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Why we hike

August 26, 2019

Found in Activities, Stories

Hiking, peak bagging, trekking, backpacking, even walking – call it what you may – we generally undertake this activity with the same basic intent: to move from point A to B. To get somewhere.

Only later do we discover it’s really about the spaces in between.

Some hike to seek escape from a noisy world, or solace. Others see a challenge. How far can I go? How fast? What gear do I need? And what can I shed in search of an ultralight pack? For some, it’s a weekend undertaking with long, lung-busting missions into the backcountry. Thru-hikers spend months ambling across ranges, even countries. Some hike at night, under headlamp, serenaded by stars. The hardy venture out in mid-winter, frosty diamonds dancing underfoot. Sturdy boots become trusted companions for many, yet a few wander barefoot, sand and dirt between toes a reminder of simpler times.

But no matter what brings us to hiking, other unexpected gifts soon emerge.

Two hikers by Shark Tooth Mountain in the Canadian Rockies

Among the first and most obvious is improved health. I won’t bore you with statistics – there is plenty of compelling research – but let’s just say the effects derived from just a 20-minute daily stroll are undeniable and unambiguous. Every aspect of our being appears to benefit from this simple act, from cholesterol levels to cardiovascular disease, psoriasis to Parkinson’s.

My own recent reacquaintance with the joys of hiking and walking was precipitated by a herniated disc. Amid all the jazzy modern treatments available to a spine patient – inversion tables, intramuscular needling, epidural injections, massage, acupuncture, physio, rehab, ice, heat – most doctors and surgeons agree that nothing is more effect at rebuilding function than simply getting up on your feet and moving forward.

“If you are only able to do one thing each day,” a physiologist with the Canadian Olympic team said to me, “then walk. Preferably at a stiff pace. With arms swinging from shoulders, not elbows.”

My first outings were small. I struggled to complete a single city block, often forced to lie on the sidewalk and rest. But little by little, strength returned. Soon I was out for an hour. Then two. Eventually the disc healed and form returned, but I never stopped the daily hikes, for I could sense some special magic at work.

Hiker stretching out over a small creek and having fun

Hiking just might be the perfect antidote to the modern plague of sitting, for it stretches us upwards, unfolding hip flexors and engaging gluteals while activating the vestibular system and reinforcing contralateral movement (opposite leg and arm moving in unison) which is the foundation of all performance.

Yet the benefits are not limited to the body alone.

Long hailed for its ability to boost cognitive performance, walking in nature is now recognized as a powerful intervention against depression, stress, and anxiety. Hemingway, Thoreau and Jefferson extolled the virtues, as did Plato, Aristotle, Dickens, Ruskin and Emerson. Carried to its limit, moving forward becomes a form of meditation, allowing us to tap into creativity, wisdom, even a forgotten capacity for wonderment.

To hike through a landscape is to know it – certainly with more intimacy than any train, plane or automobile would allow. Distances become real again. And humbling.

Twenty years ago, my wife and I trekked across Iceland, travelling from northeast cape to southwest, a thirty-seven-day journey of one thousand kilometres. Along the way, we stumbled upon abandoned fishing villages, and the gravestones of children lost amid wind-whipped grass. We peered over sea cliffs, the noisy faces below dripping with fulmars, murres and kittiwakes. We traversed misty glaciers, warmed ourselves at volcanic steam vents, and followed ancient trade routes through lava fields, where thousands of hooves had worn prints into the stone.

There is simply no way I would know that small country similarly had I driven around the ring road, for any landscape glimpsed through the window of a car is distant, and inaccessible.

Two hikers on windy high coastline in Ireland, one is pointing

Perhaps most importantly, hiking and walking are unparalleled in their ability to raise the veil on the landscape of home. Even just travelling by foot through familiar neighbourhoods makes us become participants rather than spectators. We greet strangers, become aware of routines, notice subtle changes, and in this way, following the same route, day after day, instead of growing mundane, becomes steadily more engaging. As experiences and observations accumulate, like sediments in a lake, our understanding of the world outside our front door deepens.

In the forest behind my house, a well-worn path traverses a grove of mature lodgepole pine. It was here, ten years ago, that I disturbed a great horned owl, causing the majestic bird to take flight, gliding silently through the cathedral of trees with wings outstretched.

I have passed by that same spot a hundred times since, and while I have never seen the owl again, I have never failed to think of it either.

Hiking and walking are truly democratic activities, requiring little more than a sturdy pair of shoes, open to almost everyone, rich and poor, young and old. (Admittedly, longer outings benefit from a backpack with the hiking essentials, like a jacket, water bottle and food.) But in this era of flashy, Insta-fueled exploits, the activity itself seems to have become the Rodney Dangerfield of outdoor pursuits – can’t get no respect.

As counterpoint, I’ll simply note that unlike running, biking, skiing or almost any other more vigorous activity, the slow and steady movement of walking on a trail can be absorbed in near-unlimited doses, for it builds a body up instead of breaking it down. Sure, overuse injuries may appear, but the stress placed on joints and muscles is of a different nature. Fundamentally, our bodies are designed to walk and walk and walk – forever.

Three hikers on a ridge with a tall peak in the background

But the greatest gift of hiking may not be no so much of what it is, as what it isn’t.

A phone bouncing in hand is desperately difficult to read, and messages are frustrating to type. So we are forced to acquaint (or reacquaint) ourselves with other wonders: silence, curiosity, the smell of earth on the trail, the iridescence of a dragonfly’s wing, talking freely with friends in the forest.

Of course all this has nothing to do with peak bagging or lowered cholesterol. Putting one foot in front of the other is fundamentally an expression of humanity; it’s what makes us who we are – and it’s what takes us to those spaces in between. I hope you’ll join us.

Bruce’s hiking gear picks

Heading out to explore on trails? Here’s some of the gear Bruce trusts for hiking:

Bruce Kirkby's favourite hiking gear photos

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