6 lessons from spending time in the mountains

Dec 18, 2020 | Inspiration

Following a yearly tradition, my siblings, my partner, and I spent four days in the mountain doing a well-known Catalan route called Carros de Foc. It is a 55 km long hiking trail through the Pyrenees, with a total elevation gain of 9200 m. It all started on a Wednesday at 3 pm, when we grabbed our backpacks and headed north, ready for the adventure.

Days were filled with long hours of hiking that never seemed to end, majestic landscapes with all kinds of animals, delicious and abundant food at the huts, lots of laughs and pain, and, for most of the route, the sun shining above the mountains.

No phone signal most of the time, no sign of civilization nearby and very few people around. It seemed as we were back to our origins, with the only option of observing what was around and enjoying nature at its best. I never felt so isolated before. It was a strange but pleasant feeling.

Four days later, 55 kilometres more in my legs, muscles still aching and all the clothes in the backpack dirty, I realised that those days were not just about having fun but also about learning a lot. The mere fact of spending time in nature teaches you things without you even realising it. Nature has the power to put things in perspective and change your mindset.

There are some thoughts in particular that have stayed with me even when the hike ended, and I wanted to share them with you because they are a great reminder of how living in a conscious way can help you day to day.

We need far less than we think

One of the first important thoughts that crossed my mind during the hike has been the few belongings I had with me. I remember I found it really hard to pack the suitcase, just because of non-important and stupid decisions such as “let’s pack this notebook and this extra swimsuit, just in case” or “I need a shirt for each day”.

Three days after starting the hike, I realised I hadn’t used half of what I had in my backpack. I spent two days with the same clothes, I swam in the lakes with my underwear and I only used one cap of the two I had taken. Actually, I realised that having so many different clothes at home made it difficult to choose which ones to take and which ones not.

I was also worried about what I would do with my free time. We usually started to hike at 8 am, so by 3 pm we were already in the next hut. At the moment of packing, I thought I had to take a lot of things with me for those free hours (a notebook to draw, board games, a book and some episodes of a series downloaded). What would I do in the middle of the mountain? Turns out I didn’t need that much. The simple fact of looking at the landscape, swimming in the lakes, walking barefoot on the grass, playing board games or reading was more than enough.

We live in an economy that is sustained by capitalism. Society is designed to make us believe that the more we have, the better we are. And the truth is far from this. The most important things in life don’t come from our material objects. Once we have the essentials for living, it’s enough. However, more often than not, we have more things than what we truly use.

Needless to say, I’m not suggesting you leave everything behind and go live in the middle of the jungle with just a couple of shirts (although if that’s your dream, why not!?) but instead giving it a second thought before buying new things.

Urgent matters might not be so urgent

The absence of phone signal stayed with us for the most part of our hike. No WhatsApp, no calls, no email. Four days of complete digital isolation. It might seem weird to experience this in the 21st century, but, if you have the chance, please do so!

Before the hike, the idea of not being able to reply to messages often and interact with friends constantly sounded weird. During a typical day, my phone receives quite a lot of notifications (as I imagine yours do too). So I couldn’t picture myself not being able to reply to those notifications, which, at the time, seemed very important.

But after getting back from the trip everything was exactly the same. The fact of being isolated in nature made me realise that the world doesn’t end without my phone. Friends were still my friends after four days of not replying to their WhatsApps, I still had my job as I was on holiday and there was no need to reply to something and I didn’t miss any publication on Instagram that would have changed my life. And although it seems obvious and we all know we can live using our phones less, we sometimes tend to forget it.

The degree to which we’re connected has made us unconsciously forget the difference between important and urgent. Technology creates a false sense of urgency and takes us time for the important stuff. Replying an email for a new job position is urgent and important, but telling a friend if you have eaten pizza or salad for dinner is definitely not.

Now, I usually have my phone in “Do not disturb” mode and I look at it at certain times of the day (at midday and in the evening). If something needs to be replied, I do so, but for the typical conversations about how life is going, it can easily take me several days to answer. You can regain a lot of time by distinguishing between messages that feel urgent but aren’t important and messages that truly are.

Nature is crucial for our health and wellbeing

It seemed that after 14 km of hiking each day, my body would just want to arrive at the hut to lay in bed the whole afternoon. However, I felt much more energy during those days than any day spending 8 hours working in front of the computer. Stress melts away and leaves space for creative and relaxing thoughts. Being in a rush was not normal anymore. Instead, it was normal to stop and contemplate the flowers, the animals, or just the shape of the clouds. As soon as the alarm clock rang, we woke up jumping and ready for another day of adventure. Pretty different from what I’m used to experiencing in the city.

