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Hiking Motivation:
When Attitude Is Everything

By Diane Spicer

Hiking motivation seems to be a mysterious force that gets us on a trail. Three types of hikers demonstrate how attitude is everything for motivating us to hike. #hiking #hikingmotivation #whyhike

I feel kind of silly talking about hiking motivation whenever someone asks me why I hit the trail every week, year round.

And go off into the wilds for weeks at a time any chance I get.

For me, hiking is an inbuilt need, a drive, an absolute "must have" in large doses.

And it's been that way pretty much since my teens.

  • Trust me on how long ago that was!
  • Or take a peek at how I evolved as a hiker.

So when people ask me how I stay motivated, I feel like a fraud giving them advice.

I've never explored the landscape of finding motivation as a hiker (get the little hiking joke there?).

But that's not helpful!

Rather than share that unhelpful factoid, I dug deep into my memory banks for areas where I have NOT been motivated: taking a calculus course, for instance.

Or scrubbing the kitchen floor.

I've done those things, because I knew they were important.

Did I enjoy them?


Which brings me to my next point

If you have to motivate yourself to hike, maybe you should explore other sports.

If hiking is a (pick one):

  • chore 
  • burden 
  • inconvenience 
  • thing to check off your "to do" exercise list
  • physical endurance event
  • something you do because your significant other wants you to

... then maybe you're a hiker by name, but not by heart.

And it's not really motivation that presents a problem.


Can you re-frame the way you think about hiking?

Can you make it more about its benefits, less about the physical discomforts?

To be blunt: Can you change your attitude?

The power of a good attitude

Never underestimate the power of a good attitude when approaching a hiking goal.

It will revolutionize the way you hit the trail.

Use this website to manage and mitigate the physical discomforts of hiking.

Three types of hiking motivation
defined by attitude

I've observed lots of hikers, in many different settings and groups, over my five decades on the trail.

And I've noticed that they fall into 3 general categories in terms of attitude toward hiking.

You can drop down to the categories:

I base these categories on two things:

  • level of motivation for hiking
  • ability to motivate others to hike and to keep on hiking.

If you're up for it, let's peek at these hikers to see if any of them are able to motivate you to keep going on a tough hike, or come back for more.

Maybe you'll spot your own hiking motivation style!


Out in front, taking the lead on every decision, knowing exactly what should be done or how many miles to go before stopping...

Have you met these folks on the trail?

Do you hike with them?

Maybe even been run over by them?

Their posture shouts "I'm the leader!"

What motivates them to hike?

The challenge of conquering a goal! Duh.

How alphas motivate other hikers

If you're a hiker just starting out, beginning to gain outdoor skills and trail confidence, these are the folks you should be hiking with.

  • Learn how they plan the hike: trail, route, points of interest.
  • Listen carefully to their explanations and tips on gear and food.
  • Watch their actions and reactions when things go wrong on the trail.

These alpha hikers will motivate you through sheer force of will, using emphatic gestures and words like "must" and "will" to get you back to the trailhead in one piece.

Give in to their persuasive powers, and you will indeed get back to the trailhead.

Bonus from hiking with alpha hikers

You can take comfort in their knowledge base if something goes wrong.

  • They will know what to do, or at least have an opinion about what to do, in every situation.
  • Most of the time, this is based on deep experience as a hiker.

Their motivation for being on the trail?

  • Being in charge!
  • Conquering a goal!

Let them lead when you can't decide what to do next.

They have a plan.

Whether or not they provoke hiking motivation, that's for you to decide.


"Go with the flow" hikers are glad to be part of the herd.

They are happy to go as far or as short of a distance as you'd like.

They are content to take pictures, or soak their feet in a cold pool at the base of the waterfall.

This type of hiker is a joy to include on a group hike: the route has been laid out, someone else is keeping track of the turn around time, the weather is good. 

Their hiking motivation?

  • Social interactions
  • Enjoying nature
  • No responsibilities, just one foot in front of the other & time to relax


If things get dicey, though, this hiker can be a detriment at worst, or no help at all at best.

They may give into fear, making them hard to motivate to get on board with a plan.

And it could be risky to be a group of all followers. Indecision can cost lives.

So don't hike only with other followers, if that's you.

And if you're interested in becoming a solo hiker, but you have always followed others in the past, build your solo skills and confidence before you venture off well traveled, established trails.

How do followers motivate others?

Sometimes their mellow demeanor can calm down a hyper hiker when things begin to go wrong.

"Hey, if the leader trusts that things will work out, so can I, right?"

And they make the job of being the leader so much easier by cooperating.

There is a lot to be said for the power of following the leader in an emergency.

Or any time you want to enjoy a calm, straightforward hike in a group.

  • Tips on how to pick the right hiking group are right here for you

Motivational or not?
My two cents worth

This brings us back to the idea of finding the best hiking motivation.

These two types of hikers, alpha and follower, are motivated to hit the trail for very different reasons.

But how easily can they motivate other hikers?

In my experience, I find an alpha type of hiker lacking in the ability to easily motivate other hikers.

