You don’t have to be a thru-hiker to notice some surprising physical and psychological benefits of walking. Some of the most magical effects of traveling on your own power include:
You sleep better. One of my friends on the Appalachian Trail once said, “My favorite part of the day is when I get in my sleeping bag.” Okay, maybe she meant that she was tired of hiking, but the sleep you get after being active all day is unbeatable. Endorphins not only make you happier during the day, they help you sleep better.
You see more. When you’re walking, you’re more likely to notice bugs, plants, migrating birds, unexpected roadside art, vistas. You can walk many places you can’t drive, or even bike, such as hiking trails or local park paths and alleyways. On a long-distance trek, you’ll see the in-between parts of America that you would normally never give a second glance, the roadside diners and strange country stores. You’ll have time to look for the scenic route in small trails or less-trafficked roads.
You waste less. Obviously, walking is a win for the environment compared to driving, but you’ll also save money. In addition to eliminating the need for gas money, walking is its own entertainment and will provide a vacation in itself without expensive attractions. When traveling by car, time in transit feels wasted. But traveling by foot, the means is the end. In a way, your time is used more meaningfully as well.
You build confidence. Walking long distances and/or on tough terrain definitely makes you physically stronger. But you gain mental strength as well. It’s empowering to be able to get where you want to go using only your own body. And if you can climb that huge mountain in the rain by yourself with a duct taped shoe, what can’t you do?
You have interesting interactions with strangers. I have always been surprised by the amount of friendliness I have seen when walking to my destination. People will want to share a meal or conversation just because you have an interesting story. From my experience, being in a car makes us want everything to happen instantly, but when you are putting in a lot of effort to get somewhere, a break for a chat is more welcome. From waitresses to fellow backpackers to Airbnb hosts (some of whom make great conversationalists and some less so), you’ll probably meet some people you wouldn’t have met otherwise.
You become more mindful. Slowing down gives you plenty of time to reflect. If you’re alone you can think, meditate, sing, or truly enjoy music. If you’re with a friend, long walks are the perfect time for uninterrupted, fluid conversation. Carrying your belongings also brings an opportunity to be mindful about what you bring and what you truly need. Most importantly, I’ve always found I feel more grounded in my connection with my body and its relationship to the world.