Hiking is meant to be a restful, restorative form of exercise. It should bring you both mental and physical benefits as, in the famous words of John Muir, we “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” However, for some folks, climbing and hiking can bring on anxiety — and that’s ok. If you aren’t used to backpacking and hiking — or have had a bad experience in the backcountry — it’s entirely normal to experience anxiety about hiking away from civilization into the wilderness.
Despite the pangs of anxiety you may feel, getting out into the wild can still be a wonderful, invigorating experience that boosts your mental health and leaves you with memories that last.
So, here are a few ways you can manage and overcome your anxiety the next time you step onto the trail.
Prepare in advance to reduce your anxiety around hiking
A lot of the anxiety people feel around hiking and backpacking comes from a lack of preparation. Either they haven’t properly researched the trail they’re following, don’t have the necessary experience to navigate the environment, or haven’t packed the appropriate supplies.
Preparing well in advance takes care of these worries, and should be seen as an essential part of your hike.
The way you prepare depends on the context, as the gear and food you will need depend largely on the weather, terrain, and time of year that you intend to go hiking.
Additionally, you need to have an effective exit plan in case anything goes wrong while you’re out in nature. This means you need to know what to do if your car breaks down. You should practice replacing your tire before you take a long road trip, and should keep recovery information in an easy-to-access glovebox or compartment.
If you suffer from anxiety attacks, you should seek help from a medical professional. But, if you haven’t yet had an anxiety attack, it’s good to know how you can manage one before it occurs.
Anxiety attacks come on suddenly and provoke several symptoms. Your heart starts to race, you feel breathless and may notice your body is trembling excessively. These attacks are also typically coupled with a deep sense of fear, and a dissociation from yourself or the world around you.
When you’re experiencing an anxiety attack, you have to find ways to slow your heart rate and pay attention to your physical symptoms. You can do this by talking to someone you trust, taking deep breaths, and slowly counting to 10 with repetitions.
You must take these steps to calm yourself, as you cannot remove yourself from the situation when you’re hiking — you simply need to trust your ability to calm your physical response to stress.
Choose an Appropriate Hike
You know what triggers your anxiety better than anyone else. Whether it’s a fear of heights, the unknown, or wild animals, you should plan ahead and choose an appropriate hike that is unlikely to make you feel anxious.
If, for example, you have a fear of large wild animals, you may want to hike south of areas where brown bears and wolves live. Or, if this isn’t possible, you’d be best off hiking near your local town or city where large wild animals are less likely to roam in, and you will meet other hikers who can help you feel safe.
You also need to choose an appropriate “difficulty” when hiking in order to manage your anxiety. This can be tough to determine on your own, and recommendations don’t always help — a stroll in the park for one person might be like climbing to Mordor for the next.
Luckily, there are plenty of apps online that record hiking trails and loops for you. Oftentimes, these hikes will come with a difficulty level, and you can filter appropriately. Some of the best apps currently available are AllTrails and Gaia GPS.
Remember the Benefits of Hiking
While the thought of going hiking may be anxiety-inducing, try to remember that spending time in nature is usually good for your mental health, and can help you get through difficult challenges caused by work or school.
For example, if you’re currently in grad school, it’s easy to get caught up in the stressful cycle of research, writing, working, and learning. A hike may be what you need to improve your mental health as a student, as you will likely “switch off” from student mode. This could give you the “eureka!” moment you need later on, and will make a difficult semester that much easier.
It’s also worth noting that hiking has real physical health benefits. Hiking recruits a lot of the muscles that remain unused during our 9-5 lives, and regular cardio lowers your risk of heart diseases, increases bone density, and improves your balance.
By keeping the benefits in mind when you start to feel the first signs of anxiety when hiking, you can overcome feelings of nervousness and convince yourself to carry on when your anxiety is telling you to turn back.
Anxiety when hiking is entirely normal and is to be expected. Even the best hiker can get in over their heads, and sometimes need to calm themselves down to continue.
You shouldn’t feel any shame about feeling anxious when hiking. Instead, you can learn to recognize the early signs of an anxiety attack and should plan ahead by ensuring you have an effective exit plan, plenty of food, and the right gear. You should also consider hiking with a loved one who can remind you of the wonderful benefits of spending time in the great outdoors.