During my long hike on the North Country Trail, I lost 30 pounds. When I returned home, I found myself able to run 7 miles without difficulty. I’ve never run 7 miles in my life. It felt like magic.
Before I started my 1,500-mile trek, I anticipated going through major physical changes. Hikers talk about getting your “trail legs” after you’ve been hiking for a few weeks. It’s true that your legs get incredibly strong during a long hike, but your stamina, heart, abs, back, and arms all get stronger too. Your whole body fortifies itself for this long, long walk.
I didn’t anticipate feeling like I’d unleashed an ancient physiology in my body.
I’ve done two long-distance hikes for a combined distance of more than 2,000 miles. I’ve become convinced that long-distance backpacking mimics something every human body is capable of doing: migrating huge distances.
In history class, when I learned about the people who walked across the Bering Strait or paddled across the Pacific Ocean, I couldn’t identify with those ancient peoples. They felt like a different species of super human.
Now I know that those ancient people were doing something well within our abilities as a species. My body is not just capable of hiking 1,500 miles, it was built for that purpose.
Until about 11,000 years ago, humans were hunter gatherers. We followed our prey, migrating long distances frequently. Some modern day humans are still hunter gatherers, but most of us switched to agricultural societies about 10,000 years ago. Although we settled into more stable communities, we’d still spend our days physically working to cultivate and raise our food.
Our shift to a more sedentary lifestyle is only a couple hundred years old, intensified by our nearly total modern dependence on motorized vehicles. I live in a time and place where it is entirely possible for me to get up from my bed, drive to my job, and stop at the grocery store on my way home without actually walking very much at all.
My body seems much happier on trail.
I never have trouble sleeping when I’m backpacking. Hiking 15-20 miles in a day is exhausting, which makes sleep come fast, but I think there is more to my easy sleep than just physical exercise.
I get all sorts of interesting reactions from people to my hike. Recently, someone asked me, “But isn’t it really dark in the forest, like, true dark?” Yes, it’s really dark in the forest. I miss the “true dark” every day.
As night falls in the woods, free from the blue light of a high-def TV or smartphone, away from the searing brightness of LED street lights, the natural change in light seemed to trigger a release of melatonin so strong that I’d feel like someone had slipped me a sleeping pill. Some nights, I’d literally be falling asleep as I ate dinner. I remember being annoyed in my tent on full moon nights because the light felt too bright.
After walking so far in a single day that I was worried I’d fractured my feet, I’ve also come to appreciate that sleep is actually a miracle drug. I would fall asleep, legs and feet throbbing, and wake up with brand new feet, my legs stiff but fine.
My tolerance and understanding of pain also changed during my hike. Yes, my feet hurt almost every day for the first three months of my hike. My second week, I was actually worried I’d caused a stress fracture. Okay, my left foot still isn’t totally back to normal, but I stopped thinking that all pain meant danger. I started to extend my pain limits. I also realized that I was healing even as I continued to hike. I might have a series of days of knee pain, but as long as I didn’t push too hard, I could still hike pretty far. I could keep moving, and after a couple days, the pain would subside.
My relationship with food completely changed. In “regular life,” I have to be very careful about avoiding sugar and fat, and get a lot of exercise, or I start gaining weight. In my off-trail life, I fight a constant battle with food. On trail, food is fuel. By the end of my hike, I cared little about how things tasted, and much more about how they impacted my energy level. I discovered fat was essential to maintaining a high energy level. This Outside Magazine article about a Colorado Trail thru-hiker’s metabolic changes supports what my body was telling me: fat is the best energy source for hiking.
Of my five senses, I use my eyes the most in my city life. In the woods, my hearing and sense of smell became equally important.
A well-known phenomenon often discussed by backpackers and thru-hikers is how pungent day hikers become after you’ve been hiking for a while. When you pass a freshly bathed day hiker, the perfume of the soaps and shampoos still on their skin socks you right in the nostrils. It’s shocking, and a nice break from your own garbage stench.
Hikers have all sorts of theories about why this happens: the air is cleaner in the forest so our olfactory system clears out; the smells of the forest are more subtle so day hikers just seem more fragrant by comparison.
The change in sensitivity of my sense of smell was so sudden and big when I returned to the forest that I suspect the change is actually rooted in our mind.
I think our brain turns up our sense of smell in the woods. I could cross paths with a day hiker, be pleasantly overwhelmed by his or her clean scent, and then hike into town and not have the same thing happen my entire town stay, despite crossing paths with lots of clean people.
Just as our brain edits out all sorts of unnecessary information from our eyes, I think our brain turns down our noses in town because there are too many pungent smells: the sharp, acrid smoke of a diesel truck, hot garbage rotting in the sun, the local restaurant’s fryer.
