Long distance treks and overnights in the wild battling with the trickery of our brains as we hear a bag rustle and think it’s a deadly beast coming to eat us alive! It’s been a while. Just with those pushes into the unknown in the outdoors become more familiar feelings again, we realize that those lessons learnt outdoors feel connected to the way we live our everyday lives.
Before we headed out on our first two day hike and backpack since our last trip to California in 2019, before coronavirus was a thing, we had one of our usual editorial meetings. I knew that I wanted to write a piece about how what we can learn in nature can really help us process and grow in our daily lives and I wanted to use the trip we had coming up to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, UK as the backdrop for it. You see, we’d been building up to this moment. Many of our goals and ambitions had been put on hold, as most people’s had last year. To be honest, even when things opened up last year, we still felt quite uneasy about travelling very far away and doing much in the outdoors. Sure, we started hiking again and exploring, but it didn’t feel like it does now. I wanted to talk all about the build up to this, it’s significance and how this has and can be applied to everyday life, but when we got out on the trail, a different story presented itself.
Just as things changing can be a positive thing, I decided I didn’t quite feel the story I was going to tell resonated so much anymore and so, I decided I wanted to present this as a series of ‘life lessons’ learnt, actualized and realized on the trail and how these have had an impact on me – and in turn, to help you too. I genuinely believe that the microcosmic lessons we can learn out in nature, when we’re forced to learn so quickly can have a really big impact on us off the trail. There is nothing like having to make an important decision and learn quickly to trigger the need to shift a perspective. Since getting into adventure, I’ve really noticed just how much the things I’ve learnt on the trail and the confidence this has helped me build has had an impact on who I am and how I think off the trail.
ID – from left to right – 1: A landscape image. A close up of Fay, who is smiling and mid laugh. Fay is wearing a blue zip up top and has hiking poles behind in a bag which Fay is clenching. In the background are out of focus mountains. 2: A landscape image. In the foreground are foxgloves which are magenta. In the background is a stream and mountain hills that seem to layer into each other.
Things don’t just magically happen – you need to build up
It’s funny what a year and a half of having long covid, depression and a weirdly reduced sense of identity can do to a person. Take away the things that you’ve built up and you can feel enormously lost. This two day hike and backpack was an adventure that I had needed to build up to. Sure, in the past, I’ve done harder things, but this was different. I didn’t have long covid before. I wasn’t dealing with the most intense muscle aches that feel like burning in the back of my calves every time I walk up hill. I wasn’t dealing with reduced lung capacity. I wasn’t dealing with a body that looked and felt different to me. Getting back my ‘lust for life’ has been a very difficult experience over the last few months, and getting outdoors has really helped with this. I remember the first big hike we tried to do earlier this year when we were ‘allowed out’ again. I wanted so desperately to prove to myself that I could do something. I failed pretty miserably at that. I hadn’t done anything like that for a long time and it showed. After the initial sulk, I started to get the idea that perhaps I needed to work myself up to these bigger things. So, like most of the ways I’ve learnt to deal with anxiety, I looked to break down what it was I wanted to achieve (at this point, being able to get up mountains and big hills again) and worked out how to stage it so I could make it happen. Each time we went out from then on, I’d try to add an extra bit of height gain to the walk. Because I was coming at this from a place of congratulation rather than being down on myself, before I knew it, I started to feel shifts. I didn’t feel as tired or out of breath on something as I perhaps would have been before. I could get further without stopping. So, when it got to the point where I felt ready for this hike, I knew I was ready. There was no doubt in my mind. I knew that if I could do x I could do y. Breaking things down like this is a fantastic way to overcome overwhelm in life – whether that is out on the trail or when thinking about a busy day you have ahead. Focus on the journey, all the many little steps, instead of the frustration of wanting to be somewhere you’re not.
