How To Hike Yourself Happy
I love city life.
I love the sense of belonging that comes from walking down a crowded street during the mass exodus of Friday night rush hour.
I love the squeal of bus brakes at traffic lights and the thundering sound of passing trains.
I love good coffee, even better food, Georgian terraces, graffiti-clad walls, urban foxes and, most of all,
I love Deliveroo.
But living in the city can be stressful. Whilst many of us have demanding jobs or personal lives, the city itself can add more aggravation to our already frazzled brains.
But how do you combat the daily stresses and strains of city life and learn to appreciate the good stuff more often.
I do it by hiking. There, I’ve said it. I’ve confessed.
I’m a Berghaus-wearing, hill-climbing, Mars-bar-eating rambler, complete with compass, map and survival bag. And I’m going to tell you how hiking helps me de-stress and why you should try it too.
Now, I’m not going to give you some lengthy spiel about how you can forget your troubles by getting out of the city to frolic in the woods whilst songbirds lift up your petticoats à la Snow White (sorry, if that’s where you thought this was going but Disney kitsch doesn’t reflect most people’s experience of the outdoors).
I’ve devoted my spare time to hiking for many years now and I’ve yet to have a bird land on my outstretched finger (though I have shared a river with a rat and been bitten by a variety of blood-sucking creatures – does that count?).
Whilst my Instagram account offers a rose-tinted vision of my hiking adventures, I can tell you that any romantic idea of being ‘at one with Nature’ quickly goes out of the window when you are horribly lost, cold, wet or desperately in need of a wee (or worse…).
But just because Nature can be a cruel mistress does not mean that you can’t get great happiness, mindfulness and self worth from connecting with her.
Firstly, a good hike is a great way to exercise and, like any form of strenuous activity, it helps you to forget your troubles by giving you new ones to think about. These new concerns are often more bodily and immediate than the ones at the office, sparking your survival instinct like; ‘god, I’m thirsty,’ or ‘hmm, is that a bull over there?’ or ‘that lightning bolt was close, wasn’t it?’
These immediate concerns are GUARANTEED to make you briefly forget about your meeting with Janet from accounts on Monday and, in the long run, after much repetition, may help to put your day-to-day woes into perspective.
We have all heard that exercise is good for this. I challenge anyone to worry about long term issues (paying bills, health anxieties, social anxiety, Janet from accounts) whilst they are gasping for air during a spin class, a 10k run or as they ascend a particularly steep incline on a mountain hike.
The body can’t do it. It brings you directly to your present predicament (‘my legs ache. How much longer can I stand? Am I going to be sick? It’s hot. Need to stop and take a breather and drink a LOT of water’). And whilst some swear by the euphoria felt after a short, heavy bout of exercise, it’s the prolonged physical and mental activity of a hike that settles my mind best.
Ultimately, going for regular hikes makes my brain and body connect in a far more productive way than when I try not to worry about something by donning my pyjamas, staring blankly at Netflix and numbing my overworked brain cells with Ben & Jerry’s, yet STILL THINKING ABOUT THE THING THAT IS STRESSING ME OUT.
But the physical and mindful benefits of hiking as a form of exercise – with the bonus of fresh air and beautiful views – are not its only selling points.
Going for a long walk in the countryside also makes you appreciate small contrasts and pleasures in your everyday life.
And here, in my opinion, is where true happiness is found.
There are few more pleasurable feelings than taking off your boots at the end of a walk; or grasping a mug of hot tea with cold hands; or having a cleansing shower when you get home; or climbing into bed at the end of a long day with sore but satisfied muscles.
Where else would you enjoy a squashed cheese sandwich as much as you do on top of a mountain? Or feel almost moved to tears that you found a Freddo at the bottom of your backpack? How many times during a working day do you feel thankful that you are dry? Or that you are walking on solid, even ground? Or that a kettle is only six feet away?
Hiking regularly and experiencing the power of small pleasures has changed my perspective on city living. I walk everywhere now and stop to look at the things going on around me. I listen to the sounds I love – trains hurtling by and distant seagulls in the harbour. I take more mindful moments to enjoy the city – the Friday night rush home, the quiet early mornings and, more recently, the electric feel of approaching autumn that hangs in the air.
My love for hiking, and a shared interest with other members of Bristol Girl, led to the foundation of Bristol Girl Hikers. We are now almost 500 members strong and our all-girl group has already been on various adventures in the Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia and the South West.
We are lucky in the UK. I can’t think of any city that isn’t close to some area of outstanding natural beauty. Bristol and Cardiff have the Brecon Beacons; London has the Thames Path and the South Downs; Manchester and Liverpool have the Lake District; and Birmingham is not far from the Peak District. And the further north you go – Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh - the more spoilt for choice you are.
So get out. Go wild. As the famous naturalist, John Muir, once said:
‘Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.’
– Muir, The Mountains of California
Whether you go alone or in a group, do it safely and responsibly and I promise you’ll love it (at least, you will when you get home).
If you live locally to Bristol, Bath and the surrounding areas and would like to join Bristol Girl Hikers, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter @girlhikers.
Written by Charlotte Drew, founder of the Bristol Girl Hikers.