Years ago, when I arrived in Lander, Wyoming for a three-week backpacking course in the Absaroka-Beartooth Range, I felt pretty prepared for 21 days in the wilderness. I’d spent my youth rambling around the Rocky Mountains, summiting Colorado Fourteeners, and, when I couldn’t find partners, taking on increasingly difficult solo hikes. It would, I was sure, be a walk in the park.
Needless to say, three weeks in the wilderness is a little different than most of what I’d grown up doing—weather changed quickly, the terrain was often difficult, and I didn’t have the safety net of a warm bed indoors. When I hiked every day for three weeks, I learned a lot about traveling in the wilderness, but I learned a lot about myself, too.
Since that trip, I’ve spent hundreds of days hiking. I’ve spent plenty of time climbing and paddling and mountain biking, too, but I always come back to hiking. It’s the simple pleasures that keep me hitting the trail.
The chance to slow down
It’s exciting to work towards a big goal—climbing Mount Rainier in a day, maybe, or floating the Grand Canyon—but training for and executing a major fitness regimen doesn’t always leave time for the simpler things. More often than not, when I’m hiking my favorite backyard trail, I don’t worry about traveling fast and light. I bring a thermos of coffee (and, if I’m really going for it, a summer sausage), stop at the top of the pass to take in a panoramic view, pause occasionally to listen to birds chirping and elk bugling. In these fast-paced times, it’s a unique opportunity to connect with the natural world.
A new challenge
Being surrounded by the Instagram feeds of famous outdoor athletes I admire often makes me feel like I should be pushing harder. We’re always hearing about speed records being broken and previously-uncharted adventures being taken on, so it’s easy to get into that mindset of going farther and faster. But those things and hiking aren’t mutually exclusive. Some of my best days have been spent on a lung-busting hike to an alpine lake; some of my hardest workouts have been hiking the trails behind my house with a heavy pack—perhaps the best mountaineering training there is.
Human-powered adventure that will take you anywhere
Recently, my partner and I pulled out our maps and started poring over possible routes for an upcoming trip in southeast Utah. We started debating the merits of various modes of transportation: Should we bike? Bring our packrafts? The best way to get from Point A to Point B, we eventually determined, was simply to walk. We wouldn’t be deterred by regulations in national parks or wilderness boundaries; on foot, we could adjust to the topography as needed. Where we end up will be limited only by our imaginations.
Time to bond with friends
When a friend wants to catch up, I almost always suggest a hike. Faster-paced activities leave even the fittest partners out of breath, but hiking up the trail with a friend I haven’t seen in awhile (or one I see all the time, but rarely get to actually talk with) is a chance to escape the ever-present cell reception and gain new insights about one another. Even if we’re just out for a quick stroll between meetings, a hike leaves us feeling rejuvenated in a way that my other favorite activities just can’t touch.
Opportunity to clear your head
Research has shown that a 90-minute walk in nature can help decrease activity in the areas of the brain associated with anxiety and depression. This rings true for me, whether I’m hiking my familiar weekday route up Nightbird Gulch or exploring a trail I’ve never seen before: a walk in the woods helps me center myself. Moving my body deliberately, taking the time to focus on my breathing, on what I’m seeing and hearing and smelling—hiking lends itself to mindfulness.
When I remember my proudest accomplishments in the mountains, I find the hikes that got me there are often the best part. To train for an ascent of Pico de Orizaba, I hiked solo and with friends, with a heavy pack, in all types of weather. When I took friends down my favorite river run on the Upper Colorado last summer, we stopped often to hike to hot springs and secret lunch spots. In a sense, hiking has gotten me where I needed to be, both physically and mentally.
What do you love most about hitting the trail? Tell us in the comments below.