Thru-Hiking and Autism: How Backpacking Helped Me Discover My Superpower
As I pour boiling water onto little flakes of dried coffee, the sun begins to shyly glimmer on the horizon as it makes its daily journey. Flycatchers have just begun to skim over the lake in front of me and a soft breeze ruffles the tips of subalpine grasses, sending tickles up my neck. The scent of wet flora is thick and pleasant.
I’m planning to hike 15 miles today. Once the sun is up, I’ll start packing up camp. For now, I am living in sensation. Sitting on wet dirt, stirring my coffee, I feel like I’m home. And that is a beautiful thing.
Actually Autistic. Not an Alien.
I was diagnosed as autistic when I was very young. A fact I didn’t know until some decades later when I was diagnosed autistic as an adult. For most of my life, I felt like an alien. Like I was somehow dropped on this planet and encouraged to be a human. But being a human is hard and it’s confusing. I was always searching for what was wrong with me.
I really struggled to find my way, to find community and to feel that I could take care of myself. The only solace I knew was to be out in nature, spending time with plants and creatures that didn’t seem to question their place on planet Earth.
My connection to the natural world has always been powerful. But it wasn’t until I was diagnosed for the second time as an adult that I understood why.
Nature and Autism
We all know that getting out in nature is good for us, but for those of us who have autism, getting out into nature can seriously change our lives! Autism tends to create an over-sensitivity (hypersensitive) or under-sensitivity (hyposensitive) to sensory experiences. Out in nature, being able to use all our senses, we can seek out sensory stimulation that feels right.
READ NEXT — Backpacking with a Neurodivergent Brain
The Five Senses and Autism: A Superpower in Nature
Of course, I can only write about my own experience as an autist, so please keep in mind we’re all different and experience ourselves and the world in unique ways.
Often deemed too sensitive for everything society has to offer, in nature my senses find peace. Having lived with this autistic brain for my whole life, I can tell you that my more hypersensitive senses are powerful tools when it comes to life outdoors.
1. Listen Closely
My ears, which pick up an overwhelming amount of painful and sharp sounds in the man-made world are also able to hear the softest exhale of a mule deer fawn curled up under a juniper tree as she waits for mama’s return.
The shivering of aspen leaves in the wind sounds like glitter. Hiking on shale sounds like high-pitched joy and makes my teeth feel good. Thunder sounds navy blue. I will almost always hear wild animals quietly breathing before anyone sees them.
Hypersensitivity to sound is a very common autistic trait. For many of us, this hypersensitivity can create high anxiety, discomfort, and even physical pain. In our modern world, it can be very challenging to get away from the constant barrage of yucky feeling sounds. In nature, those harsh noises are replaced by life sounds. And life sounds tend to be much more pleasing and generally stimulating in a good way.
One of my favorite stims is listening to the repeated lapping of water against the bank of a mountain creek as I vibe gently to the rhythm. It feels like magic.
2. A Visual Delight
Like my hypersensitivity to sound, I also experience a hypersensitivity with sight. This means that oftentimes in a town or indoor setting, I really struggle to process what I am seeing. The lights are so bright they hurt and the constant flickering makes me sick. It seems like neurotypicals literally cannot get enough bright lights regardless of the time of day or night. However, for many autists — myself included — bright lights can trigger a meltdown.
On my most recent CDT adventure, I really took note of how I was visually experiencing the trail. Each day began rising with the sun. Making coffee as the morning shifts from dark to a little lighter. As morning light settles in, I pack up camp and begin hiking. The sunlight dances between clouds and changes throughout the day in pleasing ways. It seems that overall, my rhythms match up nicely with our sun’s rhythms.
Each day on trail brings new sights that keep my brain busy and soothed.
3. Scent Sensations
Indoor spaces and busy public settings are full of so many synthetic scents and fragrances that many autistic folks simply cannot go to those places. Being around these aggressive smells for too long will guarantee a meltdown for me and many other autists.
My hypersensitivity to smell while backpacking though? It’s a bit of a superpower.
On the CDT I made a game of learning each species’ unique scent by sniffing them out well before I could see them. In my career as a wildlife photographer, this sense comes into play often as I track my subjects through the wilderness.
I find a lot of my stimming comes in the form of using my nose. The variety of unique scents on long trails is like a playground!
4. Tasting New Waters
Have you ever filtered water from an alpine lake and thought this is some mighty fine water?
To me, tasting water from different water sources is heaven on earth. Not only is it very interesting, but it is also a sensory pick-me-up when I need a little extra oomph! Each water source tastes different and, through filtering and tasting, I feel like I acquire a deeper relationship with the wild places I explore.
While thru-hiking, it is especially fun to sip on all the water and get to know the regions by taste. If you’re autistic and have fun with this, I would love to know what water source is your favorite! For me, nothing beats the taste of water from a couple of alpine lakes in the southernmost Rockies.
5. Lots To Touch
The sense of touch is complicated for many autistic people and can vary from I need hard touch to I will throw up if I touch that in mysterious ways.
On long trails, thru-hikes, and backpacking adventures I find that a near-perfect balance is struck where touch is concerned. As I grip my trekking poles, that sense of pressure feels like security. My heavy backpack fitted snugly to my body creates a sensation not dissimilar to a weighted blanket.
