It’s practically a given that spending months in the woods backpacking many miles every day up and down mountains will change your life. The paradoxical blend of splendor and deprivation can’t help but shift your perspective. Compared to that, what impact could a day hike possibly have? A lot.
When I quit my job in 2016 to try to hike the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail (a broken foot ended the attempt at mile 675), I was after transformation. At 43, I had professional success and financial comfort but lacked purpose. I suspected that becoming a freelancer, on the other hand, would be more meaningful, but I was too chicken to dive in from the safety of a six-digit income into entrepreneurship’s risk and inconsistency. My AT trek was an accelerator: Its discomfort and rigor conditioned me to tolerate the vagaries of #giglife.
Not everyone wants or needs metamorphosis, of course, but we all strive toward something—even if it’s simply accepting ourselves and our lives as they are.
But who can spend six months traipsing through the backcountry? What about the kids? What about the mortgage? What about the car payment and the promotion?
Enter the day hike.
To be clear, I’m not talking about Billy Goat or Scott’s Run or Rock Creek, as restorative and rejuvenating as time on those trails can be. I mean an all-day hike. As in, pack up the night before, leave the house when it’s still dark, get an hour or more away from NoVA and walk for five or six hours—seven if you want to eat lunch and savor the woodland. Arrive home stiffened up, blissed out, caked with dirt and sweat; then relish a hot shower, tumble into bed and sleep hard until morning.
To what end? If it’s for fitness, why not just put in gym time? Because exercise in the woods is better for you. In a 2017 study, mountain hiking increased pleasure and activation and decreased fatigue more than an uphill treadmill trudge. Simply put, participants enjoyed it more. Better yet is what enjoyment led to: increased exertion.
Outside exercisers work harder—achieve higher heart rates and burn more calories—than do indoor exercisers.
Add to the physical benefit of a woodland workout a mental one. A 2015 Swedish study found that nature walking decreased rumination and activity in a part of the brain associated with overthinking as compared to a similar walk in an urban setting. In fact, I find this effect more pronounced on day hikes than on extended trips because of a day hike’s more immediate contrast to the workaday world. Within the first 10 minutes of a day hike, calm suffuses my body and mind, frees up my thoughts. By mile 8 or 9, I’m deeply convinced that any troubles I brought into the woods will work themselves out.
To achieve this mental benefit, it’s key to keep the civilian world where it belongs—back in civilization. This means putting the phone on airplane mode and checking in only if someone back home would otherwise worry. Take all the pictures you want, but wait until you’re home to post them to social media.
My 10-week AT journey brimmed with joy—from breathtaking vistas, from the high of constant cardio, from the hope of finding my purpose—as well as despair—from homesickness, from cold, from fear I wouldn’t find that meaning. It’s hard for a day hike to be as dramatic as all that, but now that I’m living the freelance life I wanted, I find that a semimonthly 10-miler or so keeps everything in perspective. It restores me to me.