OUTDOOR ADVENTURES AND HUMAN HEALTH
What My First Hike Taught Me About Self-improvement
Outdoor adventures such as hiking should be a core part of the curriculum to improve personality, mental health, and physical stamina
I love being around nature and enjoy hiking, trekking, camping, and other outdoor activities involving some wilderness. My favorite weather is when it is sunny and cold so that I can stay active without profusely sweating or feeling hot. I had limited opportunities to enjoy outdoor adventures while living in urban India (limited space, crowding, pollution), but after coming to Canada last winter, hiking weekly (often 5–8 km per hike) has become a routine.
Many of the local hikes that I attend are organized groups I joined on Meetup.com. During some of the hikes, a few experienced hikers often talked about different long trails in Canada and how they were planning to complete them in parts over many months. These long trails are often divided into different sections, and hikers earn completion badges for each section from the clubs that manage these trails. When I learned about the Bruce Trail, which is a little over 900 km long and divided into nine sections, I found my new hobby goal of hiking the entire trail over the next few years.
However, as true in life, it is better said than done. Setting goals is easy, but accomplishing them is far more difficult. In the summer, I managed to complete one section of the trail, which is about 80–90 km long, in three days. But I had little idea that a simple leisure activity involving (essentially) walking in nature could teach me so many important lessons.
Planning and logistics
This was going to be my first multi-day outdoor adventure after a very long time and that too in an entirely different country. There were no reasonable monetary constraints, but I didn’t want to end up spending a significant portion of my annual tourism budget on a single hike. So, I wanted to minimize uncertainties (and costs) as much as possible by planning thoroughly and considering as many ‘what-if’ scenarios of all things that could go wrong.
The trail club had announced the schedule months in advance and required prior registration with a fee of around 75 CAD. Since I didn’t have a car, finalizing the logistics and arranging the accommodation was quite stressful, even though I lived less than 200 km away from the hiking area. The whole task was divided into three parts:
- Packing: I wanted to carry the minimum amount of luggage because, as I mention below, my planning involved taking all the luggage on my shoulders even during the hike. At the same time, I also needed to make sure I had enough of all the essentials (mainly clothes) to change each day and some additional pieces for contingencies. I bought some granola bars and fruits, but since we were promised some light snacks and water during the hike, I didn’t have to worry about water or other snacks.
- Transportation: I didn’t have a car, an unforgivable sin in North America, where unlike the rest of the world, the mere existence of a few buses as a part of public transportation is deemed impressive. Also, I did not feel ‘rich’ enough to Uber long distances, so buses and trains, seemed the only economical option, however inconvenient.
- Accommodation and local commuting: Again, since I didn’t have a car, I had to ensure that I lived within a small radius of the starting point for each day’s hike. Since the starting points of each day’s hike were different and far from each other, checking out daily in the morning, carrying the luggage on hiking, and finding a new accommodation at the end of the day seemed the most logical option. Also, booking accommodation just a day in advance gave me some flexibility in case I didn’t want to or couldn’t hike all three days (e.g., because of injuries or something happens that is beyond my control).
While all the planning provided a positive experience and contributed to the success of my adventure. I always Airbnb-ed and booked new accommodation after completing the daily hike and felt that I could continue the following day. Also, after the first day’s hike, the organizer felt pity (after they saw me limping at the end of the first day) for my not having a car and walking extra kilometers between the hiking location and my accommodation. So, one of the organizers, voluntarily, agreed to pick me up early morning and drop me off after the hike. They even agreed to watch over my backpack near the reception desk when I went for the hike. While seemingly small, such unexpected support definitely helped me a lot. Without all free rides and other support from the organizers, I might have spent a lot on Uber or returned home without completing the hike.
While the entire hike was self-paced and could have been done alone, there were over 50 hikers and speaking with some of them as you walk for 5–6 hours was a good way to stay motivated and feel good. Many people were highly experienced and taught me many things, such as appropriate food/snacks to carry and shoes to wear for a good hiking experience. While I was hesitant and reserved many times, I tried to push myself to speak with others. We talked about past hiking experiences or our professional backgrounds. Many were happy to share their past wilderness stories, which made the hiking a lot more fun. This also made it somewhat easier for me to also ask for their help, mainly car rides to drop me at my hotel or to the bus stop, and everyone was more than happy to help me.
