I know what you think I'm going to say here — something maybe to do with bears, and the thing that they are most known for doing in the woods? — but no. (Of course we have to poop in the woods — especially if we're there for more than a day)! But there are plenty of other things you DEFINITELY shouldn't do in the woods. So here's a little friendly advice about trail etiquette, and how to get more enjoyment of your time in the woods when you are out there.
Don't be loud.
I'm just going to get this one out of the way, because it's the most common faux pas of people who just don't get how to be a good citizen when it comes to hiking, camping, kayaking or otherwise being outdoors. The only exception to this is if you're in bear country, or it's hunting season. But then, only be loud enough so that you don't get mistaken for food.
I've been lost before; earlier this year I had to spend an unplanned night in the woods by myself (with only my dog Howie). My cell phone was dead (the last text I sent to my husband included the words "I'm getting a little worried"). It was pouring rain, night was coming on fast, and to add to the chaos, I had brought the wrong tent poles, so my tent was basically a pathetic, rumpled mess in the woods that barely kept me dry.
Did images of park rangers pulling my body from the river go through my head? Maybe. Did I panic and continue crashing around in the woods, even though it was getting dark and my feet were nearly hamburger after hiking nearly 20 miles in wet boots? NO. I did not. I stopped, took a deep breath, set up my misreable little tent, and trusted that the worst case scenario was probably the least likely thing to happen. Then I spent nearly 12 hours in a tent, dozing, reading and snuggling with Howie deep in my sleeping bag. Panic would have only made things worse.
Don't leave the trail
Going off the trail creates erosion, destroys local foilage, plus exposes you to poison ivy and possibly getting lost. So stay on the trail, making sure to follow the trail blazes along the way. The caveat to this is using the bathroom (bet you didn't think that reference would come up again!) — if you have to go, move 200 feet away from the trail and any water sources. Oh, and for pete's sake, dig a hole!
Don't NOT yield the right-of-way
If you're going downhill, move aside for hikers going uphill (same goes with mountain biking when the trail is bi-directional). Uphillers are working hard and you don't want them to have to stop their momentum when it's much easier for you to step off the trail. Of course, some uphill hikers want to stop and rest, and letting you pass gives them the perfect opportunity to get a short break. But know the rules so that you also know when to break them.
Don't leave your trash
If you packed it in, you pack it out. Nothing breaks my heart in the woods more than seeing people's garbage. Bring an extra trash bag, and plan to have any wrappers go straight into the trash bag after you finish that granola bar or foil packet. Not in the fire pit. Not shoved under some leaves. IN THE TRASH BAG.
Don't forget your book.
I love reading outside. Whether it's a guidebook or the latest trashy novel, don't forget to throw in something to read while you're on the trail, especially when backpacking. Sometime the best company are the characters who live inside the pages of a book, so make sure you bring them along for the ride.
What outdoors etiquette violations bug you the most? Rant in the comments below.
Here at the Outdoor Book Club we know that die-hard bibliophiles often have deep-seated anxiety about spending time in the woods (not to mention mountains, meadows, beaches and any other environment without a flushing toilet). Perhaps it's because most of us have spent our entire lives inside. (Who's read the book Room?) Even if we spent our childhoods riding bikes around the neighborhood, building forts in the woods or attending summer camp, we haven't really become outdoorswomen. So as we grow into adults, we lose a critical connection to nature that's really hard to re-establish after so many years with a roof constantly over our heads.
But all is not lost. Research shows that nature is an eternal spring of healing for all sorts of physical, mental and spiritual ills. For example:
You're not as big a wimp as you think you are.
You're actually very capable of being the heroine in the book that you've always admired. Nature is perhaps the single best way to reconnect with your inner heroine, with those around you and to the wider world. We simply won't survive long without connection.
But what about all those bugs? And what if I have to pee?
Bugs and peeing in the woods aside, the best advice I can give you about loving the outdoors is to simply decide to take the risk (I can guarantee you it's all mental). Don't argue with yourself, don't try and make excuses, don't worry about if you're doing it right. Just move forward a little bit each time, and it will get easier.
But if you still need some tactics to help you learn to love the outdoors, here are some tips to help make it easier:
You don't need to travel far if you're just starting to learn how to enjoy the outdoors. Walking around the neighborhood is as good a place as any to begin. Or if you're feeling like you need to be the valedictorian of the outdoors (an urge I'm familiar with), find a local hiking trail near your house. Then move up to spending more time outdoors: longer hikes, a camp out in the backyard, and then find a local full-service campground. Each action, each moment you spend outside becomes a stepping stone towards being the wild woman and heroine of your own story that you've always wanted to be.
Bring a friend (and maybe that friend has four legs)
Even if you really enjoy your alone time, there might be times when you need someone else's company (as well as the extra motivation). Bringing your kid(s) along is a great way for the family to connect and create memories, and a there really isn't a better date idea than a long walk along a flowing river.
