A dusty trail, carved by the footsteps of thousands before you, sheltered by towering trees swaying in the breeze. The aroma of blooming flowers, the distant trickle of a stream, and the occasional dash of a butterfly out of the corner of your eye. When you think of hiking what most likely comes to mind is physical activity. The tired legs and achy feet after an uphill climb made worth it by the beautiful views at the end. Mindful walking or taking a mindful hike with the tips in this article not only provides the opportunity to support your physical health through exercise but also serves as a vehicle to boost your mental and emotional health. Being mindful and intentional in our actions leads to more fulfilling and transformational experiences.
What is Mindful Walking?
Mindful walking is the practice of bringing aspects of meditation and mindfulness to your walks. For example, mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment. When practicing mindful walking, you apply this same principle to the act of walking.
Mindful walking can look like paying attention to the sensations associated with walking itself. Knowing what it feels like to walk and what it means to be walking can be very novel, as this is something we do often and without much thought.
You can also try different versions of mindful walking such as using it as an opportunity to practice gratitude, bringing your attention to the emotions you experience as you walk, or noticing the beauty of the world around you.
First, let’s explore why trying mindful walking is worth it in the first place. Then we’ll break down what this can look like in practice with easy-to-use exercises!
The Benefits of Mindfulness & Spending Time in Nature
Nature, for us, has been a wonderful escape. Not in the sense of running away from our lives, but in the return to something that feels so familiar and comforting. Nature, surrounded by life in its most true form, is where we feel most present, at ease, and free.
The worries of the day seem to disperse with each step and we feel a deep and gratifying sense of connection to the world around us. A reminder of all there is to be grateful for and the chance to re-align with our needs and values.
Mindfulness as a practice has been shown to have tremendous benefits for physical and mental health including lowered stress and anxiety, improved immune function, increased attention and creativity, and cognitive flexibility.
In addition, nature is healing. Various studies show that spending time in nature not only protects physical health, but also improves mood and attention, increases happiness and creativity, and decreases stress. In addition, engaging in a mindful or meditative practice can also have amazing benefits, with studies showing links to improved well-being, cognitive flexibility, improved focus and memory, and increased immune functioning.
What if you could combine the powers of both mindfulness and time in nature? By bringing a mindful walking practice to your next hike or outdoor adventure, you can!
Engaging in mindful moments in nature during our walks and hikes as we travel the country has been transformative. It has offered a new way to slow down and appreciate our surroundings, outside the confounds of traditional seated meditation. Meditation and mindfulness are not just for sitting!
Ready to experience the benefits of mindful walking and hiking? Try out these mindful walking tips and techniques on your next outdoor walk or epic trail!
10 Mindful Walking Tips Perfect For Your Next Nature Walk or Hike
1. Set an intention
In today’s world, it is normal to be constantly surrounded by stimuli and lost in a slew of thoughts.
Work, kids, school, relationships; life is complex and ever-moving. It is normal and easy to be engaged in thoughts of the past and future or pulled away from the present through technology’s distractions.
Before you begin your next hike, take a breath. Shake it out. Set an intention. An intention is your invitation to act and tune your attention deliberately in the direction of your goals and in alignment with your values. This helps you hold yourself accountable and move toward what you hope to get out of your mindful hike. You might ask yourself:
- What do you hope to get out of your time on the trail and being mindful today?
- How would being more mindful or present benefit you in your life?
Looking to relieve stress after a long work week? Want to learn to manage unhelpful thoughts and emotions? Interested in cultivating more compassion for yourself or towards others?
Set it as your intention before you embark on your adventure and keep that in mind as you move along. You can’t find what you are looking for on the trail unless you know what you are searching for.
2. Put the phone and distractions away
Getting out into nature is the perfect opportunity for a bit of a digital detox.
To be fully present and immersed in your outdoor experience, it is helpful to put distractions away before you begin. You will want your phone with you for navigation or emergencies, but perhaps you place it in your bag and only retrieve it if you need it, or turn off notifications.
