Hiking Essentials - Hiking Rewards
From the perspective of those of us who are avid hikers or hiking enthusiasts, and/or who simply love spending time in the natural world, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could fail to appreciate or enjoy an activity like hiking.
After all, who wouldn’t find it appealing to take an invigorating walk in a pristine place where the air is fresh and the scenery lovely or spectacular? (such people do exist, of course, including millions of sedentary people who spend their spare time in front of their TVs or computers).
The list of potential hiking rewards, pleasures, and benefits is quite long. Aside from the enjoyment involved, most of us know that it’s also good for us. Who would imagine or claim otherwise? Evidence for the physiological benefits of hiking is overwhelming -- and yet what we have to gain extends far beyond the physical.
If you’re an experienced hiker you already know some of hiking’s many benefits -- read on if you’d like to be reminded of a few of them. If you’ve done some hiking but don’t get out nearly as often as you’d like, or you’re a beginner who has postponed getting started, what are the obstacles? Think you can’t find the time? Is it a matter of motivation? If so, take a few minutes to consider some of the wide-ranging rewards and benefits you’ll reap if you make hiking a regular practice.
Portions of this page are adapted from Charles Cook’s books The Essential Guide to Hiking in the United States (Michael Kesend Publishing, 1992) and The Essential Guide to Nature Walking in the United States (Henry Holt & Company, 1997).
Walking and Hiking
Few activities are healthier or more natural for us than walking. Human beings are built to walk, and most of us are able to do so with relative ease and efficiency. Walking often plays such an integral part in our daily lives that the ability may be taken for granted, yet it can be a source of the greatest enjoyment, satisfaction and fulfillment.
Walking is especially rewarding when you have ample time and space and attractive surroundings to walk in. While you may enjoy it anywhere, even in the most congested urban areas, some of us think the best walking by far begins when you leave streets and sidewalks behind and venture out into the wilder places.
When you walk for an extended time or distance in the natural world, the realm of mountains and wilderness, the activity is usually referred to as hiking. It’s a purposeful kind of walking. Your purpose in hiking might be exercise, exploration, recreation, contact with nature, pleasure.
On a hike you typically follow marked or unmarked trails for at least a few miles, and sometimes much further. A hike can range from easy walking over nearly level land to strenuous trail-climbing in mountainous terrain. You may hike in a slow and leisurely fashion, stopping frequently, or keep a much brisker pace. If you maintain a steady stride for some distance it’s likely to amount to quite an aerobic workout.
The easiest hiking trails are usually found in lowland areas. An easy trail might be hilly, but changes in elevation will be minor and the footing relatively free of obstacles. Moderate (intermediate-level) mountain trails tend to be more rugged. You may have to pick your way among rocks and tree roots, and elevation changes will require some extra exertion. The most difficult trails can be quite steep and challenging. You might have to climb over boulders and perhaps do some “rock scrambling,” which demands considerable agility and balance.
It’s possible to go hiking with a group (such as Wild Earth Adventures, or any other hiking club or organized group), with a friend or two, or alone. By yourself you have the most freedom -- to find your own pace, take rest breaks as you choose, and hike as far as you wish -- but going alone entails greater risks. Sharing a hike with others can add richness to the experience. Something in the process seems to cement friendships, and it often adds up to a memorable day.
Like most other nature-and-wilderness-based activities, hiking can offer a sense of adventure. Even though potential dangers are few and rarely encountered, the unknown and unexpected often await you up the trail. Most experiences will tend to be positive, to be sure -- but no matter how well prepared you are or how familiar with an area, it’s impossible to forecast just what you’ll see or discover.
You might encounter the fury of a sudden storm, or come upon a scene of almost astonishing beauty, or find yourself face to face with a moose. This unpredictability can lend an edge of excitement to the day.
Hiking “grounds” you and utterly immerses you in the natural environment. Few activities bring a person more intimately in contact with nature. Many of us who are caught up in the demands of civilized life find this aspect especially attractive. If you hike a good deal you’re likely to find yourself developing a feeling of greater connectedness with the earth, a deeper sense of personal relationship to the planet.
Hiking provides a true feast for the senses. While exercising in the fresh mountain air and sunshine, in the midst of often splendid scenery, your pores and senses slowly open up to soak it all in. Not every place is spectacular, but a sublime beauty and an incredible array of life-forms can be found in virtually any natural area.
And some regions are indeed stunning -- with soaring peaks and plunging cliffs, wild rivers and roaring waterfalls, shimmering clear-water lakes and mountain meadows filled with wildflowers. Photographs or words can never quite do it all justice. There’s no substitute for going on foot and experiencing the wilder places firsthand.
