As long-distance hikers we are often confronted with the advantages and disadvantages of leaving the normal world behind and venturing out to explore the wonderful nature of this planet by foot. It is mainly at the start of an upcoming hiking adventure or at the end of a previous trek that we take a step back and reflect. Why are we doing this? Why do we go out and hike long distances?
Lately I was asked this questions by a friend and this question inspired me to write a few lines as an answer. It is not just escapism or the pure pleisure of walking and experiencing nature at its best – hiking has a lot more advantages that won’t come to your mind in the first place. Let me tell you about the power of long-distance hiking!
The importance of personal experience
When I did some research in preparation for my first time on the PCT in 2016 I came across an interesting article. This article pointed out a very interesting fact due to the different metabolism of men and women: At the start of a long-distance hike men have all the advantages on their side because they usually have more muscles than women. But over the long term of hiking (or other endurance activities) the different metabolism of women comes into effect. It somehow outweighs the initial male advantage of more muscle mass. Or as the Guardian states: “long-distance hiking is nature’s great equalizer”.
Reading tons of articles providing some nice words and even scientifically proven numbers has not the same impact as personal experience. I read the above mentioned article and instantly forgot about it. But once I was on trail for a while and could actually see the impact of long-distance hiking to my fellow male hikers the words came back into my mind. To sum it up, men generally loose weight much faster than women. Their body burns muscle tissue much faster while women have more “durable” fat reserves. (Yes, actually it’s good for something!)
No article and no statistics can ever replace personal experience. Therefore I’ll explain the power of long-distance hiking from a very personal point of view. And I highly recommend that you take a hike and gather your own personal experience!
Physical & Mental Aspects – The Power of long-distance Hiking
The rhythm of nature
It already starts early in the morning when I am on trail. I wake up to the sound of birds short after the sun has risen. Opening my tentfly I feel ready for a new day full of adventures!
Back home I am a long-sleeper, usually crumpy if I have to wake up before ten am. The night before I have been sitting in front of the TV, sometimes until 11pm or later.
On trail it’s a totally different world. During a hike I get comfortable in my sleeping bag as soon as the sun goes down and in the morning I feel refreshed and I am ready to start when the first birds sing – I sleep with the rhythm of nature!
Health & fitness
Hiking day after day for months in a row turns your body into a machine. After a while your body will optimize everything towards the goal of endurance hiking. For myself it was always hard to detect that the hiking itself gets easier. It’s an ongoing process and the changes are not sudden. Nevertheless I realized the optimization of my body in other ways. After months on trail my body devoted all of its resources towards my legs. I lost fat mainly on the upper body. Another effect I realized was that I was never sick. Apart from having a knee injury the six months I spent on the PCT in 2016 have probably been the most healthy months in my life. I was full of energy!
There are of course also some mental benefits to long-distance hiking. Being out in nature and achieving goals along the way (e.g. reaching the next resupply town) increases your self-confidence a lot.
But the power of long-distance hiking goes a lot further: The constant daily excercise produces hormons that flush through your system improving mental health and well-being.
A healthy distance
A lot of hikers say they can think a lot better while hiking. And it’s true. Hiking – especially long distance hiking – provides a certain distance from your normal life and puts things into a different perspective. The time on trail can be used to review issues and some hikers even make important or even life changing decisions.
For me hiking resets everything and I can get my focus back on what is really important in my life. Sometimes problems in real life are not as big as we think!
Challenges vs. problems
On trail we have no problems. We have challenges: The challenge to get up that mountain, to carry enough water through a waterless stretch, the challenge to keep hiking although everything is aching.
On a long-distance hike we have to conquer the fear of the unknown. Where will I sleep tonight? Will I reach a certain place before it gets dark? What awaits me around the next bend? Hiking a long trail will teach you how to cope with change and how to solve problems or better how to face challenges!
I never expected to have an early injury on trail but when it happened I literally had to walk through all the lows and had to deal with it. There was no way around. There’s a saying “If life throws lemons at you, make lemonade!”
With the number and variety of challenges on a long-distance hike you will grow because it takes persistence and courage to finally meet your goals.
The power of long-distance hiking isn’t only self-centered. Being out on trail and meeting like-minded people gives the seldom opportunity to see a bigger picture which is a lot different to what we are used to.
All of a sudden we realize that we are not alone with all our thoughts and doubts about the world we are living in. Is growth the answer to all problems? Do we need the newest car in our garage? Is the number on our bank acount important? Or is money just a means to an end to fulfill our dreams?
For me it is always a relief to meet people who are different and think into another direction. In a world where everything is focused on profit and consuming it is a great experience to take a step back, detach from things and dive into a world where it’s important who you really are.
For me that’s the power of long-distance hiking!