Six Reasons I Hike

I promised myself I’d hike the Triple Crown when I retired so I could complete the PCT, CDT, and AT by my 65th year.

But why do it?

Why endure the bodily torment, the physical battering, and the emotional wear and tear that is the inevitable consequence of traveling 7,875 miles across the country by foot? All the aches and blisters, soul-crushing solitude, and financial cost to be away from loved ones for months on end for three years running.

It’s craziness.

So, why?

A sensible question deserving a thoughtful answer. So, here it is. In six parts.

#1. It gives me purpose.

Long-distance hiking is important to my identity. It is what I do. I used to be a college professor, now I hike long trails. Thru-hiking gives me a reason to keep my body in shape. It’s why I get up in the morning. It’s why I write. I plan trips, dream about trails, do my hikes. These things fulfill me. Doing something hard, something physically, mentally, and emotionally tough, is rewarding. It gives me pride in accomplishment. It sets me apart.

#2. It connects me with people.

At the same time, thru-hiking joins me to a community of vagabond spirits who share my exquisite insanity.

I’ve been an introvert all my life and this is how I am comfortable. This is where I am safe. But introversion comes at a price. It isolates me from others, puts too much focus on myself, and invites depression. It also makes meeting people and getting to know them difficult. Sometimes painfully so.

Thru-hiking is different. When I meet a fellow hiker there is instant connection. That person, smelling just as bad, looking just as beat up and dirty, is of my tribe. We have met the same challenges, endured the same struggles, and carried the load. They know me, I know them, and we accept each other. I am at ease in their presence, embrace their companionship, and am so grateful to have it.

#3. It lets me feel awe.

Thru-hiking takes me outside myself and shrinks my ego. It puts me in context, grounds my soul, and makes me realize I am living on a planet filled with wonders. Walking across its face, I feel humble and small. I witness heartbreaking beauty, the goodness of people, and nature’s grace, and this gives me a sense of well-being, gratitude, and connection like nothing else I’ve known.

#4. It allows me to bear witness.

We are altering the planet. Irreparably changing it. We shape landscapes to provide for and bear the consequences of our human-based needs. And the destruction is accelerating.

As a long-distance hiker, I traverse human borderlands and see nature’s retreat. As an older hiker, I carry the living memory of the world that came before. Before the development encroached, the crowds came, and the forests burned.

I want others to know and appreciate the former world. With the memories I share and the stories I tell. I believe what I and other older hikers have witnessed matters. A time when fish in streams were bigger, the wilderness was wilder, and the air was not so smoke-filled.

How does this matter? Because without this knowing, without these first-person memories, how are we ever to make it right again?

#5. It cures my depression.

I have dealt with depression for most of my life. I wear it like an old sweater. Heavy, unravelling, smelling of old sweat, and at times, strangely comforting. The weight of it makes me retreat into myself and hide from the world. Sometimes this is okay, and I can live with it.  Other times it entangles me, takes me to dark places, and wants me dead.

Long-distance hiking has been the best thing I’ve found to treat my depression.

For so many like me, being on the trail provides solace and makes us feel vibrantly alive. It teaches us our lives are a wonderful gift. That suffering and pain have value, and we are its beneficiaries, not its victims. It shows us the world is good and extraordinary things are within our grasp. It gives us hope.

The scientific literature is replete with studies documenting the benefits that being in nature — and by extension, hiking through it — brings to our brains and bodies. Hiking can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, enhance immune system function, improve memory, increase brain connectivity and allow better focus. More critically, hiking increases our self-esteem, reduces anxiety, and improves our mood.

In other words, hiking changes our minds. And for depressives like me, it changes our minds about ourselves.

#6. It makes me young.

Long-distance hiking alters one’s mindset so much that it can bend time. Well, at least one’s perception of it. So, if one day on your thru-hike you find yourself inhabiting a previous version of yourself, don’t be surprised.

Like the time in 2018 when I was hitching back to Stevens Pass after a zero in Leavenworth.

