What keeps me hiking

Although we post beautiful pictures of sweeping views, mountain landscapes, cloudless skies, and boast about the miles we’ve walked, the truth is, hiking and backpacking are not without its incredible challenges. Blisters, sore feet, black toenails, achy joints, bone jarring descents, clothes that always feel damp (literally the worst part of hiking in the NE for me), sweat, rain, heat, scratched up legs, and sticky tents. Don’t get me wrong, I love to hike. Most days are absolutely incredible. But, there are some minutes and hours when I am just not feeling it. When I start getting overwhelmed by these challenges, I recall a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, No Mud, No Lotus,

“Both suffering and happiness are of an organic nature, which means they are both transitory; they are always changing. The flower, when it wilts, becomes the compost. The compost can help grow a flower again. Happiness is also organic and impermanent by nature. It can become suffering and suffering can become happiness again…If you don’t have mud the lotus won’t manifest. You can’t grow lotus flowers on marble. Without mud, there can be no lotus.” 

I oscillate between feeling challenged and joyful when I hike. I don’t feel the same magnitude of pride and happiness when I get to a summit or viewpoint without the climb. So, what keeps me going during those moments of difficulty? Of course those incredible sunsets and views from mountaintops are helpful, but they can be few and far between. I’ve been working a lot on caring less about outcomes (in hiking and in life) and staying present in the moment instead of looking towards the future or dwelling in the past. Finding joy, gratitude, and beauty on the trail when you hit a wall is an ongoing practice! Here are some things that help me take one step at a time: 

Hiking meditation, mantras, and positive self-talk. It is easy to start judging yourself on the trail or focusing on what is difficult when you are tired or just ready to be done. Using walking meditation really helps me stay present and grounded. 

  • Counting steps up to 10 and then starting again. 
  • Repeating to myself “inhale” and “exhale” 
  • Counting my breaths, “inhale for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and exhale for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Saying to myself, “inhale what you need, exhale what you don’t”
  • Consciously directing my breath to the places of my body that hurt and need more love and support. 
  • Saying to myself, “you are strong and capable” 

Picking steps. I like to look one step ahead and plan the next spot for my foot to land. Instead of focusing on places to avoid, I look for steps that are inviting, safe, and sturdy.

Breaking goals into smaller chunks. When I go on a longer hike or backpacking trip, it can be really daunting to think about having 5, 10, 15, 20+ miles ahead of you. Instead of thinking to myself, “X more miles until the end of the day,” I break up my day into smaller chunks by saying “okay, 2 miles to the next shelter for a snack break” or “I’ve already hiked ⅔ of the elevation! Just ⅓ to go!” This helps me focus on bite-sized manageable goals instead of getting overwhelmed.

Singing parts of songs in my head. Remember, it doesn’t matter how fast you get there, it just matters that you are moving! That’s probably why three songs that I sing in my head on the trail have to do with moving slow and steady. 

  • “I move slow and steady” from Slow and Steady by Of Monsters and Men 
  • “Steady as she goes” by The Raconteurs 
  • And yes, Miley Cyrus makes her way in my head. “It’s the climb” may be a bit too on the nose, but it works for me! 
  • Sometimes it is just the last song that played in the car. Make it a good one. 

Sighing loudly. Yep, you heard that right. Sometimes you just have to release all the heat you build up in your body. I often exhale loudly on the trail, letting go of whatever emotions or baggage I don’t need to hold onto. 

Focusing on nature. This may seem simple, but noticing the beauty of my surroundings, the quiet, the sound of my footsteps, the smell of pine trees, or the breeze cooling me down on a hot day, reminds me of why I hike. Refocusing on nature brings me back from my negative thoughts into the present and into connection with my surroundings.

Relishing uninterrupted time with my husband. At home, we are really distracted with work, phones, media, etc. I find that being outside and experiencing nature together really helps us stay connected! 

Hiking, like yoga, has changed my life. A few years ago, 5 miles felt like a long hike for me. I just wanted to “get through” hikes so I could feel accomplished at the end. Now, I can go for 30+ miles a day, a feat I never thought I could accomplish. And, more importantly, I relish the opportunity to be in nature, to unplug, and to slow my thoughts down.

What keeps you hiking?

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  1. Terry Blackburne-Lee
    September 13, 2020

    I loved reading this, Kathy. You are so honest with the ups and downs and your advice on how to keep going is great. From all your pictures and the beauty they show, I’d say the suffering is worth the reward. You are awesome!

    • Kathy
      September 20, 2020

      Thank you so much for reading!

  2. Claire
    October 13, 2020

    I love this post and a lot of the things that keep you going in tough stretches are similar to any endurance activity. Run the mile you’re in. Get to that (insert bench mark). 10 mins to water break. Etc. So relatable! I’d def choose you to run a final.

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