I, like many, often head into nature to disconnect from my busier frontcountry world and heal. Hiking and backpacking are easy ways for me to clear my mind, focus on the present, and find some peace. However, that’s not always the case—despite my best intentions.
Sometimes I embark on a hike and I’ll have a moment where I realize I don’t even remember the last mile because I was so deep in my head thinking about other things I need to do, playing out an entire fantasy scenario, or ruminating on an old ache. Other times, I realize I haven’t heard the birds’ calls or the crunchiness of leaves under my feet because the same song has been blaring in my mind for a good hour.
It’s wild how much of our lives we can “miss” when we’re living in our minds. But I’m also grateful for these moments, as they’ve helped me to gain more awareness of when they occur and how I can kindly redirect them.
If you’ve ever experienced something similar to the scenarios I’ve described above, then this post is for you. The following are some practices I’ve found useful when looking to quiet my mind on the trail.
1. Stop hiking.
As I mentioned, there are times I’ve noticed my mind is so loud in its thoughts that I realize I haven’t been hearing my surroundings. In these moments, I’ve found that the most effective way to return to the moment is to literally stop in my tracks.
If my mind has been on a journey, I take note of that and then stand still on the trail. Next, I’ll close my eyes, put a hand on my heart, and take a deep breath. Within this pause, I focus on the sounds around me and also how it feels in my body to have my mind quiet. More often than not, this moment brings a smile to my face and I feel more connected to the space I’m in and the gratitude I have for the wilderness.
Once I’m ready, I begin walking again. I focus on taking gentle steps and having the intention to live within my silent mind.
2. Pick a sense.
If you’re having trouble with a wandering mind, it can help to choose a sense to focus on instead:
- Sight: Become really curious about what you see. If a leaf falls from a tree, follow its dance all the way to the forest floor. Count how many different types of ferns you see along a stretch of trail. Notice how the light changes as the clouds move over the forest.
- Sound: Listen for bird calls. Hear how your footsteps sound. Can you hear your heartbeat? What about your breath? What does nature’s song sound like?
- Touch: Feel the air pass along your skin and move in and out of your lungs. Is it cool? Humid? Dry? Hot? Heavenly? Gently run your fingertips across tree bark, spongy mosses, and tall grasses. How does your environment feel?
- Smell: What does your environment smell like? Is it sweet? Bitter? Earthy? Does it remind you of something or even somewhere else you’ve been? Can you smell rain forming? What does a sunny day smell like? Stop to smell flowers and lichen and dirt.
- Taste: Can you taste your environment? May there’s a refreshing taste to the fog or a gritty taste to the desert. How does the food you brought taste differently when consumed in this environment?
Whichever sense you have available to you can give you a focus that helps to anchor you in your present moment.
3. Write it down.
Sometimes the best way to get a ruminating thought out of your mind is to write it down. I carry a small notepad and pencil in my hip belt pocket for this very reason.
Sometimes I need to quickly jot down a task I don’t want to forget or some idea I can come back to later. Once it’s on paper, it stops taking up real estate in my brain. Other times, I hike specifically to capture my thoughts as they arise, and my notebook serves more as a journal. Some of my favorite writing I’ve done came to me while hiking.
This also helps for songs that get stuck in your head. While on a 10-day paddle in the Everglades, I had multiple songs pop into my internal radio each day. On day one, I decided to start writing them down so I could make a playlist later of everything I’d “heard” out there. The playlist ended up with 40 jams that ranged from Britney Spears’s “Sometimes” to George Jones’s “The King is Gone (So Are You)”. And the fun thing now is that, a year later, I can listen to the playlist and feel transported back to those precious moments in a wilderness area I love.
4. Go big or go small.
If you’re setting out on your hike with the specific intention of being mindful, I’ve found that really big hikes or very small hikes are the best.
Really big hikes come with a certain level of momentum. You can focus on your big goal and your body’s ability to cover high mileage or difficult terrain. Very small hikes connect you intimately with your environment. You can walk a quarter mile in an hour if you want and simply notice as much as you can around you, or turn it into a microtrash mindfulness practice.
Cell phones are handy for plenty of things, even on trail—navigation assistance, workout tracking, photo taking. But they can also be a distraction and keep your mind in its frontcountry state. Simply seeing your phone can cause your brain to make a connection to your task list or last communication with someone or any other number of topics that can then run wild in your head for miles.
As much as possible, try to keep your phone tucked away and definitely on airplane mode. If mindfulness is a focus for you, consider bringing a separate camera or navigation device that you associate with being present in nature rather than packed full of attention-seeking apps.
6. Use an affirmation.
Having a busy mind when you’re in a place where you really don’t want to have a busy mind can feel really frustrating.
When I find myself annoyed with my wandering mind on trail, I try to turn toward self-compassion. I acknowledge that it’s hard right now, let myself know that this is a pretty darn normal part of being a human, and then offer myself kindness. Sometimes I’ll show myself kindness by repeating an affirmation as I walk. Some ideas for these include:
I don’t need to believe my thoughts.
I deserve this time and space to heal.
I am allowed to be present in this moment.
I am listening to and noticing my environment.
I am doing the best I can to show up in my life.
The key is to pick something that makes you feel some kindness towards yourself while grounding into the present moment.
7. Practice loving-kindness.
Sometimes when we’re all wrapped up in our own minds, it can feel a bit isolating. One way to shift a busy mind while on the trail is to dedicate your hike to someone. As you move through the wilderness, send that person loving-kindness. You may choose to focus on phrases like:
- May this person be well. May this person be happy. May this person find peace.
- May my hike serve to bring this person joy and healing.
- May this person feel the gratitude I feel for them as I hike.
Obviously, you’ll want to replace “this person” with your chosen person’s name. This person can be someone you’re close to or someone you may have never even met. It may be someone who has shown you care previously or someone you know is suffering right now.