I love the feel of granite on my palms; it makes me feel nuts. I love sitting on talus and getting my butt poked by rocks; I don’t know why. When it’s time to get cozy at night, whatever my sleeping bag’s fabric is… it makes me shiver the best kind of shivers and I wish I could be enveloped by it always.
Backpacking provides so many unique touch experiences. It feels joyful to connect with nature on that level.
Autistic Traits: Adapted For the Trail
Much like the five senses, many traits that are generally considered part of autism can be extremely useful on trail. While this list is not extensive, these are traits I have and feel comfortable writing about. If you have a trait that really shines when you’re thru-hiking, let me know about it in the comments!
A Love For Routine
Many autists (myself included) find that life is better with a routine. So thru-hiking can be pretty great. You wake up and have coffee, power up a bit as the sun comes up, and break down camp. Then you hike a whole lot while experiencing the wonder of nature. And then it’s time to set up camp, make some food, and go to bed. Over and over and over. The ins and outs of thru-hiking become fairly predictable. This is soothing to my brain.
Non-Verbal: No Problem
Sometimes I experience selective mutism as a trait of autism. It can be really hard to manage in society, but while thru-hiking I don’t need to worry about managing it. If I become non-verbal, it’s perfectly okay. The birds don’t need me to say anything and the lakes don’t give a damn! It is freeing to experience going non-verbal on trail because it’s one of the few spaces where being non-verbal doesn’t make life very hard.
In my experience meeting other autistic people, the one thing we all have in common is a deep love for being alone. I experienced multiple days along the CDT where I did not encounter another human. Days like that are comforting and feel like any pressure I had built up can be released. It is hard to find the kind of solitude thru-hiking offers once you come off trail.
I love to eat the same foods over and over. The foods I like are the foods I eat and if I cannot eat these foods, I might not eat at all. In the autistic community, these foods are called safe foods. Safe foods for me come down to texture and in an extraordinary stroke of luck, many backpacking foods are quite similar to my safe foods. Dehydrated mashed potatoes, peanut butter, a variety of meal bars, and dehydrated meals like Pad Thai make trail food simple and easy. I know what I’ll be eating each day and that is a glorious thing!
Finding Myself: How Thru-Hiking Allows Me to Be Me
Masking. It’s a common way autistic people attempt to “blend in” with everyone else, but it is very damaging in the long run. I know this because for decades of my life I tried to mask desperately. I worked so hard to be the person I thought everyone wanted me to be. Forgoing many glorious aspects of who I am in an attempt to be normal.
The most freeing experience an autist can have is taking the mask off. And when you’re spending loads of time thru-hiking or backpacking that mask is going to come off one way or another. Thankfully, the long trail community is supportive and generally very welcoming to all kinds of people.
I found the confidence to unmask permanently on the CDT.
In all of my life, I had never experienced a community like the thru-hiking community. I was accepted into it, no questions asked.
These folks have witnessed me have complete meltdowns. And they didn’t run away, tease me, or make me feel bad about them. When I was given my trail name, I felt like I belonged. My trail name is Nikon, by the way. It still makes me so happy to have a nickname perfect for who I am, given to me by a trail family that impacted my life so deeply!
You Do You
I love to sleep. Love it. However, in everyday life, randomly deciding to sleep throughout the day isn’t much of a possibility for me. But on thru-hikes it sure is! Being able to decide how each day will go is a cool aspect of thru-hiking. I often take a nap or two every day on backpacking adventures. It’s phenomenal and I don’t need to answer to anyone about why I am sleeping so much. The “everyone hikes their own hike” saying really is true and it’s freeing.
Many autists love collecting and arranging and finding treasures. I know I do! In society, this can be seen as immature or silly. But out on trail? It’s fun! There is so much pleasure to be had in finding the perfect feather or a rock that is just so nice.
On the CDT I was often on the side of the trail poking around for treasures and often would be approached by curious hikers wondering what I was seeing. To my delight and surprise, these trail friends were usually as impressed as I was by little bones or a flawless autumn leaf.
Loving My Abilities
Autistic brains often have some cool abilities as far as things like observation, memory, and thinking logically are concerned. On big hikes, these abilities are incredible tools, and using them out in the wilderness really strengthens them! I feel more confident to rely on and trust these unique abilities after using them non-stop on long trails.
A very common thing that happens to autistic people is that from the time we are young kids, we are taught that we cannot take care of ourselves and must rely on others. This can make being an autistic adult very challenging, discouraging, and confusing.
It was not until I was a thru-hiker that I knew I could take care of myself. And it’s simply because I had no other option! This might seem silly to neurotypicals, but to the neurodivergent, finding independence can be the struggle of a lifetime. The CDT empowered me to find mine.
Life After Trail: Coming Down and Building Confidence
The come down after time on a long trail can hit quite hard. And that’s been the case for me with every long backpacking trip I’ve returned from. However, with each trip, I have also come home feeling more confident in myself and more certain that the things I struggle with are also some of my greatest strengths.
Finding peace in nature has been a constant in my life — something to rely on when the world is too much. Thru-hiking has been my way to explore magical wild places and my own being.
As I begin to plan my next thru-hike, I can’t help but imagine the ways I might grow more into who I am and discover more about what I am capable of.
Featured image: Deirdre Rosenberg photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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