I recently walked about 30 miles along the beginning of the South Downs Way in the UK, from Winchester to Petersfield and it got me thinking about why I love to walk. What is it that despite my aching legs, wet hair, bruised toe and raw skin, made it something I would willingly do again and again?
My partner and I often pick a random spot on the OS map for a 5 miler on the weekend but we’ve wanted to do something longer for a while and actually managed to get it in the diary. We were carrying all our kit (tent, sleeping stuff, cooking stuff, food etc) and it was freeing to be able to just walk. We had everything with us we needed and it felt sort of sneaky – cutting along footpaths, only walking on roads to cross them to continue through the woodlands, barely seeing anyone. It made me think that it wouldn’t have been so hard for Frodo and Sam to get to Mordor without anyone noticing the 2 small figures slipping round the edges of places.
The advantage we had over Frodo and Sam though (as well as no terrifying pursuers, plenty of food and not having the future of the civilised world depending on us of course!) was great kit. I was surprised at how much I could love a pair of waterproof trousers (from Alpkit, who are amazing) and having the right kit for sleeping, camping, eating and walking makes all the difference. Including waterproof socks which were a life saver when my right shoe started to leak. I hate wet socks. The kit makes sure it’s not miserable, but why do it at all?
For me the main thing is being close to nature. I need time outdoors regularly and I feel less grounded, calm and able to deal with other pressures if I don’t get it. I need to get away from the electronic devices and the constant notifications. To observe the wonder of nature, see the details of the season and just BE in the quiet. The landscape on our route was pretty constant – hedgerows, farmland, woodlands, the odd hill – but it was the details that were most interesting. All the berries out: hawthorn, sloe berries, blackberries, rosehips, lots of old man’s beard, hedgerow birds catching insects, a shooting star in a sky less affected by light pollution, the owl that kept us awake. The effect of being close to nature now has science backing it up – people experience improved short- and long-term wellbeing if they are in nature for at least 2 hours a week and people living near green spaces experience lower levels of stress hormones.
It’s also mulling time, either on my own or with someone. My mind wonders off while walking and noodles on whatever is going on or has been lying dormant for a while. It’s been found that walking increases creativity, that it encourages a free flow of ideas and people come up with more novel ideas while walking or shortly afterwards compared with when seated.
While on the South Downs Way I experienced a phenomenon Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Your brain only has a certain capacity for “slow” thinking – logical, well considered ideas rather than instinctive “lizard” brain reactions. If you’re walking at your natural pace, which feels effortless, then your brain can easily think through logical ideas. Faster than that and you have to expend too much thinking capacity on actually walking. I found exactly that. My partner has a faster natural walking pace than me and I was fine walking that speed if we were chatting or if I concentrated on walking but as soon as my brain wondered off on a thought, I’d lag behind, back to my natural pace so that I could use all my slow thinking capacity for that thought rather than walking.
I find I have different conversations with other people while walking rather than over coffee or dinner. More open, more deep. Maybe because you tend to be side by side and not looking at each other? Or by being outdoors it feels more free. Or back to the creativity point. I’m not sure why but you get to know someone differently if you walk together.
So why do I walk? It’s not for exercise, that’s never my motivation. It’s to have deep connections with nature, with my thoughts, with people I love. Can’t beat it.