When you hike, you hike for a reason, to meet a goal. That goal could be to burn off yesterday’s table fat, to get sun on your face and outside air in your lungs, to see an awe-inspiring overlook, to explore the trail for animal tracks, to dodge Redwing Blackbirds, or to simply leave the bustling world of rolling cars behind. Whatever your reason, you’ll either go alone or with company. Both have advantages and disadvantages, depending on your attitude and perspective. Sometimes we feel like sharing our journey. Sometimes our mood insists we journey solo.
By knowing your goal and mood, you can effectively decide whom, if anyone, to invite along. When you miscalculate, you run the risk of regretting your decision. On the trail, if you suddenly realize your mood wanted solitude, for example, yet you’ve invited a jabber-jawing companion to join you, you’ll be forced (not a bad thing) to re-calibrate your attitude. Sometimes this is possible, sometimes not. Often, a long stretch of your hike becomes a private mental battle of converting your goal and mood to accommodate the reality of your loneliness or companion(s).
Hiking with a small group can be a joy if the camaraderie is good. A happy family unit works. A tight gang of friends works. A well-behaved pack of youngsters works. As long as the group dynamic is positive, the hiking experience will be rewarding. A few examples can illustrate my point…
As a youth, I belonged to a troop of scouts, and we often went hiking under the enthusiastic tutelage of a leader named Dan. Dan would take our small group of 10 or so boys into the forest and lead us along the trail for several miles before looping us back to base. I still recall how much laughter we shared on the trail and how Dan would point out fascinating discoveries along the way. The autumn leaves had recently fallen, and our boots kicked through a rustling layer of burnt umber foliage. When Dan saw deer, he’d stop and point, and all of us boys would stay captivated until the deer bound over the furthest hill. Each of us found hiking sticks along the trail, and we marched proudly with our sticks behind Dan in single file.
As a young man, I ventured to Canada with two other chums. Our primary goal was to tour by motorcycle, but several times we parked at scenic overlooks and found narrow foot trails that disappeared into the Canadian woods. Though unprepared for hiking, we plunged into the woods and followed the trail to higher ground and better vistas, from where we looked down upon our parked motorcycles and took photographs of same. We relished the adventure of exploring, and I recall with fondness how energized and agreeable we were to “go where few have gone before,” as was our goofy mantra. Our camaraderie was legendary then (and still is to this day).
I enjoy immensely the simple day hikes taken with my wife and kids. Quite often we find ourselves bored to slugs for doing nothing but loafing around the house. An easy hike around the community lake solves the problem every time. During good weather, we find ourselves diverting onto less traveled trails, and those usually prove adventurous. While stretching legs to return home, we find we’ve tired ourselves pleasantly, and the exercise has done our bodies and minds good. We have playful conversations. We rarely argue. And we share a sense of pride at having spent time together outdoors. Hiking brings my family closer than just about anything else we’ve tried. By exploring the natural world together, our footfalls and spirits synchronize, and a priceless sense of family harmony carries on for days.
Often my goal is to put in several miles of moderately serious hiking. I’m either seeking wellness, a route that’s more demanding, or deeper thoughts as par for the course. At such times, a group gets in the way. If my mood wants companionship for conversation, I’ll seek out one person (from two or three pre-qualified choices) and invite that person along. If he or she shares my goal, and can afford the time, we venture to the trailhead and begin hiking forward. The motion lubricates the mind and jaw, and soon enough we begin a discourse that fits the bill.
My wife qualifies as one of my ideal hiking partners, and our conversations generally revolve around domestic matters at home. Getting out of the house and onto neutral ground usually helps us greatly when potentially tough issues need discussed. While hiking, we can ruminate, fume, or space out as required, using mother nature as a crutch to keep us from debating unproductively. If we get angry or frustrated, it seems easier to breathe a deep sigh and blame it on the trail’s incline. Also, it seems more difficult to stay at odds while hiking through mother nature’s house because the beauty and harmony encourages peacefulness. We tend to come to easier agreement on dilemmas we face together as spouses and parents.
Of course, much of the time we are entirely free from dilemma, and those times tend to become very romantic. We might find ourselves holding hands, kissing in the backwoods, or stopping at a familiar log to sit and contemplate romantic options. My wife and I courted as teenagers. We had less money then. Our first date was a walk around town. Before we married, we spent countless evenings walking and hiking and holding hands. And now, after all these years, we find that embarking together on quiet hikes re-sparks the flame of our younger days. It’s outstanding for our relationship.
