Why I walk

2017 marks my 10th year of walking to work. Here’s why I started and why I keep it up, plus advice for others who want to give it a try.

Pausing to enjoy the mountain sunrise.

It all started when my beloved Subaru was diagnosed with engine trouble. At the same time, I had just moved to a large Wyoming town and my apartment was exactly 1 mile from my new job. I decided to start walking to work. It would give me daily exercise and prolong the life of my car.

Wyoming isn’t the best place to commute on foot. It’s a big, wide, sparsely populated state. Central Wyoming is almost always windy; summers are dusty and winters are frigid. Nevertheless, I started walking and I kept walking. I’m stubborn. And it was only a mile.

Now, 10 years and three jobs later, I’m in Montana. It’s not as windy here, but the winters are cold and snowy. I currently walk 1.6 miles each way to work, most days of the year.

I’ve even made a point of choosing jobs and housing based on walkability. The home that I bought four years ago is close to downtown. When I changed jobs last year, I knew that something within walking distance would be ideal. That’s how much I care about walking.

I know that I’m lucky to have these choices. Especially in states like Montana and Wyoming, many people live far from their jobs. Commuting by foot or bicycle may be difficult or impossible.

But it’s springtime, the snow has melted and there’s a sense of optimism in the air. This is a great time to try something new.

If you want to try the walking commute, here are my recommendations:

Make it your habit.

Walking to work once a week might be a nice idea, but for me it wouldn’t stick. So walking is my daily habit.

This daily habit works only because it is a habit. Walking is built into my routine. Driving is the exception.

My plan is to walk every single day. On the hottest summer days, I’ll bike because it’s faster. But I prefer walking. The pace, the fresh air, the time to think…that’s why I do it.

However, it’s fine to have exceptions. You might even plan yours in advance, to keep yourself accountable.

On supremely cold or dangerously icy winter days, I may drive or get dropped off by my husband. If I have an appointment outside of walking distance, I may drive. If I’m sick, walking might not be a good idea.

If this is a new habit for you, try it out for a week or a month to see how you like it. In fact, May is the Montana Commuter Challenge, and many states have walking or biking activities and events for commuting.

Know your route.

If you’re starting to commute by foot, or starting a new job, walk your route in advance. Know the alternate options in case of construction or road closures. (In the winter, you’ll need to figure out which sidewalks and streets are kept cleared, but don’t worry about that yet.)

You will quickly learn how long it takes, walking at your optimal speed. Wind might slow you down; rain might make you walk faster. Music can change your pace too.

When you know the route and timing, you can determine when you need to leave home. I’ve walked my route so many times, I even have informal checkpoints.

Find your cool-down spot.

If you walk fast, like me, you’ll be warm when you get to work. It’s abrupt walking into a heated building and right to your desk, so find a spot to cool down and freshen up first.

I allow a few extra minutes to use the restroom, fix my hair (which is curly, and usually tucked under my hat during my walk), splash some cool water on my face and return to room temperature.

Fuel your engine.

You wouldn’t drive away without gas in your car, so don’t leave home without food in your belly.

I usually eat a hearty breakfast with protein, carbs and some fat (our own farm fresh eggs, toast, maybe some ham or fruit). And then I’ll snack around 10, have lunch and snack more in the afternoon.

Before leaving work, I try to eat something, even if I don’t feel hungry. I’ve found that I can go from fine to shaky very quickly at the end of the day, so I also keep something small in my backpack, just in case. Dried fruit, nuts or a granola bar are good options.

Find gear that works.

Footwear: It all depends on distance.

For a while I walked just a few blocks to work. It was quick and easy, and I could wear almost any shoes in the summer. Now that I’m walking close to 4 miles each day, I wear comfortable waterproof hiking shoes every day, and I keep my cute office shoes at work. In the winter I transition to waterproof snow boots with good traction and comfortable insoles (I have a pair of Keens that changed my life).

Rain protection: Be prepared.

In the rainy seasons, I carry lightweight gaiters in my backpack. That way, if it’s rainy or muddy I can slip them on and protect my pant legs or tights so that I still look presentable when I get to work. I also keep a backup umbrella at work, so if it’s raining when I leave, I can take it with me.

Layers.

One of my favorite things about walking in the winter is the body heat I generate. I tend to run cold, but a good warmup in the morning will stay with me all day.

No matter the season, when I get to work I usually strip down to my base layer even before I walk in the door. This is one reason I love cardigans. I try to layer up so I’m just barely warm enough when I leave the house; that way I won’t overheat immediately.

In the spring and fall, and even on cool summer mornings, I wear a lightweight shell with armpit zippers for easy ventilation. In the winter I prefer a longer slim-fitting wool coat and a wool scarf I can wrap around my face and ears. I’ve found my homemade alpaca hat to be the warmest and lightest.

Bags: Stuff to carry your stuff.

Everywhere you go, your stuff goes with you. (Thanks, George Carlin.) So make sure you can carry it easily and without hurting yourself. I finally upgraded to a small Kelty backpack with well padded straps and a vented back. I’m usually carrying lunch, snacks, wallet, phone, sunglasses, reading material, layers — and often a dozen fresh eggs to sell to a co-worker.

I keep other small necessities in the pockets of whichever jacket I’m currently wearing. That includes tissues and lip balm. Depending on your neighborhood and terrain, pepper spray might be a good idea. I haven’t used mine, but I’ve come close. Dogs are my main concern, as I was charged, and almost bitten, by a group of dogs back in Wyoming.

Allow time to appreciate the journey.

My favorite part of walking this time of year is noticing the spring growth, listening to the birds and breathing the fresh, cool air. I have a couple of spots where I like to stop and enjoy the view, and I try to allow a few extra minutes for that purpose.

Be prepared to be inspiring.

Over the years, whichever job I’m at, I’ve gradually become known for walking to work in all weather. Some people find it crazy, some people find it admirable — at the very least, it’s a good topic for small talk.

Particularly in Western states, where public transportation is slim and driving is the norm, you will be an exception. So talk about it, share your reasons, encourage others. Be inspiring.

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