The Joys of an Unplanned Hike

petergierlach Member Posts: 17
edited March 25 in OUR STORIES

So much of our lives are now carefully planned, fully optimized, and streamlined for maximum efficiency. And to me, that's a problem.

We’re given advice to schedule every minute of every day, to create a detailed plan of our leisure time, or to map out exactly where we’ll be going on our next outdoor adventure to the minute and coordinate.

With all of this rigidity being practiced day-after-day, it can sometimes feel difficult to break free from that mindset.

For me, this has been especially true with hiking.

I’ve gone so deep into the rabbit hole of researching trails that it sometimes leads to paralysis by analysis. With all of our nifty online tools, I’ve begun constantly measuring precise distances, checking elevations and route times, researching trail conditions, only completing hikes in certain clothing, and making sure I have more than enough time before even stepping foot on a trail.

When I say it out loud (or type it here), I realize how ridiculous I’ve become. It makes my hikes sound more like an organized sport that I'm out to conquer and win.

Our ability to measure, analyze, and optimize has numbed my ability to simply hike wherever I want for its own sake.

I miss the days of the unplanned hike, where I would just ramble wherever I felt like for as long as I wished, returning home at an undetermined time.

There were times growing up when I stayed in the woods out back for hours on end, doing nothing in particular. There were the spontaneous adventures where I’d stay on the roads, but meander along them at a slow pace, getting to know my town more intimately. In one instance, my friend and I ended up in another state after 4 hours of walking on country roads, done solely after deciding to leave my backyard to walk up the hill in the distance with no other plans.

And all of this without intimately knowing the trail, tracking the distance, or being decked out in the latest gear.

While my upbringing subsisted on these unplanned hikes, my adulthood has become more and more "optimized" by the year. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I missed this spontaneity until I once again took an unplanned hike in the spur of the moment.

Lately I’ve been intentionally practicing slow hiking as a way to break free from this optimization mindset. But I can’t plan an unplanned hike. It’d be silly to say:

“Okay, this Wednesday at 3, I’m going to go on an unplanned hike. It’s in my calendar.”

This realization of the importance, and joys, of unplanned hikes came spontaneously, as it should.

It came when the child inside me overtook my thought process, and allowed me to once again play outside and enjoy the experience of putting one foot in front of the other with no specific plan or destination.

And, since that day, I’ve regained my child-like wonder of the unknown, and have restored my own confidence to simply wander around this Earth and be assured that everything will be just fine.

Even if I’m not in the right trail-runners or haven’t read the most recent reviews of trail conditions.

My hope is that the experience of my unplanned hike inspires you to be more spontaneous and to break free of the cult of hiking optimization that you may find yourself in.

If nothing else, hopefully it can make your weeknights a little more pleasant and interesting when you step out your door and begin moving with no end in sight.

As my fiancée laid down in the hotel bed after breakfast, primed for a delicious nap, I paced the room at Chateau Lake Louise trying to figure out what to do with my time.

Our remaining time was limited as check-out loomed over us like a storm in the distance, and it greatly influenced my decision-making.

Do I sit outside in a lawn chair and take in the view? Do I wander around the lake? I should definitely stay close for when she wakes up, right?

I never consciously made the decision, but I did the most important thing for any adventure:

I stepped outside.

Referred to as the doorstep mile, the first few steps outside of our door and into nature are always the most important. Because, once we start moving, it’s much harder to stop going forward than it is if we never start the momentum at all.

As I walked outside onto the patio, I considered sitting in a lawn chair and dozing off amidst the splendor. But my feet knew what my soul desired, and instead of propping themselves up for a rest they kept me moving forwards towards the lake.

In that moment I made the conscious decision to walk around the lake, and to turn back once Gab woke up so we could continue our day.

But remember: this is all about the joys of an unplanned hike.

And so, as I made my way to the lake, I noticed a small trail that started making its way up the mountain. Other people were taking it, and I thought it might provide a cool view of the lake.

In jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers, and with no idea how far I was going, I veered right and began hiking up the side of the mountain.

I knew that time may be short, so I huffed forward at a brisk pace. I’m sure I looked like an overambitious young father straight out of the 90s, with my sweater tied around the waist of my blue jeans as the cool morning air began to heat up around me.

As I charged forward I kept looking to my left, hoping to catch a nice view of Lake Louise from above. That was, after all, the point of this little adventure. But I had never really scouted this trail, so I didn’t know if there were any good lookout points, or how long it went for. The uncertainty was exciting.

Eventually I came to a sign that read:

“Mirror Lake: .75 miles”

Hm, I thought, I can walk another three-quarters of a mile. That’s nothing!

And just like that, the goal of the hike wasn’t the lookout; it was a new area entirely. With no knowledge of the elevation to come.

There are limits to the benefits of planning.

Planning gives us structure and a sense of security.

We know what to expect and when to expect it.

Plus, it allows us to develop discipline. If we continue to practice the same things over and over, according to plan, we naturally embed activities we enjoy into our lives while improving at them at the same time.

With too much planning, though, comes rigidity.

And that’s when the anxiety spikes because we overslept, or our perfectly-timed schedule is running 15-minutes late, or we don’t feel accomplished if we don’t check everything off the list.

That type of overplanning is a breeding ground for anxiety and paralysis. It develops a mindset that, if things aren’t perfectly according to plan, then they’re not okay in their own right. We shouldn’t pursue them, because they’re not on the agenda. They're not "producing" anything tangible or worthwhile.

