6 Steps to Overcoming Hiking Phobia—A Trip to Mt. Katahdin

I am, by nature and personal history, most definitely NOT a hiker. As a child growing up near the coast of South Carolina—an area not known for being mountainous—my outdoorsy activities centered around this:


However, since moving to New England, it has come to my attention that many people this to be pleasurable:


A host of hiker-friends have made efforts to induct me into the hike-o-philia club, but so far in vain. What has gone wrong?

First of all, I was psychologically unprepared for the experience—rocks, relentless climbing, steepness, duration, the whole bit. Basically, I had this idea that hiking meant walking on dirt through the woods, preferably near a lake, for about 1—2 hours, followed by a picnic. Second, every time someone took me on a hike, the pace was faster than I could handle comfortably—in other words, it was a complete misery. Finally, the gap between my experience (out of breath and vaguely fearful) and everyone else’s (happy, energetic and accomplished) made me feel very alienated, both from the activity and the other people in my group.

Despite a dark history of failed or unpleasant hikes, I have resolved to conquer hiking, or at least make my peace with it. Why? Well, in part because my boyfriend Dan is an inveterate hiker. He’s hiked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, climbed Mt. Whitney in California in summer and Mt. Washington in New Hampshire in winter. We cycle, cross country ski, kayak and play squash together, and I would like to add the occasional hiking trip to that list. Also, lots of my friends hike often, and in the name of being social I’d like to be able to join in.

Most importantly though, the fact that hiking has been so hard and unpleasant irks me, so I want to overcome this problem by learning to love (or at least not hate) hiking.

So to forward my goal—induct Catherine into the hike-o-philia club—I decided to go on a group hiking trip. Dan proposed going to Mt Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine. This area is very rugged. The park limits visitors and has no potable water or electricity in its campgrounds. It is beautiful, with dozens of trails, ponds with canoe rentals and swimming. It is also the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, so many through-hikers end their journey there.

Dan sent email to a bunch of folks that he was reserving a bunkhouse for 10 people for the 3-night trip, and within 3 hours we were at capacity. Each one of these folks—ranging in age from 29 to 65—was a very experienced and adept hiker, and most of them had serious backpacking experience. All were excited about their proposed hike: summit Baxter Peak and then Pamola via the Knife Edge Trail. Knife Edge is famous in New England for its steepness and sheer drop-offs, as well as the frequent high winds along this very narrow trail.

There was absolutely no way I was going to do this hike. It was way above my skill level, my fitness level and my comfort level. But could I go on this serious hiking trip and still make progress on my hike-o-philia goal? Yes! How did this happen? I’ve outlined 6 steps below.

Step 1: Don’t think too much; just go on the trip

I just decided to go with Dan and other friends, even though I wouldn’t be doing the Knife Edge route. I knew that I could swim, canoe, read a book, stroll somewhere, or even go on a hike of my own, all of which I could decide on later.

Step 2: Get active before the trip

I had been cycling a lot this summer, so was in decent cardio shape. I did some exercises for quad strengthening and did a little hill climbing as well. This helped me build confidence.

Step 3: Enjoy and appreciate the non-hiking features of the trip

We were at Baxter for 3 nights, so we had lots of time for other really fun outdoorsy activities—swimming, canoeing, cooking outside, picnicking on rocks near a waterfall, and strolling to a nearby pond to see moose. We saw this mother and baby.

Step 4: Decide on a hike that suits your attitude that day

The night before my friends’ epic 10-hour hike, everyone was packing gear and making food, getting ready for the big day. I got caught up in their excitement, and with encouragement, decided to do my own hike. I chose the Chimney Pond trail, a 6.6 mile (about 10 km) out-and-back hike, with a 1425-foot (438 meter) elevation gain. That seemed like a lot to me, but I knew I could turn back at any time, and since I was hiking alone, I could go at my own pace. This trail is also one of the most heavily-trafficked in the park, so I wouldn’t really be alone. Everyone was encouraging, and their enthusiasm was infectious. So off I went.

Step 5: Learn to let go and let hike…

Starting off, I was nervous but excited. I knew I was going the same way Dan and my friends had, and it felt good to be a part of that scene. I had left around 9:30am, which is apparently way after the hiking rush hour (most groups left by 7am). So I was alone on the trail. Soon enough, the trail became rocky, and parts were (in my view) quite steep. It took a while for me to settle into a rhythm and accept the fact that I would be, well, hiking for much of the day. After about 45 minutes, I found a scenic area and took some pictures. It was just beautiful. Also, soon I started running into folks on the trail, which is especially fun for a chatty person like me.

I made it to Chimney Pond and was rewarded by a beautiful view of Mt. Katahdin, which consists of the peaks my friends were climbing. Lunching at the edge of the pond, squinting to try to make out some signs of hikers along the summit trail, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Of course, there was still the hike down to go. It was slower, and near the end I was tiring. Although I appreciated the freedom to set my own pace, I missed having company. I plan to go on some hikes with faster friends soon, learn how to pace myself, get a little faster, and in service of becoming a happy part of a mixed-abilities group.

Step 6: Don’t forget your hiking boots

The whole trip might have been less stressful if I hadn’t left my hiking boots behind in my living room. Oops. Dan and I realized that my boots were not in the car when we were about 2 hours away—far too late to do anything about it. I did have teva sandals with me, which were fine for the easy strolls and short hikes. With everyone’s encouragement, though, I decided to embark on the long hike in sandals and socks (with hiking poles to help me), and it went fine.

Already plans are underway for more hiking trips, including a fall 2015 New Zealand trek during my sabbatical. My hiking phobia is definitely on the wane. However, I’m hoping that I don’t have to repeat the no-hiking-boots experience anytime soon.

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