There are also many times when domestic issues and romance take a back seat to robust adventure and cosmic contemplation. Both my father and my son, being equipped with similar genetics, enjoy thinking like heroes and scholars while in the backcountry, and so I generally get along well with either or both on extended day hikes and backpacking trips. We find enjoyment in roughing it. Exploring becomes a serious endeavor. We seek the most stunning routes and points of interest and overlooks, even at the cost of mild suffering and hard-pressed endurance. We take pride in conquering steep inclines, weathering the rain, and beating the darkness to camp. Then at camp, we enjoy all aspects of setting up our digs for a comfortable night of cooking and cosmic contemplation. We brag of our accomplishments on the trail, of wildlife we saw (such as bears and big foots), and more. If the stars are visible, we ponder our place and future in the cosmos. Quite often we hike for “training,” and discuss questions of vital importance to an upcoming trip.
Rare annoyances are inevitable when hiking with others. I can personally handle about three consecutive days before wearing my patience bare. And it hardly matters with whom I’m hiking. If I’m hiking daily with the same person, our conversations begin to stagnate. If I’m backpacking with the same person, our differing personal habits begin to needle and jab. There is no right or wrong, only differences. A very common issue stems from departure expectations. When one desires to rise and shine early, departing according to a schedule, but the other cares not for being rushed, a breakdown in congeniality is likely to occur before long. The slight difference in methods of departure seems to mutually annoy. Inevitably, the slower one becomes righteously passive aggressive, leaning on the surety that his unhurried approach is wiser. For the one waiting around, the slowpoke is inconsiderate and rude. The issue may not be discussed for reluctance to fret over “minor details.” But the festering will often erupt over other differences, ones that can more easily be jabbed at playfully. For example, since I have studied the most efficient way to tie a pair of hiking boots, I might ask my dad why he ties his boots so loose. Of course, that question implies that he’s doing it wrong, and so he might parry with, “You got a problem with how I tie my boots?” From there, I say, “If you like them flopping around, that’s your business, unless you keep getting blisters and slowing us down.” So there!
To allow bickering to continue rarely ends well. An inevitable explosion will taint the memories of a day or a trip, and the best decision is to rethink your mindset and remember that you’re sharing a journey, not going solo. The person you’re with is also likely to be one of the few on earth who can tolerate your weird idiosyncrasies, so modifying your goals becomes necessary to avoid a gradual buildup of bitterness, thus costing you dearly in the end. Are you really so sure you’re cut out to be a solo hiker?
The step before hiking solo is hiking with your dog. Hopefully, you can get along with your dog. They’re good at being subservient to your every anal-retentive demand. Sit. Stay. Heel. Get out of the mud. Lie down. Stop barking. Stop pulling the leash. Quit chasing squirrels. Don’t shit on the trail. Why did you shit on the trail?
Pretty soon your dog no longer wants to go on a hike with you. Once that’s the case, rest assured you’re a jerk.
I’ve yet to meet a dog who didn’t enjoy hiking. They love exploring, and if you can find it in your heart (or if common sense allows) to let them off-leash for a wild dash through the tall grass, followed by a gleeful roll in the sticky burrs…well, they’ll be happy and content, generally speaking. Again, your attitude must be right before hiking with a dog is tolerable. With all their dog-like behaviors, they are sure to annoy you occasionally, and slow you down here and there. But they do make great silent partners, and always prefer to stay on-leash than stay at home. I recommend keeping them on-leash to minimize your frustrations. If you have to give your dog a bath after hiking, it’s only because you let him run off-leash and live out his joyful fantasies on the trail. I greatly enjoy taking one dog with me on my daily hikes for wellness. We both trim the fat, and I’m never interrupted while I’m talking.
Solo hiking, of course, is the most efficient way to do it. You go when you want, stop when you want, come home when you want. Nobody interferes with your plans, and you’re free to strive for all your goals without compromise. Depending how intimately you wish to commune with nature, there may be no better option than to go out alone. I think anyone who hikes alone already understands the value of solitude. And so my dissecting the reasons may be unnecessary. I often prefer to hike alone. I enjoy it. As I’ve said before, my three main goals are wellness, inspiration, and understanding. When I’m by myself, hiking in nature’s house, I find it vastly easier to coordinate my mind and mood toward reaching these goals. I’m one who enjoys solitude. I do my most satisfying physical and mental work alone. At least fifty percent (50%) of the time, I hike solo, and that percentage seems to be rising.