An Ethics of Hiking (and a Free Photo of the Day)

Hello readers!

I’ve been working on a chapter in Eastern Connecticut from the Trails that considers some prolegomena (“first words”; the Greeks used it to mean “prologue” or “introduction”) for a new philosophy of hiking. In its formal presentation, it considers the big questions of philosophy but specifically geared toward hiking. For example, what is a hike? Is it the distance? The location? What makes a hike distinguishable from, say, a particularly long walk to the store? And, what do we learn from hiking (epistemology)?

One of the more, shall we say contentious, subjects with which I’m grappling is the question of why we hike. Unfortunately, my reflections have drawn me to the conclusion that almost all hikers are motivated by internal stimuli: the desire to be fit, the hope of finding solitude, inner peace, a great view. Some hike as amateur scientists: for bird watching, identifying rare or beautiful plants, collecting rocks. But the relationship with nature, too often, is one-sided. We benefit from hiking, but the natural world receives nothing from our presence. Indeed, as the seemingly endless parade of trash on the trails indicates, the forests and wildlife are worse for our interference.

There’s nothing wrong with going out for exercise, spiritual nourishment, or a glimpse of nature’s secret majesty. Every hike I’ve ever done has been compelled by some degree and combination of those aims. If there’s a philosophy of hiking, however, there’s also an ethics that entails from the truths that philosophy proffers. What ethical duty do we have as hikers to ourselves, do others, and to nature?

A full treatment of the ethical dimension of hiking is a bit much for a blog post. But here are some thoughts to get the ball rolling.

For a start, don’t litter the trails. I don’t wish to sound like priggish, so let me underscore that I make it a point to be very generous in my estimation of other people. We’re all human, we all make mistakes. To harp on the folly and ignorance of other people too often is a prescription for a miserable life. But I would gently suggest that, in the ethics of hiking, there’s an obligation to anyone who sets out on the trails to “do no harm,” as the Buddhists say. And I would encourage anyone thinking of hiking to conduct a little self-analysis and honestly assess if they can meet that minimal goal or not.

Let’s imagine a person who simply can’t get behind the wheel of a car and obey the laws that keep the roads safe. They run red lights. They drive at twice the posted speed limit – in a school zone. They frequently drive drunk. Would it be controversial to eventually say this person, who is unwilling to alter their errant ways for the good of the whole, “Perhaps you should just stay off the roads?” And, would it not be responsible and laudable if that person said, “Yes, indeed, I should stay off the roads until I can adhere to the standards that keep our roads safe?”

I think the same situational ethics apply to the trails. If a person cannot hike without casting beer bottles and soiled diapers into the dirt, if the woods are merely a convenient place to have sex and leave used condoms for the rest of us, if they simply must destroy a tree to declare their love “4 ever” for their partner, if they find leash laws and prohibitions against fires, motorized vehicles, and leaving pet excrement on beaches and foot paths too encumbering, then I think it’s quite fair to say: stay home. The trails are not for you quite yet, but we’d love to see you when you can engage in a symbiotic relationship with the outdoors.

This, I believe, points to the one axiom (a statement that is necessarily true, accepted as fact) I’ve discovered in hiking: nature itself has value beyond what it can do for us. The forests, the flora and fauna in their diversity, the ecosystems – all have an intrinsic worth that’s separate and immutable – unlike the value of meat, timber, ore, and other “products” we harvest from nature.

So beyond doing no harm, perhaps we can also aim to help. A small example – I carry a garbage bag, a mere 5 gallon one, in my pack when I hike. When I see a bit of rubbish on the trail, I pick it up and pack it out with me. It’s what I consider a basic courtesy to the natural world and to other hikers and our park systems, too. We can volunteer our time maintaining the trails. We can donate to our cash-strapped Forestry, Parks and Recreation, and Environmental Protection agencies (all of whom rely increasingly on volunteers and outside organizations with each round of budget cuts and layoffs).

But perhaps most importantly, seek out greater knowledge and peace in yourself and in your dealings with nature. Learn the names of the trees, rocks, and animals around you. I am convinced that intimate contact with the forest abolishes all delusions of a self apart from nature; that as our understanding of the intricacy and diversity of the Earth’s geology and biology increases, our feelings of emptiness and disunity decrease. Meditate on these bare but astonishing realities. Hike, but stop and sit in the sunlit field, close your eyes, and listen to the music that was once your home.


What is hiking to you? What does your ‘philosophy’ of hiking include? Comment below!

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