Physical and mental stamina
This is one of the biggest learning experiences or rather a realization I had during the hike. At the beginning of the first day, I enthusiastically started walking with everyone else and everything seemed easy. There were checkpoints after 10 km (so two for each day’s hike) to replenish our snacks and rest for a few min. We were told that we could drop out at any checkpoint if we wanted to.
I comfortably managed to reach the first checkpoint, but soon after crossing the first checkpoint, I realized that my feet began hurting. While I kept going and trying to ignore the pain, it was becoming unbearable and I felt a pinch in my toes at every step I took.
Since I couldn’t do anything in the middle of the forest, I had to keep going until the second checkpoint, where I would decide whether or not to continue. But that was eight kilometers away. Going back to the first checkpoint somehow seemed highly demotivating. Then it occurred to me that it was harmless pain from swelling and blisters. There was no irreversible harm being done to the body and it wasn’t a medical emergency. That thought motivated me to ignore the pain and push myself further toward the second checkpoint. After reaching the second checkpoint, some organizers saw my condition and suggested that I could always drop out. But I told myself to push a little further and eventually manage to complete the day’s hike.
While the pain never went away and only grew stronger, my conscious strategy of ignoring it and keeping moving forward worked on all days of the hike. For example, the second day was even worse. Though I wasn’t carrying my backpack anymore, it seemed to make little difference. I still remember I was walking slower than a snail or a tortoise during the last five kilometers, but I kept going. The third day was the easiest since I got new shoes on and didn’t feel much pain.
During many instances, I wanted to give up and return home. But every time I convinced myself that all the pain was only temporary whereas giving up would rather become a long-term disappointment and would be difficult to overcome. Such a conscious thought process improved my mental stamina for bearing pain and helped me better understand the limits of my own body. I never thought I could walk 25 km in 4–5 hours, but it was possible.
I now realize that once you overcome the inertia of pain, you could do wonders. In fact, with some practice, I think walking even 50 km in a day could be a menial task. Our body has so much untapped potential that we are not even aware of. We tend to stop as soon as something begins hurting our bodies and fail to push ourselves beyond artificial limits set by our mindset. The common proverb “No pain no gain” apparently gets it right.
This was probably a rare realization. In most cases, you just needed to go past the temporary laziness of your brain to a solution to a problem. In my case, such a realization prevented me from going back home before completing the last day of the hike.
During the second day of hiking, my feet were still sore from the first day and I still had unhealed blisters, so it was painful right from the start. But a few kilometers in, the pain kept growing. As nearly everyone saw me limping, they were sympathetic and kept cheering me up, but that didn’t moderate my pain. A couple of experienced hikers told me that shoes were everything for a long hike. If you had long shoes, all hikes would become quite easy. I thought I had the best shoes for hiking or all outdoor adventures, so to me, shoes didn’t seem to be a problem.
However, then an experienced hiker explained the logic behind buying proper shoes. She told me that as we walked a lot our feet swelled and took up more space, which implied that the toes kept rubbing against the shoe walls and each other. Therefore, one needed to buy shoes that were at least one size bigger than the traditional shoes to accommodate swollen toes and possibly avoid getting blisters. This was the best advice and made perfect sense. I immediately realized that that was exactly what was happening with my toes. My shoes were a bit tight and all my toes were rubbing against each other, causing pain and blisters. Some other hikers also told me to buy some special type of bandages and other stuff from a medical store to wrap my blisters.
When I returned to my hotel after buying all bandages, I tried everything and nothing worked. I had a warm shower and a heavy lunch/dinner before pondering if I should stay or go home since the pain was intolerable. No bandages seemed to be working. Then, it suddenly occurred to me to test the shoe hypothesis. There was a mall close by and I reached the mall by limping not walking only to realize it was closing.
The first shop assistant only showed me a pair of shoes and then blatantly told me to leave as they were getting late. I frantically searched for other shoe shops and all of them (more than ten) refused to let me in as they were closing. I became quite angry and frustrated. What would they deny entry to a customer who is just two minutes late? But, no one seemed to care. They were not wrong. They were regular workers/professionals and had their own lives beyond work to worry about. It was just that my pain was unbearable and I was simply angry. I began wondering what if I had not eaten dinner and come directly to buy shoes first. But it was too late on Sunday evening and all shops in the entire city were closed. Then I saw a Google search showing an open Walmart store which was quite far. I immediately booked Uber and went there.
