Anyone will tell you that I’m a hiking addict. Just a half-hour from my door, Colorado’s foothills feed my habit and coax me into hitting the trail. This obsession with fresh air and solitude also fuels my creative process and (seriously) keeps me sane!
In January of 2021, I set an impromptu goal of going on fifty hikes in a calendar year. In addition to celebrating my half-century mark, I knew my mental, emotional, and physical health would benefit in big ways. With that in mind, I adjusted my schedule, upgraded my gear, and made it happen…
The criteria for my “fifty for fifty” (or 50/50) project was simple: each hike had to be at least three miles in length — most were much longer — and must also take place in a natural setting. State parks and wildlife preserves were fine, but no urban sidewalks need apply!
Most of my outings were solo, but sometimes a hiking buddy joined me, and I always appreciated the company. Trailheads within an hour’s drive of my home base in Denver were ideal, but I soon expanded my territory to include smaller mountain towns as well.
As a solitude junkie — and one with only half-days at her disposal — I found lower elevations less crowded and more enjoyable than tackling fourteeners. Still, I like a heart-pounding incline, and luckily, those are easy to find along the front range. Wandering the woods, meadows, and switchbacks of these lesser peaks turned into my favorite pastime.
Regardless of the elevation, hiking clears out the cobwebs for me. I feel more focused and less irritable (just ask my family) when I’ve logged a few miles in nature…whether that’s on a mountainside, a flat prairie trail, or a stroll through open green space.
Plenty of studies on wellness and the outdoors prove the positive impacts of everything from occasional forest bathing to long-term wilderness living. While I don’t intend to set up a tarp in the backcountry anytime soon, I’ve definitely noticed that consistent time in nature affects my focus, motivation, and creative output.
One of countless highlights from my 50/50 project? I crossed off a “bucket list” item while trekking from Crested Butte to Aspen, through the Maroon Bells Wilderness, with a few good friends. Going solo was not an option for this 12-mile journey up and down a steep, rocky 12.5K pass! While wading through fields of wildflowers under jagged peaks, I felt giddy with joy. Was it altitude-induced? Possibly…but not entirely.
Spoiler alert: I met my 50/50 goal — exceeding it by two hikes, actually! That fact alone was pretty gratifying. But what was the real takeaway from this little exercise (aside from plenty of hiking puns)? In two words: peace and clarity. Exploring my home state was great, and getting curious about my state of mind was even more enlightening.
I struggle with mild to moderate depression, and the rewards of regular outings are both obvious and mysterious me. Sometimes, a quick walk around my neighborhood is enough to lift my spirits. Other times, it takes several hours (or even days/weeks) before I can let go of negative thoughts and discover the hidden gems that nature only bestows when we’re truly paying attention.
Most of us are susceptible to the guilt that crops up whenever we partake in an act of self-care. When I feel torn between getting out and staying put (especially on a workday), I ask myself, “Can I afford not to take time out for my mental health?” These three questions help me decide:
1} What tasks will I complete first, so that I feel accomplished and unencumbered during my hike?
Tip: It’s always best to clear a deadline or get to a natural stopping point before hitting the trail. That helps me let go of “work mode,” find my stride, and release stress more easily.
2} Which problems or projects might benefit from brainstorming or unstructured thought while I walk?
Tip: I covered this topic in a previous blog post, Walk to Unblock. While it’s best not to force the process, sometimes letting your mind wander aimlessly acts like a productivity hack!
3} How will I channel the “creative juice” generated by my hike, so I’m extremely productive afterward?
Tip: On the day after a long hike, I usually block off a chunk of focused writing time. It’s as if my body says “Yup, you’ve earned it!” and redirects all of that beautiful energy to my brain.
Propelling our bodies through the natural world is a powerful tonic. For me, it’s a meditative tool that allows me to tune into my inner self while increasing my capacity for empathy. In addition to healing ourselves, “walking and talking” is a lovely way to connect with others and help them address their own challenges.
The not-so-subtle message at the heart of this “Hiking for Mental Health” post? Get outside and move! Do it as often as you can, and in whatever way is most fun and accessible for you. Your mind, body, and creative spirit will thank you many times over. If my 50/50 project inspires you to tackle a similar goal (or beat my humble record), then my work here is done.
Aaaaand, you can probably guess what’s happening just as soon as I hit “publish” on this post. That’s right…I’m hitting the trail.