Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How long-distance hiking will change your personality

When I started my outdoor “career” seven years ago I had had no idea how this new life style would change my personality. 32,000 km on foot (and a similar number on my bicycle and kayak) later I have become a different person. There are many different aspects to this transformation but three angles (and stages) stick out:

 (When reading this keep in mind that hiking in this context can be substituted with cycling or paddling. I only use the word hiking because it is my main outdoor occupation and it is easier to read this way.) 

With all my worldly possessions...
Detachment from material possessions: The first step in the transformation is the realisation how little
material possessions you really need. As a long-distance hiker you will be even more extreme in this reduction to the minimum because a low pack weight is crucial for the success of a long hike. You carry all your wordly possessions in a tiny backpack that weighs around 5 kg plus some food and water. Only a few weeks into a hike it will dawn on you that this is all you really need: some kind of shelter to stay dry, some kind of clothes and sleeping gear to stay warm, food to eat and water to drink. Nothing else. No house, no car, no mortgage.

Life is simple. Your needs are simple and can be satisfied with precious little. Anything above this level becomes total luxury and can be a source of ecstasy: sleeping in a bed with clean sheets, taking a hot shower, eating a real meal. As your „happiness threshold“ becomes lower and lower you feel happier and happier. And these sources of happiness are very palpable, very direct: an unexpected chocolate bar given to by a day hiker, the sun eventually coming out after a week of rain, a shower after hiking for days in dirt and heat. You realise that a rise in salary will never give you this direct satisfaction.

Happiness is a chocolate resupply package
Your atttitude towards money changes: Money becomes just a means in order to solve problems – among several other means. And it is not always the optimal solution: Money does not get you up or down a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Money does not bring you water in a desert. Money can't cure a stress fracture. These realisations alone will already make it sort of difficult to return to the normal rat race. Money has lost its importance as a motivator. And most things you can buy with money will lose their attraction as well. But the longer you live outdoors the more radical the transformation will be because soon you reach the next phase:

Detachment from personal relations: The first steps in this direction are usually happening totally unexpectedly. You have been gone from the normal world for half a year and come back a different person. Not all of your all friends will accept that. They cannot cope with your new values. They feel deserted. You will loose friends, maybe even partners. If you insist on leaving again you will loose more friends. You will realise that for many people friendship has a lot to do with physical presence. A friend has to be there when you need him or her. People want to go for a coffee or a drink with their friends. You are not there because you are hiking? Bad luck – another friend gone.

Finishing the PCT
When hiking the big American trails or European pilgrimage routes this loss can first easily be compensated: You will make new friends in the trail community. You will bond with like minded hikers. The trail community becomes your new family. But even in this stage you realise that it is you who has to walk all these miles and hike up those mountains. And everybody in the hiker community is driven by the same desire: to reach the goal, to hike from Mexico to Canada or to reach Santiago. If you cannot keep up they will move on and leave you behind.

Once you leave these big trails and hike in wilderness areas or create your own routes you will be alone. Alone – with yourself. Often I hike for days or even weeks on end without talking to a person – except maybe the cashier in a village store. Nobody will touch you and you will not even receive a handshake. You are your own and only company. You better like yourself or you will be miserable. If you are a repeat offender and continue hiking year after year you should be well aware of the fact that you reduce your chances of finding a lifetime partner dramatically. Very few people will be willing to come along with you – or patiently wait at home until you return. And as for the chance of founding a family – forget it.

Finishing the CDT
But once you are “weaned off” normal social contacts you appreciate the few contacts you have all the more. Meeting trail angels or couchsurfing hosts becomes a highly anticipated experience. And no words can describe the bond you develop with a fellow hiker waiting out a fierce snow storm under a rickety tent or sharing your last morsel of food. There is no better way to get to know a person with all his or her shortcomings than on a long hike. Long-distance hikers are fiercely independent people but when they bond these friendships are for life.

I have travelled alone for most of my outdoor career and the few times I have had a companion usually turned into a disaster. Still it took me many years to accept the fact that I am best off alone – and be happy with this situation. I am not missing a hiking partner any more. On the contrary: After such a long time alone I am afraid I am so set in my way that I probably could not deal with a partner any more.

No possibility of withdrawal: This topic has two aspects and both are equally difficult to deal with on the long run. Like most long-distance hikers I have given up a permanent home and for seven years now I have technically been homeless. Whenever I go back “home” to Germany I have to look for a new temporary place where to stay – and it always feels like walking a tightrope. I arrive with no idea where to stay and have to find something really quickly because I don't want to push my friends' patience to the limit while staying on their couch. I cannot just quickly go “home” for a couple of days or weeks between trips because there is no home for me any more. I just have a storage unit and a mailing address. Whenever I leave my last temporary home, usually a flat share, I know that I have to be on the move for months or a year. If I get sick and have to take a longer rest during that time I have a problem.

Cowboy camping on the CDT
Unfortunately the situation on the trail is similar. My home is my tent. I am almost always in public space and between me and the outer world is just a mere half milimetre of silnylon tent fabric. No door to close behind me. No walls to hide behind. My tent offers protection from the elements and from uninvited views but it is a fragile shelter. I have spent many nerve wrecking nights in storms when I had to cling on to my tent for dear life. And a tent is not really the best shelter against animal and human predators. Even if there was a hotel or hostel wherever I am hiking financial restrictions would keep me from staying there every day. Hotel stays are restricted to a weekly rest day.

Resting on the PCT
Still I need a place where to find physical and mental rest after a day on the trail. If you don't get proper rest it will ruin your hike. Therefore the possibility to withdraw is essential. The only way out is to withdraw into yourself – something that needs a lot of practice, especially when the conditions are bad. It is no problem to relax in a tent when it is warm and dry but a totally different story when you are shivering with cold after a long day of hiking in the rain. It took me many years of practice and experimenting to find a suitable tent and sleeping system setup that keeps me comfortable in all conditions. But it took me even longer to be able to withdraw into myself and find the mental peace and quiet there that you need for a refreshing rest.

Is it worth it? 

Almost levitating with happiness
Reading the above you will probably get the impression that this outdoor life is austere and full of hardships.
Why are people doing it – and even enjoying it? What do I think after seven years living in a tent? Was it worth it? The answer is a definite “yes”. Although the above mentioned deprivations sound like crazy hardships they are actually totally mind freeing. You free yourself from a lot of restrictions that our modern society has imposed on you and go back to the very basics. Hiking has made me a very happy person because I realise every day how little I need to be happy. Although the process to get to this insight has been long and hard I am very glad I made it. It has made me not only a happy but also an independent person.

Other observations: 

The longer I hike the more I cherish the time and free intellectual capacity to think and deliberate. You might wonder about what? Whatever comes across my mind. I listen to a lot of audiobooks during the day and love to think through what I have just “read”. But any other intellectual input is welcome: I am interested in the history and culture of whatever country I am currently in. I get a lot of input from couchsurfing hosts or whoever I meet on the trail. I enjoy the luxury to think about the great philosophical questions while most of my contemporaries waste their intellectual capacities with thinking about mortgages and pension schemes....

When I started hiking I was drawn to spectacular landscapes and wildernesses. Like everybody else I thought the wilder and the more spectacular the environment is the more of a positive impactit will have on me. Now seven years later I have learnt that even the most breathtaking scenery can become boring. After hiking the Pacific Crest, the Continental Divide, the Appalachians and the Pyrenees I realised that mountains look pretty much the same everywhere......I now prefer “unique” ecosystems to spectacular scenery. But generally speaking I do not choose a trail or destination any more by how great the scenery is. As long as I am out in nature I pretty much don't mind where I hike.