The Secret to Dealing With Fear on the Trail? Learn When to Listen to It.
We're taught from a young age to fight our fears. But in the outdoors, sometimes the smart thing to do is to respect them instead.
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For as far back as I can remember, I’ve felt fear in the outdoors. I was so scared of thunderstorms as a child that I learned to recognize cumulonimbus clouds as they gathered over the outdoor pool each summer. I’d feel a swell of panic at the darkening sky and anticipation of the lightning flashes, and would have to be carried to the car in hysterics.
My fears didn’t end there: I was also scared of the dark, the woods, being alone in the house, and swimming to the dock at my friend’s lake house. I envied my peers who swung higher on the swings and jumped off the dock without thinking of what might be swimming under their feet. They moved freely through a world I skirted cautiously around.
Aside from being timid and fearful, I also struggled to keep up physically—I was uncoordinated and suffered from sports-induced asthma. As I got older I became frustrated with these limitations. There was only so much I could make up for athletically, and what I lacked in natural ability I tried to make up for in mental fortitude. I began to see fear as something to be conquered, an instinct I could push aside. I couldn’t overcome my lack of coordination or weak cardio capacity, but I could keep going when other people turned back.
On one hike, this meant continuing to the summit of a socked-in, windswept peak in New Hampshire as a summer storm blew in during my ascent. I was on the verge of a panic attack, desperate to descend out of danger. I imagined turning around, each step taking me away from the howling wind towards the protection of the trees.
But I kept climbing, doubled over against the wind until I reached the summit. Within an hour I was back in an AMC hut, still slightly out of breath and in disbelief I’d reached the top. The weather was calm at the hut, but when I looked out the window, I could see the swirling mass of clouds I’d descended from. I had faced down fear and succeeded in reaching my goal.
Looking back to that hike from a decade ago, I know continuing up the peak wasn’t a smart choice. But that one peak-bagging expedition was a turning point, and the start of a confrontational relationship to fear that I still work to balance.
As I got deeper into hiking, my relationship to fear continued to be closely tied to my insecurities as an athlete. Moving to the Rockies, where I was surrounded by gifted outdoor athletes wherever I looked, only worsened my problems. In response, I kept pushing my boundaries. I hiked solo, and camped solo even though it left me feeling impossibly isolated and vulnerable.
Fear has played an important role in our survival for all of human history. It acts as an instinctive guide in unfamiliar situations, keeping us safe from threats both real and perceived. Feeling afraid when you step outside of your comfort zone isn’t just normal, it’s evolutionary. It’s supposed to protect us from threats. How we respond to this fear—turn around? Continue on?—depends on the person. In some circumstances, our fear keeps us safe; in others, it holds us back.
My instincts told me to be scared during my first solo camping expedition, but I wouldn’t have been much safer with a partner. It was less of a rational fear than it was intimidation at being alone. On the other hand, the fear I felt climbing into that storm in New Hampshire was based on a real danger, and I would have been better off honoring it.
There aren’t a lot of adrenaline-spiked moments in backpacking. Instead, most of the fear we feel is based on the what-ifs. What if the weather turns, or there’s a bear around that bend? Those instincts are there for a reason—the wild is full of risks, and being wary of them was a matter of life and death for our ancestors. But while we can make choices to help us stay as safe as possible, some elements will remain out of our control. The hard truth is that the safest thing to do is stay home: If you never venture into the woods or mountains, nothing in the woods or mountains can hurt you. The more time you spend in the backcountry, the greater the chances of something going wrong. If I dwell on this too much, it’s enough to keep me inside, watching the seasons go by through the window.
My relationship to fear is still very much a combative one. But now, as an adult, I recognize that our fears are just our body’s way of trying to keep us safe. I’ve learned to take those instincts into consideration, while accepting that sometimes it’s just the dark or solitude playing tricks on me.
I can’t tell you how to tell the difference: Your relationship to fear doesn’t look the same as mine, and what makes me turn around might not faze you. It’s a balancing act, deciding to push forward or turn back. Every time, I hope I’m making the right choice.