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There's nothing better than sitting down in the middle of a good hike - perhaps looking out over a vast forested valley, or perched upon a log beside a rushing stream - and taking a few minutes to pull out your journal and write. This is your chance to reflect on the trail you’ve hiked thus far and record all of those lovely little moments and observations you want to remember. You write about the sorts of things that a camera can’t quite capture, such as the eerie whisper of the wind in the tops of the trees, or how a doe darted across the trail, sending a chill down your spine, or how the earthy odor of the forest brings back memories of your childhood adventures roaming around the woods behind your grandparents’ house.
But, how - and why - should you capture those experiences and sensations in writing? How do you translate the magic of the moment to the page of your journal in a way that doesn’t feel childish or trivial? Read on for some practical tips to get you well on your way to writing with confidence about your hiking! It will take some practice, but with a little help, you could head out for your next hike and record it in a journal entry to be proud of.
Why journal about your outdoor experiences?
Why should you bother to write about your hikes in the first place? I shared in a previous post about the many benefits of journaling in general (read it here), but I can think of at least three reasons that specifically apply to journaling about hiking, and why you should do it:
At the most basic level, journaling is a great way to record and remember your hikes. Whether hiking is a once a year or once a week activity for you, chances are, you like to remember them. Sure, a few years down the road, you’re unlikely to forget having hiked in Yosemite, and you’ll probably remember a few particularly stunning views of the valley or its surrounding mountains - but how likely are you to remember the name of the trails you traversed, or what the weather was like, or the distinct way the trail crunched under your boots, or the crisp scent of the trees? Writing about your hikes will help your memories in the future to remain far more vivid and valuable, solidifying details you would otherwise forget.
More than just a record, though, journaling your hikes will force you to be more aware of your surroundings and notice details and beauty which you would have otherwise missed. This is also something I covered in my previous post about the merits of journaling, but it is especially true about keeping a trail journal. If you hike just to hike, then it can sometimes be easy to zone out on the trail, focusing mostly on following the map, or making it to the next viewpoint. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I believe that hiking can hold so much more value than just a way to get from viewpoint to viewpoint, or a form of exercise that happens to be among trees instead of on a running track.
If you hike with the intention of writing about your experience in your journal, then you’re more likely to be on the lookout for stuff to write about. You’re more likely to pay attention not only to the terrain of the trail and which direction to take at the fork, but to notice the soft rustling sound made by the wind as it whispers through the trees, or to look a little deeper into the distance and catch a glimpse of the flash of orange fur as a fox darts silently away.
Journaling your hiking experiences will also help you to build a deeper connection with yourself and the environments you traverse. Since hiking with the intention of journaling about it heightens your awareness of your surroundings, it also heightens your awareness of self. You may notice something along the trail that you want to write about, so you sit down and pull out your journal, but it isn’t until you’re a few sentence into writing that you can clearly verbalize why you wanted to write about it, or the affect it has on you. Similarly, in taking the time to write about your experiences in nature, you’ll undoubtedly notice its intricacies and brilliance all the more - leading you, in turn, to value it more and more.
William Shakespeare hit it head-on when he wrote this simple quote: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
So, now that we’ve settled the question of why you should journal about your hikes, let’s get on with the how!
First, prepare your head for journaling before you even step onto the trail.
Before you take off from the trail head, ask yourself a few questions to get your brain primed for mindful hiking and better prepared to write about the hike afterward. A few examples of the sorts of questions you might ask yourself are,
What do you want to get out of this hike? Have you ever hiked this trail before? Are you looking for any particular wildlife or flora along the way? Just hoping to get a break from your daily routine and walk on something other than pavement for a little while? What is the weather forecast, and how might it affect your hike?
Asking yourself these sorts of questions before your hike will prime your brain to be more aware and on the lookout for the answers during the hike. You can literally just ask and answer them in your head, or you can do so in writing. Either way, the very act of asking yourself will make you more likely to pay attention while you’re on the trail, and more likely to write down the results once you return home.
