Picture this: you’re halfway up the mountain, your heart is pounding, you’re sweating and breathing heavily. You pause to take in another stunning view and think to yourself, “This is living!” You look down and see your non-hiking bestie who you convinced to finally join you. They’re also red, sweating and breathing heavily, but they look miserable. What’s going on inside their head as they undergo this with you?
I had the unique opportunity to experience the same hike in two very different stages of my life—first as an avid hiker, and after, as a new mom. Crypt Lake, located in Waterton Lakes National Park, is one of Alberta’s 25 best hikes. It’s a 20.4-kilometre out-and-back hike to an alpine lake with a 936-metre elevation gain. What makes this hike extra special (besides the epic valley views) is that you walk through a cave and along a cliff edge, holding onto a chain for stability.
I remember doing this hike in 2012. I was 27, childless and in fairly good shape. There were a couple of steep climbs, but overall it was an incredible experience. I enjoyed the views, stopped to explore an ice cave and trudged through thigh deep snow to finally hit the snow-covered lake.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021. I was nine years older and now a mother of two. After having my youngest child, I had spent the last two years not exercising, only doing child-friendly hikes and (let’s face it) eating whatever I wanted. I was not in great shape. I knew the hike would be harder this time around, but I wasn’t prepared for how mentally challenging it was going to be.
This experience opened my eyes to what my friends and family might have been thinking and feeling when I took them on hikes they weren’t prepared for. Pulling from my own experience, here are a few things that may be going through a non-hiker’s head when you bring them on an adventure.
“This is so embarrassing”
I would say the hardest part about struggling on a hike is the embarrassment factor. You stress over your constant need for breaks or the length you’re lagging behind your companions. You feel stupid and wish you hadn’t come at all. These types of negative thoughts swirl through your head almost the entire time and detract from the experience.
Yes, you may still be able to appreciate the views, but your main focus is on how foolish you must look. Even when you have supportive hiking buddies who try to reassure you that it’s fine, you feel embarrassed.
“I’m a lazy human being”
Negative thoughts will crop up as you continue along. You begin to beat yourself up for letting yourself get to this point. You recount all the excuses you made to not workout, all the DQ Blizzards you consumed over the last year. Hiking is for everyone (not just the very fit), and no matter your affinity for exercise or what you choose to fuel your body with, you belong in the outdoors. However, these nasty thoughts may still pop into your head.
“My legs weigh 100 pounds each”
The act of putting one leg in front of the other is difficult, no matter what type of fitness level you are at! But when you’re a non-hiker who isn’t used to the constant uphill battle, it feels like you can’t lift your feet. Your legs feel so heavy that all you can muster are teeny tiny shuffling steps on your toes, barely making any headway for your effort. This can become discouraging fast.
“I can’t catch my breath”
When you’re in the “embarrassment” stage, you might try to downplay how rough you're feeling. The deep huffing, puffing and wheezing adds to your already very embarrassed mindset. You may find yourself trying to suppress those big breaths or keep them shallow so it’s not too loud. Your companion may be chatting with you and even though you can barely breathe, you use everything you have to keep up a conversation to save face.
“My [blank] hurts”
If you aren’t a hiker, this type of physical activity may cause aches and pains. Often, it’s the knees or shoulders. But you may feel pain in your neck, ribs, hamstrings, wherever. And because you’re already embarrassed, you once more might downplay how you’re feeling to your hiking buddies.
"I’m so angry, sad, defeated, nervous, etc."
In my case, I felt very angry at my body for not being able to do the things it used to. Non-hikers may be coping with a range of emotions from anger at themselves (or at their friends for making them come) to sadness that they aren’t enjoying the experience. You also may feel nervous as to whether or not you can actually complete the hike and what happens if you can’t.
What You (The Hiker) Can Do
There are a few simple things you can do to ensure your non-hiking friend has a positive experience. Remember, you’re sharing your passion with them and hoping it grows into a passion for them too. You want everyone involved to have a positive, safe, happy and healthy experience.
- Pick an appropriate level hike. It’s always best to start off with beginner hikes and work your way up to expert. Even exercise aficionados can find themselves struggling because hiking is a different type of cardiovascular activity
- Pack extra food, a first-aid kit, water and other necessities for them as they may not know what to bring (you can suggest a packing list for them, too!)
- Before starting, tell your friend they can speak up any time they need a break or feel pain. You don’t need to reach the summit!
- Walk slowly. Match your pace to your friend rather than leaving them behind
- Take breaks often without making them ask for it
- Show them when you’re out of breath or struggling at steep inclines so they don’t feel embarrassed
- If your friend is huffing and puffing, don’t try to engage in a full conversation
- Watch your friend for signs of distress, pain or exhaustion—if you see signs, turn around immediately. You can even say it's because you're feeling too tired. Nothing is worth getting hurt on the trail because someone doesn't want to turn back
I finished the hike, but just barely. During the last couple of kilometres, I was waiting for my legs to collapse, and I intended to lie there until someone carried me the rest of the way. That’s part of what makes hiking so great, isn’t it? You discover just how strong and capable your body truly is.
I’m thankful for this experience. At the time, it felt catastrophic, but it gave me a perspective I would not have previously had. Maybe after reading this you can create positive experiences for your non-hiking friends and turn them into avid trekkers.
And, at the very least, you can relate and be empathetic to all the first-time hikers you might pass on the trail.