And so we build these artificial walls around us, keeping us moving straight but also limiting our natural, calm, spontaneous experience of life.

Sure, we’re moving forward. But is it in a direction that we actually want to be moving in? Sometimes, going side to side, or even backwards for a bit, makes life more fulfilling and enriching. Getting turned around, lost even, often makes for a life well-lived.

I had reached the view I was hoping for: the calm, serene blue of Lake Louise below me like a vat of blue Gatorade.

As I turned the corner I stopped and started for a moment. I had hiked most of the way up the side of this mountain, in jeans, unplanned, and yet here I was at this epic stop. Perfectly fine, nothing to worry about.

In that moment I checked the time and decided to continue up the mountain to Mirror Lake. That’s where everyone else was headed, and following the crowd isn’t always a bad thing.

Charging upward, I began to chuckle to myself. I was having fun.

I wasn’t trying to reach a specific destination or bust. I could turn around at any time and be perfectly content. My pace didn’t matter, either. I was simply walking for the sake of walking. It just happened to be in one of the most spectacular places on Earth.

As I continued forward, I thought of the years that had gone by without doing something silly and spontaneous like this.

My feet have taken me all over the world, to some incredibly beautiful places, and mostly on a complete whim. Rarely in my teens and early 20s did I have clear, set destinations in mind. I was more about the exploration, the adventure, the walking for the sake of it, than I was about any accomplishment. Which led me to explore more places than I would have if I was just checking the "top hikes" in an area online.

Then adulthood hit.

I was told to be productive, to make money, to use my ever-decreasing spare time wisely and maturely.

Suddenly, jetting off on a four-hour walk for no particular reason on a weeknight didn’t fit into this uncomfortable mold I had reluctantly (but thoughtlessly) put myself into.

Instead, everything became planned. Analyzed. Rehearsed. Timed.

If it wasn't epic, or grueling, or meticulously planned out, then it wasn't worth the time. I was a serious adult with serious plans and important things to do. I couldn't waste my time withering about on random trails.

That’s why, as I came upon Mirror Lake after a 45-minute charge up a small mountain in the Canadian Rockies, I felt overwhelmed with excitement and giddiness.

The lake itself was small but dense in its stunning nature. The water was some of the clearest I’d ever seen, and the giant beehive of a mountain that rose above it was perfectly reflected in the placid water below.

I found a place to sit along the lake’s edge and watched as people came to the lake, marveled, and then continued onward. A dog broke the glass-look of the water by diving in for a stick. Birds socialized in the trees stretching into the hazy July sky.

I had accomplished something, being up here. Clearly, I was at some AllTrails destination that many people put on their lists when visiting this part of the world. I was sitting inside an Instagram glory-shot, a YouTube paradise, a hiker’s destination.

But that’s not why I felt accomplished.

My sense of accomplishment came from knowing that I would’ve been just as happy anywhere else on the planet because of how I had gotten there.

I had arrived with no preconceptions, no images in mind, no pace to keep, no checkbox to fill.

I simply felt the urge to move forward, beckoned by the mystery that laid beyond each turn in the wilderness.

This meant that the “success” of the hike didn’t rely on anything other than doing the hike. It didn’t matter if there wasn’t a specific view, checkpoint, or time in mind. The fact that I was outside hiking on a beautiful trail meant that I had already won; I was already successful.

I still meticulously plan some hikes and I still chase summits. I think I always will.

But the proportion of planned to unplanned hikes has begun to dramatically tip in favor of the latter.

I’ve remembered that my favorite activity in life is walking outside, and that there doesn’t need to be anything in particular attached to that ritual in order to make it more enjoyable or meaningful.

As long as I’m out in the fresh air, with the Earth beneath my feet, and the sun is putting on a show as it dances through the sky, I’m okay. I don’t need anything more than that.

Whether it’s planned or not.

As I made my way back down the mountain, I felt my phone buzz.

My fiancée had just woken up from her nap, right as I hit the flat ground of the lake shore near our hotel. I said I’d be back in 5 minutes, which gave her enough time to get ready for the rest of the day.

I smiled and looked up at the trail I had just climbed. A sense of peace fell over me as I sauntered back to the hotel along the lakeshore, set to arrive back to my love at the perfect time.

Couldn't have planned it better if I tried.


  • RomanDial
    RomanDial Member Posts: 1

    Nice Peter!

    I've taken this route as well, for as long as I have been walking on my own, say, since age 8 or so, and I'm now 63.

    And while I admit to suffering from "compulsive map reading disorder" (CMRD) as Forrest McCarthy calls it, I often go without a map and/or without having looked at a map, especially on day hikes, but occasionally on off-trail wilderness trips. The longest distance for me without a map and without a trail has been about 150 miles in the Alaska Range.

    For me no trail and no map puts me much closer to the landscape than if I'm constantly reaching in my pocket to stare at a screen to check if I'm on the route I synthesized back home with enough data to publish a paper in Science or Nature!

  • petergierlach
    petergierlach Member Posts: 17

    @RomanDial Thanks so much for sharing this. I'm sure that 150 mile trek was an incredible and mindful experience!

  • Jessicaholly88
    Jessicaholly88 Member Posts: 47

    Sounds like such a Beautiful experience, sometimes unplanned is just what you need!