‘Walk through life as though you have something new to learn, and you will’ wrote American philosopher Vernon Howard. There’s a simple happiness in the magical act of placing one foot in front of the other, reminiscent of the joyous, uncomplicated pleasures of a Famous Five story. When I think of walking, I think of hiking in a sun dappled wood and finding tiny blueberries growing on the forest floor. Of sitting on a blustery, sea-sprayed rock, ravenously eating a packed lunch. And of the time I came across a very fresh bear poo on a lonely trail in the Canadian woods (gulp). Walk is a means to a meditative end, and now just tracing the tiny thin trails that trickle across an Ordnance Survey map makes me feel happy, calm, more mindful.
Hiking your way to happiness
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to have deep and meaningful conversations in a car when you’re a passenger, sitting next to the driver, both of you watching the road speed by? It’s the same when you go walking with a friend. The companionable feeling of tramping alongside each other, the calming rhythm of left foot, right foot invites home truths, wise words, problems shared and then solved.
But walking alone is just as therapeutic – a contemplative chance to step away from your chirruping phone and the rumbles of daily life and into an instantly calm headspace, with just your steady breathing for company. Escaping for a solo hike puts fresh air in your lungs and fresh ideas in your head. This is meditation, but with the added benefits that two legs is often the only form of transport that’ll let you venture into some of the most remote and beautiful pockets of the world, following routes carved into the wild, arriving at your destination under your own steam. Physically striding away from real life and its attached irks and worries can make them seem much smaller and easier to deal with, so you can turn back and face them a new woman. And it’s completely free, once you own a pair of hiking boots (or even knackered old trainers).
Walking is as good for you physically as it is mentally, too. It reduces risk of disease, strengthens your heart and gives your body a massive endorphin bump. It improves memory and attention, and is proven to provide a steady cadence that in turn promotes calm thoughts. Walking regularly will build your leg muscles so you can stride along effortlessly for miles and feel that unique joy that comes with being the mistress of a strong, capable body.
Walking, hiking, hillwalking – it’s hard to define clear-cut edges between different kinds of perambulation, except that the walker and the rambler tend to take gentler strolls over rolling countryside with plenty of tea breaks, whilst the hiker and the hill walker stride womanfully off into the high hills. But you can make a trek has hardcore as you want, and as urban or wild as you like – you can work up a sweat up by striding up a remote Welsh hillside or you can meander slowly and mindfully around a city park on tour lunch break, noticing crispy leaves under your feet, feeling wintery sunshine on your face. Ideally, fill your life with plenty of both kinds of ramble – Virginia Woolf wrote of finding London’s city streets endlessly stimulating on urban walks, ‘right in the heart and the swim of things’ and of her frequent solitary rambles through the landscapes of Cornwall and the South Downs as ‘space to spread my mind out in.’ Perhaps it’s time to lace up your boots and give your mind room to flourish.
The trail less travelled: three mindful hiking adventures in Europe
Sling your knapsack on your back and hike your way to calm on one of these three walking adventures along forest, coast and mountain trails.
HIKE SOLO: Hike and stay in the remote mountains of Scotland
Far, far from the madding crowds in the Scottish highlands is a charmingly remote eco-hostel – it’s so remote, in fact, that the warden has to hike four hours in to this former hunting lodge in order to get to work. Walking the 10 miles into the hills of Glen Affric in order to stay there is a wonderful, easily navigable solo tramp through an untouched landscape of springing heather, crystal clear waterfalls and lush green peaks capped with snow. You’ll need to carry your sleeping bag and food with you, but the warm welcome and a roaring fire waiting for you in the heart of the valley are worth it. Walkhighlands.co.uk has straightforward instructions and a downloadable map of this glorious route.
HIKE THE MOUNTAINS: Explore Slovenia’s lakes and forests
Slovenia’s magnificent alpine forests have been a bit of a secret until recently – go now before the whole world realizes how wonderful this fairytale land is. Exodus’s eight-day adventure crosses wildflower meadows, skirts the shores of lakes and rambles for miles through pristine forests. Hikers can dip into the 500km-long Slovenian Mountain Trail as it crosses the Kamnik, Karavanke and Julian Alps, home to ibex, chamois and soaring eagles. Walkers get a warm welcome in the remote woodland villages and Exodus’ groups stay in traditional 19th century pensions and eat in tiny mountain huts – a break of the bustle of everyday life if ever there was one.
HIKE THE COAST: Explore Norway’s epic fjords
Norway’s 1,190 coastal fjords all glorious but the most beautiful of all might just be Hardangerfjord, where forests meet wildflower meadows on the edge of the sea in one enormous panoramic landscape it’s impossible not to feel calm in. Follow it on a week-long self-guided trek with InnTravel, whose holidays are all about setting a gentle pace and stopping to smell the roses (well, the Norwegian bluebells) along the way. Walkers hike through woodland, past tiny villages and over epic suspension bridges spanning the fjords and stay in cosy fjordside hotels each night, where you can relax tired leg muscles in a traditional Scandi sauna and refuel with plenty of sweet cardamon skolebrød buns.