Hiking has become a regular endeavour to which I look forward all week. I first discovered it a few years ago, when I used to head outside of my London flat to talk through arguments and misunderstandings. We used to call it walk-and-talk then, and I found it helped to gain perspective and take a step back from the raw emotions of a regular argument.
Now I call it hiking.
I make a point to find a new route every week and attempt to make, at least, 15 km of constant walking. I prefer it when it is in National Parks, forests, or other natural settings, and no other plans are allowed on the day. Even when I’ve taken my camera with me I forget to use it as part of the experience is to ground myself and feel connected.
Last year I trekked the Abel Tasman Coastal Track in New Zealand. It put me on the right path to closure and I have found that I am more driven and capable of managing my emotions ever since (even though I still have a long way to go).
In a way, going back to nature and learning to walk just for the pleasure of walking continues to help me keep depression and anxiety at bay. Now, I am no expert so please seek professional help if you think you might struggle with either, but here are some reasons hiking could help you, too.
1. Nature is proven to relieve stress and alleviate depression
A 2015 study by Stanford researchers found quantifiable evidence to link walking outdoors to reduced risk of depression. Participants who had walked for at least 90 minutes outdoors had reported “lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment”.
What this means is that walking in nature can help you control overthinking.
2. Hiking can help with focusing on the task at hand
Mental health charity Mind attributes outdoor activities with a wealth of benefits for individuals struggling with mild to moderate problems with depression and anxiety.
In my experience, whenever I dedicate some time to spend outdoors my mind starts to focus. In New Zealand sometimes it was a matter of putting one foot after the other. Now it’s about listening to my friends’ stories, paying attention to wildlife, or even how to use light to my advantage in photography.
By removing the urban factor from one day a week, I’ve noticed I am more centred and I’ve started appreciating the beauty of the mundane.
3. It’s a social activity which can also be enjoyed alone
Now that I’m a lot more confident, I’m happy to go on solo hikes that are a bit off the beaten path. Whenever I go back home I’ll stop by my favourite mountains and explore a route I find challenging. Or I’ll make plans that exclusively involve walking to a hike (and then hiking it).
Going outdoors makes me feel productive while it also helps me relax. Plus, having the choice of getting some of my friends to join or venture out solo puts me in control of my own mental needs.
4. It gives you a reason to travel
Loving hiking has brought about the unsuspected joy of finding new trails whenever I travel. I’ve started planning trips based on a specific trail (Mt. Snowden, I see you). It’s also helped me understand that a place’s nature is vital to appreciate local stories and histories, and should not be overlooked.
An important part of travelling is seeing, learning from, and understanding the flora and fauna of your destination. In some cases, the culture might be similar to what you’re used to yet the wildlife will be full of surprises.
So, how does one start hiking?
I genuinely wish all questions had such an easy answer. Look for the closest natural space wherever you live, put some good shoes on, and give it a try. Let me know how it goes.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I used to think that I had never done much hiking or trekking, although looking through pictures from trips a while ago I can see I usually ended up with my walking boots on.