It is a sunny day in September. I am standing at the side of the road, my cardboard sign is out, and I’m wearing my best, I’m-not-a-serial-killer smile. My stomach is full from a delicious, all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet I had in town. I am soaking up the sunshine, enjoying the warmth, excited to be getting back to the PCT. My vagabond soul is ecstatic. There is a good traffic flow, and I am certain of getting a ride soon. The day feels magical.

Then, without warning or intention, I am swept back in time.

It is a foggy day in September 1987. I am a fisheries observer between ship assignments. Back from the Bering Sea and debriefed in Seattle, I am yearning for solitude and adventure. I am at the side of the road, thumbing my way into the mountains. The mist is hauntingly beautiful as it winds through roadside trees. I am excited for the trail ahead, the wild blueberries I will devour, and the chance to lose myself in nature. A white pick-up is slowing down. The day feels magical.

Thirty-one years distance, yet nothing separates my 28- and 59-year-old selves. I can’t tell them apart. We inhabit the same body; we breathe the same air. And so, on that sunny morning in 2018, I effortlessly step back into and become my younger self.

Just like that.

It was magical.

Our journey through life is not a clock winding down, not a slog to the grave. Rather, our lives transcend time. The trail is continuous; it’s ours to own. We can go fast, or we can go slow, and — I would argue — in either direction. The past is part of our present, the present becomes our future, and we encompass the fullness of the span we have been given.

Long-distance hiking taught me that.

You want to be young again?  You already are.

Don’t believe me? Try taking a hike.

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Comments 21

  • Bunny : Feb 19th

    Thanks for writing, and posting, this piece. I can relate to all 6 reasons. I have a 7th (which might be 6b): I feel alive when I approach my limits, and I feel so grateful for all I have been given. It’s quite spiritual when (you) discover there’s more in you.

    I also am blown away by how you connected me as a reader with some very complex feelings and emotions. My loved ones get a little concerned when I head out, and show their relief when I come home. Mostly, though, they respect that this is part of who I am.

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 20th

      Hey Bunny,
      I love your 7th reason; it’s so true. Pushing oneself hard, as far as one can go, is exhausting, scary, and so exhilarating. Like you, I’m amazed at what the trail lets me do.
      I’m glad you found the post meaningful.
      Thank you for reading.

  • David Odell : Feb 20th

    Good post. Good luck on your CDT hike. Will be looking forward to your posts on the CDT. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 20th

      Hey David,

      I see from your hiking credentials that you did the Triple Crown back in the 70’s.

      That’s amazing.

      I have a TON of respect for what you and your cohort accomplished. Not just me; many hikers I’ve met on-trail feel the same. We talk about what it was like back then and just shake our heads.

      Back when gear weighed pounds, not ounces; before satellite communicators, FarOut guides, and cell phones existed; before the PCT was even a finished trail.

      It’s tough enough thru-hiking with today’s technology and ultralight gear, I can only imagine what it was like when you did the Mighty Three. Carrying 70-pound packs, eating all that rice and pasta, navigating with paper maps… Wow.

      Just, Wow.

      You helped show the way, David. Thanks for blazing the trail.

    • Neill Briggs : Mar 2nd

      Wow, Mr. Odell, you should share those triple crown hiking experiences. External frame backpack, white gas stove, just everything so much heavier. Thank you and all those the early trailblazers for making the journey easier for the rest of us.

  • Jonathan D Bishop : Feb 21st

    Great article. When I retire in five years, I will start my AT trek. The first of the three. I have stood momentarily on the PCT and CDT and can’t help but wonder what is in either direction on those trails. Looking forward to following in steps one day.

    • Todd : Feb 22nd

      Thanks for reading, Jonathan.
      Thru-hiking after retirement is a wonderful plan; the community grows and benefits when seniors like us hit the trail. That’s my opinion, anyway.
      And don’t worry. You’ll find the right direction, and it will be a good one.
      You won’t just be following someone’s steps, though.
      You’ll be making your own.

  • Alison Lathrop : Feb 21st

    Thanks for writing this, Todd. I just retired from the same profession (not quite as early I think), have just about all of the same reasons, and the same goal–just a few chores to do before taking off. Best wishes on your journey, and I look forward to reading more from you.

