I have a friend — let's call her Lily — whose childhood was peppered with pre-dawn country walks. Roused by her parents at 4AM, she'd pull on her boots, zip up her jacket and spend the next few hours meandering through the fields that skirted the edge of their English village. They were the first to see the sun peek over the horizon and hear the birds join together for their morning song. Unfortunately for Lily, the lush tranquillity was disturbing and she often trudged through the morning frost, bellowing at the top of her tiny lungs, "WAIT FOR ME!"
The world can be split into two camps when it comes to nature: those like Lily who believe a dawn walk is hell on earth, and those who don't. Me? I think it sounds sublime, but then, I'm a hiker. Hiking nourishes my mind, body and soul in ways I find impossible to replicate elsewhere, and I urge you to try it.
1. Hiking keeps me present.
According to the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, to be truly happy is to enjoy the present moment, and I have to admit he knew what he was talking about. It's hard not be present when it's just you and the world, one foot in front of the other, breathe in, breathe out. You can just be.
Additionally, walking meditation is a common Buddhist practice wherein the goal is simply to walk and be present with every step we take. While more traditional seated forms of meditation aren't for everyone, a long hike helps still the mind that's constantly thinking about what we have to do next. It's one of the best gifts you can give yourself.
2. Hiking elevates my senses.
I've been known to march through central London like a soldier on parade: eyes fixed straight ahead, music in my headphones blocking out traffic noise, avoiding physical contact with strangers at all cost.
Unlike a crowded city center, though, hiking makes you WANT to engage all your senses. Once you've been hiking for an bit, that pesky internal monologue fades away and you begin to take more notice of your surroundings. How does the breeze feel against your skin? What can you hear? When did the leaves start to change color? It makes you feel connected to yourself and to the earth.
3. Hiking puts nature into perspective.
Up mountains, over hills, along plains, through forests, hiking is a great — and increasingly rare — opportunity to get in touch with nature. It's a pertinent reminder of how small we are and how beautiful (and vast) the world is.
Studies have shown that being among nature is a great stress reliever and can help lower incidences of depression. The findings of a particular 2014 study suggested that group outdoor walks "may not only improve someone's daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression."
4. Hiking invites a sense of adventure.
Hiking can be a unique way to explore a new place. My very first hike was along the Abel Tasman Coast Track in New Zealand's South Island and it was a life-changing experience: we hiked all day, waiting for tides to lower in order to cross parts of the track, climbed hills for awe-inspiring views and made our way through jungle. Every minute felt like an adventure and it sowed the seeds that would eventually become my love of hiking.
Don't get me wrong. I like spending weekends binge-watching Netflix as much as the next person, but that's not very exciting is it? Hiking is a way to tap into your adventurous spirit in a healthy way that doesn't involve whiskey and picking bar fights with bikers.
5. Hiking gives you space.
Physical space, of course, but more importantly the emotional and mental distance needed to momentarily place aside the pressures of balancing work, relationships, friendships, finances and health. I've come to important realizations about myself and my life whilst wandering. Alternatively, I've gone hiking and let my thoughts dance from the mundane to the ludicrous. And that's OK too; both are necessary. But both require space.
6. Hiking fosters relationships.
I come from a large (and loud!) family where spending quality time with individuals can be tricky. But this year, I have plans to hike the English countryside with my mother and I can't wait.
Hiking with an important someone allows you to check in with them on a deeper level and be a more supportive friend/partner/sibling/human. This special one-on-one time affords you the opportunity to be of service to those who are more important to you. After all, there's nothing like hours of winding paths to get the lowdown on how your hiking bud is really feeling.
Feel ready to get started and venture into the great outdoors? Here are a few of my top tips for beginner hikers.
- Start small. No one expects you to hike the Appalachian trail straight away. Start with small hikes, half a day is fine. Take well-trodden routes that don't rely on orienteering skills or complicated maps.
- Pack lightly. The idea is for your soul to feel buoyant and free. For a full day hike, I eat before and after so I only need to take the following: water, keys, a bit of cash, phone (for maps, emergencies, takings photos), tissues. Depending on the location and the time of year, consider bug spray or sunscreen.
- Tell someone where you're going. It might not jive with your ideas of freedom and breaking free of modern living, but you must tell someone where you're going and what time you expect to be back.
- Smile and say hello to fellow hikers. It builds a sense of community. And it's rude not to!
So, go forth and wander my friends! I hope you find your foray into hiking as exciting and enriching as I do and feel free to comment if you have anything to add!
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