There is nothing like a stressful text or email coming in to take away from your enjoyment of your surroundings. If you wear a smartwatch, consider turning off any notifications to fully embrace your surroundings.
As you walk about, try to soak things in as much as you can through your eyes and by using your senses. In today’s world of likes and comments, it can be easy to get caught up in wanting to post your adventure for all to see. Social media can be a great way to connect with others from all over the globe, find inspiration, and inspire others.
It is okay to take pictures or videos, but also try to leave time to be unplugged and take things in without technology. Leave your posting for a time once you leave the sanctity of nature so that the space can be preserved for those intentions you set.
3. Soak in the silence
We live in a world of seemingly constant activity and sounds.
Cars, buses, trains, and airplanes. Conversations, TV, social media, music, alarms, and reminders. There is also typically a lot of internal noise; constant mind chatter, and narratives we have with ourselves. Silence can feel foreign and uncomfortable or even scary. In silence, we are alone with our thoughts and emotions, without anything to distract us.
When stepping into nature or embarking on a hike that you want to approach more mindfully, see how it feels to embrace the lack of distraction.
Notice how it feels to be in the wilderness, away from your desk and screens. If you are with someone else, spend some time deliberately refraining from conversation. Stay curious and lean into what may feel like a weird experience of just being present with yourself for a while and listening quietly without engaging.
After a while you might shift from focusing on your internal experience of being in silence and be pleasantly surprised at just how lively and beautiful the sounds of nature are around you; it’s not really silent after all. You just have to open yourself up and give yourself the opportunity to hear and enjoy them without the usual distractions of the internal and external world.
Give your brain a break. Sit in silence and see what is uncovered when you take away all the distractions. Deepen your understanding of yourself, your needs, or the world around you; without judgment.
4. Focus on your breath
The breath is a great anchor when trying to be more mindful during your hike. You might notice as time goes on that your mind goes to something that happened last week at work, your plans for dinner, what the end of the hike will be like, what house chores you have, etc. This is normal and why the art of being mindful is a skill that takes practice.
By bringing your focus back to your breath you can shift your attention back to the present and be where your feet are. A few ways you can focus on your breath include:
- Notice how the air feels as it enters your nose and exits through your nose or mouth
- Focus on breathing deeply and slowly, catching your breath, and slowing your heart rate. Get your breath back to a smooth rhythm
- Count the length of your inhales and exhales, focusing on an equal count or breathing out for a bit longer than your inhales. This stimulates a relaxation response in the body
Focusing on your breath can bring you back to the present moment, decrease stress and cortisol levels, aid in physical recovery, and improve focus by getting your body back to a restful state rather than a fight or flight state where the stress response is engaged.
5. Getting in your head? Engage your senses
Engaging your senses is a great way to immerse in your current experience and foster presence.
- Sight: What do you see around you? Perhaps focus on one plant or tree and try to take in as much detail as you can about it.
- Hearing: What are the sounds you hear? Try picking out one and following it with curiosity
- Touch: Reach out and place your hand on something. How does it feel? What are the textures? Or simply notice the sensation of the breeze against your skin.
- Taste: What is the taste in your mouth? Perhaps that of a recent snack or drink
- Smell: What are the aromas you notice around you? Sweet? Earthy? Oak?
- Kinesthetic feel: Turn your focus to your walk. Focus on how your body moves. How do your knees bend and straighten? How do your muscles feel as they tighten and relax? How does it feel and sound as your feet hit the ground?
6. Take time to slow down
It can be easy to get into the mindset of your hike being a chance for great exercise. It can also be easy to become hyper-focused on the destination rather than the journey along the way.
We often find ourselves personally trying to hike faster and faster. This is great if your intention for the hike is to solely challenge your fitness level. If you are looking for a more mindful experience, it is important to be intentional and take the time to slow down. Walk a bit slower, and let others pass you. Engage with your surroundings with each step you take. Take frequent pauses to savor the experience.