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 22nd

      Another former academic on the trail!
      Welcome to the club, Alison, you’re in good company.
      Do those chores, heed the call, and get out there, okay?
      You won’t be sorry. 🙂

  • Jane : Feb 21st

    This made me tear up. Thank you for your honesty. I also connected to it in ways I didn’t realize I had in me. I only discovered thru-hiking after I’d had small children, and thought my chance was over. Thank you for the gift of possibility.

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 22nd

      Wow. Thanks for sharing that, Jane.
      I’m glad you could relate to the things I wrote.
      And the “gift of possibility” you mention?
      Yes. It’s there, it’s real, and yours for the taking.
      Thanks for your comment.
      That was a gift too.

  • Jennifer Poteat : Feb 22nd

    This touched me to my core. I’m a hiker and it had brought me so much inner peace and tranquility at times. I took suffer from depression and there is nothing in this world that equates to the peacefulness of being outdoors , hiking the trails , hearing the breeze and seeing the animals scurrying around. It is truly a calming environment and a wonderful place just to be to feel at peace and warm your heart.

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 22nd

      Thanks for that, Jennifer.
      There are lot of us out there, as you know. Hikers who suffer from depression.
      Thank God we found the trail, because there is no more powerful medicine. And the more I hike, the more resilience I have to depression when I’m off-trail. Don’t get me wrong, post-trail re-entry into life back home is still tough (see my first post), but I’m getting better at it. Maybe something to write about for future post.
      I’m happy I could connect, Jennifer.
      Keep hiking.

      • Jeff Goodridge : Feb 22nd

        Thank you for sharing this Todd. Each of your reasons really resonated with me (as well as many others I’m sure). I don’t do any thru-hiking yet, but look forward to it in a few years when I retire. For now it’s a lot of day-hiking. Each winter I fight through a crushing depression and significant anxiety. I’ve found that the only thing that keeps me going is getting out in the woods for a good hike. There are days when I’m at work and it’s all I can think about. I’m so grateful for it. Thanks again. Happy Trails!

        • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 22nd

          Hey Jeff,
          Day hikes are good; long hikes are even better. When I come to the trail depressed, it usually takes a couple of days before the trail medicine kicks. By day 3 my mind starts working differently. The dark thoughts slough away, the world looks brighter, and I can feel the gratitude that helps me so much. Something you know about too.
          I’m glad the woods are there for you, Jeff. Keep going.
          And when you’re able, stay a little longer. Maybe do an overnight or two. I think you’ll find it helps even more.
          Thanks for reading and take care.

  • Pamela : Feb 23rd

    Thank you so much for sharing….
    I am so jealous. I wish I could make a living hiking.
    But I go to work each day and my main out- let to bring me back to myself, is hiking. I dont hike where people go, but i dont thru-hike either. Wish I did, you made it come alive for me. I do hiking with my dog… (but I have to come back) for all the same reasons you do.
    Bless your heart and keep hiking.

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 25th

      Thanks very much for that, Pamela.
      ‘Keep hiking’ is exactly what I plan to do.
      A simple but important thing.

  • Michael : Feb 25th

    Thank you. This article, plus Bunny’s comment, is the closest anything has ever come to describing how thru hiking changes your life and perspectives.

  • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 25th

    Hi Michael,
    Thank you for your comment.
    I really appreciate the things people write.
    Knowing one’s experiences and challenges are shared is one thing, but to hear from those navigating the same path is another entirely.
    It is very rewarding to make the connection. More than that, what you and others write encourages me greatly.
    I’m glad to be in such good company.
    Thanks for reading.

  • Mary Pridgen : Feb 25th

    Hi Todd, long time no see! I am LOVING reading your blogs. I was introduced to thru-hiking several years ago by the niece of another friend, who has been doing it and writing about it online for years, and it’s fascinating reading! Your blog is better still and I’ll look forward to hearing your adventures.

  • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 25th

    Hey Mary!
    Long time indeed! We should change that, huh?
    When the CDT takes me to Colorado this fall it’d be great to meet and catch up.
    Planning to do some zeros in Ft. Collins, but maybe I’d be an excuse for you to journey up to the mountains.
    Just saying… 🙂
    Thanks for reading & stay in touch!


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