Hiking offers you a way of unwinding, letting go. It’s often a pleasure to rest when you reach an especially scenic spot. The quiet, the soothing sounds of wind and water, the beauty of the environment can draw you into a state of deep relaxation and serenity.
It’s not surprising that many foot-travelers experience a “hiker’s high” in the wild, inspired by the presence of such gorgeous surroundings, witnessing nature at her most magnificent. You’re likely to return home from a hiking trip feeling refreshed and renewed, more fully alive and complete.
Hiking as Exercise
For optimal health it’s absolutely clear that human beings need exercise on a regular basis, and hiking is one of the best forms of exercise you can engage in. It will benefit your cardiovascular system, your respiratory system, and virtually all other systems of the body. As long as you take proper care (especially to avoid tripping and falling), it’s also safer and less likely to lead to an injury than many other forms of exercise.
Hiking can be done at a slow, leisurely pace -- and if that’s your preference, by all means do it that way, which can be wonderfully relaxing -- but it’s especially good for your body when practiced aerobically (at a vigorous pace for a sustained period). And since the more hiking you do, the more calories you’ll burn, hiking often can help you keep trim.
If hiking and walking become your primary modes of exercise, you won’t even really need to go to a gym, have a membership in a health club, or invest in body-building equipment (although you may still want to do other exercises, including upper body work, to achieve the most complete level of fitness). If you have access to parks or other natural areas near where you live, you can enjoy your workouts whenever you wish and at no cost.
Hiking as Pleasure
Pleasure is a major motivator in life for many people, and hiking is as reliable a source of gratification and good feelings as can be found. There are other reasons why we become hikers, but the physical pleasure of it is one of the best incentives.
Unless you’re injured, ill, overly tired, or completely out of shape, the activity of hiking should feel good from beginning to end (allowing for minor aches and sore muscles, especially on longer hikes). Sometimes you’ll experience a wonderful high -- a feeling of elation, or a warm inner glow. Such natural highs can last for hours or days, and there’s never a corresponding letdown later.
Hiking as Release
Given all the stresses of modern life -- the difficulties, dangers, unhealthy conditions, and the way we overload ourselves with work and other responsibilities -- it’s amazing that most of us actually maintain a semblance of sanity. To lead a reasonably healthy and balanced life it’s vital that we find ways to relax and let go of stress.
While there are a number of things you can do to release tension, hiking is unbeatable on this count. It can’t possibly fail to help you unwind. There’s nothing you need to do except… basically put one foot before the other and walk/hike to your heart’s content.
If you’re someone who spends long hours at work, or who are involved in other demanding and stressful situations, it’s easy to find yourself knotted up inside and feeling irritable at times. You can begin to hike away the tension in a matter of minutes. To fully unwind, the longer the hike (within reason), the better.
Hiking as Leisure
Leisure has become a scarce commodity in our culture. Although the arts of relaxing and enjoying life haven’t quite been lost, most of us don’t schedule enough free time for ourselves, or make room often enough for the things that are most important to us, including simple pleasures. Aside from the demands of daily life, some of us find it difficulty to just “be,” to enjoy a day without accomplishing something that we can point to. Yet we all need a respite sometimes.
While hiking can be done in a very goal-oriented way, an easy-going, non-goal-directed hike can be one way to help revive an atrophied sense of leisure. Take an easy hike and forget about the time, any previous plans, or thoughts about what else you should be doing. Enjoy the moment. Appreciate nature’s beauty.
If you’re a hiker who enjoys physical challenges, who likes to push yourself and perhaps accumulate accomplishments, try doing it differently once in a while. Let go of your ambitions. Relax, breathe deeply, and set off on a slow, leisurely hike.
Hiking as Immersion in Nature
We all know what it’s like to be immersed in a job, in school, in a book, in watching television, in a movie, in surfing the Internet, in music, in traffic, in conversation, in good company. What about being immersed in nature? The over-civilized among us might find this a frightening prospect, but to those of us who love nature it’s bliss: being enveloped in a world where nothing is man-made; almost everything is easy on the eyes, ears, and olfactory nerves; and most things seem to be just the right scale. To those who are open to it, few places are more comforting and nourishing.
Even though the scenery is moving by, it’s easy to be absorbed and engrossed in nature as we hike. There’s almost no feeling of separation from our surroundings in the way that’s routine in most cities, suburbs, and other “civilized places.”
