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Mindful Hiking in NH's White Mountains

Mindful Hiking in NH's White Mountains

Recently, my boyfriend and I finally got in our first “real” hike of the season: a two-day traipse through the Pemigewasset Wilderness that included one of those rejuvenating, soul-searching sort of nights beside the lull of a river, surrounded by elderly trillium flowers and that soothing, muffled peace that only wilderness can provide.

Day 1 ushered us leisurely through Carrigan Notch, our path paralleling the looming cliffs of Mt. Lowell to our East, the Carrigain Brook weaving in and out of our path.

On Day 2, we tested our calf muscles as we clamored up the steep ascent toward the peak of Mt. Carrigain. Day hikers sped by us with their tiny backpacks as we maintained a slow-and-steady pace up the mountainside, lugging tent supplies, sleeping bags, cookware and other overnight gear on our backs.

Carrigain, which happens to be one of NH's forty-eight 4,000-footers, boasts an incredible 360-degree view of the region, and on a blue-bird-sky day, the only less than optimal component of our hike was the onslaught of the mosquitoes that swarmed us when we broke for lunch in the sun – and, perhaps, the mountaintop attitude of the other hikers with whom we shared the peak that day.

Every year, hundreds of hikers embark on a quest to complete “The 48.” New Hampshire is home to 48 peaks that reach above 4,000 feet in elevation, and it has become a full-blown sport for hikers to “conquer” these peaks in order to tick them off their checklist.

While admittedly this challenge provides a wonderful incentive to get city-dwellers into the great outdoors, the associated attitude can feel troubling to people who are out there to enjoy our time in nature, not to conquer it for bragging rights. And on that perfect day upon the summit of Carrigan, mountaintop conversation quickly became a battle of egos between the other hikers regarding their conquests.

We ate our lunch in silence as the others engaged in a sort of peacocking ritual of one-upmanship. For one couple, this was their final peak of the challenge. For another, it was number 46. Any mountain unlucky enough to be lower than 4,000 feet wasn't worthy of their attention. They'd already begun to speak of lists of peaks to complete in other states, barely bothering to take in the absolutely stunning views that Carrigain was affording them in the here and now!

We call these hikers “peak baggers” – those who are primarily out there to check off mountain peaks from their list, and for whom quality time in the great outdoors is sometimes beside the point.

When it comes to peak bagging, hikers fly up the mountain, often ill-prepared with tiny bags, only to snap a quick photo so that Instagram followers can validate their achievement, before promptly returning home, having completed the in-and-out mission of crossing off another mountain from the checklist.

Not only does this inhibit some of the deep, emotional and physical benefits of spending appreciative time in the mountains, but it can also be dangerous to venture out into the White Mountains without the proper gear and clothing (wearing the right clothing made of appropriate material, such as merino wool, greatly enhances your physical safety in terms of thermoregulation). New Hampshire's higher peaks are notorious for quickly-changing weather patterns, and hypothermia can pose a risk no matter what time of year it is.

To be sure, there’s nothing at all wrong with endeavoring to complete the 48 peak challenge! It can be a fun way to explore the Whites while connecting with other like-minded folks interested in nature, fitness and health. 

But while you’re doing that this summer — or opting to check out other gorgeous peaks not on the list — consider slowing things down. Opt to trade quantity for quality; think about replacing the conquer-and-win attitude with a mindset of relishing, gratitude, and pause. It doesn't have to be about the race to the top, and it doesn't have to be a competition against other hikers (besides, there are many wonderfully-underrated mountains in NH, totally ignored by peak baggers simply because they're not one of the 48).

You don't even have to reach the top of a mountain to benefit; simply spending time in the woods has notable physical and emotional benefits that are backed by scientific research. In Japan, Shinrin-yoku – the practice of “forest bathing” – is more and more frequently prescribed by doctors because it seems to have promising effects on blood pressure, cortisol levels, concentration and memory (not to mention mental health in general). 

Shinrin-yoku guides are adamant that the positive wellness effects of spending time outdoors are dependent upon intentional sensory observation and experience – in other words, throwing on your headphones, racing to the top of the mountain and glancing up from your phone just long enough to notice your surroundings before snapping that selfie probably doesn't qualify. Mindfulness and presence are key.

Proponents of forest bathing encourage taking steps such as leaving behind your phone, your goals, and your expectations. Even 15 minutes can contribute to mental clarity and physical health.

They also recommend hiking slowly and even aimlessly. In the Whites, the aimless part might be challenging because going off trail can damage fragile alpine flora, not to mention get you lost. But you can still meander up the trail (and don’t forget to bring a map along with enough water and appropriate layers to protect you from the elements!) Engage all five senses to take in your surroundings and practice being present. 

So next time you go for a hike, even if (or especially if) it's to bag one of the 4,000-footers, be sure to allot some time to take pause, put the phone away, and soak up the world you're in. It'll be worth more than any amount of Likes on social media, and your soul will thank you.

Happy Wandering!


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