ID – clockwise from top left – 1: A landscape image. A close up of Fay from the waist up. Fay is wearing a blue zipped top, grey bag with hiking poles in and a bright coloured pride Kula cloth. Fay has hair up in a pony and is wearing sunglasses. The background is mountainous with an overcast but slightly sunny sky. 2: A landscape image. Fay is walking away from the camera into a mountain scene. Fay wears black trousers and blue jacket with blue bag, yellow water bottle and hiking poles in the side. It is overcast. 3: A portrait image. Matt is stood straight on to the camera and is mid smile/laugh. He wears black coat and grey trousers and has a Nikon camera around his neck and sunglasses. 4: A landscape image. Matt is crouched down by a stream and is filtering water with a Sawyer Squeeze filter. He is wearing grey trousers and black coat. His bottle is blue and the Sawyer product is blue also. 5: A portrait image. A close up of a thistle flower from above. The background is out of focus and dark brown. 6: A landscape image. Matt is small in frame hiking down a mountain path near a lake. You can see his reflection in the water, and the scene looks moody and overcast. The ground is green, yellow and red.
Even if you’ve prepared, you’ll never feel ready – excitement and anxiety feel similar
As much as I sike myself up for every single hike or adventure we go on, and as ready and prepared as I can feel, I still feel nervous. I still get that questioning going through my head of ‘why have I done this to myself?’ ‘Do I really want to do this?’ ‘Can I do this?’ This is something that I feel flows through to so much of what we do in life. We can get excited about things when we’re planning, we can feel like we can do so much good. But when it comes to the time to do it, we start to question ourselves. I’ve learnt to understand through many conversations that this is pretty natural. So, whether it is on the trail and you’re wondering if you can really get up that big hill or are about to give a talk in front of a group of people, understanding that anxiety and excitement can feel similar in the body is really important. Anxiety and excitement release the same chemicals into the body, but obviously have a very different vibe. I’ve learnt to notice that feeling of anxiety in my body, to see it, and reframe it as excitement.If you’re feeling nervous, learning to interject it before it turns into negative chatter is the point in which we can assert control over our responses.For example, you might approach that presentation thinking, “I’m feeling anxious, I’m going to screw this up”. A reframe of this would be, “I’m going to use this excitement to focus on getting through my points and speaking clearly’”. It isn’t always easy in the moment, but it can really help. When we got out on this hike, I felt that feeling coming in. I felt nervous about the trail, the camp. I saw it and realized what was going on and started telling myself I felt excited about all those things. That I felt lucky to be out on the trail. Chances are, you won’t believe yourself right away, but it really works.
ID – clockwise from top left – 1: A landscape image. Matt sits on a rock with back to camera. He is holding his left wrist with his right and is looking into the distance. He wears black and grey clothes. In the background are mountains. 2: A landscape image. Matt is small in frame as he hikes down the side of a mountain hill. The mountain is cast in thick cloud so you can’t see the top. 3: A landscape image. A close up of Matt who is facing the camera. He is sweeping his hair over his head and out his eyes and is smiling. He is wearing a black coat, grey bag, sunglasses and has binoculars around his neck. 4: A landscape image. A close up detail of a rock which is red and has elements of lichen growing on it. There are white lines across the rock creating interesting patterns.
Things might look daunting from far away, but up close, they feel more manageable
I have this thing where I just can’t stand ridges. They just make me feel uneasy and in danger. Narrow paths on the side of sloping mountains have the same effect, the steeper the better really! I also often find myself looking up a big hill and wondering how on earth I’m going to get up there. When you’re on it, it doesn’t feel as bad. It isn’t as narrow or as steep as it seemed from far away. You can take breaks, and just concentrate on each step. But for some reason, beforehand it just doesn’t feel like that is possible. So, learning to see that as reality has been really helpful for me and has really helped me off the trail too. Things will often seem daunting when they are far away, or we don’t quite know how we’re going to get from A-Z, but taking small steps is key to moving forward with anything.
