I’ve always thought that exercise should have a goal, a goal to achieve. This could be a certain number of repetitions, a timer to run out, or an intense walk to a specific place. But this is not soft hiking.
Popularized by TikTok duo Emily Thornton and Lucy Hird, it fights the notion that hiking has to be tough. Instead, soft hiking encourages people to lace up their walking shoes and simply enjoy their time spent outdoors with no specific goal other than the walking itself.
I’m usually busy with my CrossFit training, but I thought soft hiking might be a great alternative for my off day and decided to give it a try. I laced up my Merrell Moab 3 shoes and walked out.
Following Emily and Lucy’s advice to bring a friend and “plan a quiet route to begin with to gain confidence,” I set off to a nearby nature reserve accompanied by my partner and my (very excited) two-year-old dog, Archie.
This was breaking new ground for me, in more ways than one. In a literal sense, I was exploring a new area, but it was also a new approach to exercise.
What is soft hiking?
“We were talking about how cool it was to take things at our own pace, go off the trail to look at anything that caught our eye like historic license plates or cool looking mushrooms,” Hird told me.
Thornton adds, “We then said, ‘it’s kind of a softer way to go soft hiking,’ and created a TikTok to document our walks.” The duo’s Soft Girls Who Hike videos were an instant hit and found fans in first-time walkers and Olympic athletes.
“We realized that this concept is so important because it reminds people that they have a right to hike as much as more experienced walkers. We have also received some comments from people who have felt inspired to try a soft hike themselves, asking if others in their area would like to join”.
Just the word “hiking” makes me think of intense hill walks for which you’d need an entire backpack full of gear and supplies. That’s why I wanted to give soft hiking a chance and see if walking, without a particular purpose, would be any different.
1. Deleting data was easier than I thought
CrossFit is my usual workout drink and I love it (read our feature on CrossFit for Beginners if you want to give it a try). However, it’s the antithesis of soft hiking, with each element measurable by the weight lifted, the total number of reps performed, or the time taken to complete a workout.
I’m guilty of extending this data-driven approach beyond the gym as well. I like to go out for a walk or run, but I rely on one of the best fitness trackers to gauge my performance by telling me how far or fast I’ve gone.
For my light hike, I intentionally left all tracking devices at home. This, I soon discovered, made it easier to appreciate my surroundings without being distracted by pace updates or notifications.
2. I finally figured out mindful walking
With a pleasant walk, I reached Troopers Hill in Bristol, UK, a nature reserve that boasts great views over the city. I walked up to a 15m high retired copper smelting chimney surrounded by a number of information boards and rather than consciously rushing, I enjoyed stopping to read each one.
I found my way to a bridge, which took me into a shady wood with a beautiful stream running through it. Following this stream, I ended up in a fenced enclosure containing the largest goat I had ever seen, and behind it was another nature preserve containing a network of wooded trails.
Normally, I go with purpose to the bus stop, the grocery store, or out for dinner. This was different. I took the time to notice the nature around me, and that made it easier to connect with my surroundings.
I realized that soft hiking is actually a great way to go for a mindful walk, which is kind of like a moving meditation. But instead of focusing on your breath, you absorb everything around you, which naturally connects you to the present moment, allowing thoughts to come and go, but without becoming a distraction.
3. It was tiring in a different way
When I finally found my way home, I had been out for over 90 minutes, following my feet wherever they imagined they were heading next. I couldn’t tell you how far or how fast I went, but I felt incredibly satisfied with my efforts.
I also didn’t feel the same aches or overwhelming fatigue that I might have felt after a session of heavy weight lifting or cardio pulmonary training. I was definitely ready to sit down and eat something, but my body felt relaxed and my mind felt refreshed. Put simply: I enjoyed it.
I think this feel-good factor is one of the biggest draws to soft hiking and the fact that it really has something to offer for everyone. “To us, the word ‘hiking’ sounded so extreme, and what we do isn’t even totally rambling or any of the other words,” Lucy told me.
“It was still hiking, but just being softer on yourself. Words are so powerful and mean something different to everyone. Soft hiking evoked just the right feeling for us.”
My experience has convinced me to make soft hiking a more regular part of my routine. I felt lighter, calmer and generally in a better mood, having had time to chat, explore and relax.
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