Smile! The benefits of hiking and why spending time outside makes you happy

Hiker Jeff Clark

Here in MightyGoods, we absolutely agree with Hiker Jeff Clark when he said that nature and travel can make us happy. Let’s find out more about him, his love for the mountains and why we should always remember to respect the wildlife.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi. My name is Jeff Clark. I lived most of my adult life in the mountains of West Virginia. As a native West Virginian who had the privilege of living there nearly 50 years, I can tell you that you should visit some time. It is a truly beautiful state.

I presently live in the mountains of Western North Carolina. You might get the idea that I love the mountains. I didn’t even know North Carolina had mountains until I moved here. NC actually has the tallest mountains east of the Mississippi.

I’ve had two different careers in my time: For the first thirty years of my working life, I was involved with Information Technologies, spending the latter stages as a system administrator and performance analyst for large mainframe and mid-range computing environments; My 2nd career was in retail sporting goods, first in management, then in online fulfillment for an outdoors outfitter. I retired in April 2014 and have discovered that retirement is the best job I’ve ever had.

It will become readily apparent from the following questions and answers that I am passionate about hiking, but I also use hiking as a means of improving my landscape photography skills. I then share my adventures with you on my hiking blog, Meanderthals. Traveling to new and exciting places to, you guessed it… hike, is also among my great loves.

Hiker Jeff Clark

How and why did you get into hiking?

No particular reason. When I first did it, it just seemed like something fun to do. It was, so I’ve continued to this day. I realize some kind of epiphany would be a lot more exciting to read about, but that isn’t my story.

When my brother moved from West Virginia to Colorado in the late 1970’s, he did quite a bit of exploring in the Rocky Mountains. When I would go visit, he would share the beautiful scenery he had found. I kept at it over the years, but became especially enamored with hiking when I moved from WV to NC in 2003. It is a love of the outdoors and our wild places that keeps me coming back.

I am easily motivated, and I would much rather be outdoors than in. There is so much more to do. It’s real life out there.

My first hike was more than 40 years ago when I was still a college student. Being in shape was not a question because I had been athletic all of my youth. Staying in shape as an older man is perhaps a more appropriate question. On days that I’m not hiking, I walk around the neighborhood for exercise and try to keep myself active. No couch potato here. I will admit it is more difficult to stay in shape with each additional year of age.

Why is hiking important for you?

Besides being a great means of exercise, and the healthy lifestyle it promotes, it enables me to get to places that you can’t reach by vehicle. There is so much beauty to be found just a mile off the paved roads that I would miss otherwise.

I love national parks and national forests. The real adventures within each aren’t seen through your car window. I also believe that conservation is tremendously important. I want to help leave our wild places pristine for those who walk this earth hundreds of years from now. I volunteer for the National Park Service and do my bit to help live and promote Leave No Trace principles.

Hiking has definitely made me more cognizant of Nature. I am so much more aware of all the other living things that surround us. I love finding wildlife and wildflowers when I’m out on the trail. Hiking has helped me have a better understanding why every living creature deserves the same opportunity to enjoy this marvelous life as I do.

Hiking has also provided me with something to be passionate about. I look forward to every trip. I want to share my adventures with others so that they, too, can enjoy the same experiences. That’s a big reason why I started and continue my Meanderthals Hiking blog.

Scientists are finding out all the time how much better we all perform when we spend time outdoors — not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Being in Nature is a great stress reliever. It makes you happier. Think about it: Have you ever encountered anyone out on a trail who is mad and angry? Usually everyone is smiling. For more, see here.

Hiker Jeff Clark

What has been the best parts of your hikes?

There are so many great experiences. Happening upon a newborn fawn in the woods, or a mama black bear and her cubs. Topping a mountain summit and being presented with the most majestic view you have ever seen. Crossing a swollen mountain stream, getting to the other side safely and thinking, “Yep, this old man’s still got it.” Simply being with others and sharing the joy.

What has been the most difficult parts?

For me, the most difficult parts are steep climbing and creek crossings. Some people prefer going uphill to down because of wear and tear on your lower joints. With me, it’s a breathing issue going up. And creek crossings? Let’s just say I’ve gotten unintentionally wet a few times. Creeks seem to be my nemesis. So, I look at swift creek crossings with a certain amount of trepidation.

Planning an adventure is not a big issue as I enjoy trip planning. Perhaps, it is the anticipation. My girlfriend always tells me I have an active imagination. So, I am envisioning environments before I even get there. Sometimes I am totally surprised.

