Soft Hiking Is Hardcore Good For You and Your Dog
Sorry, Miley. It’s not always about the climb.
Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)
The latest hiking trend to climb up social media isn’t about the glory of reaching the summit or the sweat spent along the way. Instead, #softhiking, which has racked up 1.9 million views on TikTok, takes a slower, gentler approach to hiking and proves that it’s not always about the climb (hate to break it to you, Miley).
Soft hiking is the the brainchild of U.K.-based Emily Thornton and Lucy Hird. The duo says that soft hiking is “not about pushing yourself to the limit or ticking something off… Soft hiking is about the pure joy of spending time in nature.”
It’s a practice that many dog owners are already familiar with. Pups tend to slow us down on trails, less concerned with summiting than smelling the flowers and sticks along the way. Many dogs (and people, for that matter) also can’t handle steep inclines, especially during the heat of the summer. Competitive hiking isn’t necessarily their thing, and for good reason.
Going on a soft hike with your pup is a wonderful way to get exercise that feels good for both of you — and its benefits may extend far beyond the physical.
Soft Hiking: a Gateway to Everyday Awe
Think of the last time you got goosebumps looking at an expansive view or a vibrant sunset took your breath away. What you were feeling was awe — an emotion of increasing interest to researchers because of the unique way it activates the brain.
“Awe is the emotion we experience when we encounter vast mysteries that we don’t understand,” psychology professor Dacher Keltner, Ph.D. writes in his book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.
When we face something so vast that it’s beyond our immediate comprehension, we’re forced to perform what’s known as “cognitive accommodation.” Essentially, our outlook on the world — and our place within it — expands, and we walk away from the experience feeling like we’re a small part of a much larger system.
“Awe takes you out of your own self, your own ego, and shifts that attention outward,” Jennifer Stellar, Ph.D. a professor and awe researcher at the University of Toronto, tells The Wildest.
As a result, explains pain management specialist and co-author of The Power of Awe, Michael Amster, MD, awe makes us feel connected to others and more likely to act in pro-social ways. There’s also evidence that awe decreases our tendency to ruminate, or go over the same negative thoughts over and over. It can even make us feel like we have more time in the day.
“That’s a big issue for a lot of us; time feels quite scarce,” Amster says. “When we tap into awe, our experience of time expands.”
So, how does soft hiking play into all of this? Wouldn’t you feel more awe going on a hard hike that had a better view at the top? Well, yes and no. While impressive lookouts surely evoke awe, sometimes we are so focused on reaching them that we totally zone out along the way. Instead, soft hiking presents an opportunity to find everyday awe in the vast mysteries that line the trail: the age-old trees, the curious flowers, the layered nature sounds.
As Keltner writes in his book, “everyday awe is a basic human need.” And, if we had to guess, it’s pretty great for dogs, too.
In her role at Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in North Carolina, Brooke Fornea gets to take dogs out into nature often. Two days a week, the shelter shuts down so a group of seven to 15 pups can go hike on nearby trails with a team of volunteers. “You can have a dog that’s terrified in the shelter that just immediately opens up once it gets on the trail — [they are] joyful and smiling and ready to play,” Fornea says.
Ready to give soft hiking with your dog a go? Here are a few tips to make your trip even more awe-inspiring.
How to Find Awe on Your Soft Hike
Choose a trail that will be safe and comfortable for both of you.
When choosing what trail to hit, Fornea says it’s important to opt for one that provides plenty of shade and rest opportunities. During the summer months, Brother Wolf will go on routes that have less incline and a water source or two along the way. Looking for trails that have ample tree canopy and minimal pavement is also important as temps climb.
To introduce more awe into the mix, Stellar recommends looking for a route that has a few vistas or scenic overlooks. “That’s going to transition it from like, ‘that’s pretty,’ to something that’s really awe-inspiring,” she says.
Stop and smell the roses.
Nature trails present plenty of new and novel smells, which are great for dogs. “It actually tires them out mentally to be able to smell new areas, and gives them all kinds of information that we can’t even comprehend,” Fornea says.
So, even if it means slowing down a bit, let your dogs spend as much time as they’d like sniffing. As they do, use it as a reminder to engage your own senses and tune into the smells, sounds, and feelings around you. Maybe you take a minute to get down to ground level and inspect any tiny buds breaking through, or backtrack and see how many mushrooms you can spot on the base of a tree. Remember: There’s no rush in soft hiking.
Keep your eyes peeled for the new and novel.
While going to new places is a great way to provoke awe, you can find the emotion in areas you’ve visited countless times, too. You just have to consciously look for it. “As a pet parent, I take my dog on pretty much the same walk every day,” Amster says. “But every time I do the walk, it’s like I’ve never done it before because I’m looking for the uniqueness and newness in every moment.”
Whether it’s your first time on a trail or your 50th, stay on the lookout for new aspects of the sky, the wind, the trees, or your dog’s enthusiasm and curiosity.
The key to soft hiking — and to feeling awe — is staying present in the experience. “You don’t have a moment of awe in the past, or in the future. It happens in the present moment,” Amster adds.
As you embark on your journey, resist the urge to call up a friend or drown out the world with a podcast. Stay engaged in the moment at hand by focusing on your breath, feeling the air on your skin, and opening yourself up to wonders large and small.
There’s still lots to learn about how the emotion of awe gives our lives meaning. But it’s safe to say that chasing awe is way more fulfilling than chasing a mile marker — and that’s something the soft hiker in all of us, human and canine, can celebrate.
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Emma is a writer, editor, and environmentalist based in New York City. She is the senior sustainability editor at mindbodygreen, the author of Return To Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us (April 2022), and the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self-Care. While she doesn’t have any pets of her own, she is a loving dog aunt to Pip the pup.