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Conquering Doubt – Meditations on Why I Hike

Webster Cliff, Crawford Notch, White Mountains
Webster Cliff, White Mountains

Have you ever wondered why some people are so obsessed with hiking? People like me.

I’ve had my own theories about its appeal to me over the years. For a long time, hiking was one of the few ways I had to relieve the work related stress associated with my career in high tech. Going for a challenging day hike or an overnight backpacking trip made it possible for me to completely forget about work and live in the moment. It was a  great outlet, but since I switched careers last year, I don’t have nearly the same kind of stress I used to. In fact, I haven’t felt more like myself in years.

So why is hiking still so important to me?

I think there are two reasons:

Fairly regular, challenging hikes help me overcome the doubts I have about my health, fitness, age, and mental determination.

I’ve long held the attitude that I can do anything I want as long as I have the will to do it and regular hikes help to conquer any doubts I have about myself. Take something as elementary as climbing a mountain. Every time, I come to the base of a peak and look up at its looming summit ridge, I can’t help but wonder if I will ever make it to the top.  But I almost always do because my will is still stronger than any obstacle, even my (slowly) aging body. Making it to the top is a powerful way to reaffirm the power of my will, be it a peak or a long section of trail.

The second reason is still fairly new.  I make friends hiking: friends who really know me and share my passions.

I’ve been a loner and a solo hiker for a long time. Having a really stressful career made it difficult for me to make much room in my life for other people beyond my marriage. It certainly cut down on any free time I had. But this is the first year that I’ve really started to hike frequently with other people who are as obsessed about hiking as me. It’s great to be able to call or email them and set up middle of the week hikes and bushwhacks together. It’s certainly added a new dimension to hiking for me, one I never expected to enjoy as much as I do.

I doubt I’ll ever really ever understand why hiking is so important to me. I guess I should be grateful that it’s meaning continues to evolve and still remains a bit of a mystery.

Why do you hike?

23 comments

  1. Hiking is like a reset button on life for me. It helps ground me and help toss out the unimportant things in life. I like the way hiking simplifies the daily routine. There’s the physical aspect of taxing and testing yourself physically and mentally, there’s a little bit of logistics involved that pretty much just centers on keeping fed and finding a place to sleep. It’s a watered down version of exploration, which helps to satiate my wanderlust. The social aspect on big trails is a bonus that I don’t need or necessarily seek on hikes, but I definitely enjoy it when it does come along.

  2. I hike because of that keen anticipation of adventure. What’s beyond that next rise? Where else can we meet nature one on one?

  3. The woods and the water for me are therapeutic. Exercise and adventure, = endorphins and adrenalin.Both of these things make you feel alive and aware.I’m rarely happier than when I have time to go on a multi day hike or a sea kayak tour. You can be humbled, exited, exhausted and be at total piece all in a very short time period. Hopefully it can be a part of my life for as long as possible.It’s healthy and grounding and it is definatly hard to get enough.

  4. I took your last paragraph and substituted “skiing” for “hiking” and it’s a frighteningly accurate description of how I am now, and how I will likely be in the future. Thanks for forcing me to think a little deeper on this Tuesday morning.

    • It is kind of a deep post, but it’s a topic that’s been on my mind for a while. As I was writing it, it also dawned on me that one could substitute just about any form of outdoor recreation and have it still be valid. Thanks for the comment!

  5. “When I’m on the water, I am the best version of myself.” That comes from a good friend describing his deep attraction to and passion for rivers. (We share a lifelong addiction to fly fishing.) It’s true. When I am – when we are – on the water we’re focused, attentive, driven to explore, will work through any pain and are always willing to share. We’re better humans. Mountains brings this out of us, too. We don’t understand the “why” of it. Not really. Maybe it’s a territory best left unexplored…

  6. For me it boils down to wanting to relate to a simpler form of living where your senses need to operate on a higher level and simple tasks are given heightened meaning. There is no LaZBoy when you get a blister, you need to attend to it. There is no static roof when it rains, you need to overcome that (but enjoy it at the same time. I’ve had some awesome hikes in the lushness that rain brings). You can’t just stop when you are exhausted or fear that you have lost your trail. Your ride home isn’t going to come to you.