It took me an hour to find the pair of right shoes but when I tried them, it felt blissful. Bigger shoes provided enough space and my toes were no longer rubbing. Despite all blisters, all the pain from walking disappeared and in fact, I could even run. That was a magic moment that I would always remember. The shoes cost me less than my Uber ride to buy them (thank you China and Walmart), but it just saved my hike. I dropped my plans to go back home and ultimately managed to complete the last section of the hike the following day.
More positive and less negative thinking
The experience will help me keep a positive outlook toward life, stay emotionally strong, and avoid letting small things affect my mental peace. For example, when all the shoe shops refused to let me in and buy shoes, I suddenly became so bitter with everyone. But gradually I realized that I was angry for no reason. Some introspection helped me acknowledge my own cognitive biases of letting the feeling from one bad experience dominate the feeling from countless positive experiences I had. I kept focusing on how rude/unprofessional those assistants were but totally ignored how helpful everyone else had been. Since then I have learned to appreciate what I have rather than what I don’t have. I value positive experiences and either ignore negative experiences or take them as learning opportunities.
Loving nature and wilderness
Despite all the pain and a bit of stress to complete the hike, this was the best part and cannot be overemphasized. Since I have had limited exposure to forests and wilderness in my life, my views could be biased but I found the Canadian or rather entire North American wilderness unparalleled for everyday outdoor activities.
The hiking trails during the first two days were mostly through the forests and countryside. The hiking trail on the third day had some urban roads/highways. Nevertheless, nature was fantastic. We experienced countless wineries, corn farms, the wilderness, birds chirping, rain, breeze, waterfalls, ponds, and many more things. I cannot describe it in words. In many places, it was so quiet and peaceful that I wanted to just sleep for days or weeks. A couple of times, I played some old Bollywood songs that I used to enjoy and that captured the mood of walking in cool breezing on a sunny day in the wilderness.
But, almost unbearable pain from all blisters somehow subdued the excitement and fun of nature. The only regret I have is I should have enjoyed it more rather than focusing on completing the hike as soon as possible. Maybe next time, I will be better prepared and will have more stamina to complete the hike and enjoy the surroundings too.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience and I would remember it for the rest of my life to stay motivated and to remember never to give up without first pushing yourself to the limits. I will continue my journey of completing this trail and am also planning to hike many long trails in North America.
The most important lessons I learned were
- Managing the stress from planning and logistics: Despite thorough planning, for short trips, since cannot control everything, you must be able to control the sources of stress. You must be open and able to adapt and make decisions according to the conditions. It is part of all adventures.
- Keep pushing the body and overcome mental pain block: Your body and mind want to stay at rest and avoid all painful experiences. However, learning to ignore temporary and reversible pain can help you improve pain tolerance and realize the true potential of your body
- Getting out of my comfort zone of being an introvert and speaking with others: There is no need to find specific reasons. You can speak to seek advice, ask for help, or just feel not alone during activities.
- Proactively solving those (tricky) problems: Most problems have simple solutions. All it needs is some quick brainstorming to find the solution and then implementing it (e.g., in my case buying shoes) instead of being lazy and believing that the problems are unsolvable.
- Avoid letting negative experiences control positive ones: There will always be many positive and few negative experiences. Treat negative learning experiences rather than regret and don’t let them dominate the overall experience.
None of these lessons or skills are unique, but I feel that our education system fails to teach them effectively. To be fair, these things and other life experiences cannot be taught on a blackboard or via PowerPoint presentation. Schooling emphasizes cognitive intelligence even though social, emotional, environmental, and spiritual components of intelligence are just as essential for living a healthy and fulfilling life. Many outdoor adventures can provide training that supports multi-dimensional personality development. Unlike professional sports that not everyone can afford, outdoor adventures are much cheaper and can be enjoyed whenever desired. Therefore, I think nature-based adventures such as hiking should be a core part of education to improve the overall personality and mindset of people.
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