Most of us enjoy hiking.
We lace our shoes up, shoulder our backpacks, and look forward to the adventure. We hit the track for one reason or another: the view we get from the summit of the mountain, the snug camping spot by that waterfall, or simply to spend quality time with friends.
But at the end, we often look back and realize that the experience brought us much more than what we originally predicted.
Two years ago, I walked the length of New Zealand on the Te Araroa Trail. This five-and-a-half-month trek was an amazing journey filled with challenges—something I expected from the beginning. What I didn’t expect was the way it changed my life.
Here are seven life lessons learned from thru-hiking (“hiking a long-distance trail end-to-end within one season“):
Getting out of our comfort zone.
When confronted with new and challenging situations, such as walking along vertiginous tracks or negotiating river crossings, we have to tap into our inner resources, overcome our fears and anxiety, and push our own limits. As a result, the number of things we are more comfortable with in normal life increases. A job interview, for example, might not seem as intimidating as it normally would.
Being thrown out of our comfort zone helps us grow and perceive challenges and opportunities a different way.
Knowing that tough times don’t last.
Throughout five-and-a-half months of hiking, facing all kind of conditions becomes inevitable—from hail storms and strong winds to sweltering heat. Sometimes, the challenge isn’t about the weather, but the state of the track.
I remember trudging through thick mud for hours in a forest, fearing that it was a nightmare that would never end. But it eventually did. Everything is temporary.
Our daily life can be made of frustrating situations, whether it is a bad day at work or the neighbour’s music being turned up too loud. Remembering difficult times faced while hiking and how we made it through brings us a renewed burst of tenacity. As Robert Schuller wrote: “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”
Taking one step at a time.
Thru-hiking a country requires long and thorough preparation. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of what we are about to do.
When preparing for Te Araroa, I printed and read everything I could about the trail: gear, terrain, resupply, tracks, and so on. It left me with just enough energy to crawl back to bed. But instead of apprehending the whole trail as one, I took it as a succession of multi-day hikes.
When we break important projects down into smaller, manageable parts, we move forward without feeling crushed by the big picture. Step by step, anything can be accomplished.
Learning to live in the now.
Who amongst us never worries about the future? During a long-distance hike, some questions are recurrent: Will we find a suitable place to camp at night? Are we carrying enough food? What will the weather be like?
Time on the trail shows us that these concerns are mostly unfounded. We stop to observe a hawk on a tree top, or plunge our hands in the creek for a cold drink. We start appreciating every moment rather than worrying about what doesn’t exist yet.
Today’s society doesn’t allow us much freedom to slow down. When we learn not to worry about the things we have no control over, we can focus on the present and appreciate every moment a bit more.
Being persistent in the pursuit of our goals.
Persistence is the key to get to the end of a 3,000 kilometer hike.
Just as it is in life, experiencing highs and lows is inevitable when hiking long-distance. The thought of giving up can even come to mind at times.
While traversing an Auckland suburb, weary from the endless road walking and enduring numerous rain showers, I glanced at people in their homes and envied their comfort. But I pushed through. I chose to be there. And at the end of the day, pitching my tent near a beautiful waterfall in the company of other hikers was worth all the comfort in the world.
Giving up might sometimes seem like the easiest option, but having the tenacity to keep going is instantly rewarding.
Knowing when to let go.
If persistence is primordial, the line is thin between perseverance and stupid stubbornness. It is up to us to find that boundary.
I found myself standing on the edge of a cliff in thick fog, heavy rain, and strong winds, with no path in view. I was sure about being on the right track, so I scrambled over a rock, thinking the way might be hidden, only to find myself on an even smaller ledge overlooking white nothingness. I had to accept the fact that I was lost and turned back.
I found the right path on my way back and realized I had followed a side track to a lookout. The decision to turn back and let go probably saved my life.
Learning to reconnect with ourselves.
Walking for such a long time immersed in nature cultivates another beneficial aspect: We are notably disconnected from the world, with no TV, no internet access, very little time in towns, and therefore much more connected with nature and ourselves. Walking leads to inner contemplation—and we get to do a lot of soul-searching.
Thru-hiking New Zealand wasn’t just the best outdoor experience of my life; it has also reshaped me, mentally and emotionally.
Yet it doesn’t have to be a long-distance hike. Any multi-day hike, for the time spent outdoors away from the comfort of our homes, brings us a breath of fresh air and a new perspective on the way we are leading our life. We immerse ourselves in nature, forget about our daily obligations, and reconnect with our own selves.
After a few days walking in the wilderness, we come back healed, empowered, and ready to cope with our daily life in a new way.
Author: Marylène Coutret
Image: Courtesy of Author
Editor: Travis May