Read up on the ecosystem where you live.
This will help you better appreciate the natural environment around you. Find out what kind of trees are native to your geographic area and try to find them. Bring along a bird book and some binoculars (you can borrow them from your grandmother). Find out how your local waterways connect together - then toss a stick or flower into the stream, and imagine how it could conceivably end up in the ocean (a great opportunity to reflect on the connectiveness of the Universe).
Bring treats (chocolate works — just don't keep it in your pocket)
So does an artisinal sandwich with all your favorite condiments that no one else likes. Maybe even one of those little bottles of wine, if you want to go down that road (do I have to tell you not to get drunk while hiking/kayaking/bicycling? No? Good.).
Bring a book
Yes. Bring your life preserver, and after you put in a good 30-60 minutes exploring, pick a quiet place and start reading. Soon you'll associate being outside with a healthier sense of well-being, alone time and getting to read your book uninterrupted (now how often does that happen on the couch at home?).
Buy awesome hiking boots
Nothing like a special pair of shoes to get you motivated. I'm particularly fond of Keens for all types of activities. Make sure you find out how to buy hiking boots that make sense for you, depending on what kind of hiking you're planning on doing.
Ride a bike
The thing I love about riding a bike over walking or running is that you cover so much more ground. Plus it's about as close to flying as you'll get without actually leaving the earth or paying money for a plane ticket.
Meditating while outside is like super-charging your meditation practice. You can either meditate while hiking, or find a quiet spot away from any foot traffic, sit down in the leaves or sand, and disconnect from the chaos that is your every day life.
Finally: get over yourself
So you hate being outside. Time to take a serious look at why that is, when so much research shows that as human beings we're wired to be outside, and that according to the New York Times, trying new things is one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy.
“Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” says C. Robert Cloninger, the psychiatrist who developed personality tests for measuring this trait.
Decide that all the stories you've told yourself about how much you hate bugs and sunburn and physical activities are just your ego trying to keep you from doing something awesome.
What are other ways you've found to get yourself or others outside? Share in the comments below.
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Putting my phone away, even for an hour, can be excruciating for me. It's the last thing I look at when I go to bed and the first thing I check when I wake up (love that moment when I lay down and night and say "Set alarm for 5:45am" and Siri says "Ok!" ). I use my phone to meditate, listening to Omvana tracks through headphones to center myself and the Equanimity app to time how long I sit. I use my phone to hike, using RunKeeper to track my distance.
But when I hike and meditate? Then I put the phone away (or turn it to airplane mode), because I don't want anything to come between me and the orange-sherbet glow of a winter sunset or the quiet whisper of the wind through the trees. Those are the moments where I get to practice “aimless wandering” (and it doesn't even involve a Target store).
Still, I'm not just in it for the peace and tranquility: as a dyed-in-the-wool multi-tasker, hiking meditation can kill two birds with one stone: exercise and meditation. (If only I could also write - I'd hit all three of my daily goals at once).
What is hiking meditation?
You might have heard of walking meditation, which is where you walk and meditate at the same time (eyes open!), paying attention to how your body feels as you focus on the present. So hiking meditation is simply a variation of walking meditation - easier because hiking is a little bit more physically demanding than walking, but as is often the case, higher physical demands makes it easier to focus.
How hiking meditation works
Walking meditation starts when you begin walking, focusing your mind on your breath and the way your feet feel against the ground. Thoughts and anxieties might show up and start knocking around your psyche, like how you’re going to get that project at work finished or why your teenager won't say more than five words to you, but your only job is to detach from any judgment of those thoughts. Hold them up like an interesting stone or strange-looking toadstool you come across: “Huh, that’s interesting.” Your next move is to then simply release those thoughts out into the breeze, like a dandelion seed that floats up among the tree branches and away from this exact present moment.
Stay in the moment.
It can be hard to hold yourself there, but when you’re hiking, somehow it's much easier to watch how each moment folds into the next. It still takes practice, but it's hard to worry about your finances at the same time as admiring the exact way the sun breaks through clouds or how the woods smell after fresh snow.
Hiking meditation script
Some of us just need to know exactly how exactly hiking meditation works so that we can secretly be the the valedictorian of hiking meditation. I suggest you use the following script either by reading it one or two times before you set out on your hike, or record your voice reading it into your phone's memo function, and listen to it as you hike. You probably only need to do this once or twice, and then you'll remember how it works.
First, find the spot on the path where your hike will begin. Center yourself. Take a few cleansing breaths. Simply notice how the weight of your body is transferred down the soles of your hiking boots into the ground. Take a moment just to notice all the small little acts of balance that allow you to stand upright -- realize how often you take this amazing ability for granted.
After you're centered and quiet, step forward and begin to walk at a normal pace. You don't need to walk in any special way, just notice the way you walk. If your body starts to fall into a funny gait once you become aware of your walking, don't worry. This is totally natural.
