What Hikers Need To Know About Their Brains

by | Nov 14, 2018 | 0 comments


  • We are wired to be more negative thinking than positive thinking
  • Monitor your thoughts for better performance
  • Red light, green light concept

What Everyone Needs To Know About Their Brains

A lot has been written about preparing mentally for a long distance hike, and for good reason. Each hiker will have their own experiences on while on the trail, some will be more physical, others more mental. Our brains are highly adaptable and how we think can alter the pathways for our emotions.

The concepts in this post have been condensed from Rick Hanson, a psychologist who specializes in neuroscience. He has many great resources if you are curious about learning more.

The Negativity Bias

Rick shares that our brains have a negativity bias. While negative experiences are unpleasant, the mind will remember those experiences more than a pleasant one. By paying more attention to what is good or pleasant, you can rewire your brain to respond better during bad situations.

Like having to turn around and hike back 28 miles because of a late spring snow storm. Twice.


Late spring snow storms in the Sierra can drop a lot of snow in a short amount of time. We had over 1″ per hour this day.

Pay Attention To Your Thoughts

Since we know that brains are wired to learn more from negative experiences, we need to pay closer attention to our stream of thoughts. Rick says that most people pay too much attention to the bad stuff, and disregard the mildly positive or neutral events.

This deepens the negative thought pathways and weakens the pathway for positive experiences. Overall, this creates a more negative influence on our brains.

Download the free article on ways that you can improve your odds of being successful during your through hike!

Red Light Or Green Light

Finally, Rick notes that brains basically operate on a red light/green light system. Green represents basic needs like connection, safety, and satisfaction. Being relaxed, and playful are green light scenarios. Red light is danger, fear, stress and frustration. It’s easy to live mildly in the red light system for with only small parts of the day in a green light system.

04_Traffic-Signal-HousingThis is opposite of how we are designed to function best. Spending too much time in the red light system will actually alter the chemicals that the brain produces.

That means more cloudy skies and less sunny days. While it may take a little more practice to spend time in the green zone, it can be strengthened with practice.

Stress can run high for a number of reasons. Environmental stressors like heat, rain, wind, even the terrain you hike on. Bugs, ants, mosquitoes, spiders, almost stepping on a snake, the stressors are numerous. Even worrying about the miles are things that can keep you in the red zone. This will wear you down!

Daily Practice

Emotions seem much more raw and intense while on a long distance hike. Perhaps there are less distractions available while hiking that would normally create a buffer.

Daily meditation helps wonders. It can be a quiet sit down meditation or a walking version, where you just feel the sun on your skin, the ground beneath your feet, the pack on your body, your breath moving in and out. Really, you are just practicing being in the moment.

fullsizeoutput_844Listening to podcasts and music can be nice at times, but it can also distract us from being in the moment. Unfortunately, you miss out on a rare opportunity to reflect and think deeply. Do listen to music, do enjoy podcasts, just not all of the time.

No work, no television, and no internet is such a rarity these days. Take advantage of it and really unplug.

You can reach me at info@trailsidefitness.com with any injury issues, past or present that you feel will impact your hike. Training questions are also welcome – I am happy to help!

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author avatar
Lee Welton