climb out of the canyon. The ZPD idea is one of several ways to set hiking goals and achieve them safely and successfully.

Text and photography copyright 2018 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking.