One of the real advantages of walking outdoors is that you get to choose not just where to go, but also your mode of access. For some lone-wolf solitude seekers this may mean emulating Wainwright's 'solitary fellwalker' approach, or perhaps adopting freestyle wandering, 'lonely as a cloud', in true Wordsworth fashion. However, a large number of hikers also enjoy their outdoor walking in the company of a structured group of wayfarers, and find that joining a walking club has many valuable benefits.
A community of walkers
Your local walking club will be a cross section of people of all ages and backgrounds drawn together by their love of walking outdoors. Just like yourself, these fellow footsloggers will have been bitten hard enough by the walking 'bug', to readily understand why Raymond Myers can say: 'Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.' And those who get a real buzz from their walks will find their enjoyment doubly enhanced when the experience is shared with like-minded companions.
Much of the time, walking requires minimal concentration and thus leaves you free to relax and take in the environment whilst chatting with others in the group. Walking together in inspirational surroundings, or tackling challenging trails, quickly builds a strong sense of community and friendship in which hikers willingly support each other, and often perform above their potential in the process.
Whether or not walking is taken up for health reasons, there is no doubting its huge contribution to well being which has long been recognised. Hippocrates, an eminent physician of Ancient Greece, advised that 'walking is man's best medicine', and much more recently, in 2010, England’s Chief Medical Officer similarly observed: ‘If a medication existed which had a similar effect to physical activity [like walking], it would be regarded as a “wonder drug” or a “miracle cure.”’ So those who commit to regular club walks can also expect to reap the priceless benefit of a healthy lifestyle.
The rewards of feeling fitter, it must be remembered, extend to mental health too. Though walkers are happy to accept the 'high' that comes from being on the trail with friends as just one part of what constantly lures them back to the open air, the release of endorphins responsible for this phenomena is known to combat stress and anxiety, promoting a positive mood and restoring a sense of perspective. This calm but free-flowing mental state was also well understood by our forebears; for example, St Augustine's advice to those wrestling with intractable problems was 'solvitur ambulando – a walk will solve it.'
Undertaking walks in the company of others also provides an important measure of security for walkers who might otherwise be a little nervous of walking alone in challenging or unfamiliar terrain.
Developing skills and experience
Walking alongside more experienced hikers is a great way for beginners to gain an understanding of the skills required whilst developing their own experience at a much faster rate. Being part of a group also helps novices to realise they are far from alone if, for example, the finer points of orienteering are still a work in progress – in addition, the potential risks such a limitation poses for the solo hiker are virtually eliminated in a group context.
Established walking clubs also make it much easier for walkers to experience and explore new terrain. For instance, a club may enjoy privileged access to certain restricted areas or have permission to walk on privately owned estates. There may also be hiking trips and holidays at home and abroad which are open to members at special rates, and even familiar territories take on an extra dimension when walked in the company of seasoned hikers.
As wanderlust tightens its grip on your soul, you may find yourself becoming a 'gear head' – someone who needs a regular fix by discussing, trying out, and then purchasing new walking gear and accessories at regular intervals. Here again club membership can provide valuable insights and advice from more experienced members. New gear is often displayed and demonstrated, and there is always someone available to guide your acquisitions and recommend trusted local retail outlets which ensure you gain value for money, and probably a discount too.
Walking politics – the hard yards
As a walker you may naturally wish to help protect the parks, landscapes and trails you enjoy for future generations. This is always easier to achieve as a member of an organisation where your own interests and opinions can be represented and safeguarded by administrative members in communication with a broad range of leisure, heritage and conservation organisations.
So if you plan to take up walking and commit yourself to walking longer-term, joining a walking club may prove to be the most important, and enjoyable, step you could ever take towards achieving your goal.