Fortunately, funding is not an issue for me so far. My working career enabled me to be comfortable in my retirement.

A bit more about hiking and funding: Hiking can be a very inexpensive hobby. Like most things it has an initial outlay for gear… things like appropriate footwear and a backpack. But once you are ready to go, the hiking is nearly free. There is some expense for fuel to get where you’re going. Some parks have entry fees. But if you stay local and use national forests, hiking doesn’t take a bite out of your check book.

Perhaps the biggest danger for any hiker is their own stupidity, trying to do things beyond their own capabilities. So far as physical dangers are concerned, more people die at waterfalls than anywhere else on the trail. I strongly urge you to be extremely careful around waterfalls. The most famous last words are “watch this.”

Manage to keep going when tired and everything is a mess can be hard, very hard. What I do is force myself to consider the alternatives. If I don’t continue, likely I will have to spend the night in the wilderness, and I’m even less prepared for that than for finishing the hike. I always carry emergency supplies just in case that is an eventuality, but so far it hasn’t happened to me yet.

Last year, I got in a little over my head on a hike where I was exhausted, and we got drenched by an unexpected downpour. It was definitely a mess, as you say. Having my companion with me was a big help. We offered encouragement to each other.

Hiker Jeff Clark

What is your best advice for new hikers?

As with most any endeavor in life, the best advice for new hikers is to be prepared. Learning and understanding the 10 Essentials of Hiking is quite important.

Take, for example, that story I mentioned above. If I did not have rain gear with me, I could have gotten in even more trouble from hypothermia or exposure. I always carry first aid for minor injury, and extra, dry clothes if I get stuck overnight in the cold and wet. Just use your noggin and think ahead.

It’s all about preparation. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I am finishing up a hike and here come folks up the trail near dark in flip-flops, with just the clothes on their back, no food or water, and a totally clueless look on their face.

It isn’t what you expect that will get you. It is the unexpected. You must prepare for the unexpected. You just never know when you will get injured or lost. Those outcomes never even crossed your mind when you left your car three miles back.

Additionally, please, if you pack it in, pack it back out. I do pick up other hiker’s trash and carry it out with me. But if we all used the wilderness as a trash dump for littering, the aesthetic of the wild would be lost in no time. Please practice all of the Leave No Trace principles.

I suppose it’s all about motivation. If you want to hike, you will. If you don’t want to hike, you should probably find another hobby.

How do you prepare for your hikes?

Usually the night before I get everything together so I’m not rushing and forget something. I empty my pack, look at all the supplies, decide what I will need, and refill the pack. Sometimes it depends on the season. Sometimes it depends on the weather forecast. If it’s a particularly long or strenuous hike, I will take more food for energy and water for hydration. Always I make sure I have the 10 Essentials.

Just walking mainly. Hiking isn’t biking. Hiking isn’t tennis. I try to use the same muscles and joints during my routine exercise.

For materials and gear, you might want to check out the “Reviews” section of my website and you will find some of my favorites.

Planning my hikes depends a lot on the season. For example, if it’s summer, I usually go to the high country for the cooler, less humid air. Conversely, if it’s winter, I typically hike at lower elevations where it isn’t as cold, with less snow and ice.

Knowing your limits is important. I don’t plan 20 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation gain as a day hike, simply because it is beyond my physical capability. Some people are stronger hikers and can do it. I can’t. I know my limits.

Hiker Jeff Clark

How do you finance your hikes?

I do most of my hiking locally, where the expenses are minimal. Usually once a year, I will plan a remote trip, usually to visit my brother. Think of it as being like a vacation. I know when you’re retired like I am, every day is vacation, but hopefully you understand what I mean.

There is always fuel to get there. If I’m hiking 100 miles away I will obviously use more fuel than if I’m hiking 10 miles away. I have to restock food items. I always carry a few granola bars or other energy nutrients, plus a sandwich or soup, etc.

Some locations charge an entry fee.

Now and then I have to purchase a new pair of hiking shoes or a new jacket. They do wear out after all.

There is some travel expense every time, even if it’s only a gallon of gas. Gear is more expensive, but I don’t have to replace it very often.

All in all, hiking is relatively inexpensive compared to other outdoors activities.

Hiker Jeff Clark

How do you balance normal life with hiking?

