One of my favourite ways to relax and recharge is to go on a hike with my Prince. Even though we don’t do it often enough, we have been privileged to go on some awesome hikes in places like Koggelberg, the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Rainier. I’m no expert hiker and have never hiked for longer than a few hours, but I own a pair of hiking shoes and have had some breathtaking experiences with the Lord. We recently escaped to the Drakensberg for a few days and hiked our hearts out. It was a short break but left me refreshed and rejuvenated so I did some digging on the awesome (and surprising) benefits of hiking for the body, mind and soul.
Hiking for the body
One of my favourite sensations is the afterglow after spending time exercising outside in nature. My cheeks are warm, my body is tired and my soul is refreshed. My mind is clear and I can just sit and be still. This does not happen often enough.
Most exercise is beneficial for the body, but hiking is quite unique in that it requires little financial commitment and that it has to be done outside surrounded by nature. The University of Berkeley has shown that hiking oxygenates your heart, helps keep your mind sharper, and your body calmer.
But wait, there’s more. Evidence suggests that being around trees may provide extra benefits which have sparked the fitness/mindfulness trend of forest bathing. Hiking in nature is so powerful for our health and well-being that some doctors have begun prescribing it as an adjunct to other treatments for disease. For example, trees can improve your immune system and aid in the treatment of pulmonary and heart disease.
A recent study proves the connection between walking and improved health. Walking prevents the dying off of old brain tissue and even stimulates the growth of new neuronal connections.
One of the hikes we did during our recent trip was the Tugela river gorge hike. This hike is quite tough and long but it is one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done. It is a there-and-back hike meaning you walk towards the gorge and back to the starting point. So you know how far you still have to go to get to the car and it can be gruelling for the last two kilometres of fourteen. This teaches you endurance and shows you how much your body is capable of, even when you don’t think it is possible. You just place one foot in front of the other and step by step get to the end.
Hiking for the mind
Exercise is a great way to deal with stress and anxiety, but because hiking takes place in nature it gives our minds a welcome break from the continuous bombardment of technology and social media. Research has shown that spending time in nature can assist with “attention overload”—the mental fatigue that comes from living and working in a world where computers and cell phones are a constant distraction. Hiking also makes it easier to cope with anxiety and run-away thoughts.
Hiking involves trails which require many adjustments and small decisions throughout your walk that change every time you walk a certain route. Daniel Levitin explains in his book, Successful Aging, that hiking exercises the part of your brain designed to help you navigate through life helping your mind stay sharp.
Furthermore, this article explains that researchers “have found that being in nature encourages feelings of awe—a state of wonder coupled with a sense of being small in the presence of something bigger than yourself. Awe is a powerful emotion that has many benefits, including improving your mood and making you feel more generous.”
When you are surrounded by spectacular scenery like magnificent mountains and endless greenery your attention falls on the awesome creation and Creator. For a few hours, you have no desire to check your phone or reflect on problems that usually plague your mind. In that space of freedom, your mind can wander to new ideas, thoughts and solutions. It feels like lifting and opening of the mind that makes space for new ideas or sweet quietness.
Hiking for relationships
Hiking with Prince Charlie is one of my favourite things to do. It is precious time spent together without depleting distractions but also full of enriching distractions. We can have deep conversations or walk in silence, only commenting on the spectacular scenery. If we were inclined we could solve the world’s problems but, more often than not, we just reflect on how much we have to be grateful for. We learn new tidbits about each other -like I hate that slipping and sliding feeling when your step into a puddle of mud and Carl’s love for mountains and forests comes from his early years living in Natal.
Hiking is also great for mending and growing relationships. A recent incafrica.com article highlights the benefits of walking with other people, especially in nature. We experience more positive emotions and a stronger connection with the person we’re hiking with. They also point to the fact that walking with someone is a more effective way to handle conflict than locking yourself in a room to sort things out. This could be because of the creativity and problem-solving benefits of walking.
Exercising with other people cultivates a sense of closeness and safety. Other research suggests that exposure to nature can help our relationships by making us more empathic, helpful, and generous. Hiking alone can also help relationships by refreshing our attention and reducing stress while inspiring us with awe. This can create the space for better connection when we come into contact with others again.
Hiking can also be a very effective team-building exercise. One of my favourite church youth outings was a weekend away involving a gruesome hike. That hike formed bonds so deep that we still speak about it more than twenty years later.
Hiking for the soul
For me, hiking is, above all, a spiritual experience. As I place one foot in front of the other while marvelling at the Father’s creation I can have a leisurely chat with him, that doesn’t have to be formal or forced. Sometimes it flows effortlessly and sometimes there are tears, but it’s always a precious walk with the Lord.
One of the most significant examples of such an experience was during our visit to the Pacific North West in 2019. It was mere weeks after a devastating loss that left me desperately questioning God’s love for me. As we walked the Bridal Veil trail, my soul cried to the Lord asking him: “Father do you love me?” Immediately the Lord embraced me with his love by simply answering “Of course, I love you, my daughter.” I can’t explain it, but I was overcome with emotion. No explanation. No justification for my hurt, just reassurance of his love. This carried me through one of the toughest seasons of my life.
At the peak of that hike, a dear friend who was walking with us inspired us to spend some time reflecting on the word of God. The verse we reflected on was Psalm 96:9 which serves as the basis of a hymn by John S. Monsell.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Bow down before Him, His glory proclaim.
With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness,
kneel and adore Him – The Lord is His name!Adoration by John S Monselland Tom Fettke
Hiking is a pure form of worship – spending time with the Lord in his creation. Of all the benefits mentioned above, this one makes me want to put on my hiking shoes and get out there.
I hope you’re inspired to put on those hiking shoes and start walking.