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How to be Your Own Best Hiking Resource – Your Brain is the Most Important Tool

Planning hikes and having rewarding, safe outdoor adventures takes a variety of skills and knowledge. WTA provides you with many of these resources. The most important tool to keep you having the experiences you want to have though, is your own brain.

Washington Trails Association is the go-to resource for hikers in Washington, helping you to get outside safely and responsibly, find inspiration in nature and find others to share in the experience. WTA can help prepare you for a hike, but it’s also important to remember your greatest hiking resource of all: your brain. The importance of knowing and trusting yourself while recreating outdoors cannot be overstated. Here are five questions to ask yourself before and during a hike to ensure the best experience possible. 

Andrew Snoey. family river crossing.jpg
A family carefully navigates a river crossing. Photo by Andrew Snoey.

What state of mind am I in?

Your mental state can play a major role in the type of hike you plan. It can also be an an important aspect of how you make decisions. Knowing your mental state, and using that knowledge, can help you make good decisions. Maybe you are training for a more adventurous excursion and really want to reach a goal. Or maybe you are looking for escape due to whatever is going on in your life at the time. How are you feeling before you embark on your hike? Excited? Determined? Happy? Frustrated? Anxious? Checking in with yourself about how you’re feeling can help you determine the best course of action. If, for instance, you are feeling excited and energetic, you might need to take another moment to slow down and think if you hit a section of trail that’s potentially dangerous. If you know in advance your mental state, it can help you think clearly when you need to make a decision on trail. Whether it is a perilous situation or not, thinking about how your feeling can make the difference between a good day and a dangerous situation.

How does my body feel?

Before, during and even after a hike, stop to check in with yourself about your physical well being. Think carefully about how your body is feeling. Are you recovering from any injuries? Perhaps you are a bundle of energy and feeling strong on hiking day. Or, do you just feel stiff or tired? Asking yourself this question before you start hiking, periodically during your hike, and after, will make it much less likely you will injure yourself and ultimately make for a more enjoyable time. Physical and mental well being changes greatly from day to day, so being honest with yourself will help keep you safe. For instance, if you begin a day feeling slow and tired, you can plan to hike as slowly as you want and spend most of your time looking at the vegetation or cool rocks. If you set that as your goal, rather than reaching a certain destination, you can get what you need out of your time on trail and not feel like you didn’t meet a goal that wasn’t right for you that day.  

What kind of experience am I looking for? 

Whether you are new to hiking or seasoned in the outdoors, the kind of experience you’re looking for on any given day will vary. Are you training for something? Looking to recharge by taking a meandering walk through the woods? Deciding what kind of experience you are in need of on a particular day ahead of time will support the rest of your planning and your time on trail. If you are hiking with others, it is important to consider what they are looking for and how you will make decisions together. For example, if someone you are hiking with wants to ford a river, and you do not feel comfortable, consider what you will say. Your limits today may not be the same as your limits were last month, and you can go back to your grounding in what experience you are looking for and say something like, “Perhaps on another day, I wouldn’t mind crossing that river, but today, I would rather turn around and take our time going back.” 

What is my plan, and when will I change it?

Once you know what kind of experience you are looking for, you can plan for it. And, you can plan with flexibility. It is important to know things like how long it will take for you to get to the trailhead, how far you intend to hike, when you will turn around regardless of how far you have gone. It’s also important to know what the weather predictions are — but keep in mind weather can change fast. Just as important is thinking ahead to when and how your plans might change. You can plan to go 5 miles, and if it starts to rain, you will turn around at that point because you know that the weather looked potentially dicey. Trusting not only your strengths, but also your fears and limitations can inform when you will change your plans. This is especially important when you are hiking alone and are far from help. 

Who else should be involved in my plan, and how?

Whether you plan to hike alone or with others, who else will be informed of your plans? Provide your plans and emergency contact information to someone you trust who you are not hiking with.  If you have already checked in with yourself about what kind of experience you are looking for, what your plan is, and how it may change, communicating with others whom you trust about these decisions is paramount.

Keeping these questions in mind, and learning to trust yourself as you answer them, is one of your best hiking tools. You can have all the concrete knowledge in the world about how to pack, the geography of where you’re headed, weather and first aid, and still find yourself navigating difficult situations. For the safest, most enjoyable time, continuously use WTA’s resources to build up your knowledge and confidence. Then, trust yourself.