There are few muses better than nature. Spending time hiking through valleys, hills, mountains, and forests is a sure-fire way to get your creative juices flowing and discover fresh inspiration. As essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson told “In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man.”
But how can you capture the “wild delight” of nature artistically or creatively? Surely there’s more to it than just noting down the first thing that comes to mind?
In reality, there are infinite creative outlets available to you when hiking or backpacking — you just have to choose a medium and approach that resonates with you. So, here are a few ideas to get you started.
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Mindfulness While Hiking
You don’t have to be in a calm state of mind to access your creative side — but it does help. Fortunately, hiking is good for your mental health and is a great way to calm a busy mind, as open-air helps you focus on your surroundings and ground yourself in the here and now. It also has the potential to help if you’re struggling with conditions like depression, or have been in a rut for a while.
There are plenty of great ways to practice mindfulness, but why not make use of your surroundings to find a creative, mindful state? Here’s how:
- Take account of your surroundings and make sure you’re on a safe trail. Walking off trail might seem like a good idea, but you will quickly become lost.
- Start hiking mindfully by counting your steps and slowing your cadence. Count up to 10 and back again a few times.
- Listen to the sound your feet make on the trail beneath you.
- Pause your hike and listen to the sounds around you — you can even close your eyes and try to hear the horizon.
- When you take a water break, try to taste the water and consciously feel the effect of hydration running through your body.
Mindfulness while hiking helps you pay attention to your surroundings and quickly gets you into a creative mood. You can even boost your mindfulness practice with art like photography. Photography is great for your mental well-being, and can seamlessly tie into your mindfulness practice. As Arts Educator and infrared photographer Laurie Klein explains, “Photographs are a mirror into your soul,” and the practice of capturing images can lead to personal growth and meaningful self-discovery.
Self-Discovery When Hiking
Self-discovery is fickle. One day, you feel as though you fully live up to the Greek maxim “know thyself”. The next day, you find yourself wondering why you said something silly or did something embarrassing. It’s only natural to feel this way about yourself, but hiking can help you discover an identity that you can be proud of.
Unfortunately, self-discovery doesn’t happen by itself, pun intended. Instead, you have to prod and probe your ideas about the world to come to a meaningful conclusion.
When hiking, the best way to engage in self-discovery is to “pack a question” with you and explore that question in creative ways.
Packing a question means that, before you set foot on the trail, you choose a question to consider and return to it whenever your mind wanders from your immediate experience. Ideally, this question will revolve around nature and creativity in some way. Here are a few examples to get you started:
- Are you a part of nature or society? Or maybe something between?
- Where does human life end and nature start?
- Why do you enjoy spending time in nature? It seems counter-intuitive, but natural spaces are more relaxing than the ones we build — why is that?
Of course, you can always come up with these kinds of questions while you’re hiking. But, the idea of “packing a question” is to prioritize thoughts that spark creativity. You’re far more likely to come up with meaningful thoughts and self-discovery when you settle on a single question before you hit the trail, and you might strike upon a new perspective while out in nature.
Consider a New Medium
Hiking inherently boosts creativity. A Stanford study found that your creative output could be increased by 60% when walking and suggested that you do your best thinking while putting one foot in front of the other.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The world’s greatest thinkers, from Nietzsche to Jane Austen, all cherished walking and struck upon some of their best ideas while following a footpath.
However, if you are feeling burnt out with your usual medium, a hike might not be enough to recapture your creative spark. Instead, consider trying a new artistic medium that can be completed while hiking and gives you a good break from your usual artistic practice.
The new medium you choose is entirely up to you. But, try something that takes you in a new direction. For example, if you usually write short stories or essays, try something tactile like painting or cyanotype photography. Or, if you usually spend your free time painting and sculpting, try your hand at poetry and choose a form that works for you like haiku or free verse.
By choosing a new medium to explore, you may find that you can engage with nature in a new and creative way. Cyanotypes using natural materials might help you see the artistic potential of your surroundings more clearly, and short-form poetry can give you a lasting memory of how your hike felt.
A Little Planning Goes a Long Way
Hiking for creativity is a great way to lose yourself and discover new ideas or experiences. But, most hikes aren’t without a little peril, too. So, before you do your best Julie Andrews impression up on local hills, be sure to plan your hike and do all the prep work you may need.
When planning a hike, be honest about your own experience and limits. A 20-mile hike into the mountains might make for a great story, but if you’re inexperienced you’ll only end up with blisters and a bruised ego. Instead, try to search for appropriate hikes in your area through apps like AllTrails and Strava. These apps usually give you a difficulty rating, and reviews help you prepare for the conditions you’ll face.
The gear you’ll need to bring is highly situational. A sunrise hike might require you to bring several layers while a night hike will require lamps and additional first-aid supplies. Make sure you tick off the essentials, but pack some art supplies, too. A small, waterproof, notepad is usually perfect for poetry and you can easily find travel watercolor kits at a local stationery shop.
Of course, you don’t need to create anything that lasts while you’re in nature. There’s nothing wrong with simply dancing beside a lake or stone stacking. But do ensure that you always follow leave-no-trace principles, and be sure to dismantle your stone stacks before you leave to help national parks that are overwhelmed by left-over stone stacks.
Hiking and creativity are intrinsically connected. Walking in the fresh air sparks new ideas and helps you focus on challenges. You can also use nature as a muse and record what you see, hear, and smell while you’re out on a hike. If you’re struggling to find your creative streak while outdoors, consider switching mediums and trying your hand at something new. You’ll be surprised by the results, and may stumble upon major creative breakthroughs while you hike.