How Spending Time Alone on the Pacific Crest Trail Changed My Life

How Spending Time Alone on the Pacific Crest Trail Changed My Life

Author Derek Cullen along the Pacific Coast Trail

Posted September 12, 2023

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I recently spent five months hiking from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was an incredible backpacking trip through stunning deserts, mountains, and forests but also a journey of self-discovery. At the same time, my trips were now motivated by self-growth rather than deficiency.

That is to say, I wanted to use this adventure to learn and grow, while many of my previous adventures were motivated by deficiency. In other words, I thought that something was wrong with me (and my life) back then and wanted to go about fixing certain problems. For instance, I spent one year riding a bicycle across Africa to grieve for the loss of my parents. Some years later, I spent three weeks hiking the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

I am happy to say that my personal issues began to fade during these adventures. However, even though I ran out of problems to address, I never stopped taking the trips. In fact, the scale of my hikes only grew in size and stature and I soon found myself on the Pacific Crest Trail.

But then what motivated me to continue taking these trips?

It was the Importance of spending time alone with my thoughts that changed everything.

But in order to fully understand my point, we’ve got to talk about the benefits of getting outdoors.

Pacific Crest Trail
Pacific Crest Trail

About the Health Benefits of Getting Outdoors

We all know that getting outdoors is good for your physical health. And we know that exercise helps keep the body in shape, while improving endurance and strengthening the muscles. However, getting outdoors is just as important for mental health and taking time away from all the noise.

It’s true, mental health problems account for ninety percent of what sends people to the doctor. What’s more, most physical disease is non-organic. That is, studies show stress to be the main cause of cardiovascular disease cases, and there is nothing organically wrong with the body. Also, a disease like diabetes type two has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with lifestyle.

And just so you know, regular exercise delivers nutrients and oxygen to the tissues which helps your cardiovascular system perform more efficiently. When your lung and heart health improves over time, the body has more energy to take on daily tasks and chores.

But why am I telling you this? Well, I just want to premise my next point by explaining the connection between mental health and spending time in the great outdoors.

About the Important Life Lessons from My Backpacking Trips

I stumbled upon many great discoveries on my outdoor adventures. When standing on the top of immense mountain ranges, I often looked down and noticed a distinct absence of self-doubt. While camping in the wild, I came to understand the irrational nature of my fears and the fact that my feelings would never be able kill me. With each encounter, I realized how most people were dealing with their own pain and my objective should not be to play victim but rather to learn how to outgrow these problems. With this in mind, this alone time was changing the way I was thinking.

It’s true, as with any time I spend away from the noise, my journey on the Pacific Crest Trail was an opportunity to spend time along with my thoughts. Camping in the Mojave desert, I listened to coyotes howling at the moon, and felt grateful thoughts for the magical blanket of stars overhead. Climbing over Forrester’s Pass, the highest point of the trail, I encouraged myself aloud to “just keep going” and then celebrated at the top by broadcasting “never give up” across the mountains. When suffering with a bad illness in Oregon, I sat next to a tree one day and told myself that everybody gets sick and I can choose to come away from this illness feeling fitter and stronger than ever.

Mojave desert
Mojave desert

In short, I was now fully aware of my own thoughts and making a conscious effort to affirm a deep streak of positivity in the face of whatever might be happening. While it might be one of several factors, it was spending time alone that enabled me to start changing the way I was thinking. And it was through listening to my own self that allowed me to better understand the power of my thoughts.

In case you might be asking yourself, it was also these thoughts and beliefs that began driving my reality. After hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I was picked up by professional sponsors who then helped finance future adventures such as the Camino de Santiago and walking around Ireland.

Anyway, back to my point…

The Importance of Spending Time Alone with Your Thoughts

For this reason, I believe every walk or trip into the wild can become an introspective journey and an opportunity to listen to the story you might be telling yourself. It’s a chance to catch negativity and make a decision to replace this way of thinking with a more positive line of thoughts or beliefs.

On the other hand, maybe there’s nothing to address, and spending this time alone is just a nice way to enjoy the calm and think about life without any distraction or noise. Either way, spending time alone with your thoughts is not something to avoid or fear and certainly not the same as being alone. Because there’s a difference between spending time alone and being alone. After all, being alone serves up negative connotations or feelings, while the latter is a chance to learn, grow and take time to really care about who you are, what you want to be, and where you want to go in life.

hiking-pacific crest trail

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