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Hiking as a Tribe

Hiking as a Tribe

By: Gerhard Nel 

[Trigger warning: pop psychology]

Human beings are inherently pack animals. For time immemorable we have been functioning as such – think of a troop of baboons, gorillas or monkeys. A horde of Vikings. An army of warriors. A congregation of people. We live in relation to others, defining ourselves according to the mirrors upheld by the ones we love. Without other people to give us context we are, in fact, all alone. As Christopher McCandless so poignantly put – “happiness is only real, when shared”.

Hiking as a group, for days on end, is the ultimate tribal activity. As with our primitive ancestors, we travel on foot from camp to camp. We find water. We find shelter. We interpret the weather and make decisions for each day based on the conditions that we face. And alas, thanks to modern technology, we don’t need to forage because we eat nice, freeze dried meals. But back to the story.

It could be argued that hiking as a group has elements of our primal and primitive nature, which is encoded in our DNA. Homo sapiens first graced the face of the earth a cool 300,000 years ago. And we have been multi-day hiking since day one! Just take a stroll in the Western Cape mountains and you will see our close relative, the Baboon, multi-day hiking in troops in the very same mountains that we call home.

This could help us draw a very interesting parallel between our primitive nature, our ultimate development as human beings, and the role of this so-called “leisure” activity in our lives. Firstly, one could argue that spending time in nature, walking from camp to camp, is a more normal or natural activity than being at work, driving a car, or going to school. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle preceded any of the main tenets of our current homogenised, industrialised and globalised society.

Secondly one could argue that hiking helps us reconnect even further with our deepest core, if we allow it. This is thanks to the way that walking in the mountains with a group of people could fulfil our core, primitive needs. According to acclaimed physician, writer and trauma specialist Dr Gabor Maté, a human being has two main needs that need to be fulfilled aside from physical nourishment and material safety – the need for attachment and the need for authenticity.

Attachment, in short, is the need for love. Authenticity, in turn, is the practice of being who we truly are. Many people, especially during childhood, learn to suppress their authenticity for the sake of maintaining attachment. Or, put more bluntly, many children learn at a young age that “If I express who I truly am, my parents will reject me”. And, in doing so, we learn to repress our gut feelings. This eventually leads to a complete disconnect from who we truly are and, ultimately, an unfulfilled and unimaginative life. This suppression of the primitive need to “be yourself” is even more compounded by the pressures of everyday life.

Enter hiking. The primitive activity that many of us adore so much. Mainly done in groups, mainly done with a handful of trusted friends. We also frequently hike with strangers, but we would always find out a bit about the person beforehand. Some link needs to exist between the people, so that there could be respect. Which leads to trust. Which leads to safety. Without trust in your fellow hikers, the mountain becomes a threatening and dangerous place.

Correct me if I am wrong, but by Day 3 of a multi-day hike, even the most unlikely motley-crew of people resembles a family. And by the end of a week-long hike, friendships are created that far outlive many life-long acquaintances. When described as such, it seems that multi-day hiking is a great way to forge deep connections within a tribal context. Which, according to me, seems like it fulfils our need for attachment quite beautifully.

For many of us, hiking is also a means of expressing our authenticity. It makes us figure out who we are. It brings us closer to our true nature, it helps us listen to our gut feelings, it quiets the monkey-mind and allows for deep reflection. It creates a space where we can make big life decisions. Or ponder big existential questions. Or remember feelings long forgotten. Or just let our hair down and howl at the moon.

And, therefore, it seems that hiking fulfils both our primitive needs for attachment and authenticity. And it seems that it reconnects us with our ancestral roots, which was quite literally encoded into our DNA for 300,000+ years.  It allows us to merge with nature. Not only becoming one with the experience of nature, but also reconnecting with the nature inside ourselves.

So, if anyone ever asks you the inevitable question – why do you hike? You could perhaps respond with – “because I am reconnecting with my inner primate by joining a modern hunter-gatherer tribe in a 300,000-year-old tradition and thereby connect to both my innate psychological needs for attachment and authenticity as identified by a world-renowned trauma specialist.” Or, instead, you could opt for the mundane and generic answer – “because I like it”.

No matter how you choose to define your experience, you are encouraged to remember that you are doing your human nature a true service every time you head out into the hills.

And, most importantly, you are encouraged to forget this story, go for a hike, and just let go. 


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