Keep focusing on the soles of your feet, noticing the repeating motions of how it feels to plant your foot, then lift it into the next motion. How does your foot feel as your heel first makes contact, then the as the foot then rolls forward towards the ball. Be aware of how your foot then lifts and moves forward again. Visualize how your feet move over and over through this pattern as you walk.
As you walk, notice all the different sensations in your feet. Move from feeling the soles of your feet...to the spaces between your toes...to how your feet feel inside of your shoes, noticing the fabric of your socks. Relax your feet as much as possible. Notice your ankles; become aware of the inner workings of your joints and how they feel when you move. Stay there for awhile, just noticing. Now move up your legs: feel your shins, calves and knees.
Notice how your skin feels where it comes in contact with your clothes. What does the temperature feel like? How do your muscles push, pull and contract under your skin?
Now move up into your quadriceps (the front of your thighs), then notice your hamstrings, and your glutes (butt muscles). Feel how they push off and work together. Notice how your hips move in a certain rhythm: one first, then the other, moving back and forth.
Focus on your stomach, your gut, and its temperature. Notice how it's the center of your body, and how it is the very center of you and where the walking motion gets its power. Then move up into your chest and just notice your breathing. Again, focus on how your clothes feel on your skin, the temperature. Stay here for just a few minutes. If any interrupting thoughts come up, simply think to yourself "Thinking, thinking" and let them go.
Now become aware of your shoulders and take note of how they move with your body - opposite the rhythm of your hips. Let your arms swing naturally with the rhythm of your gait. Take a moment to wonder at the motion of your arms, the muscles, nerves and blood vessels that are all working inside to move together. Notice the sensitive parts, like the inside of your wrist or the crook of your elbow. Feel how the breeze moves across these places and the sensations that wash over you.
Now notice your neck and how the muscles hold up your head. What about the angle of your skull? How does it feel? This part is important: let your jaw relax. Then relax your eyes, softly focusing on whatever is in front of you, picking something on the horizon.
Keep moving. Keep noticing. Whenever your mind starts to wander, come back to your breath. Some people like to focus on the nostrils, feeling the air move in and out there; others prefer to notice how their lungs feel as the breath fills them up. Try both.
Finally, when you're at the end of your hike/meditation, simply stop naturally and quietly, and just feel yourself standing.
You'll come off the hike feeling mentally and physically refreshed — like a raw kale salad for your soul. Now, feel free to pull out your phone and check Facebook. You've earned it.
The campfire: it is the center of the outdoorswoman's universe; people have stared into flames under a starry sky for a millennia. The campfire represents all that is good and awesome about camping — not to mention the best food is cooked over the flames fueled by logs and twigs collected from the woods. But these days it's a bit of a lost art. So here's your ultimate guide on creating the spiritual center to your camping experience.
Create your own firestarters
Although purists would demand that you start your campfire with nothing but two sticks and some kindling, we at the OBC are a little more practical. Here are some of my favorites (gleaned from Pinterest):
Burn, baby, burn
Now that you've got your firestarters, it's time for the good stuff. First, you need head out and gather as much firewood as you can. Got it.
Great. Now go out and gather three times more. Seriously. Unless you've been building fires for awhile, you will never have enough wood. The info graphic to the right helps you figure how much of what kind of wood you need. Basically, you need three types - all of which should be dry. (Hint: Sometimes finding dead branches attached to a tree, rather than looking on the ground, are your best bet):
Second, decide how you want to structure the wood for maximum air flow. I like both the teepee and the log cabin methods (sometimes a hybrid of the two works best):
The trick is to push a few sticks in the ground to act as a support for the the remaining kindling.
Log cabin campfire
Use the same kinds of fuel, except now you want to place two large sticks parallel to each other on the ground, then turn 90 degrees and lay two more on top (like a log cabin). Add another layer in each direction, but use smaller sticks, moving them closer to the middle. Add your tinder in the middle, kindling on top (you can add a large piece of bark over the top of everything to make it burn even better). Light the tinder/kindling in several different places. As it burns, make sure you don't add any large logs until there's a strong flame and a few coals.
Whatever method you choose, don't make the mistake of smothering the tinder with too much kindling, which prevents air from getting to your flabes, and usually results in too much smoke. Always leave airflow gaps in the kindling, light the fire at its lowest point, and blow gently if needed. Once it starts to take, sit back, relax and enjoy one of the oldest pastimes of human beings (I once heard a contestant on Survivor call it "Survivor TV").
And don't forget to have some way to put out the fire should it somehow get out of control - most people use a bucket of water, but heavy dirt or sand will work as well. Make sure you spread the coals around before you put the fire out for the night - a tedious job if you're tired and cold, but it's the most responsible thing to do. (And we're all about being responsible when out in the natural world.)
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Jill Hinton Wolfe