Jeffrey H. Ryan Hiker Author Photographer Speaker Podcaster Director

I was signing books one night when a woman walked up to the table and simply asked, “But, why do you do it?”

I briefly considered saying, “Read the book”, but a more thoughtful answer came forth instead. “To be self-reliant and free.”, I said.

How true it is.

Hiking and mountaineering have given me so much — lifelong friendships and chances to explore incredible areas among them. Yet, the most valuable gift from spending days upon weeks in the woods and mountains is that of being comfortable in my own skin.

A walk into the wilderness of any length, even for an hour, helps me reset my dial and introduce a vital dose of sanity. But going out for days and weeks is what really sets me free. Because longer trips require greater levels of self-reliance. The farther out you go, the more you rely on your experience, your equipment, and your mental state. When the only noises you hear are those of nature, it’s remarkably easy to dump your mental garbage — the things you needlessly carry with you when you’re in the daily grind.

You can’t afford to fill your mind with all that stuff when you’re out on the trail. Instead, you need to focus on the here and now. Your whole world boils down to only a few things: your mental state, your physical state, your gear, your food, the weather conditions, and your climbing partner (if you have one). Obsessing about other things isn’t only needless, it’s potentially dangerous.

There are so many bonuses to learning how to let go of the unimportant. One is that you have a far greater chance of making it back home in one piece. Another is that you learn to love your own company. Even when you’re hiking or climbing with someone else, there are stretches you are on your own for hours at a time. If you don’t like yourself, this can be a problem. It’s far better to be hiking with the voice of someone you get along with in your head — especially when you encounter the unexpected.

You can’t plan for everything

If you plan on going into the wilderness and never hitting a snag, I have two words for you, “Disappointment ahead.”

You will hit snags (perhaps many of them in a single trip). If you enjoy your own company, have experience, and trust your judgment, it’s a lot easier to weather the unexpected. This adaptability even carries over to situations back at home.

One more gift that hiking has given me is the feeling of complete contentment. I make no claim of cornering the market on joy, but I can say I know what it is and what it feels like to experience long periods of it. And it’s waiting for me wherever there’s a trail.

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