Things don’t always go as planned and being flexible is a key facet to happiness
This hike taught me something important – things don’t always go as planned. I knew this before; I just hadn’t quite realized it as much until recently. Having back up plans, being flexible and reframing can often be the key to feeling happier about some of what is happening in our lives. I have really started to get into plotting routes myself – rather than relying on recognized routes. There is just something I love about finding adventures for us that are off the beaten track and are generally really quiet and peaceful. This is something I have quite a lot of experience with and is a technique I’ve been using for quite some time. However, with that, there is always the understanding that the route may not be the most amazing. So, when I planned out this hike in a way that I was used to doing, and thinking it looked like such an incredible journey, I was really disappointed when things didn’t quite go as planned. Especially as this was a two-day trip that we’d travelled especially for. When we got out on the trail, it was obvious very early on that this wasn’t a particularly well trafficked route (not an issue, and sometimes our favorite kind of trail). What came with that though was a path that was really overgrown and indistinct in many places. Before long, we were hiking on the side of a steep mountain with a path that was crumbling. Within a few km we lost the trail because it was indistinct and had to travel across land to try and make our way back to the trail which we couldn’t find. The water sources we were dependent on for the hike seemed to have dried up and trying to make our way to find the trail meant that we were travelling through very deep almost pothole like grass. It was really hard work and something that neither of us had really prepared or bargained for. We thought we knew the topography of this area well and this felt really surprising and defeating. We were also both struggling with heavy packs with all our overnight gear in. The last straw was a boggy crossing that completely submerged our hiking boots and shoes and our feet got completely wet. At that point, we stopped and had a conversation – we weren’t happy, and we were still a long way off our destination. It was later in the afternoon and based on how long it had taken us to get to where we were going, we worried that trying to keep track of the trail at night was going to be hard. Not to mention the hike back out the following day when there was meant to be cloud cover. Our first thought was to just give up and go home, but we quickly realized that this wouldn’t feel right. Instead, we thought about the backup plan we had made, which when we made it was on the chance we couldn’t park up at the place we wanted to enter the trail. We hiked back and reassessed. Our flexibility here still allowed us to do what we wanted to do, we just did it in a slightly different way. We still got to hike over two days. We still got to wild camp. We still got to enjoy time in nature. It was just a bit different. We could have seen that as a failure, but instead, we saw it as an opportunity to reframe what this trip was going to mean and what we could learn from it in future. I feel like this is something that flows through so much of my life, and adventure has really helped me in this respect to become a lot more flexible with how I reframe things that don’t go to plan. They can be seen as an opportunity. That isn’t easy sometimes – sometimes it just feels like a failure, but there is always an opportunity reframe and be that bit more flexible with what we can have right then and there and actually enjoy it.
ID – clockwise from left – 1: A landscape image. Matt is hiking along a trail and is large in frame. He is smiling and wearing sunglasses. He is wearing grey trousers and grey hoody. He is wearing a big blue backpack and has his camera around his neck. In the foreground are out of focus grasses and flowers. 2: A landscape image. Matt is sat to the right inside a tent with blue pictures. He is holding a large blue Hydro Flask bottle in his hand and is sat cross legged looking at the mountain view in the background.
You can always say no
If something just doesn’t feel right, we can always say no. This is something that has been one of the hardest things for me to learn and I think something that a lot of people struggle with. We knew very quickly into that trail that we were struggling, we absolutely could have kept going, but sometimes, we have to ask ourselves if we are just continuing with something to prove a point or if we actually want to do it. I think this is something I used to do a lot – not having the grace to say no when I really wasn’t enjoying something. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but many times it is. Many times, we have a choice whether we just keep going with things that no longer bring joy or make space for things that light us up. When we turned back on that trail and we’re able to dump the big bags and change our socks with a re-imagined destination, we said yes to the adventure that awaited us. When you say no, you say yes to something else.
I’d love to hear what resonates with you from my above ‘life lessons’ and what you’ve learnt on the trail that has flowed through to your everyday life? Let me know in the comments below.
ID – from left to right – 1: A landscape image. Matt is walking with back turned to the camera through a Rocky Mountain area with green mountains in the background. He is wearing a large backpack which is blue with a blue bottle in the side. He is wearing dark grey and black. They sky is overcast. 2: Fay is walking along a narrow mountain path. Fay wears black trousers, and grey zip up jacket. You can see hiking poles over Fay’s right shoulder. Fay is also wearing sunglasses.