These days, for me, hiking is normal life. I realize for those reading this who are still working, you are limited as to when you can hike… usually weekends. For many, there are also family considerations. If you really enjoy hiking, see if your kids do too. You may find that they love it. It excites me when I happen upon entire families on the trail. Those parents are nurturing the conservationists of tomorrow.

I hike at least one day per week every week of the year. Recently, I have become more appreciative of winter hiking. There is an entirely different beauty in stark nature.

A couple weeks a year, I travel cross country for my “vacation” time. Usually during that excursion I am hiking nearly every day. In total, I hike perhaps 70-75 days per year.

Fortunately, I am at the point in my life where I don’t have to earn money. The four decades that I did work have enabled me to maintain an income in my retirement years through social security and a pension.

When I did still work, I always allocated a certain amount of me time that usually included my outdoor passions.

I’m not a long distance thru-hiker. I don’t run marathons or enter iron man competitions. I simply day hike… a lot. So training for me is just a walk around the neighborhood. There are no logistical concerns like supply drops that thru-hikers have to consider.

Hiker Jeff Clark

What favorite hiking gear/gadgets do you have?

I suppose my favorite thing is the pack. It all starts with a pack. You carry everything else in your pack. Make sure when you purchase one that it fits you well, has plenty of room and pockets for all the doodads you want to carry, and rides comfortably on your shoulders and hips.

Most hiking gear are utility items. Most you hardly ever use. They are just there for emergency situations. Hopefully, you don’t have many emergencies.

What is your favorite type of clothing and pair of shoes for hiking?

About a decade ago, I learned to get away from cotton clothing when exercising outdoors. When you sweat, it gets wet. Cotton doesn’t dry very quickly, so if it gets cold, you get even colder.

Modern fabrics dry much quicker through a process known as wicking. The more popular wicking fabrics are merino wool and polyester microfiber. I love the feel and comfort of microfiber materials, but unfortunately scientists are discovering (much like with so many desirable things) that microfiber has a down side, and is not environmentally sensitive.

Teeny, tiny micro fibers end up in the laundry every time you wash, and those tiny fibers make it into the water supply and eventually even to the oceans. To their credit most of the manufacturers are aware of the problem and are working to create new, more sensitive and sustainable fabrics.

I always buy hiking shoes with a waterproof liner to keep my socks and feet dry. I use both low tops and mid tops, depending on the terrain. It is very important to buy hiking shoes or boots that fit you perfectly. You can’t enjoy your hiking if all you’re thinking about is your feet hurting.

Hiker Jeff Clark

What will the future bring?

Most likely more of the same. My brother is also within a couple years of retirement himself. He and I have talked over the years about taking some longer adventures, in the Canadian Rockies for example.

I love the mountains. If I ever get into international travel, I would like to visit New Zealand, the Patagonia area of Argentina, the Dolomites in Italy.

Here in the good ole U.S.A., I want to make it to Olympic National Park for an extended visit some time, and also to the upper New England region like Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Most of my dreams in this regard are more in the line of camera equipment. The pictures that I take along the way help me to remember my adventures long after I have done them. The day may come when I can’t hike anymore, but I will always have the memories through my photographs.

Hiker Jeff Clark

Anything else you wish to add?

Outdoors recreation is really booming in the United States. I think that’s wonderful. National parks and national forests are breaking attendance records every year. But with more people in the woods, canyons, and deserts, more people are getting hurt or killed.

So, I want to leave you with this: Have a wonderful time, whatever you do, but please be careful out there. That selfie at the top of a waterfall, or ten feet from a bison is not worth your life. Don’t make “watch this” your famous last words.

Please be respectful of wildlife. Know that we are just guests in their home. A fed bear is a dead bear. That orange peel or apple core that you think will biodegrade when you toss it will immediately become food for some small critter long before it biodegrades. Their systems cannot handle non-native foods.

Riparian areas along creeks and streams are critical habitat for amphibian species. Those rocks you are picking up out of the stream bed to stack or toss may be the home of a dozen different fish or insects.

So too, respect the land. Leave things as you find them, especially historic artifacts. That ancient pictograph on the rock wall was made perhaps a thousand years ago. Don’t feel the urge to add your own tag or graffiti. Just because they painted on the rocks way back then does not mean that you should today. It just isn’t the same thing.

Just keep these few things in mind. Respect yourself, respect the wildlife, and respect the land. Most of all get out there and have fun!

All photographs are copyright by Internet Brothers.

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