  • S/he has such never ending exuberance and staying power that other folks feel worn down or overwhelmed, rather than motivated.
  • You might become a bit resentful of taking orders from the alpha hiker, too.

The follower is also unable to generate strong hiking motivation in other hikers.

  • It's not that they're wimpy, but their comfort zone forces them to defer decisions to others.
  • Rarely do they attempt to deliberately instill hiking motivation in others. 
  • Instead, they focus on sharing the experience of the trail, whatever that may bring.

Well, there must be some middle ground, or I wouldn't have told you there were 3 categories, right?

Time to introduce the third type of hiker...


It's easy to define an individualist hiker:

  • Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow, depending on the situation.

Both have their time and place on the trail.

Deferring gracefully to someone else is a beautiful attribute to have as a hiker.

Standing firm, putting forth your knowledge when it's essential for navigation, insisting on safety margins - also beautiful attributes for a hiker.

And confident individualists have perfected the fine art of discerning how to choose the appropriate route (another little hiking pun - sorry) with maps, not opinions.

Their motivation for hiking with others?

  • Passing on their knowledge
  • Giving a hand up the learning curve
  • Enjoying what the trail has to offer in all situations

Can an individualist motivate other hikers?

I have proof that they can.

I have been in groups of 10+ people and watched this type of hiker step up to the task.

  • They got every tired, dirty, wet and hungry person safely to the camp site just before dark.
  • And made it look easy!

I've seen how one individualist hiker can crack a joke at just the right time to break the tension around a difficult decision on the trail.

Their bag of tricks include:

  • Reading people before they speak
  • Humor and compassion, in measured doses
  • A new way to see a problem
  • A genuine desire to help others, sometimes by offering to carry gear to lighten someone's pack or to share sunscreen or snacks

These are the hikers I admire

These individualist hikers know from their own experiences that sometimes people get themselves into uncomfortable situations:

  • blisters from new boots 
  • ill fitting packs picked out in a hurry, now digging into raw hip bones 
  • signing up for hiking trips they weren't physically conditioned to tackle 
  • ignoring the Ten Essentials
  • letting poor weather conditions make them feel vulnerable or distressed

It takes skill to walk the line between bludgeoning these unprepared folks with common sense for their own good, and cutting them too much slack.

Individualist hikers know how to walk that line, with grace and a calm demeanor.

  • I sincerely hope you get to hike with one soon!

Hiking motivation summed up

Now you've seen 3 approaches to the trail.

And you must have drawn a few conclusions about hiking motivation, both your own and in your trail companions.

Here's the thought I'd like to leave you with:

Hiking motivation needs to be internal first.

The thoughts that routinely play in our own heads on a hike will determine how we encourage others to do the right thing on the trail, even when it's hard or unpopular:

  • Turn around, although the summit is close.
  • Take a rest break even when not "feeling" tired.
  • Take water breaks before the thirst drive kicks in.
  • Dig deep and make it to base camp before daylight fades.
  • Give the right-of-way to the bear by spending 30 minutes sitting on a rock.

Ask yourself this

Your answer to one question tells you which type of hiker you really are:

Do you give orders, give up, or give your expertise?

Any of these answers may be appropriate, but it depends on the situation in front of you as well as your comfort level and trail experience.

And here's another hiking fact to embrace:

You will need to use at least one of these styles on yourself if the going gets tough on a hiking trail.

  • Tough self love: Just do it to get home.
  • Go along with the weather, the terrain, your energy level to "get 'er done".
  • Switch up your attitude and role as needed, being comfortable with everything.
Female hiker with backpack on trailA little introspection on the trail

Why is hiking motivation and attitude 
important to you as a hiker?

It pays to think about which motivational style you align with naturally, so you can step out of character to get the job done if when the time comes.

Not to be dramatic, but your life might literally depend on you taking a back seat, or speaking up, or making a big decision - even when it doesn't feel comfortable in the moment.

Examples of situations I've faced:

  • The trip or hike leader became hypothermic (didn't put on extra layers when he had the chance) or hypoglycemic (didn't eat enough at breakfast), leading to poor (and possibly unsafe) decisions.
  • The hiking route presented an unexpected navigational challenge: dicey footing on a steep ridge line, washed out bridge over a raging torrent, lengthy detour eating into remaining daylight hours. Press on, or turn around?

I could go on, but here's the point:

By thinking about what motivates you, and others, on a hike you can keep yourself safe.

Not to mention, happy.

Which is the entire point, right?

Try this yourself on the next few hikes

Try all 3 approaches to hiking motivation, and see which one feels most awkward.

Practice stepping into the role you are least comfortable with on your next hike. 

  • Decide to plan a hike. Then lead it.
  • Allow someone else to pick the hike or make a navigational decision.
  • Speak your mind when a decision is being made and you don't feel good about it.

After your turn at an unfamiliar role, ask more questions:

  • Which situation motivated you to enjoy the hike the most?
  • To feel uncomfortable?
  • Or to help others on the trail?

Great facts to have about yourself when before the **** hits the fan

More to think about as a hiker

You can read more about the ins and outs of social hiking if you're interested.

And learn how to set hiking goals here.

But only if I've motivated you ;)

You might like to read these next

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Hiking Motivation