Q&A on Contemplative Hiking

Contemplative hiking. It sounds like something that transpires when you’re having trouble deciding on a trail. However, it’s far deeper than that.

To get more insight, we turned to Margaret Emerson, who authored the new book Contemplative Hiking along the Colorado Front Range. She enlightens us on what contemplative hiking means and how to correctly practice this mindful walk in the woods.

What’s the difference between hiking and contemplative hiking? A lot of people feel connected to nature by simply just being outdoors.

Yes, you can feel connected to nature just by being outdoors. What I’ve distinguished with the term “contemplative” hiking is being fully present and aware of your surroundings in a deeper, more introspective way. I often go hiking with friends, for exercise, with my dog, and when I’m going just for fun and chatting the whole time, I am not being contemplative or even fully present to where I am. That’s one kind of hiking experience and that in itself can be rewarding, although in a different way.

Contemplative hiking, on the other hand, is a kind of walking meditation in nature. You are silent, you watch your thoughts so that you don’t get lost in them (the way you’d watch your thoughts in sitting meditation), and when you find your mind wandering, you simply return to where you are with all of its sights and sounds. You connect with the forest, the mountains, and the meadows in a way that’s spiritual. As opposed to just enjoying the landscape or using the trails for exercise, you are having a conversation with nature. You are opening your mind and heart to the possibility of the land speaking to your soul. You are hiking with intention and mindfulness, not just racing up the path to get to your destination. In contemplative hiking, it’s all about the journey and how you feel when you’re out there.

My book offers essays and exercises for specific trails near Denver or for ANY trail, really—things to think about, ways to explore the landscape as well as your inner world and seeing how what you feel inside is often reflected in what you experience on the outside, and vice versa. There are instructions on rituals to do for the equinoxes and solstices and ways to reflect back the changes that are happening in nature in a personal way.

How long have you been contemplatively hiking? How did you discover it?

I discovered contemplative hiking close to 15 years ago when I first went hiking alone in Rocky Mountain National Park during a particularly difficult time in my life. I had a “peak experience” that day when I stood looking out at the Continental Divide and the lush valley leading up to the mountains. I felt transported to a place of pure joy and pure connectedness. Suddenly all my troubles seemed so insignificant in the scheme of the timelessness and vastness I was feeling. Nothing I had done up to that point had helped me release the suffering I had been feeling as much as this moment in the mountains. I hadn’t done anything special or different other than being completely present to my surroundings and being silent, because I was alone. From then on, it felt to me that nature could be a healer if I just opened myself up to her.

What advice would you give to someone who just started hiking?

If you’re just getting started, it’s good to buy a hiking guide and some decent trail maps (like the ones that National Geographic put out). When I first started, I only hiked on trails that were near town that I knew about because I could see them when I drove by. There were so many trails I didn’t know about that were in beautiful and serene locations that I missed out on until I purchased a topographic map and a guidebook.

If you aren’t comfortable hiking by yourself or if your friends and family aren’t into hiking, try to see if there are hiking MeetUp.com groups near you. Here on the Front Range there are several hiking groups for people with all levels of experience and fitness. This is a great way to get the motivation to get out there, and you can learn a lot about where you live by exploring it with hiking. I am the organizer for a contemplative hiking MeetUp in the Denver/Boulder area, and we do silent hikes.

I also recommend that you invest in good quality, comfortable and waterproof hiking boots. When I hike I always wear hiking boots. I don’t wear sneakers, which can get wet and don’t protect against twisted ankles, and I never wear sandals or regular street shoes.

Be prepared for all weather possibilities: Carry a daypack with a rain jacket or, in winter, another warm layer of clothing. Bring plenty of water and a snack. Hiking poles are a great addition if you live in a place with steep hills or rock outcroppings on trails. Winter traction devices such as YakTrax allow you to hike when it’s icy or snowpacked. The only reason to feel miserable on a hike is if the weather changes and you’re unprepared, or if your shoes are wet or uncomfortable. Otherwise, take it at your pace and enjoy!

Why did you decide to write Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range?

I had just completed my master’s degree in Ecopsychology and knew that a big reason we have so much environmental destruction in the world today is that our industrial civilization has lost its connection with nature. We don’t realize that everything is interconnected and that our own health and wellbeing is intricately tied to the health and wellbeing of the natural world. We use nature as a resource for our livelihood without looking at it as a partner in our health and prosperity. Nature has inherent value, not just economic value. How do you put a price on clean water and healthy soils? How do you put a monetary value on the extinction of a species?

But when we hear this, the question arises: “How can we reconnect with nature? Is there something we can do to feel this in our heart as well as know it in our mind?”

I wanted to create a how-to guide for people that answered this very question. Here’s a way you can get outside, go hiking, get some exercise, perhaps do what you normally do but do it in a way that offers a different result. It offers you a way to get to know yourself better, as much as you’re getting to know the land better.

I knew there were no books that combined a guide to specific trails AND instructions on contemplative activities and exercises to do while you’re out there. There were books on mindfulness in nature (in general) and books on specific trails to hike in Colorado, but nothing that combined both aspects.

What is your choice brand of hiking footwear and why?

I wear Vasque Breeze GTX XCR 7465 hiking boots. These are relatively lightweight and tightly waterproof, which is critical. In summer my feet need to stay cool, and I’m often crossing streams and mud. In winter my boots get wet and caked in snow so I need waterproof qualities then, too.

With gators and YaxTrax I can wear the same boots in winter as I do in summer, although I have to wear good wool socks. I like to keep my equipment needs as low as possible, so versatility is key in a hiking boot. These boots are comfortable and versatile.

(Image via Contemplativehiking.com)

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