Hiking as Sensory Smorgasbord
The natural world is in some respects the most restful and unstressful place imaginable, and at the same time there’s an endless array of life forms, geological forms, and natural phenomena. These can be extremely interesting, incredibly varied, and ceaselessly stimulating to our senses. And it all keeps changing as we hike from one natural “neighborhood” to another.
Human beings are born with exceptional sensory acuity, but we begin to lose it quickly in the man-made world -- which along with its many unique wonders, includes a bombardment of often unpleasant stimuli. Some of these we quickly learn to ignore and shut out, and others we simply numb ourselves to.
The more time we spend hiking in the natural world, the more our senses begin to mend, open, and receive a widening range of input. To experience the extraordinary sensory world of which we’re a part can be like feasting at a natural banquet.
Hiking as Exploration
Hiking can be a superb means of entry into exploration of the earth. Are you someone who finds it exciting to think about venturing into “new,” unknown, wild, beautiful, interesting, exotic places? If so, then hiking offers you myriad possibilities of things to experience or discover.
There are no limits to the potential pleasure and fun that may await you when you go hiking in the wilder places. It’s even possible to play like a kid again, if that appeals to you -- which can be great therapy for overworked adults. If you’re a novice hiker, simply following unfamiliar trails may suffice at first.
Experienced hikers can graduate to more rugged trails or get off the beaten path. Expert “explorers” may push their way (carefully) through bushes, tangled vines, or tall grasses, or work their way around a remote pathless pond or lake -- or (with the greatest caution) poke into crevices and caves, descend into canyons, and climb up to cliffs or knobs.
As long as you’re hiking with alertness and care, and within the limits of your ability, you should be safe from any harm.
You’ll probably see some things you’ve never encountered before: interesting plants, striking rock formations, and occasionally wild animals in close proximity. You’ll almost certainly have some stories to tell by the end of the day.
This kind of exploratory hiking is definitely not for everyone. It’s a good idea to leave designated trails or paths only if you know exactly what you’re doing, are thoroughly experienced in hiking and wilderness travel, and have a map and compass along (and of course know how to use them).
Walking as Adventure
Exploration and adventure are close companions. Almost any hike or experience in the natural world can become an adventure, and on occasion a thrillingly memorable one. The presence of the unknown, the fact that you may be doing something new and have to stretch yourself, or that you’re visiting a new place -- all can contribute to a sense of adventure.
Adventure often implies that risk and danger are involved. You may fear or imagine something going wrong, especially when trying a new activity, although the actual risks entailed in hiking are small. There are no guarantees in the natural world or anywhere else, of course, but proper preparation and awareness will help obviate danger without losing the thrill of adventure.
Some situations call for extreme caution: hiking on a rough or steep trail, or wading across a rushing stream or river, or negotiating icy or otherwise slippery rocks. It’s vital to rely on common sense and be willing to turn back when necessary.
Awareness of our physical vulnerability -- and our inability to control the forces of nature or life -- can add to the feeling of adventure when we’re hiking in the wild. It can also lead to greater humility and respect for our limitations. This lesson may not be an easy one at first, but it’s an essential part of human growth and maturity.
If you’re relatively new to hiking, just following an easy trail into the woods alone or with a companion may be more than enough adventure for you. No problem. Most of us aren’t inclined or equipped to be world-class adventurers. It’s perfectly acceptable to seek a safer and more predictable hiking experience over an adventurous one.
Hiking as Challenge
Some of us like to set difficult goals for ourselves. If choosing to take on hiking challenges helps you enjoy the activity, and motivates you to hike more, by all means do so. It’s healthy as long as you don’t get so caught up in the goals that you overdo it and run (or hike) yourself into the ground.
Does the idea of a long-distance hiking trip or one over difficult terrain attract you? Then go for it -- if you’re physically fit and prepared. It can be gratifying to set a difficult goal for yourself, plan a hiking itinerary, make preparations, and then accomplish what you’ve set out to do. But know your limitations. It’s obviously foolish to attempt hiking fifteen or twenty miles in rugged terrain if you’re not a regular long-distance hiker. Refrain from biting off so much that you might be risking exhaustion, an injury, or getting stranded overnight.
Goals need not be ambitious to be rewarding. For someone who isn't used to much exercise, just committing to taking easy hikes on a regular basis will probably be more than enough of a challenge. If you want to measure or keep track of your progress, fine. May you succeed beyond your expectations -- but don’t forget to enjoy yourself in the process.
Hiking as Freedom
It’s not easy to feel like a free agent in this world. The requirements, obligations, and demands of modern life can become overwhelming at times, and seem to leave us with too little room to be ourselves. An unfortunate number of us feel confined, controlled, or trapped by work or life circumstances.