I think we need our sense of smell more in the forest. My sense of smell became as important to me as my eyesight, especially when the forest was dense and visibility is limited by trees and brush. I usually knew it was going to rain because of my nose rather than my eyes. When I walked into a giant cloud of musk, I would suspect a bear was nearby, even though I couldn’t see or hear it. I would hike on alert until I was well past the smell.
After a couple months on trail, I noticed that when I heard a loud noise, I’d turn my ears toward it instead of my eyes. Again, in the dense forest, my ears will usually give me more accurate information. Is whatever is making the noise moving away from me or toward me? Is it big or small? Does it sound like an animal or a tree branch falling? I was delighted how turning my ears toward a sound seemed to become instinctual after a couple months.
My hearing also got much more sensitive. Or, rather, my reaction to loud noises heightened. This hasn’t gone away with my return to the city. The other day, I was walking my dog and a fire truck drove by us on the street. I found myself covering my ears because the volume of the siren actually hurt.
As I more fully used all of my senses, I started to think and feel more like an animal.
My startle response lowered. Instead of jumping out of my shoes when a grouse exploded out of the underbrush next to me, my body would quickly assess there was no threat, and didn’t even bother turning on my adrenaline. Similarly, when I heard big, loud sounds in the forest, my first reaction wasn’t fear. My body would calmly listen. I could almost feel a subconscious assessment happening in my primitive brain. I felt like my body was carefully guarding my energy reserves until it knew my survival depended on activating its “emergency response system.”
Thanks to long-distance hiking, I now know the sharp, spicy stench of my body after 10 days without a shower or deodorant. I know, you’re probably asking, who ever needs to know that? I don’t know if you need to know it, but I found it disgustingly interesting to know exactly how bad I can smell.
I learned just how important sweat is. When I was waking up in July to 90 percent humidity, I started to actively look forward to being drenched in sweat because the slightest breeze would cool me down so much. It’s only when there is no wind, a truly rare phenomenon in the woods, that being drenched in sweat is annoying.
Being wet also changed for me. Before backpacking, I avoided getting wet in rain storms, or getting my feet wet in puddles as I walked into work. Being damp and wet when you’re sitting in an air conditioned office all day, not moving, is seriously unpleasant. During the height of the summer months, I actively prayed for rain to cool me down. Having to walk through creeks, puddles and mud pits is such a common occurrence when hiking that I don’t even notice it anymore.
The oil our skin secretes also made more sense. Even though I was going without showering for 6-10 days at a time, my skin and hair felt less greasy than back in “regular life” after a day without a shower. My theory? Our skin evolved to cope with being outdoors all day long. When you’re hiking in a constant wind, the oil evaporates off of your skin, protecting it from completely dehydrating, cracking, and inviting infection. When you’re indoors all day, without any breeze, the oil just builds up on your skin and in your hair.
I’ve been shaving my armpits and legs since I was 11 years old. This hike, I decided to do an experiment. I shaved for the first month, but then let the hair grow. I was wondering if leg and armpit hair might serve some previously unknown purpose. Would leg hair help me feel a tick crawling on me faster? Would hair in my armpits help wick away sweat and prevent chafing? No and no. My skin is so sensitive, I sensed ticks just fine with and without leg hair. And in chafing season, armpit hair made no difference.
After 2,000 miles, I know my body was not built to sit at a desk all day. When I do, a malaise seems to set in, a near constant fatigue. After working at a desk all day, I often feel too physically exhausted to go to the gym, even though I haven’t actually moved all day. When I sit or nap all day, all I want to do is continue sitting and napping. Our bodies seem to have a physical inertia.
I’m prone to muscle tension in my neck and head, and migraines when I’m being more sedentary, but not on trail.
Coming to this new understanding of my ancient physiology is one of the most challenging ways that long-distance hiking has changed me. It’s nearly impossible to reproduce this ancient way of life in modern society. Even going to the gym several times a week, or for several hikes a week, can’t replicate the amazing effects of long-distance hiking. My job skills are still best suited to an office setting, so I’ll likely end up working at a desk again. Aside from completely changing my career path, I can’t see a way to be physically active all day while earning a living wage.
Instead of returning to a sedentary life in the city, I’m hoping to move closer to the north woods. If I can, I’d like to live close enough to my work to be able to walk, run or bike my commute. My post-hike goal is balance: I need to return to work, but I want the woods to be a daily part of my life.
This is one of my favorite conversations to have with other hikers and backpackers. Have you noticed any differences in the ways your body performs in the woods compared to “regular life”? Leave a comment below!