Seven Secrets of the Spontaneous Side Hike

Ever wonder whats down that side trail? Ever have a plan to hike one way and then you decide to take the other fork instead? Ever wonder what Robert Frost was really talking about?

Imagine you've spent the last week planning the penultimate backpacking adventure where you intend to hike 20 good miles over the course of the weekend. You have planned to hike about 7ish miles a day and you've marked out where you will sleep each night on your map. Once you strap on your boots and start putting some trail behind you, you immediately begin to reap the benefits of a well-planned adventure. You spend that night sleeping in a site that you found doing some proper map homework and enjoyed the blissful sounds a forest fully alive as you fall to sleep. The next day you break camp and repeat the same hiking routine as the day before and once again you are simply thrilled just to be outside among the world the way it was intended to be lived in. The hike was everything you hoped and planned it would be! Once arriving at the well-planned site on night two, you go through your backcountry rituals of making camp, reading a book, hanging in a hammock, etc. Only this time, as you're firing up some dinner, you can't seem to ignore the small social trail you noticed earlier that leads away from your camp. The temptation to discover where that side-trail leads just eats away at your instinctual adventurous spirit. Do you go down the trail to see where that rabbit hole goes? Below I attempt to describe some of the positive secrets revealed when you make the leap to follow your curious instincts and take that side trail. (P.S. I am not promoting anyone disregard the principles of Leave No Trace - don't go bushwacking and making the wild more "human-y."

Photo: Mike Quine

1. Low Expectations Can Lead to High Impressions:

Perhaps the greatest advantage that a "side hike" has is that it never has the chance to disappoint you. You haven't had a chance to build up any unattainable expectations for the trek itself. Can you imagine showing up to the Grand Canyon only to find that its just a small crack in the ground? You'd be devastated! But thats only because you have probably spent your entire previous life building it up to be one of the world's most grandiose views (which, for the record, it is). So with that, imagine the pressure that the Grand Canyon is under to make sure it doesn't disappoint. Yet, the small, unknown, side trail has not had the chance to build up your expectations of it, therefore it has nothing to lose. And therefore, neither do YOU. The spontaneous side hike can really only do one thing...and that is impress. From an expectation's perspective...there's only one direction it can go - UP. 

Photo: Mike Quine

2. Solitude

Not much of a secret, I'll grant you that. Though you'd be surprised at how easy it can be to have a social experience in an otherwise wild wilderness. With the National Parks and the country's Triple Crown Trails (Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trails) becoming increasingly popular, you may discover that solitude is not a guarantee on some of these trails. Peace and quiet may be harder to find than you may expect. One way to ensure you find it is by deciding to go down that unknown path. You may not find water or the most spectacular view, but you might find yourself. 

Photo: Mike Quine

3. Fresh Perspectives

Lets pretend that the person in the story above has done this hike a dozen times and (s)he knows every inch of the trail he took that led him to where he is now. By deciding to go down that side trail he affords himself the opportunity to see the familiar forest in a way he has never seen it before. For example, I couldn't even put a number on the amount of times I've hiked along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, but each time I go, I try to sneak down another side trail. Every time, those side trails allow me to look at the same forest as if I was seeing it for the very first time. You might find a new creek. You might find a new clearing or a grove where you can relax and grab lunch. You might even walk past the same stretch of forest and have absolutely no idea that you'd been there before. Perspective is mighty powerful and irrefutably influential. Be careful though, because you can also find a cliff, Grizzly Bear, or poison ivy too. May or may not be speaking from experience... 

Photo: Mike Quine

4. Taste the Unknown

Its not exploring if you're walking down the same path every time. At that point you're just exercising. Ok that might be an unfair claim, but you get what I mean. Go explore, people! I forget what company's motto that is, but whoever says "Keep Exploring", they got it right! Exploring is fun! Getting lost is fun! Taking a chance/risk is FUN! Maps are great and incredibly useful, and frankly I would be dead 1,000 times over if I didn't have one in many situations, but sometimes its fun to find out if really "there be dragons." A side hike isn't spontaneous if you planned on doing it. When you ask yourself, "hmm I wonder whats down there?", you are really just taking the first step in discovering the unknown. But without actually going to go find out, the "unknown" will never be anything more than just that. 

Photo: Mike Quine

5. The Inherent Risk of Danger

So initially I mentioned that these were ALL "positive" aspects. Well I lied. I would be remiss and also irresponsible if I didn't at least highlight the potential dangers of going down these, so-called "side hikes." The less developed a trail is, the more inherently "wild" it is. If the trail is poorly maintained and less well-known, there are a few outcomes that you may also encounter along them. The chief among them is that you greatly increase the likelihood of becoming lost - and with that, NOT found. Lost, injured, sick, or maimed are all calculated risks you take any time you go out into nature's wild. As a matter of fact, the less "on the beaten path" you are, the more you increase the likelihood that you will not be found, treated, healed, or un-maimed(?). So just be careful. Don't be afraid of danger...but do respect it. And be smart/prepared.

Photo: Mike Quine

6. Popularity Does Not Equal Quality

True, not all trails were created equal. Though just because you haven't heard of a trail, does not mean that it cannot have a resounding impact on you. In fact, in my experience, many "side hikes" can offer many things that the more popular hikes cannot (ref: all of the above). You might not find the spectacular views that the more popular trails can offer but you can certainly make up for it in experiences. Attitude plays a big part in this aspect as well. The Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Hike in the Grand Canyon was certainly one of the most spectacular hikes I have ever done - but I pretty much knew what I was signing up for when I started. What I did NOT account for was, deciding to take an hardly-marked (nor well-advertised) side trail to what turned out to be a breathtakingly lush, secluded waterfall in the middle of an otherwise barren landscape. Now, whenever I fondly reflect on the Grand Canyon hike, I cannot do it without also thinking about that waterfall. Spontaneous Side Hike: Point! 

Photo: Mike Quine

7. Discover Frost's Muse

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

                                        -Robert Frost

Of course we all know this poem, by Robert Frost. And many a highschool /college graduation speech has featured it as words of encouragement to its student body about to be let loose onto the world. However, in this instance I mean to interpret the great Mr. Frost's verse quite literally. Why do you think Robert Frost used the "side hike" as a metaphor? Well, however you choose to interpret this metaphor in the "real world," in the wilderness, the other "road" is not the same as your decision to take the more challenging classes in college or to take the less popular/more righteous decision at work. No, in the wilderness, taking the LITERALLY less traveled path can make all the difference - from adventure, excitement, thrills, views, companionship, and exploration (and I suppose death COULD be included in that list as well but lets not put a downer on things). 

Photo: Mike Quine

BONUS: For alliteration purposes, I needed "Seven Secrets" but here is an extra, eighth one for you. While solitude may be the goal for many, don't also overlook the possibility that you may actually meet someone else on a side trail. Someone who you would have otherwise never had the privilege of meeting. Companionship can be just as, if not more, valuable as solitude. In a way, one cannot exist without the other so perhaps try to appreciate which ever you find on your "side hikes."

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Mike QuineExplorer

...a year long journey through the American landscape of our National Parks. Disengaged from societal pursuits to set out alone and face the uncertainty guaranteed by the Wilderness. Hardening both hands and mind thro...