Few activities will help restore a feeling of freedom to your life more effectively than hiking, which is one of the many reasons it’s so satisfying. Here you can allow yourself to be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually free. You can be who you are without compromise, free of ordinary external constraints.
Hiking can help connect you with a sense of your personal power, energy, strength, and creativity. It can permit you to experience deeply the freedom of life itself.
Allow your body to unwind as you hike. Let your arms gently swing (unless you’re using a walking stick or walking poles), eyes wander (while constantly returning to the trail so you don’t trip or stumble), thoughts run free, and worries fade away. Nature’s extraordinary gifts are available to you, and especially accessible while hiking. Enjoy your independence, autonomy, liberty. On foot you’re free!
Hiking as a Path to Wholeness
Can hiking help us become healthier, more balanced, fulfilled, self-realized, whole human beings? Can it help us transform our lives? Crediting hiking with such potential might seem farfetched to some people, and it should be obvious that hiking or any other wholesome pursuit won’t automatically bestow us with well-being, maturity, or peace of mind -- yet it’s impossible to overestimate the beneficial effects.
Since the activity meets a whole gamut of physical, psychological, and even spiritual needs, hiking is almost certain to make a positive contribution to your life. You’re likely to gain and grow from it no matter what your expectations.
At the very least, hiking can help you get into better shape (and/or stay in shape), stretch yourself in healthy ways, maybe learn to relax, as well as enjoy life more fully. It could also lead you into adventure. And hiking can be an effective entry to the non-human realm, a way to strengthen your connection to the natural world.
Could you be a regular hiker and at the same time live a fragmented, alienated, disillusioned existence. Not likely, or not for long. While there’s no proof of cause and effect, and on rare occasions one does meet individuals on the trail who appear to have a tenuous grip on reality, as a group the vast majority of hikers seem to be well-grounded and have a life-affirming, hope-filled, positive outlook.
Hiking as a Spiritual Pursuit
Any reason to hike is probably a good one, and you certainly don’t need lofty motives or ideals to benefit from it. Simply needing a break from everyday stress and/or to get outdoors is a more-than-adequate reason for taking up hiking. However, some of us are aware of being drawn to hiking and spending time in nature for reasons that go well beyond the most obvious ones.
Whatever your spiritual or religious beliefs (and whether or not you even place any stock in such beliefs), it’s clear that there are aspects of life and nature that lie outside of the material, the useful, the objective, and the comprehensible. Are these all part of the unknowable? Do you relate to them in some way?
One thing is certain: For those of us who are so disposed, hiking and spending extended hours in the natural world can offer endless opportunities for pondering the infinite and/or the unanswerable. Some people are uncomfortable with the ambiguities, but if you have the courage and/or inclination to pose difficult questions and stay with them, hiking and experiencing nature’s unspoiled places can help facilitate deeper insights and understandings, including wisdom about how to live.
Hiking and Meaning
Millions of people in our materialistic culture are understandably starved for meaning and purpose, and apparently don’t know how or where to find them. While meaning may be discovered in different places, one of the deepest, most important sources for many of us is nature.
When we spend time hiking and immersing ourselves in natural surroundings, our place in the universe often seems like less of a mystery. And although our own personal life purpose isn’t always easily determined, the natural world offers us the opportunity to unearth vital clues.
For the unfortunate many among us who feel confused, or unconnected, or lost in life, a regular hiking practice is capable of helping us begin to discover or regain a sense of direction. It can open us to living in a more meaningful and purposeful way, and lead us toward understanding what actions we may need to take.
Hiking and Wonder
A sense of wonder, which is usually alive and well in childhood, tends to be dimmed or suppressed by the time we’ve become adults. Living in a hectic and demanding world leaves more than a few of us jaded, and not easily excited or surprised.
No matter how old we are, nothing offers more potential to reawaken wonder than getting close to nature and witnessing the life process in an intimate way. We may have forgotten that life is actually a most extraordinary, inspiring, wondrous phenomenon, stunning in its richness and variety and harboring an amazingly intense impulse to carry on. It’s unfortunate that we take so much of life for granted, but this can change for us. Many people start to experience something of a rebirth of wonder as they spend time hiking in the natural world.
Hiking and Joy
How often do you experience joy? While there are those for whom this is a frequent and familiar feeling, for others the difficulties and disillusionments of life predominate. It could be said that the “diseases” of cynicism, discouragement, and depression have reached an epidemic stage in modern times.
