I wasn’t always a hiker. In fact, I used to think it was a rather strange pursuit. Why would you choose to exert yourself on a nice day when you could be lying on the beach or on the couch? Some people liked to seek out the best views of far-off horizons. I just liked to get horizontal. Hiking was the hobby of old people and sandal-wearing Germans in pursuit of rare flowers. Hiking was boring, yet travelling was fun and when I came of age and went overseas I ended up going on hikes because it was the thing to do. Then, without me wishing it or even realising, I fell in love with hiking. This is why;
BEING READY FOR ANYTHING
I feel a quiet elation when I step onto a trail with a backpack full of supplies. Like I’m ready to take on the world. And that feeling permeates throughout the entire adventure, as if just the spirit of heading out into nature for a night or more is enough to feel free, wild and happy. As Alain de Botton wrote, “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”
IT’S THE BEST WAY TO SPEND TIME WITH FRIENDS
This is a major factor. As we get older and our lives get busier we simply don’t have the time to hang out with friends as we once did. That’s the magic of a hike – it grants you rare quality time with friends. People have nowhere to go or no emails to answer on a hike. And no phones to be distracted by. You have all day to chat and ramble as you amble, with the ever-changing scenery acting as a catalyst for novel thoughts and meaningful conversations. If I really want to spend time with a friend and catch up properly, there’s nothing better than going on a long hike together.
THE SENSE OF EXPLORATION
Going on a new hike and exploring an unknown region brings with it a genuine excitement that I find similar to the exhilaration of travelling. In a way, hiking is just travelling on your feet. It boils down to being curious, deciding to find out what is around the next bend, and the joy of discovery.
THE SOOTHING POWER OF NATURE
Poets have long known about the benefit of being close to nature. William Wordsworth urged people to travel through landscapes to feel emotions that would benefit our souls. And mountains, with their grand scale and sublime presence, have a calming effect on even the most frayed mind. Nature can rejuvenate us, and by travelling through it on our own two feet we experience the best of it. Another double-barrelled poet, Walt Whitman, said, “Now I see the secret of making the best person, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”
Just keep moving at your own pace. Eat when you’re hungry. Stay hydrated. Watch your step. Enjoy yourself. And that’s it, really. The simplicity is beautiful. As Peter Matthiessen wrote, “The sense of having life’s needs at hand, or travelling light, brings with it intense energy and exhilaration. Simplicity is the whole key to wellbeing.”
THE LIFE LESSONS IT TEACHES
Every hike I’ve ever been on there’s always a discussion about what lies ahead of us. ‘The hut must be close,’ and ‘I think I see the top,’ are among the most popular refrains. But the truth is that it’s all conjecture. No one is sure where the hut or the summit is, just as no one is sure how our lives will really pan out. All we can do is keep putting one foot in front of another and keep moving forward.
IT’S DECENT EXERCISE
If I’m going to be out of breath then I at least want to be rewarded with a beautiful view at the end of it. The visual stimulation of continuously moving and the meditative quality of walking helps to pass the time easily and I’m seldom aware of any struggle. It’s the second-most engaging way to burn calories I know of.
EXPANDING YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF THE PLACE YOU LIVE
This works in two ways. Hiking pushes you to find new trails, and the weekend trips that result are a wonderful excuse to explore your own region. Venturing out with more experienced hikers, or with handbooks, means you’ll learn something about the natural world. And the next time you go you can share that information and build on it. Like with many things, the more you know the better it gets.
Hiking is often free, and when it’s not free it’s pretty damn cheap. Staying in overnight huts is basic and sparse but often costs as little as R70. Compare that to a meal in a restaurant and a hiking weekend away is actually a good way to save money.
THE SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT
Hiking can be challenging. Sometimes you carry a heavy pack and the trail is steep. Other times it’s really hot and you’re blinded by your own sweat. Other times it rains and storms and you wonder what on earth you’re doing on a mountain. But if you persevere, you’re rewarded with the glory of finishing and a glowing feeling of pride, confidence, and self-belief. That sense of accomplishment is invaluable.
I could continue, but, as John Muir said, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”