How to Hike More Mindfully

A strong body helps you get out into nature, but a well-trained mind makes the time count. Use these three exercises to derive more rejuvenation from your next hike.
Author:
Publish date:
mindful hiking

Stay in the Present

Many people hike to reduce stress, but that can be hard when your inner monologue runs rampant. This exercise helps you remain focused in the present. Incorporate these drills while you walk.

Duration: 15 to 20 minutes per step

1. Turn your attention toward the action of walking. Feel your knees bend and straighten, your muscles tighten and relax, and the ground roll beneath your feet. Becoming absorbed in your motions heightens body awareness, control, and balance. Try practicing mindful walking for 1 mile. If you’re able to focus for that distance, go to step 2.

2. Direct your thoughts to your breath. Practice breathing in and out through your nose only, then your mouth. Pay attention to inhales and exhales in relation to your pace and exertion. By focusing on your breath, your mind will become less distracted and your heart rate will stabilize. This balances your adrenaline and cortisol levels, making you less prone to fatigue. For these reasons, present-moment awareness can also be a useful tool to maintain calm if you find yourself in a stressful situation. Continue on to step 3 whenever you are ready.

3. Repeat an affirmation. Do this either silently or aloud (a twofer benefit in bear country). In reciting a positive mantra, you will stay focused during your hike. This practice is popular among elite athletes; evidence shows that positive self-talk boosts performance.

Cultivate Your Senses

By tuning into your sensory perception, you become more conscious of your surroundings. This practice—do it in camp or on the trail—is intended to boost comfort while hiking and increase relaxation by the time you crawl into your tent. Duration: 5 to 10 minutes per step

1. See: Let your eyes wander slowly from minute details to larger vistas. Look up, to each side, and behind you. Allow your vision to absorb colors and textures. Although most people feel they see to their fullest potential, a lot can be overlooked during a hike. Play around with this practice and note the sights you typically miss.

2. Hear: Listen to the sound of your footsteps and your breathing. Let the noise of the natural environment permeate your ears and mind, and observe how each sound makes you feel.

3. Feel: Pause to touch the trees, dirt, water, and rocks. Feel the weight of your pack, the warmth of the sun, and the wind moving around you. Take the time to engage with the elements you often walk by without noticing. Research has shown that meditation, including this sensory exercise, slows down brain waves to the alpha state (associated with calm and increased creativity). You'll feel like you've spent a week in the woods even if it's only been a few hours.

Hike With Intention

In contrast with present-moment mindfulness, turn your attention elsewhere during your hike. As you walk, dedicate your thoughts to someone you care about. This act of selflessness is often referred to as “loving-kindness practice” and amplifies time spent in nature by fostering compassion while also reducing stress. This practice helps us become more patient and can curb loneliness on the trail. It is especially powerful when hiking in challenging terrain or bad weather. Duration: 15 to 30 minutes

1. Bring your awareness to someone in your life. This can be a loved one, someone you are in conflict with, or an entire community. Imagine them hiking alongside you. Notice how this makes you feel.

2. Set a positive intention or wish for this person. Be specific. Once you’re clear, imagine sending them this intention. Be generous with your desire and the energy you are directing. This step might seem cheesy, but it helps achieve a tranquil state and develop empathy.

3. Now, practice expressing that intention back to yourself. Soak it in. Notice the relationship between what you want for this person and what you want for yourself.  

Why Mindfulness Works

Mindfulness is the process of observing your thoughts, feelings, and impulses to build self-awareness. Studies show that it increases creativity, helps with sleep, and cultivates emotional intelligence. Researchers say that mindfulness activates and strengthens certain parts of the brain, prompting a host of positive psychological effects and generally improving well-being. 

The Experts

Morgan Kulas owns MindSpace Meditation Center in Edwards, Colorado, where she teaches yoga and mindfulness classes and hosts retreats. Her husband Seth Kulas has practiced mindful hiking over hundreds of miles on the John Muir Trail, the Colorado Trail, and more.