    The simple becomes important which is a nice lesson to take home with you as well….

    It’s also a medium that I am comfortable in. I typically hike solo for anything longer than a short day-hike but on the rare occasion that I have company on a longer trek, there is very little mundane small talk. Being outside gives you a whole new realm of conversation topics and the vastness may alter your perception on some of the topics that we may normally find ourselves obsessing over during our 9-5 lives. I guess I am saying that the interaction deepens rather than broadens….

    • I rather like silent partners too when I go with other people. Camp is the time for talk, but I prefer to walk in silence.

      Rain is a fantastic companion also. Many people don’t appreciate it and even cancel hikes because of it. I can’t understand that.

  7. I agree, this is a bit deeper than your typical gear review. I haven’t pondered this much but do want to share that hiking for me is a spiritual pursuit. A while ago while I was hiking with a good friend, we as we got out on the trail, he proclaimed “welcome to my temple!” Ever since then I have this special feeling I get when in the wild that I am near my source of spiritual fitness. When I am out in the wild, I feel connected to my source of peace and serenity. So I seek it and connect to it as often as I can. Peace to all you deep thinkers out there!

  8. Hiking for me is a spiritual experience. I liken being in the deep woods to being in a cathedral. I acknowledge and become part of a sweeping power that soars over me. I am also much more aware of the sounds and smells of my natural environment that escape me in my daily urban life. In the woods, they surround me in a way that reinforces the meaningfulness of my life. I am part of a much larger purpose whose rhythm matches my own walking, breathing, pulsing existence.

  9. Nature > Man. To experience nature you need to slow down to its speed. For me that means hiking. Its also humbling to go out and physically comprehend the size of a mountain, the chill of the wind, the ancient geological implications of a cliff, the irony of twisting your ankle on a tiny rock after conquering a huge peak, the panic of running out of water or the feeling of hunger, and finally, the purest appreciation of an effing beer…

  10. Wow this is a great post! I feel the same way about hiking. It’s a great way for me to relieve the stress of school and finding new internships every season. I have done many solo hikes as well because I have had a hard time finding the college crowd that would rather get up early in the morning opposed to sleeping in.

  11. Great post! A lot of what I’m about to say has been said by others already, but I can’t resist.

    I hike for several different reasons:

    I hike for the silence and the freedom it brings. My work is noisy–bells, alarms, pagers, phones, human voices. In the woods, the only sounds are the sounds of feet, the wind, and the woods. The only people in the woods who need me are myself and my hiking partner.

    Before I was a hiker, I was (and am) a distance runner. I love the feeling of pushing my body beyond what I expect it can do, and succeeding, and I love the well-deserved hunger and fatigue at the end of the day.

    I love to plan. In the era of smartphones, obsessively planning vacations and trips is no longer necessary, but the woods demand that you think ahead.

    Finally, I hike to face fears. I am afraid of heights, and fast moving water, and countless other things that the mountains and the woods ask me to face–on my own terms–each time I go out.

  12. I hike because I have so much new gear to test and fiddle with that I have to go outside every spare minute I get to play with it all and blog about it…

    Nah, just kidding! I hike because I like the pace and serenity of being outdoors, detached from technology and time scheduling. Even my kids (ages 6 & 7) who are always busy with school, technology, sports, instinctively know that being outside is the time to relax and enjoy being in the moment. I haven’t told them to do this, they just seem to take a subliminal queue from their surroundings and chill out.

    I also agree with the frequent affirmation of body challenges around strength – it’s good to know your capabilities and limits. It’s fun to read what others have to say on this.

  13. I hike frequently for many reasons and these reasons always seem to change, or I have new reasons.

    I find hiking to be my quiet time to get away from the office, politics, emails, and outside interference. I have two rules when I go hiking with partners. No political discussions, and no “shop talk” the last thing I want to be discussing is how that new server implementation went last week.

