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4 Ways to Practice Mindfulness on Trail

Posted by Rachel Wendling at Mar 03, 2022 12:07 PM |

Mindfulness in the outdoors doesn’t require perfection, simply sharing a thoughtful space with yourself or someone else is practicing mindfulness.

By Maryjo “MJ” Sampang

Mindfulness and self-awareness in the outdoors can take many forms: nature journaling, engaging your senses, taking a dip in a body of water. Mindfulness in the outdoors doesn’t require perfection. I believe if you are sharing a thoughtful space with yourself or someone else, then you are practicing mindfulness. 

Separating ourselves from our gadgets, expectations and working lifestyle makes it easier to be mindful, and the outdoors is great for that. I find my greatest opportunities for thought and reflection on trail — walking around a lake or forest, embracing the smells, noticing the plethora of green colors and moving my body along with the arching oak trees. I try to pause, focus on my surroundings, and engage in self-awareness. And the beauty of practicing mindfulness is that everyone’s practice looks different. It is yours to form.

The sun sets behind a rolling, grassy hillside atop Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics.
Taking a beat on trail can help you appreciate the moment and soak up what's around you. Photo be Devanee Chapman.

As a former naturalist, I have learned from my students that mindfulness isn’t something that is just for yourself and for your mind only. My students taught me that mindfulness can be a reminder of all the other things the natural world brings us when we are outside: insects, soil, tall redwood trees, salamanders, rain, mushrooms, mist, compost, and — most importantly — each other.

Here are some suggestions for building your own mindfulness practice outdoors.

“Live for the Moment” 

This is something you can do on trail with youth, by yourself or with your peers. As we hike, many of us think about the destination or the summit. Sometimes we forget to embrace the in-between moments that come as we make our way from start to finish. On trail with youth, I like to announce, “LIVE FOR THE MOMENT!” This phrase makes all the students freeze in place and change their perspective. They look up, look around, take deep breaths, lie on the ground, or close their eyes to heighten their senses. When we take a moment to slow down and become aware of our surroundings, we notice more details about the things that bring joy to our time on trail.

“I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of” 

I learned about this activity when I first became a naturalist and was created by the BEETLES project, which is devoted to environmental education and experiential learning. Finishing the three prompts, I Notice, I Wonder, and It Reminds Me Of, promotes curiosity, observation and wonder in outdoor spaces. I’ve used the 3 I’s with friends on trail or on a camping trip. I also enjoy incorporating the 3 I’s with senses, such as touching bark on trees or looking up at a big cedar. This simple tool can go a long way and works for all ages!

A close-up photo of bright green overlapping fern leaves.
Admiring the leaves of a fern is one way to incorporate the three I's. Photo by Sherri Nordin.

Gratitude with ABCs

This is a great activity to use when hiking with youth, especially those who feel overwhelmed or worried about being on trail. In this activity, I hike alongside youth and ask them to share what they are thankful for using the ABC’s. Many times, they share tangible items like apples, bananas or cars. I encourage them to expand their thinking and list things, people, places, smells, phrases, books or nature when sharing what they’re grateful for. I’ve gotten beautiful responses and I hope you use this activity with yourself on trail.

Focusing on Breath (4-2-6)

Focused breathing is a great form of mindfulness. I use focused breathing before I start working and before I start hiking. It helps me get attuned to my thoughts and body. The breathing exercise goes like this: Inhale for 4 counts, hold your breath for 2 counts and exhale for 6 counts. You can do this as many times as you like. I utilize this breathing exercise on trail until I feel like I’m in a good headspace and want to move on to other things. I like to end my hike with 4-2-6 breathing, as a little reminder to breathe, slow down and share gratitude for another day on trail.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.