One of the great thrills of backpacking is reaching the summit. After hours, days, or weeks of trudging through the woods with a full pack, it’s a relief when the trees thin out and you get a 360° view of your surroundings. But for some, heights and exposure—whether on a summit, scramble, or canyon rim walk—are reasons to avoid certain trails or hiking altogether.
If you’re afraid of heights, you’re not alone. Studies show that roughly 1 in 3 people feel uncomfortable high up, and 1 in 15 people deal with acrophobia, the heartbeat-quickening, palm sweat-inducing version of that fear. To some extent, being nervous around heights is healthy: It prevents us from being careless at the edges of cliffs and ridgelines. But if it is inhibiting you from reaching your hiking goals or detracting from your enjoyment of the trail, there are strategies to cope.
Gradual exposure to a fear is one of the most effective ways to overcome it, says Thea Gallagher, an assistant professor and director of the outpatient clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. Doctors at the center, including Gallagher, specialize in what’s called exposure therapy, a behavioral treatment that helps people confront their fears in safe but real settings. Gallagher has helped many patients cope with anxiety around heights, and offers the following strategies you can try on your own.
Start with a trail that has some exposure—maybe a viewpoint or a short scramble—but isn’t high for the entire hike. Prepare yourself ahead of time by researching trip reports and maps to learn more about the terrain, including elevation and thin sections. Choose a route that is within your current comfort level. Let your hiking companions know what you’re dealing with and what you might need so they can best support you in the event of a fear response. Should you find yourself stuck and panicking, Gallagher says, “try not to indulge all that fear. Bring yourself back to the rational thoughts.”
Go through these steps to help ground yourself: Focus on things you can control. Breathe. Take a few steps. Remember the fear isn’t going to last forever. Think about the facts, such as how many hundreds or thousands of people hike the trail every year. Give yourself a pep talk. Afterward, it’s just as important to celebrate getting through it and reinforcing your success.
Next, try a trail with a little bit more exposure or height than the last. Habituate facing the fear and work up to your trail goal, whether it’s venturing into fourth class terrain or topping out on a fourteener. By giving yourself patience and compassion as you work through it, your fear of heights and exposure will naturally fade.
It’s helpful to know that the fear is not all in your head; it’s also manifesting in your body. When you have an extreme fear of heights or exposure, your sympathetic nervous system sounds a distress signal in an otherwise calm setting that can lead to physiological sensations like a racing heart, trembling, chest pains, trouble swallowing, sweating, and more. Your brain tells you that you’re in serious danger—a similar reaction that would come up if you’re being attacked by a bear—when all you might need to do is back away from a ledge or take deep breaths.
“It’s all very normal and natural in certain contexts, but in the wrong context it can be very scary and confusing,” says Gallagher. However, the sensations in the body are often so distressing that sometimes people start avoiding any situations that might trigger the fear again. “The more you avoid it, the less corrective information you have and the more you’re reinforcing this fear,” Gallagher says. “Then your world gets smaller and smaller, and you’re less able to do the things that you want to be doing.”
For someone who is seriously debilitated by fear, Gallagher recommends seeking professional support through a cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT) who can treat the phobia in a supportive environment.
But for someone who feels slight unease around heights, she suggests pushing the fear in other situations as well as on the trail. Test yourself by looking over a mezzanine. Take the elevator to the top floor of a building or parking structure. Watch a movie involving scenes with heights. Go rock climbing in the gym. All of these strategies combined with the practice in the outdoors will set you up for a successful and stress-free trip. Just remember to always watch your step and know your limits.