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I’m a writer and a dedicated solo hiker, so I spend a lot of time alone. I have a debilitating fear of athletic inadequacy, so going groupless often feels lower pressure. This suits me fine: I only have my own schedule and asthma to worry about. But sometimes, doing my job means embracing the group trip.
One of the benefits to being a writer in the outdoor industry is attending media trips, where writers get sneak peeks at new gear courtesy of the companies that make them. These are always in groups, and they usually include hiking, running, or backpacking. My first media trip was in 2018, testing new Therm-a-Rest gear in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. I had been anxious leading up to the trip, concerned about my asthma, worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up, and stressed about the social aspect. Until that, the only backpacking I’d done with someone else was with my former partner on the Appalachian Trail. Everything else had been solo.
I shouldn’t have been worried about being slow—as a rule, group hikes are always slow, and the mileage on this one was very reasonable. The social part wasn’t a problem either—I met one of my best writing pals on the trip, and we still tackle projects together. What should have concerned me was the fact that I was accustomed to being on my own schedule, hiking my own pace, and doing the mileage I wanted. That’s not how group trips work.
Being on a group’s schedule is challenging for me, which means I avoid it, which means I get worse at it. The spiral continues down to the seventh circle of hell, which was me hovering anxiously at the trail intersection, watching everyone leisurely unpack their bags to find coffee-making implements after we’d been hiking for less than an hour on day two. We’re STOPPING? I thought, clocking the other hikers propped up against boulders and casually unloading what seemed like every last item from their packs.
When I’m alone, I’m packed and out of camp before I’m fully awake. I put on my hiking shorts as I deflate my sleeping pad. I stuff a few bars into my hip belt pockets and compress my sleeping bag into my pack. I chug water, break down my tent, and in a matter of minutes I’m back on the trail in a familiar rhythm of shaking out stiffness and feeling ready for the day’s miles. Once I start walking, my stops are infrequent and efficient. I usually get to camp early, then relax for the rest of the day.
Most group backpacking trips are about as far from this as possible while still calling it the same activity. Unless you have an alpine start and a timely objective, watching a group get ready in the morning is like watching a family of sloths take a stroll through molasses. The breaks are frequent and extended, and the daily miles shorter.
But once you they used to them, even committed solo hikers like me tend to admit group trips have their own charms. In the past few years, I’ve found it important to experience both ways of hitting the trail.
That 2018 trip was my first experience in a group I was supposed to keep pace with, and I was shocked at how hard it felt to slow down. My anxiety has a lot to do with this: if I have more miles to hike, I find it hard to relax until they’re done. Thru-hiking also has an impact: the goal is to essentially just hike all day. This means my backpacking habits—even on short overnights—follow the rhythm of a longer outing.
After that trip, my anxiety veered in the other direction. I had been stressed about being too slow, but after the trip, I started overthinking my fast hiking pace and was worried I seemed bizarre and antisocial. Man, I thought. I haven’t done anything with other people in a while. Maybe I should fix that.
Despite my discomfort at following a dictated schedule, I knew it was good for me. If I wasn’t going to slow down on my own, these group work trips presented the perfect opportunity to hike at a relaxed pace, enjoy leisurely mornings at camp, and stop at overlooks throughout the day. I could carry extra luxury items, and the pressure to do big miles was gone.
One thing I’m aware of at this point in my life is how the fear of being inadequate leads me to try to prove myself over and over. Whether I’m pushing miles or speed, my brain turns competitive in the sense that I feel like I’m going to be left behind if I allow myself to relax. Along with helping me slow down and appreciate group dynamics, these trips have allowed me to pull ditch. Just because I’m not first, it doesn’t mean I’ll be forgotten about, floundering on a climb because my asthma kicked in and I couldn’t keep up with the group. Instead, I get to walk and chat, laugh about shared experiences, make amazing connections, and even stop and make coffee in the middle of the morning’s miles.
Since that Wind River trip, I’ve been on group hiking and backpacking media trips in the Grand Canyon, the Beartooths, the Superstitions, Acadia, and more places I’m probably forgetting.
Getting to hike as part of my job has obvious benefits: I’ve seen incredible places I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, met wonderful people, and tested some pretty sweet gear. But the biggest impact has been helping me learn to be at ease on someone else’s schedule. That in itself is something that people with my type of personality might not learn to do otherwise. Just for that, I’m happy to stop and smell the flowers.