Take your journal with you.
Toss your journal into your backpack or stash it in your back pocket. Even if you only get to stop and write once or twice during your hike (or not at all), just the act of having the journal with you will help remind you to think about your trek in journaling terms. Plus, when you unpack your bag at the end of the day, seeing the journal in there will remind that you wanted to write about your hike - even if you forgot while out on the trail.
Packing light? Instead of carrying your journal with you, get a small notebook, like a pocket-sized Moleskine or Field Notes notebook (like these, or these). These types of slim notebooks don’t take up much space and won’t add a lot of weight to your pack, plus they make great scratch-pads for quick thoughts or rough sketches while on the trail. And if your hiking experiences are anything like mine, you don’t usually have time to sit down for half an hour in the middle of the trail to fully develop and write out your thoughts in your main journal; thus, having a less-fancy notebook takes off the pressure for polished journaling, allowing you to scribble down your thoughts and observations as you go. Then, you can come back to those notes and craft them into a cohesive journal entry once you’re back home.
Try sketching your surroundings.
Try it, even if you don’t consider yourself an artist. Even if you’ve never sketched a single leaf or twig or rock before. Why? Because even the worst attempt to draw a particular leaf or a distant mountain horizon will help you to see details you might have otherwise missed. Just the act of stopping long enough to try to replicate how a tree looks will force you to look at it in a way you probably wouldn’t have before.
Plus, you’ll never improve at something without practicing it, so it can’t hurt to try. You may just discover a talent or interest you didn’t know you had! At the very least, you’ll come away from the sketching session with a laugh and some observations about the texture of a pine tree’s bark or the entrancing colors of the mountains stretching into the distance - and those observations will definitely be worth journaling about.
What if your hiking companions aren't willing to stop to journal or sketch?
Maybe your outdoor adventure-loving buddies don’t share your desire to journal, and maybe they aren’t okay with stopping for ten or twenty minutes to accommodate you, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to journal about your hike. This is something I deal with frequently, as my husband, Val, is usually my hiking buddy, and he could happily hike for miles without a single stop. In fact, it often seems like the hike hasn't truly begun for us if he hasn't yet bemoaned the frequency of my stops to snap a photo or draw something. I always carry a pair of binoculars on my hikes, and if it gets bad enough, they can act as a great bribe to convince Val to give me a little more time - "Hey, look at this great view! Want the binoculars?" He gets to scan the distant horizons in up-close detail, while I get time to write or sketch away. :)
But, it is possible to journal your hike even with companions who would rather not stop. Even just a short break to take a drink or eat a small snack is an opportunity for you to sneak in some journaling. This type of situation is especially ideal for carrying a small pocket notebook instead of your main journal; even a two-minute stop for water is enough time to whip out your notebook and jot down a few words.
And yes, it seriously might only take a couple of words to do the trick. For example, if you wanted to remember hearing the rapping of a woodpecker off in the distance, just write “woodpecker.” If you caught a glimpse of a whitetail deer darting through the trees, write “deer.” You get the idea; even just a word or two will be enough that when you look at your notes later, they will spark your mind and bring back to light the whole story or experience that went with the simple note.
Use a list of prompts for journaling about your hikes.
Just as asking yourself questions about your hike before you take off from the trail head can help prepare your mind for better journaling, using a list of prompts specifically designed for hiking can act as a very helpful guide to take your trail journal entries to the next level. Now, you could take the time to come up with a set of prompts based on your own hiking interests, or, you can use the list of prompts I’ve already made for you!
I’ve put together a two-page PDF download that’s jam-packed with journaling prompts and tips specifically designed for hiking, and I'm giving away this great resource for free! It's laid out in an easy to use format, with prompts for before, during, and after your hikes, plus several other tips I haven't shared anywhere else. Just click the link below to get your copy: