How I got over myself and started hiking

A few years ago I spent some time travelling around South America with my then-boyfriend-now-husband. While there my husband had a vague notion of hiking the Inca Trail, as well as some other interesting trails in Colombia and Patagonia. At that time I had never hiked, and was pretty intimidated. So intimidated, in fact, that I outright refused. My main fear was holding up the rest of the group, being the wheezing nuisance at the back. No matter how many times I was told that there would be plenty of people less fit than me, I just couldn’t shake the idea that I would embarrass myself. I think this fear probably came from school PE lessons, where I soon realized I wasn’t a naturally ‘sporty’ girl, and so covered up my lack of ability in team games with an overt disdain for anything physical, and actively avoided any type of exercise until way into my twenties.

Another reason I was hesitant is because it seemed so alien to me- I was lucky enough to grow up in a coastal area, where I had all possible opportunities to be outside and run free. However I don’t come from a family that took long hikes or played sports together. This type of family sportiness is something I associate solely with moderately wealthy, (white) upper middle-class families, and even now I ask myself why is it that when I’m up a mountain somewhere I can almost guarantee the socio-economic status of anyone I encounter there.

So hiking, and exercise in general was not for me. The turning point was this trip. Although I refused to do any group treks, I was persuaded to do some little day hikes. Since I was unfit, I found it difficult- the first hike we did involved a steep ascent before plateauing out, at one point I remember telling my husband how much I hated it, how I couldn’t understand how anyone could find it fun. I had trouble figuring out how to place my feet on the ground- whether to walk up on my toes or try and roll the foot as you do when walking on the flat (in fact this still troubles me on a descent at times). But I made it to the top. And I loved it. And I realised what my body could do if I really wanted it to. Some moments of discomfort led to an incredible feeling and a view that I would never normally see.

And I’m not going to tell you that I became some crazy athletic trail runner, but after moving to Scotland I continued hill walking and as a by-product of that, slowly became a bit fitter. And for me this re-framed the entire concept of exercise, because, before then, I associated exercise with either school sports (red faced, getting picked last) or trying to lose weight. Because for women exercise is so often correlated with hating your body and punishing it for not looking how you want it to. The idea that you might see a mountain and want to climb it- just to see if you could- is not really considered a female trait (at least not traditionally) and I couldn’t even grasp the concept of being active for fun. Feigning scorn at girls who were fit and sporty was an easy way to deny that my real problem was embarrassment and fear of being judged for being unfit. And I think this is really common among young women and one of the reasons that girls drop off in sporting activities in their teens, and if they ever take it up again it’s generally not until their mid-twenties or later- when they have more of a fuck-it attitude.

While I wasn’t particularly slim at this point, neither was I particularly large- the fear of trying a sport or activity if you’re overweight must be significantly worse, and such a mental barrier to overcome. This is also compounded by the gendered socialization that prioritizes men’s leisure time over women’s. Women (particularly lower-income women) are expected to not take time out for themselves (how many bloody ‘mother as martyr’ adverts do you see on the telly) and participate in activities purely for the joy of it, because other commitments in their life come first. I have to admit I struggle with a slight embarrassment that I have the opportunity to be so frivolous and get to spend my time doing activities that I want, and I don’t think this embarrassment would be so profound if I were a man. It’s a sad thought that prioritizing your hobbies and health is considered a luxury amongst most women.

And so back to hiking. Why do I love it? Partly because I love nature. From a young age I appreciated beauty in nature, and I even get a kick out of spotting an interesting fungus on a rotten log, or a tiny flower fighting through the undergrowth, as well as the more awe-inspiring mountain range panoramas. But you can see a lot of that without hiking, and I think part of the pleasure of it is the physical exertion. I can’t believe how much I’ve changed in the past five years as now I would much rather do a summit hike than a stroll on the flat, and I don’t even mind when it rains!

There’s something very meditative about walking, and there’s been a hundred books (and a million faux-inspiring instagram quotes) written about the power of mentally switching off by getting outdoors and exercising, but it is the truth. Tackling a big hill requires strength and resilience and they are two things I certainly could do with more of, and I feel like I’m cultivating them when I hike. There’s the sense of achievement, the rush of endorphins and the wild beauty of the outdoors. I look back on the first day hike I did and realise how much it changed me, and how much I’ve benefited from it. I still wouldn’t consider myself fit, and I’m certainly no expert hiker but I am always striving to improve, and learn, and grow.