Pauses and opportunities to slow down are a great way to reset during your hike. This is especially beneficial if you find yourself forgetting the intention you set, or notice your mind is wandering or racing.
A pause is a chance to get back to the basics. Take a deep breath, and return to the present. Allow yourself to fully enjoy the journey as well as the destination.
7. Reflect on how your presence impacts the environment around you
Bringing a mindful approach to your time in nature is a wonderful way to deepen your connection to the world around you.
Simply by spending time in nature you can grow your respect for and appreciation of it. You might find yourself understanding it in a different way when you are up close and personal or find that you enjoy your experiences so much that you want to take further action to protect these spaces for years of enjoyment to come.
As you meander along your chosen path or trail, consider how your presence impacts the environment around you. Are your actions beneficial, neutral, or harmful? How can you reap the benefits of your mindful walk or hike for your mind and body, while also being mindful of your footprint?
With each new place you visit, try your best to leave it the same as it was when you arrived, if not better.
8. Close your eyes, tune into your internal experience
We spend much of our day tuning into the world with our sight. This is also where we can absorb a lot of distractions.
With so much to take in around you, try taking a few moments to close your eyes and shut that sense out. This really cuts down on the number of external stimuli you are receiving and allows you to check in on your internal experience. How does your body feel after hiking however far you have traveled at this point? Is there tension in your body or areas of tightness or soreness? Do you notice anything about your heart rate or breathing?
This is an opportunity to simply check in with curiosity. Perhaps do a quick body scan to really feel what your body is experiencing. Breathe into areas of discomfort and let it go on your exhale.
Bringing awareness to your internal experience allows you to be more comfortable with what comes up for you and approach it with a sense of calm curiosity rather than reactivity.
9. Celebrate the successes or goals you reach along the way
Don’t judge yourself too harshly. Did you get outside for some fresh air and exercise? That is an accomplishment in itself! Did you set an intention, find a quiet moment, or feel your stress levels go down? Then you did something kind for yourself.
Small wins are still important to celebrate, even if things do not go exactly as planned. Be patient with yourself and celebrate any progress you made toward your goals, no matter how big or how small. It’s not always just about the outcome! The journey is important too.
10. Let go of your expectations. There is no right or wrong way to have a mindful walk or hike
One thing that can cause a lot of frustration is having unrealistic expectations. We live in a society where there is a lot of pressure to be the best at everything we do. In my line of work as a mental performance and sleep coach, it is common for me to hear, “I’m just not good at mindfulness.”
The beauty of mindfulness is that it is a skill that doesn’t require perfection in order to benefit. Do you notice your mind wandering and aim to gently bring your focus back to the present? You are being mindful. There is no right or wrong way to bring a mindful approach to your time in nature.
Give yourself permission to do what feels best for you. This is your practice and you will get more comfortable and skilled with time!
Mindful Walking For Hiking Overall
Bringing mindfulness to your next walk or hike, even if just for a few moments, can benefit your mind in addition to the wonderful benefits your body is already getting from physical exercise.
Not only can time in nature be a way to more easily find yourself in an environment ripe with opportunities to practice being mindful, but it is also a great way to practice this skill that can then be transferred to other areas of your life when you return from your time in nature. Practicing being mindful can foster an approach to life that allows you to be more present, less reactive, and more accepting so that you can thrive.
If you want to take your mindful walking or hiking exercise to the next level, grab a notebook or a piece of paper once your hike is complete and write about it. What was the experience like? What did you notice about the thoughts coming up or how our body felt? How did it feel to unplug and simply be where your feet were? This builds awareness that can help you learn from the experience and continue to set future intentions that align with your goals and needs.
Not sure about where to begin?
- Perhaps try out a guided walking meditation to get you started… like this one from headspace!
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