I’m writing a series on the basics – how to get started outdoors from square one, from venturing out your back door to pursuing fish to survival. My hope is that this will be of benefit to some who’ve dreamed for years of getting out of the urban/online lifestyle so prevalent nowadays or maybe to simply inspire some young people to run wild a bit more. My hope is also that it will be a joy to share all this – drawing on much from my younger days and perhaps helping the author to recapture the sheer joy of exploration, of finding trails and diverging from the highways for a bit.
I know the woods of western Pennsylvania better than I know anywhere else so I’m going to write all of this as though I’m talking to people who live here in Pennsylvania. Most of this material, by far, will apply equally well to the rest of the eastern forest, some of it to the western forests and maybe even some to the broad plains in between.
It may not seem that much of anything needs to be written about walking in the woods. And, in truth, it doesn’t. You can start immediately, sauntering out your back door, taking steps toward discovery and diverse purposes. And while it doesn’t really need to be written on, writers have been covering this topic for quite a long time from Thoreau to Muir to Aldo Leopold. For some reason, they thought it was worth a mention.
So this isn’t really about how to walk in the woods but rather how to get the most out of your walks in the woods, from the get-go.
Walking can be thought of as the basis of almost all your further activities in the wild. If your fishing is done without walking, you may be doing it wrong (or you may be fishing from a boat). Walking may be a precursor to trail running. Walking is certainly a necessary lead-up to wilderness survival. And walking may simply be an excellent time to observe all from mushrooms to songbirds.
Walking isn’t really excellent or adequate for building leg strength but woodland trails will help you more in this respect than road walking or rail trails.
Make your speed match your purpose. If you’re out for fitness, feel free to crank the speed to eleven. If you’re out to spot animals (or mushrooms), develop the self-control to slow down and really watch the woods around you, sauntering like old John Muir. Maybe you’re out to traverse more miles than ever before and this requires a disciplined brisk but not overly speedy pace. Shifting into the right gear will help you to finish the course without exhaustion, injury or needing to call in your friend with a car to find you at the next road crossing.
There’s no season of the year that you really can’t get out and walk, so it’s easy to maintain consistency. Even if you live in snow country, there’s no reason to take months off of hiking. You’ll find particular joys in the quiet of the winter woods and you’ll find a unique opportunity to work the legs on snow and ice in ways you won’t the rest of the year. Even spring’s “mud season” has something to offer, teaching you to deal with sloppy trail, a necessary skill for the Appalachian Trail or almost any other trail in Appalachia.
A skill to develop early is quiet walking. This simple skill will help you to enjoy more animal encounters in places you might not have noticed the creatures before. Learn to stay off the crackly, dry leaves and to place the heel of your foot gently, rotating the rest of the foot till its flat. This was an early discovery to me in my pursuit of silent foot-falls and has come to be my default step as soon as I’m off pavement.
Avoid sweating in cooler weather. Sweating’s probably not a problem as long as hiking’s keeping you warm but when you’ve got to stop, perspiration-soaked clothes can chill you faster than just about anything, especially if it’s breezy. Shed a layer if you begin to sweat and if you’re pursuing an aggressive pace, learn to find the “sweat threshold,” the fastest pace you can move at without sweating.
Curiosity was mentioned in my last post as essential to all kinds of outdoorsmanship, or at least to getting the most out of your time in the wild. It’s during walks that you should let your curiosity run wild. If you can clear your mind of the pressing concerns from home and workplace, this may come automatically. Where does the brook flow that you just stepped across? Why are the tiny golden-capped birds here now but they weren’t a month ago? Why does the woodpecker attack this tree so low to the ground and what good are woodpecker holes anyway?
It could be though that the most good that’s done by walking is a sort of gentle mental conditioning. To me, the most important aspect of woodland survival is simply the mental state of feeling at ease alone in deep, dark woods. Nervousness and panic are your enemies at such times, states that keep you from thinking clearly and seeing the opportunities as much as the potential dangers. Walking through the woods is an excellent first step toward developing the familiarity and even comfort you’re going to need as you move forward.