I was 41 years old when I fell in love with hiking.
Although I had dabbled a little while I was an undergraduate at University, it turned out that the “mountaineering club” was a little too hard-core for me, and the few hikes I did with them felt more like forced marches than anything remotely enjoyable. After a particularly memorable overnight trip in the Budawangs (a rugged mountainous area in the South-East of New South Wales, Australia), I retired all my camping gear to the closet and never went near it again. Well, until I had to pack it up to move house…
Over the years that followed, I would convince myself to do a day-hike here and there as I travelled. I still loved the idea of hiking, but not the reality of it. So what changed?
Ironically, it was an 8-day, long-distance hike!
How I fell in love with hiking
The Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia is one of my favourite places in the world. It is spectacularly beautiful (even when the weather is bad), and of all the hikes I’d ever been on, it was the day-hikes I’d done here that stood out in my memory as amazing, not just painful, experiences.
I really wanted to return to do the infamous “O” – the Torres del Paine Circuit – particularly for the moment when you crest the John Gardner pass and see the Grey Glacier stretched out below you and all the way up to the Southern Patagonia Icefield. It had been on my bucket list for years. And on the occasion of my 41st birthday – I decided it was finally time to tick it off.
I had several reservations going in:
- I had never hiked for more than 2 days at a time
- I had developed arthritis in both feet over the years and was unsure whether I would even be able to walk for 8 days straight
- I was completely daunted by the very steep hike up to the Torres on the last day of the circuit. I’d done this previously as a day trip and vividly remembered how much I struggled with it. What would it be like after hiking for 7 days?
To give myself the best chance of getting through it, I decided to go with a supported trek, where I only had to carry a day pack rather than a full backpack. I also didn’t need to worry about navigation, food, pitching tents, or any of the logistics, allowing me to just relax and hike.
Yes, I survived.
And more than that, it was one of the best things I’d ever done! This 8 days in the wilderness of Patagonia stole my heart into the beauty and tranquility of hiking, and completely changed my life.
In the 4 years that have followed, I have done 9 long-distance hikes and innumerable day hikes all around the world. My travel planning now starts with figuring out which treks and hikes I want to do and everything else has to fit in around that.
What is stopping you from hiking?
Before I became a hiker, I used to let myself off the hook with any number of rationalisations as to why I couldn’t do it. I’ve heard many of these reflected in conversations I’ve had with fellow travelers, so let me dispel them here once and for all.
I’m too old
No you are not. I started hiking in my early 40s and on many of the guided hikes I do, this is the lower-middle of the age range. Hiking clubs around the world are full of incredibly fit people in their 50s and 60s, and the oldest person I hiked with was 74. It was stinking hot and we were following what was little more than a goat trail in Northern Kenya, but he was right there with the rest of us.
I’m not fit enough
Yes you are. The mistake I made in my youth was that I went too hard too fast. I did no other exercise and yet I signed up for a 2-day hike in steep rugged terrain carrying a full backpack. Of course I didn’t enjoy it!
The secret is to start slowly. Look at the difficulty rating, the length, and the estimated time to complete the hike you are considering, and don’t push yourself too hard too soon. Go out for a couple of hours to start with. Slowly increase the time, distance and the weight of your pack (especially if you are intending to start multi-day hiking), but the key is to do this consistently.
The more hiking you do, the stronger you get. So aim to go out for a hike each weekend to build up your endurance. Also do more general walking during the week and take the stairs whenever you can, or get involved in any other form of exercise that elevates your heart rate several times per week.
I don’t have the right gear
Despite what all the advertising suggests, you do not need fancy gear to begin hiking. In fact, depending on the type of hiking you end up enjoying, you may never need more than a hat, sunscreen, a cheap day pack and a pair of basic hiking shoes.
“But what about all the ‘ultra-light’, ‘moisture-wicking’, ‘high fill power’, ‘Gore-Tex’, stuff?”, I hear you ask.
I admit it makes a difference … eventually. However, it is not necessary for when you are just starting out, and you should figure out what kind of hiking you enjoy before making significant investments.
Obviously, if you come from one kind of climate and want to hike somewhere significantly different (e.g. you come from Australia and want to do an 8-day hike in Patagonia), you will need to make some purchases. But you do not have to go for the expensive brand names right from the start. The outdoor clothing industry is enormous and there are many cheaper options out there that do the job just as well. After 4 years of pretty serious hiking, I am only now just beginning to upgrade the lower-priced gear I started with.
“But don’t I need a big hiking pack?”
Again, it comes down to the type of hiking you enjoy. Although a lot of hiking imagery features a person carrying a large backpack, this is only really relevant for multi-day treks – definitely not where I suggest you start out hiking! And yes, I know that’s how I got into it, but remember I did a supported trek. The bulk of my gear was carried by another means and, depending exactly how this occurs, you may only need a duffle or something similar.
I don’t like camping
Hiking doesn’t necessarily involve camping. As the name suggests, day-hikes are completed within a day, and many longer trails have huts, lodges or other forms of accommodation where you can relax in comfort at the end of a long day.
It is only if you are hiking for several days in truly remote places (for example, the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland) or, in some cases, if you want to save money that you will need to camp. So make sure you choose a hiking route that doesn’t require this if it is not your thing.
I’m worried about getting lost
There are an enormous number of very clearly marked hiking trails in the world where it would be impossible to get lost unless you were trying really hard to do so. Trails can be anything from really well defined and accessible paths, through to obvious tracks (usually enhanced with signs or other clear markings), through to less obvious and sometimes nonexistent tracks where the route is shown with posts, rock cairns or paint daubed on rocks or trees.
Many route descriptions contain an indication of how well the trail is signposted, so make sure you choose a well-defined hike if you are a little uncertain. Alternatively, join a local hiking club or a guided hike to increase your confidence and learn how to navigate before heading out for yourself.
Give yourself the gift of hiking
There is something truly magical about being outdoors and exploring our beautiful planet on foot. It is calming, reinvigorating and relaxing (despite elevating your heart rate), and it is one of the few activities I’ve found that switches off the eternal treadmill of my mind.
Perhaps these feelings are the primal and subconscious remnants of our evolutionary past, where walking through the landscape is what we used to do all day, every day? I don’t know. But whatever the case, I recommend giving yourself the opportunity to disconnect from the rat-race and rediscover the joy and tranquility of being out in the natural environment by starting to hike.
Just remember – start slowly!