When Is a Hike Really a “Hike”?

By Erin Roll, Trail Walker Contributor

Palisades GWB

A hike on the Carpenter’s Trail along the Palisades–with views of the George Washington Bridge and New York City–is still a hike. (Photo credit: Erin Roll)

“If you can get a cell signal, it ain’t hiking.”

That was a meme that someone had posted on the wall of a hiking-related Facebook group that I belong to.

It was definitely intended to be humorous. I certainly got a grin out of it–and come on, you don’t go hiking if you’re going to be talking on your cell all the time, right?

But the more I thought about that meme, the more I found myself wondering about its other, hidden meaning. I was sensing this attitude–which I have seen among certain other hikers and outdoors people–that you’re not really hiking unless you’re out in the deepest, remotest backcountry, miles from “civilization.”

Where this attitude comes from is subject to debate. Maybe it’s the influence of Thoreau, Emerson and the other Transcendentalists writing about a return to nature and the simple life in the 19th century. Perhaps it’s because of the (idealized) image of the free, independent individual that keeps showing up in the American mythos. Or maybe it’s a not-so-hidden desire to say, “Hey, look at me, I’m out here roughing it–top that, slackers!”

There is obviously nothing wrong with a long trek in the deeper woods; as with so many other hikers, my bucket list includes at least one overnight on the Appalachian Trail. But I think the assumption that a hike has to be both long and remote in order to be considered a hike is an erroneous one.

Here in New Jersey and New York, we are very fortunate to have–both because of geography and conservation efforts–a wide range of excellent parks and trails, including many within a few miles of (or actually in) New York City.

I remember leading my family on a hike one morning on the Long Path in the Palisades. It was summer, and the woods were at their greenest and leafiest. At one point my mother said something to the effect that it was hard to believe we were right across the river from the city.

So, then, what really makes a hike?

That’s a question, I think, that each of us can only answer for ourselves. We all have different reasons for going hiking: exercise, scenery and vistas, checking out the local flora and fauna, adventure, mental or spiritual health, or getting that perfect selfie to post on Instagram.

I think we can agree, though, that a hike depends as much on someone’s mindset as much it does on geography–perhaps even more so. A hike is more than just walking from one point to another; it should also be about using your senses–listening to bird songs or waterfalls, smelling pine trees and flowers–and actually being aware that you’re putting one foot in front of the other. To put a slightly Zen spin on it, it’s about being in the moment, whether you’re hiking two miles from the city or 200.

If you’re a hiker who’s satisfied by nothing short of a week atop a Colorado 14er, that’s fine. If you prefer a short walk in the woods near your house or in your nearest state or county park, that’s fine, too. What matters is that it is fulfilling to you.

But back to that meme about the cell signal. It still has a point: unless there’s an emergency, or your phone doubles as your GPS unit, keep the phone stashed away and enjoy the hike.

A Trail Conference member since 2009, Erin Roll is a reporter and editor with North Jersey Media Group, as well as a part-time graduate student at Montclair State University. She also maintains a hiking/outdoors blog on WordPress called Trail Heads and Wandering Minds.

About Trail Walker

Since 1920, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has partnered with parks to create, protect, and promote a network of more than 2,100 miles of public trails in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. The Trail Conference organizes volunteer service projects that keep these trails open, safe, and enjoyable for the public. We publish maps and books that guide public use of these trails. The Trail Conference is a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization with a membership of 10,000 individuals and 100 clubs with a combined membership of 100,000 active, outdoor-loving people.
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10 Responses to When Is a Hike Really a “Hike”?

  1. Scott says:

    Agreed. I live in the Catskills and some of my most enjoyable hikes are done at small nature centers with short trails. I do spend days at a time backpacking in the backwoods of the Catskills and Adirondacks and I can increasingly get cell service “in the deep woods”, especially of the Catskills, lol.

  2. Carol Harting says:

    Wonderful article – can I put parts of it in our ADK Mohican newsletter?

  3. Barney Wolff says:

    Oh the irony! There’s no cell service in a lot of the Catskill valleys, but on the tops of the mountains, including Slide and Hunter, there is, because from there you’re line-of-sight to a cell tower. Since I often hike alone, I don’t regret that.

  4. Pat Harrison says:

    Hey great point of view on “what a ‘hike’really is. I’m an a Eagle Scout from Bergen country and just last year the younger scouts (11 and 12 year old boys) had to compleat a 5 mile ‘hike’ using a map and campus. The group of scout asked the leadership (myself and the scoutmaster) if the ‘hike’ and be in New York City. At first we thought that is was crazy because we saw a ‘hike’ in the woods. It turns out that the hike in NYC happened and the boys ravigated the city blocks with their map and campus. As you said, “it should also be about using your senses–listening to bird songs or waterfalls, smelling pine trees and flowers–and actually being aware that you’re putting one foot in front of the other.”

  5. Kenneth Henneberry says:

    I think a hike requires some physical effort. Cell service is irrelevant. Walking on a flat trail, with no rocks, roots, stream crossings and is like walking on the sidewalk is not a hike. Maybe a nature walk. You don’t need 4,000 ft. of vertical gain but some effort is required. But say more than 2 hours, requires some balance and maybe a little sweat would qualify for me.

    • erinmrol says:

      Fair point there, Kenneth – and those are some of my own qualifications for a hike: work up a bit of a sweat and see some nice scenery and landmarks. But there are some urban hikes that are a bit of a push. Take the National Zoo out in the Woodley Park section of DC: the main path goes up and down an incline, so well-toned calf muscles are definitely recommended.

  6. My Mom and I, with two friends, are doing a hike tomorrow on Vashon Island. Our planned distance is one mile. My Mom is 95, the two friends are 80 and 81. It’s our hike of the week.

  7. Phil says:

    Urban hiking is a lot of fun. One of my favorite parts of the Appalachian Trail was the Bear Mountain area because of the zoo and the town. When I finished my AT section hike this year I started doing Sunday morning hikes around my town. I just walk outside the house and I am on a “trail”. I see the buildings and neighborhoods in a much different way as compared to driving past them. I can’t always be in the wilderness, but I can always find a trail to hike and interesting things to see.

  8. halia466 says:

    This is something I’ve thought about and written about too. THis, and “what makes a trail a good trail?” Fun questions to ponder as you stroll-trudge-sashay on your way. https://yogapantshikingboots.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/what-is-hiking/

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