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The Value of Fear From a Hiker's Perspective

Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.

Even with all the miles and places I've hiked, I'm still sometimes afraid.

Even with all the miles and places I've hiked, I'm still sometimes afraid.

Fear Can Be a Helpful Companion

Walk some miles in my beat-up hiking shoes, and you'll know that I'm still afraid.

Well, I'm not afraid all the time, but my heart does beat a bit faster when I hear that first faraway rumble of thunder or the proverbial stick go *snap!* in the night.

You'd think, after my own walk in the woods from Georgia to Maine, I'd have more trust in my own two feet, even near the edge of a long way down. But, alas, I still challenge the strength of the seat of my pants as I do the ol' sit-and-slide when my active imagination displays before my eyes visions of yours truly taking spectacular falls. I see my feet slipping out from under me, flying into the air as I land hard on my back, smacking my head. Or taking a plunge into the nearby abyss.

You'd think that, after countless hikes all over the globe, from rim to rim of the Grand Canyon to the Inca Trail to the top of an isolated plateau in Israel's Negev desert, I'd skip merrily from boulder to boulder, never mind the sliver of chasm in between.

Yet, I still find myself frozen in place on the warmest and driest of days, my feet beginning to slip on slick stone or hard-packed earth for lack of momentum until, at last, I have no choice but to "just go."

Or until a trail friend literally gives me a hand and, I'm sure, a hidden smirk behind an encouraging smile.

You'd think that after hundreds of Search and Rescue missions—as a searcher and a rescuer that is, not a rescue-ee—I'd be calm and collected while negotiating icy ridges, scrambling across steep slopes, and skiing down scree. But truth be told, I have to remind myself to breathe as I painstakingly pick my way along the intimidating trail or route.

You see, to me, it's not about pride. And it's not about looking cool and calm when I'm not. I'd much rather look like a dork than break my neck.

Sure, after all those miles of trail that have passed beneath my feet, I'm pretty good at setting up a tent in the wind and rain and have far fewer campsite culinary mishaps than I did when I was green (i.e. mac-n-cheese turned to glue; turning a Whisperlite stove into a flame-thrower, etc.). I even border on being a bona fide pro at backcountry preparedness.

However, I still carry with me all the same fears and insecurities I had decades ago when I first hoisted a pack, placing far too much weight on my shoulders rather than my hips.

No, for me it's about the journey, be it long or short, having fun and exploring while remaining physically intact and facing those familiar fears with as much common sense as possible whenever they confront me.

One thing that has changed over all the years, the miles and pairs of hiking boots is how I handle and use those fears I've never been able to leave behind. Nowadays, I actually see them as more of a help than a hindrance, because my fears make me more aware—aware of my actions, the terrain, the conditions. I think ahead, do my homework about trails and routes I'm planning to hike for the first time, and take care both to prepare and to be careful.

When I hear that first rumble of thunder, I now have the knowledge under my belt that I didn't have years ago, and I'll look around and consider the safest place to take cover should the storm get closer—a stand of trees of uniform height, or perhaps or a nearby depression.

Nowadays, I have a much better handle on what works best for me when it comes to navigating sketchy spots and can more safely use my feet, hands, and a hiking pole or two, not to mention my rear end, to get by without too many scrapes.

And I know how to ask for help if it's there, willing, and needed. I'm able to say, "If you'll just stand right there to give me a visual barrier that would be great." Sometimes, it really is all, or mostly, mental.

My fears make me pay more attention to common hiker errors and how I might avoid those pitfalls. So I leave an itinerary with a friend or family member, check the weather before I leave, go prepared, and turn back if conditions warrant it. My fears keep me from being complacent or cocky and, I believe, keep me safer doing what I love most.

Views from the trail

Views from the trail

© 2022 Deb Kingsbury