Hiking Alone in Winter, Finding Peace and Quiet on the Trail
Even those of us who relish this season can get mired in it, despairing that going outside will never be fun or easy again. In these doldrums of winter, one of the cures for finding joy is, counterintuitively, hiking alone.
Some folks revel in Pacific Northwest winter. They love the bite of cold, the feeling of snow (or slush) underfoot. They love the low, grey clouds unloading frosty fat drops on their heads. They love the dark and the winter stars; some might even tilt their heads back and wish the long, clear nights would never give up to dawn.
But even those of us who relish this season can get mired in it, despairing that going outside will never be fun or easy again. In these doldrums of winter, one of the cures for finding joy is, counterintuitively, hiking alone.
By now, we’re all experts at being alone. COVID-19 has forced us into new, lonelier ways of existing in the world. We’re weary and we miss each other. And yet … hiking alone is different. Whether you take a daily pilgrimage into a neighborhood green space or visit a trail climbing up nearby bluffs, going alone can feel like getting away with something. Like mischief tangled up with the amplified attention that comes from sustained meditation or prayer. It’s a unique kind of joy, a sly winter flower only found alone on trail. It blooms under the pale sun that barely scrapes itself off the horizon.
The experience is not unlike reading a great book for the first time, when nothing exists but you and the story pulling you along. The worries of the world fade, your attention heightens and you notice everything. Every detail along the trail gets magnified by the unlikeliness of someone else seeing it just then. Pre-dawn risers will recognize the feeling, as will night owls. To be awake, to move through a landscape when the very land itself is resting, will shake something pure and vital loose in you.
Whether it’s exploring the riot of colorful details of lichen and sparkling rocks hidden in the scrublands around Crab Creek, or cataloging the dozens of different mosses and ferns along the trails in the waterlogged Skagit Valley, winter has treasures to share with the hardy souls who seek them.
The difficulty itself adds fuel to the fire that will carry you through to spring. There’s reward in expending the effort it takes to pile on layer after layer of wool and fleece while your family or housemates watch, aghast, as you leave the house to go on a foul-weather stroll.
There is no need for risk-taking to find this small solo joy in the doldrums. It’s better to stay well within your comfort zone and discover that the comfort zone is more interesting than you remembered. A 3-mile hike hauling extra winter safety layers and food feels vastly more rewarding than those same miles in August, when the days last forever. Your neighborhood park takes on a winter mood, wilder and less tended than its summer self.
And when you strike out alone, seeking joy in the darkest days of winter, sometimes you’ll even see someone else on trail, and you’ll nod or maybe even chat, and share a tendril of quiet kinship that’ll pull you on to spring.