The Tao of Hiking: Take a Mini-Solo

by Kaki Flynn
Spec for Women's Adventure Magazine

I brainstormed with Nicole Blaser, a fellow guide and National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Big City Mountaineers instructor, about ways to take fifteen minutes and build your own mini-solo. 

Santa Cruz at sunrise by Brandon Tyrell

"Lots of people talk to animals," said Pooh.
"Not that many listen though."
"That's the problem."
-The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

I've hiked in some pretty cool places. The black sand beaches of Hawaii, deep in the Mojave dessert, and on kayak-access only islands in Florida. Whether I'm guiding a burly 21-day backpacking trip or heading out for a quick 30-minute hike around Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles, I always like to make time for a mini-solo.

On longer backpacking hikes, I may take an entire day or days to have a solo. Solo time is simply time spent apart from others, in nature, to reflect, clear your mind, and take in your surroundings.

A few years ago I started integrating some of the tools that I used on those long solos into short hikes around town, or if I found myself rushing too fast along a trail.

After all, one of the reasons we hike is to appreciate nature and how being on top of a mountain or meandering along the edge of a stream makes us feel alive and freshens our spirit.

I'm sure before I started actively taking mini-solos a few years ago, I missed some pretty cool moments on my hikes by listening to some problem I'm trying to tackle grinding in my head or being more worried about rushing back to my car before dark than the cool lizard I’m past.

Here are some tips to find some solo-time whether you are hiking around your local park, or pausing while on a 1,000 mile journey on the Appalachian Trail.

The best thing about these exercises is that you don’t need any extra gear to bring with you on your hike. These tips are also easy to mix and match – realistically, I would pick two or three to do on each hike, and then try some of the others on your next trip.

Find a Spot
The most important part about finding a good spot for your solo is to find a place where you can have minimal interruptions. If it’s a park that has heavy traffic at certain times of the day, just find a spot five to ten feet off the trail.

Depending on where you are, this can be a nice park bench along the trail, or a soft patch of needles nestled in a grove of aspens. Blaser, who lives in Crested Butte, Colo, loves to head through town and hit the Green Lakes Trail, a moderate, seven-mile trail that starts from the Crested Butte Nordic Center. “There is a ridge with an amazing view that lets you look out across the mountains,” said Blaser.

If you are with a friend, or a group of people, have everyone spread out – even if just ten feet apart – so that everyone has a chance to maximize this hiking activity.

While taking a walk on the beach with a group on Thompson Island in Boston, I had everyone in the group pick a spot in the sand overlooking the Bay, facing away from each other and looking out into the ocean.

Check Your Breathing
I'm always amazed at the first breathe I feel when I do this - I'm usually a little shocked at how shallow I'm breathing. I recommend sitting down, closing your eyes, and then taking three big, exaggerated, drawn out breathes with your mouth open, followed by seven deep breathes with your mouth closed and breathing through your nose.

My track and cross-country coach in high school used to call this "belly breathing." You want to feel as if you are drawing air into your belly. If some of you have ever done yoga, this is similar to the type of breathing you may do at the beginning and end of class.

Quiet the Mind
The key is focusing your mind and placing yourself firmly in the moment," says Blaser, whose advanced mediation studies include time at the Crestone Zen Center in Colorado. This will be an almost immediate benefit of checking your breathing. The best way to continue working on quieting the mind is to focus completely on your surroundings. I say to myself, “Be here NOW. Where am I? What time of day is it? Where is the sun in relation to where I am?” This will push out other thoughts and really draw you into the moment.

Use All 5 Senses
Do this, and you will find yourself tapping into your sixth sense - that feeling of calm you get from dialing yourself into the universe around you.  Take the five senses – sight, touch, taste,sound, and smell – and focus on the most prominent thing you are picking up with each of these senses.

This has fundamentally changed the way I’ve viewed many eco-systems. I love doing this at night, if I can. My favorite is a time I snuck away from a group during a trip on the New River in North Carolina and grabbed a few minutes to myself. The bank of the river on this moonless night was filled with fireflies. That ten minutes to myself is something I replay often.

Spend just a minute with each sense. It’s perfectly fine to just feel out how much time you are spending on each part of the exercise, or to time it to the second. Whatever jibes with you and how you get centered is perfect.

For sight, simply absorb what is in your peripheral vision, really paying attention to all of the plants, rocks, sand, water or sky around you. Feel as if you are absorbing the landscape with your eyes. You can also just pick one square-foot of space, and look at everything in that space. How
many colors do you see? How many shades of green in a leaf?

For touch, gently feel the bark of the tree, the leaves of a plant, let  sand run through your fingers
or press your hand against a nearby bolder. I’m always surprised at how warm or cool rocks are.

Focusing on taste will surprise you. I definitely don’t recommend actually putting anything in your mouth – that can be dangerous. Keep this one simple; just open your mouth slightly, and pay attention to the wind or the sun on your tongue, and “taste” the environment around you.

Sound is something to be practiced on the backcountry or a city bus. Both can be soothing activities. Close your eyes, and imagine your ears “opening up” to the world around you. Try to pick up on two to three different sounds. I often find this is when I become aware of just how much wildlife is around me, from an interesting spider web to all kinds of birds.

For smell, smell as many plants as possible around you. As silly as it may initially sound, smell a rock. Some have earthy, almost sunny smells. The desert, the oceans and rivers all have their own scent.


Now that you are refreshed and know the world around you a little better, end your mini-solo
by saying thanks. Namaste comes from a Sanskrit word, and is generally used to show respect for a person or place. As you get up from your mini-solo site, pause, turn toward that mountain, meadow or scenic trail you found, and simply say “Thanks” before you return to your hike.

Solo Memories
Bring along a small journal to sketch in, and do the “find 10 things” activity, but this time, draw two or three of them in a sketch book. This doesn’t have to be fancy. I have a couple of different small journals I write in; one is from an art supply store with a moleskin cover when I’m feeling more serious, and one is just a small notebook I picked up in the school supply section at the grocery store.

I use a simple number two pencil, as well as a really cool pack of miniature colored pencils I picked up at Barnes & Noble.

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