In the last years, a growing body of scientific evidence has revealed the existence of a link between our health and nature. From improving our sleep to reducing the levels of stress, nature is definitely our ally. It’s where we find the food we need to thrive, the inspiration to let our brains run wild and have new ideas, and the peace and quiet we need to relax. In short, it’s where we come from and where we have lived most of our time as species.

Modern life tends to drive us away from the natural world, creating a barrier between humans and the rest of the planet. We can spend days, even weeks, without being surrounded by nature. Levels of anxiety, depression, and the so-called burnout have risen in the last years and the trend is for them to continue as new generations spend less and less time outdoors. The solution is so easy that it almost seems ridiculous: spend more time in nature.

Disconnection allow us to reconnect

I often don’t allow myself to have time just to relax and do nothing. It seems a waste of time that I could use to do something more productive. Productivity is a mainstream topic nowadays. Productivity courses, productivity coaches, productivity podcasts, anything that teaches you how to use every second of your day to do something. Optimize your time as much as you can. No time to let your brain disconnect and do nothing. When we’re not working, we’re going on a trip, watching Netflix, or planning tomorrow’s dinner with friends. Our world runs on the premise of “work hard, play hard”.

However, as Jenny Odell writes in her book “Time to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy”, time to do nothing means time spent staring through the window, laying under a tree, or watching the stars. When was the last time you did something that didn’t require you to do absolutely anything? Just passing time for the sake of passing it.

During those days in the mountains, I experienced what doing nothing meant. I remember one afternoon I spent one hour just laying on the grass and feeling the sun bathing my skin. It was such a pleasant feeling! Nothing demanded my attention, nobody was waiting for me and no clock ticking.

Since then, I’m well aware that breaks are needed in order to continue moving through life. I came back with more energy than ever, looking forward to writing, working, and doing my daily routines. I’ve discovered I don’t need four entire days in the mountains to get this little dose of peace and relax, I can just stop whatever I’m doing and stare at the tree I have in front of my window.

When your brain says no, you still can

I remember especially the third day of our route. We left the hut quite early in the morning as it was one of the longest days. We started walking and after one hour, we found a lake. We looked right, left, and right again to realise that there wasn’t any track aside from the one that brought us there. In which direction were we supposed to head? To make everything more dramatic, we didn’t have a map. We spent around an hour trying to find the way until we decided to go back. Once in the hut again, some other hikers told us that we headed in the complete opposite direction. Not only it was the longest day, but we also had to add it two extra hours!

I remember thinking that we wouldn’t make it. Too many kilometres ahead of us. My brain was telling me all the reasons to not take another step. “Legs are hurting”, “backpack is too heavy” or “I just want to arrive now” were some of the thoughts my brain repeated constantly. Despite what it said, I chose to shut up the voice and try to concentrate on the beauty of the landscape. Some hours later, step after step, and with a lot of effort, we arrived at the hut.

This event made me think about what is known as “the 40% rule”. It’s an extended rule among the Navy Seals and it says that when your mind tells you you’re done, you’re actually only 40% done. The 40% rule isn’t really a rule. It doesn’t matter if it’s 40%, 15%, or 5%. Rather, it’s a way of saying that you can still go further, even when you think your energy deposit is empty. Of course, our minds and bodies aren’t limitless, but we often limit ourselves.

In a study conducted in Spain, researchers found that subjects reached physical exhaustion even with reserves in the muscles to generate power for another 7–8 minutes at the same intensity at which exhaustion occurred.

Time is flexible

One thing I found extremely curious about these days in the mountains was the concept of time. Days felt like months and, at the same time, hours passed like minutes. We saw so many landscapes in one day it felt it was impossible that all happened on the same day. On the other hand, we had to walk for 6 hours and they passed in the blink of an eye. In the 24 hours of a day, we had time to hike, swim, read, eat, play, observe nature and sleep.

I came to the realisation that we either control time or time controls us. After all, time is a human invention. I’ve met some people able to do a thousand things in one day and it’s not a matter of having or not having time, it’s a matter of how you use the time you have. As Laura Vanderkam says in her book I know how she does it: How successful women make the most of their time: “Time is elastic. It stretches to accommodate what we need or want to do with it.”

So those were the lessons I learned after spending four days in the mountains hiking. It’s funny because now, a year later, I still think they’re valuable and they made me aware of things I wasn’t paying attention to.

To end, I wanted to invite you to do a simple exercise. Think about a time you spent in nature. It doesn’t matter if it was an hour, two days or three weeks. Try to remember what you felt, which things surprised you or if you noticed any difference when you were there. Any other thoughts, discoveries or lessons you’ve learned after spending time surrounded by nature that could be added to the list?