Are you thinking about getting out to the mountains this year? Are you a frequent hiker? If so, this article is not for you. Although, you may enjoy reading about my amateur hiking opinions, if only to disagree with them.
If you’re an amateur hiker like myself, consider this your most recent warning. If you’ve never hiked before, consider this your first deterrent. Hiking is terrible. It’s an awful, grueling, physically demanding experience that leaves all amateurs sweat-drenched and oxygen depleted—but the results are worth it.
You should know that the journey ahead of you will be a struggle. For any amateur, hiking is like an exercise in coping with loss. You will experience all five stages of grief over the course of single hike. That emotional turmoil is unavoidable, but it’s a worthwhile experience. There are few better sources of catharsis than the acceptance that comes when you’ve reached a hike’s final destination. I urge you to pursue that path, and I hope I can prepare you for the trials ahead.
1. You Are Not Physically Prepared for Hiking
Your current level of physical fitness has a smaller effect on your hiking ability than you think. It does have some effect, but its overall importance is minor. Just as someone who spends time in the gym will be better at other active pursuits, so too will your lungs and heart work more easily while you hike, but your muscles are not prepared for this experience.
“I work out every day. Regular bike rides are part of my weekly routine. My legs are strong enough to handle an easy hike.”
Each of those statements and all possible permutations have been uttered by amateur hikers as their feet hit the hills and they begin the climb. I’ve uttered them myself. Trust me when I tell you that they’re all lies.
Hiking uses a specific set of muscles that I’m certain never activate for any other activity. I don’t know which specific muscles they are, only that they hide below the surface of regular physical activity, like a child in gym class hoping not to be picked.
If you don’t hike often, you’re not physically prepared for the effect that several hours of outdoor, upward physical activity will have on your body. All the statements written above—and every desperate lie like them—are just weak utterances that amateur hikers hide behind as a hill starts to take its toll.
2. The Online Ratings for Hikes are Lies
“Hold on, did he write ‘several hours’ above? The website said this hike would only take two hours. That cannot be right. How long have we been hiking? FOUR HOURS? I hate this. I hate nature.”
Did you read an online review for a hike that lifted your enthusiasm? Did that website say that the hike was easy, that it only takes a few hours, and that even elderly people do it with their dogs? Prepare yourself for conversations exactly like the dialogue written above, because everything you read on that website was false.
I have hiked trails with easy ratings and trails with moderate ratings, and I can say with absolute certainty that easy hikes do not exist. The only accurate rating for an amateur hiker is difficult. If this is your first hike in five years, you need to double the recommended time. You’ve been deceived. Anger is a natural response. Try not to let it spread.
3. There Isn’t an Easy Way Out
“What if you had stayed home instead of engaging in this inexorable struggle? What if you had simply chosen an easier hike?”
At a certain stage of every hike, amateurs are consumed by pointless hypotheticals.
You’re already on a hike. You made that choice. Now you must face the consequences of your actions. Hypothetical questions are worthless. Ask them only if it helps you escape your brutal new reality.
“What if I turn around now? What if I just stop here?”
You cannot bargain with a hike. It exists in a state of perpetual stoic silence. If you turn back, you’ll only be depriving yourself of what the trail has to offer after all the hardship you’ve already endured. Something special is waiting for you at the end, but adversity still waits ahead. You must face it. Only walking onward will save you from this situation.
4. You Still Have to Walk Back
Congratulations, you made it beyond the needless bargaining stage! Your journey is nearly complete. Each new step brings you closer to the end—and further from your starting point. That growing distance comes with a grim realization for most amateurs. Every step you take now is a step you’ll have to retrace later.
Each step up is an inevitable step down. Every sweet downward slope on the way out toward a hidden waterfall is an insidious peak that must be mounted again if you ever hope to return from your ordeal. The realization of that inevitable turn will cast a dark cloud over every step you take from now on, up or down. Try not to focus on it too much. All trials end eventually. This hike will end too.
5. The Results of Your Struggle
When I talk about results, I’m not talking about some kind of transcendental spiritual transformation that brings epiphanies about humanity’s relationship to nature. If you do experience that kind of reflection, I’m happy for you. In my experience, it’s difficult to find any kind of solace while I’m ruefully trudging up a steep incline, wondering if it’s possible to take too much albuterol.
I’m also not talking about the bulging, stony muscles that will naturally develop in your legs if you keep hiking. Your body will eventually thank you for the exercise, but first it’s going to punish you. The cost of admission to the house of gains is muscle pain. There might be benefits beyond those doors, but they’re not the reason you should start hiking.
The results I’m talking about are the fantastic, otherworldly views of mountaintop calderas, hidden waterfalls, and verdant flowering valleys; vistas that I hope I’ll remember even as my last anxious breath escapes my clutches. If I have ever had occasion to consider my place in the universe, it’s been when I’ve seen the faces of immortal stone giants looking down at me.