Swapping boozy brunches for weekends on the trail has helped me slow down, practice being present, and become more grateful for my health.

By Jennifer Barthole
November 17, 2020
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Credit: Jennifer Barthole

Today, November 17, marks National Take A Hike Day, an initiative from the American Hiking Society to encourage Americans to hit their nearest trail for a walk in the great outdoors. It's an occasion I never would've celebrated in the past. But, during the early stages of quarantine, I discovered a newfound passion for hiking, and it boosted my feelings of confidence, happiness, and accomplishment at a time I had lost my sense of motivation and purpose. Now, I can't imagine my life without hiking. Here's how I made the complete 180.

Before quarantine, I was your quintessential city gal. My role as Senior Fashion Editor for Shape consisted of running around Manhattan for non-stop work and social events. Fitness-wise, I spent a few days a week sweating it out at the gym or a boutique fitness studio, preferably boxing or Pilates. Weekends were spent going to weddings, birthday parties, and catching up with friends over boozy brunches. The bulk of my life was a go-go-go existence, enjoying the buzz of the city and rarely taking moments to slow down and reflect.

That all changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and life in quarantine became the "new normal." Waking up every day in my cramped NYC apartment felt restrictive, especially being that it had turned into my home office, gym, entertainment, and dining area, all in one. I could feel my anxiety gradually rising as lockdown dragged on. In April, after losing a dear family member to COVID, I hit rock bottom. My motivation to work out vanished, I spent meaningless hours scrolling on Instagram (think: doomscrolling), and I couldn't get through a full night of sleep without waking up in a cold sweat. I felt like I was in a permanent brain fog and knew something had to change. (Related: How and Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Messing with Your Sleep)

Getting Outside

In an effort to get some fresh air (and a much-needed break from feeling cooped up in my apartment), I started scheduling daily phone-free walks. Initially, these forced 30-minute excursions felt like they took forever, but over time, I began to crave them. Within a few weeks, these quick walks turned into hours-long strolls spent aimlessly wandering Central Park — an activity I hadn't done in years despite living only 10 minutes away from the massive nature conservatory. These walks gave me time to reflect. I began to realize that for the past several years, I viewed staying "busy" as an indicator of success. Finally being forced to slow down had been (and continues to be) a blessing in disguise. Dedicating time to relax, take in the beauty of the park, listen to my thoughts, and just breathe slowly became integrated into my routine and truly helped me navigate this dark period in my life. (Related: How Quarantine Can Potentially Impact Your Mental Health — for the Better)

After two months of regular walks in the park, I was settled into my new normal. Mentally, I felt better than ever — even before the pandemic. Why not up the ante? I reached out to my sister, who is much more outdoorsy than I, and was fortunate enough to have a car in the city. She agreed to drive us to the nearby Ramapo Mountain State Forest in New Jersey for a "real" walk. I had never been much of a hiker, but the idea of ramping up my steps with a steeper incline and taking a quick getaway from city life was appealing. So off we went.

For our first trek, we chose a simple four-mile trail with a steep incline and promising views. We started out confidently, making quick strides while chatting. As the incline gradually increased, our heart rates quickened and sweat began to trickle down our foreheads. Within 20 minutes, we went from talking a mile a minute to solely focusing on our breath and staying on the path. Compared to my leisurely Central Park walks, this was a serious workout.

Forty-five minutes later, we finally reached a scenic overlook, which served as our midway point. Although I was exhausted, I couldn't stop smiling at the view. Yes, I could barely speak; yes, I was dripping with sweat; and yes, I could feel my heart pounding. But it felt so good to challenge my body again and be surrounded by beauty, especially in the midst of such a tragic time. I had a new outlet for movement, and it didn't add to my screen time. I was hooked.

For the remainder of the summer, we continued our weekend tradition of escaping NYC for the Ramapo Mountains, where we'd alternate between easier and more demanding trails. No matter the difficulty of our route, we'd always make a conscious effort to disconnect for a few hours and let our bodies do the work. Once in a while, a friend or two would join us, ultimately becoming hiking converts themselves (always following COVID-19 safety guidelines, of course).

Upon hitting the trails, we'd skip the small talk and jump straight to deeper conversations in an effort to understand how each of us was really coping with the ongoing pandemic. By the end of the day, we'd often be so winded that we could barely speak — but that didn't matter. Being in close proximity to one other after months of isolation and pushing to finish the trek deepened our friendships. I felt more connected to my sister (and any friends that joined us) than I had in years. And at night, I slept more soundly than I had in a long time, feeling grateful for my cozy apartment and health. (Related: What It’s Like to Hike 2,000+ Miles with Your Best Friend)

Left: Credit: Jenn Barthole
Center: Credit: Jenn Barthole
Right: Credit: Jenn Barthole

Upgrading My Hiking Gear

Come fall, I was loving my newfound hobby but couldn't help but notice that my tattered running sneakers and clunky fanny pack just weren't designed to navigate the rocky and sometimes slick terrain. I came home happy but often covered in scrapes and bruises from constantly slipping and even falling a few times. I decided that it was time to invest in some technical, weatherproof hiking essentials. (Related: The Survival Skills You Need to Know Before You Hit the Hiking Trails)

First, I purchased a pair of waterproof, lightweight trail runners, a solid insulated water bottle, and a backpack that could easily pack extra layers, snacks, and rain gear. Then I headed to Lake George, New York, for a weekend trip with my boyfriend, during which we hiked daily and tested out the new gear. And the verdict was undeniable: The upgrade in equipment made such a difference in my confidence and performance that we hiked for nearly five hours one day, my longest and most difficult trek to date.

Here's some of the gear I now consider essential:

HOKA ONE ONE Tennine GTX Hiking Boot
$250
SHOP IT
Backcountry
Camelback Women's Helena 20 Hydration Pack
$100
SHOP IT
Dick's Sporting Goods

Discovering a New Sense of Peace

Slowing down with hiking has really helped me through this tumultuous time. It pushed me to explore outside my busy bubble of NYC, put down my phone, and truly be present. And overall, it deepened my connections with loved ones. I now feel stronger, both mentally and physically, and appreciate my body more than ever for allowing me to develop a new go-to workout and passion while so many, unfortunately, are unable to do so themselves. Who knew a few short walks could ultimately lead to a hobby that sparks so much joy?

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