Beyond Self-Care: How Hiking Invites Self-Work

Time outdoors and along hiking trails is especially important time to me. As I’ve written previously, it’s time to consider the steps involved in making change, including learning to tread alternative paths. It’s time to slow down, notice beauty, and appreciate life, even in the roughest of conditions. It’s also time to do important intrapersonal work toward disrupting biases and internalized inferiority + superiority.

It’s possible to consider activities like hiking purely as self-care. And refueling is important.

More than self-care, however, hiking—and perhaps any meaningful time outdoors, with the self—invites contemplation, which is so greatly needed for more mindful communication, for more emotional resilience, and for more equitable relations. Slowing down to reflect on ourselves, our responsibilities, and our response-abilities is needed regularly.

Photo taken near Sedona, Arizona, showing a green prickly pear cactus in the foreground, red soil and rock, a shrub in dark shadow, and mountain peaks and blue sky in the background.

As recent hiking experiences have reminded me, time outdoors invites contemplation and communion with the self, with other humans, with non-human animals, and with the natural world. It strengthens, for me, the commitment to ecofeminism and the need to intervene into brutally enacted hierarchies (represented as a pyramid pointing upward) that place god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth.

Though not typically articulated in explicit terms, hierarchical belief systems provide justification for so much oppression: not only sexism, ageism, and speciesism, but also racism and other -isms. Such hierarchies justify dehumanization and devaluation of the earth, as the lives and voices of powerful men (those ranked as closest to god) are expected to take priority. Hence, the “mythical norm” is reinforced in multiplying subtle, socialized, and systematized ways.

Triangular visualization of the hierarchy of oppression (motivation for ecofeminism) showing god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth.

Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to learn from the natural world (along hiking trails) how all life is related, of value, and part of the whole. Though I’m small within the desert landscape, I still take up space, neither shrinking nor puffing up.

Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to see the historical-cultural-social construction of this and other oppressive hierarchies (e.g., hierarchies that rank people according to race, nationality, and other constructed identities). While I understand how I’m (expected to) function within such hierarchies, I can push back and create other understandings, much as I choose to walk differently.

Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to see myself as deeply embodied: not only experiencing life in my body but also having a body that carries historical meaning and present privileges. As an embodied woman (white, middle/upper-class, cisgender, adult, able-bodied, U.S.-born woman), I feel the anger flush through my body at sexism I experience and perpetuate. And at the related racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, nationalism, and other sorts of -isms I’m conditioned into, take into my body, inevitably perpetuate, and yet want so desperately to undo.

To put this more simply, hiking helps me dive deeply into systems of oppression that I’m striving to understand and intervene into. It helps me see myself not only as I self-identify, but also as I’m identified and constructed within the collective (within social hierarchies that do injustice to people, animals, and the earth). And it helps me linger over everyday interactions and actions, with time along trails to think and talk and turn over possibilities.

Coming off the trail, I am renewed in commitments to racial justice, social justice, and environmental justice. Contemplation and communion lead me back to these aspirations:

  • Unlearning what’s wrong, no matter how deeply socialized and internalized.
  • Affirming, holding up, sharing out, and amplifying work that helps with envisioning more just futures.
  • Studying and teaching histories that are largely suppressed, yet hanging over us as specters shaping life (e.g., histories of enslavement, genocide, colonization, and forced/blocked immigration in the United States).
  • Learning about, leveraging, and working to deconstruct my socially constructed whiteness (part of white supremacy) toward truer ways of showing up in the world.
  • Bringing joy in the midst of struggle (pure delight in the midst of physical pain) off the trail and into everyday living/striving for justice—holding onto and creating more intense love and possibility.
  • Making more explicit the connections between everyday actions—like eating, moving, and speaking—and structural hierarchies (systems of oppression and injustice) that limit that love and possibility.

As an everyday action, hiking invites intrapersonal self-work that’s so needed alongside interpersonal work-with-others and institutional work-within-institutions. To engage in intrapersonal work is not to turn away from other responsibilities and interventions needed in pursuing justice. It is to do this work more mindfully with attention to one’s own positionality and to what learning and unlearning are needed.

May I continue to engage in self-work through hiking and other means.
May this self-work allow me to show up more fully and fiercely for myself and others.
May I show up ready to work within families, communities, workplaces, and other spaces.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Mantras to Stand TALL for Justice,” “Choosing to Tread Another Path,” and “Do It Scared.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

Author: Beth Godbee

I’m an educator living in Washington, D.C. with connections to many places, including Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Georgia. I write from my identities as a white, feminist teacher and researcher; reiki and yoga practitioner; hiker and vegan. My deepest commitments are to equity and justice. These commitments lead me to write about intersectional identities, embodiment, and emotional literacies, among other matters. In this blog, I document my ongoing efforts, struggles, and attitude of “try-try again” to align with these commitments.

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