Some of us even find it hard to enjoy ourselves when things are going well. It’s as if we don’t have permission or believe it’s possible to experience real joy or bliss -- we may consider these emotions unrealistic or inappropriate. And taking in the news each day only seems to add the weight of the world’s problems to our own. Joy feels utterly out of place.
The natural world is one realm where positive feelings aren’t endangered species. Hikers aren’t strangers to heightened moods. The combination of exercise, fresh air, freedom of movement, splendid scenery, and peaceful relaxation appears to conspire to create feelings that may include contentment, happiness, a sense of the rightness of life, and sometimes joy.
Hiking as Meditation
There’s no better environment for meditation than the natural world, and the activity of hiking can be a superb form of meditation. The positive effects are similar to those often experienced in other forms of meditation -- including a deep sense of being connected and grounded.
The beneficial effects are likely to be diminished if you allow your mind to continuously churn with thoughts. You can foster the meditative qualities of walking and hiking by choosing to move slowly at times, gently calming your mind, and letting go of thoughts as they arise. Focus in a restful way on your breathing or on the movement of your feet.
Hiking and Fulfillment
Feelings of deep satisfaction, fulfillment, and of being nourished and complete are uncommon experiences these days. Sources of fulfillment seem inaccessible to many of us, and these feelings are clearly incompatible with being rushed, overworked, worried, or stressed out.
Hikers frequently find life to be otherwise, since the activity of hiking offers physical, emotional, and spiritual satisfactions. It meets deep needs some of us are barely aware of. Hiking puts us in our element, links us to the landscape, serves as an expression of our being, and sometimes seems to “fill us to overflowing.”
Hiking and Centeredness
In a world where we’re endlessly exposed to demands and distractions, it’s easy to be out of touch with our own center, the core of our physical and spiritual being. Many of us don’t know who we really are, deep down. Getting acquainted and becoming comfortable with our truest self may seem like a virtual impossibility in this hyperactive world.
Long-known methods for achieving centeredness include deep relaxation, reflection, contemplation, and meditation. Yet even if we choose to engage in these practices, it’s not easy to stay in balance after we return to the busy, stressful world.
“Hiking consciously” permits an interaction between thoughts and feelings, body and mind. The more we hike and spend time in the natural world, the more we’re likely to feel at home in our body and even start to get in touch with who we really are. This naturally takes time. Eventually a deeper sense of self-understanding may evolve.
Without getting too caught up in the process, try observing your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations while you’re hiking. See if you perhaps find yourself starting to feel more centered and relaxed as the trail moves beneath your feet and time goes by. Try to take this feeling home with you.
Hiking and Aliveness
Residing in the “mental world” or living in a sedentary way leaves us totally disconnected from the physical planet. By participating in physical activities we assert and accentuate our aliveness. The body gives us immediate feedback, confirming our identity as a living, breathing, vibrant creature.
Hiking can be a virtual celebration of aliveness. When we walk in nature we come face-to-face with the rest of the living universe. We reinhabit the material world, return to a bodily existence, and can experience in the fullness of our being what it’s like to be truly alive on this earth.
Hiking and Serenity
Serenity is indeed a rare experience in today’s world. How many of us regularly experience inner peace, calm, quiet, or contentment? The wilder places are especially conducive to such feelings. When we engage in hiking, even with many things on our mind, we may find that serenity is a frequent companion.
Sometimes serenity arises mysteriously and unexpectedly. It often comes with a hiking high during or after an extended outing. It may be experienced in the presence of beauty. It can even accompany a heightened awareness of our mortality, a realization that life and growth and death are all parts of a single process. While some people find these thoughts initially troubling, to understand that the life of which we’re a part will continue on can lend a sense of hope for the future of life and the earth.
Hiking and Appreciation
As we hike through the natural environment we’re likely to appreciate what we see, and experience the glories of a wild and spectacular landscape, as well as the adventures that may be in store for us. Without forgetting the current ecological crises, we can be thankful that portions of the natural world remain lovely and wild.
Appreciation and gratitude aren’t poplar sentiments in these times of often rampant cynicism and excessive self-aggrandizement. Many cultures and spiritual or religious traditions teach gratitude, and for good reason. It’s healing for human beings to express thankfulness for what exists (in contrast to resenting what’s wrong or what we don’t have).
When we experience the often-forgotten wonders of the earth while hiking it seems ever easier to be grateful, and increasingly difficult to take the world for granted. This is not only good for us but also good for the planet, since we’ll want to help protect and preserve what we most deeply appreciate, care about, and love. The world greatly needs our gratitude, as well as the positive actions that are likely to flow from it.
[This discussion of Hiking Essentials continues on the Weather Considerations page].
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