This world. This place. This life.

How to walk in the woods


We’ve had torrential rains and high winds this week in Girdwood, stripping many of the leaves from our trees. Termination dust sprinkled on the tops of the mountains has become a blanket of snow sliding inexorably down the slopes.

Our season of snow-free walking in the woods is coming to a close. Soon we’ll need our Yaktrax, snowshoes or Nordic skis to get around outside.

For those of you with a longer autumn, I offer this list, which I’ve been compiling since this summer’s workshop at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska.

Near the end of the week, I sat next to Frank near the campfire. While we were busy writing, Frank had been walking the trails. I thought to myself, “What does he do when he walks in the woods?” I wanted to know what kept his attention after, say, the first fifteen minutes.

He answered my unspoken question, talking about noticing “old friends” (plants, animals, rock formations, etc.) and meeting new ones.

This isn’t a list for hard-core nature lovers and woods-walkers. It’s for those of you who, like me, have “nature deficit disorder,” and are seeking a cure.

Suggestions and additions from veteran hikers and rookies alike are, of course, welcome.

  1. Be quiet––and loud.  I can walk for miles in the woods with a friend, noticing nothing, because we’ve been deep in conversation. Consider walking without talking, enjoying companionship without words. For those of you in bear country, find other ways of making noise, such as wearing a bear bell.
  2. Bring your dog.  If you don’t have a dog, get one. Our dog Brady is very helpful in the woods. I’ve learned to trust his radar to tell me if there’s something dangerous nearby.
  3. Learn the names of things. If you don’t know what things are, it’s hard to see them. All the trees look the same, rocks blend into each other, and birds are no more than small, medium and large. Knowing the names of the “friends” you meet in the woods gives your experience texture.
  4. Train your senses. As you walk, concentrate on one sense at a time. Set a timer, and for five minutes, just notice what you smell, or hear, or feel.  Alternate until you’ve used them all, then notice what happens when you walk with all your senses awake.
  5. Don’t go fast. Some people hike as if it’s a race. Sure, fast hiking is great exercise, but it makes noticing difficult. Slow down. Not only will you notice more, you’ll also have more endurance.
  6. Find a guide. Make sure it’s someone knowledgeable and patient.  You want someone who’s a good match for you––someone who understands your reasons for wanting to reconnect with nature.  It’s also important that this person pushes you just enough, but not too much.
  7. Bring what you need. I bought Leki trekking poles this summer, and every time I didn’t bring them with me on a hike, it was a mistake. There are many helpful kinds of equipment out there. Just be sure that you don’t weigh yourself down with more equipment than you need.
  8. Don’t go alone. We have a romantic ideal that links nature and solitude. That’s all well and good, but for anyone with any nature fears at all, being alone in the woods sets the bar too high. If you think you have to go alone, you might just stay home.
  9. Think through your fears. Knowing exactly what you’re afraid of helps you figure out how to get past it. Afraid of bears? Learn how to use bear spray, wear a bear bell, walk with someone you trust to help you in a bear encounter. Afraid you’ll get lost in the woods? Take an orienteering class, buy a compass and learn how to use it, find a friend who can follow a trail map.
  10. Know your limits. Not everyone’s ready to hike Crow Pass. I just read the description, and the thought of crossing Eagle River (very cold, and 2-3 feet deep) made me say, “Hell no!” Pushing yourself too far past your limits will only increase your fears and resistance.
Happy walking!



3 thoughts on “How to walk in the woods

  1. Nice list!

    I found your linked via a linked from Tele Aadsen’s Hooked – and have enjoyed reading through some of your archives.

    I consider myself an aspiring naturalist and have been working with some folks who do deep nature connection mentoring over the past while. Reading this entry made me think you might find interesting some of what they’re doing.

    They’re coming out with a set of free videos that kind of outlines their organization/movement (and will ultimately be offering a video course for people to purchase if they want). In case you’re interested in checking it out, here’s a link to the first of the videos:

    • Hi, Matt. Love your blog, and I’ve added it to my Reader. I checked out the 8 Gifts site, and it doesn’t let me do anything without giving my email address. Not comfortable with that, but thanks for the link.

      • I’m glad you enjoy my blog. Thanks!

        I am a little bummed that it’s not easier to see the videos, I think they want the e-mail addresses because they are debuting the videos as a first edition and soliciting feedback to inform revisions they will make before re-releasing at some later point as well as releasing them as part of a slow roll-out for the video course (as I mentioned before). I think they’re worth watching, but totally understand being reluctant to give over your e-mail address. I’ll try to remember to let you know if/when they become available without needing to opt in with e-mail.

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