    But for the last couple of years, I have found that getting out and hiking during the winter really helps decrease the affects of seasonal depression. In Wisconsin winters, we can sometimes go weeks without getting much sunlight, it will just be overcast and dreary for several days straight. Combine that with sub-zero temperatures, and being cooped up inside a dark office 5 days a week, it can make me a bit crabby January through March. Although switching jobs has certainly helped as well, I find that if I get outside and hit the trails at least once or twice a week, I actually enjoy winter as I can take in the beauty of the outdoors and I enjoy the quiet solitude that hiking brings.

    There are many other reasons that I enjoy getting outside and hiking, including exercise, but these main points are what I’ve observed that have really made changes to my mood.

  14. If I weren’t hiking, I’d probably be dead, or at least feel as though I were!

    “We don’t stop hiking because we grow old, we grow old because we stop hiking.” –Finis Mitchell.

  15. Ten years ago, I thought I had ten good years of backpacking left.
    Five years ago, I thought I had ten good years of backpacking left.
    Today, I still think I have ten good years of backpacking left.

    I hope I can do what Finis Mitchell did.

    In 1975, on a trip to Wyoming, I saw some of his postcards and bought every one of them and his book on Wind River Trails. In the mid ’80s, I looked him up and visited with him and his wife in Rock Springs. He’d just injured his knee hiking and recently had a mountain named after him, which is an exceedingly rare thing for a living person.

  16. As a young lad of 10 and living near the Long trails made famous in history by hearing the Histroy of the area in School and groups like Rogers Rangers and authors such as James Fenimore Cooper and after reading Daniel Boone one cold wet Saturday afternoon in the Library sent me deeper into the discovery of the trails..It was just fun to be away from home and my 4 siblings and imagined what it was like to live in early America. I built “Forts” and Wigams and a Long House and Brush Shelters and learned of the life that lived all around me there in the bush…

    Sadly those trails are now covered by a State Office Building Complex and a State College..Whereas in my youth you could hike for 20 or 30 miles crossing only a lonely Country Road now and then or having to meader through some Farmers Fields going from water source to water source.

    I guess being out there just got into my blood. I learned to hunt and fish along those trails and to swim as well and it is where I found internal peace away from School and annoying people.

    It was a world that was better than black and white TV and long before anything other than a Miltary Rucksack or later my BoyScout Rucksack came along….Total Freedom is the drawn for me I guess and now the joy of just watching nature at work and the peace and quiet I find there…

  17. Dennis A. Cooley

    Gotta think about this one…. So many reasons. I love being in the quiet, deep woods away from the noise of daily life. I generally backpack with a couple good friends and my wife. I haven’t solo hiked yet but I need to. I think about hiking often. I enjoy the camaraderie, setting up camp, enjoying dinner and a nice beverage around the campfire. I feel exhilaration when we get the backpacks on and hit the trailhead. Falling asleep in my tent when it’s gently raining……..Reaching a summit after a long, strenuous stretch. Fresh, clean air. The smell of the woods. Clean, clear, cold streams….We’re heading to Ramsey’s Draft later this month and Dolly Sod’s in July. Dragon’s Tooth this Sunday!!

  18. Dennis A. Cooley

    I forgot to add that on July 4, 2012 I broke my left femur. I was hiking (a little) in 6 months. I’m thankful that I’m able to hike many miles without much trouble. Very thankful!!

  19. When hiking I experience all those things I find so hard to practice in the “real world”: living in the moment; appreciating the wide, beautiful world around me; reflecting; integrating mind and body into one. I feel so happy after hiking–calm and energized at the same time, and grateful for the good things in my life. Then, after each hike, a little bit more of that energized calm accompanies me back into my day to day.

  20. Love this post! And all the comments underneath. During a lot of my daily time, I deal with ephemeral stuff on electronic screens. So hiking for me is about staying in touch with the ancient, beautiful and *real* world. It’s a spiritual thing as much as physical. I like the challenge when I have a goal in mind (summiting a peak, doing a certain distance, etc.), and/or the meditation when the journey itself is all it’s about.

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