Famous baseball player and coach, Yogi Berra, said, “You can see a lot just by observing!” Like most of his Yogi-isms, this applies to a lot of life besides just baseball.
Take hiking, for instance. It is easy to get into a sort of fugue state while you are walking and just let the miles pass under your feet – especially when you’ve got miles to go and you are trying to get from point-A to point-B before sundown. The problem with this is that when you do this you often miss seeing all the cool stuff between A and B.
But it is possible to change your hiking habits so that you can become more observant of the world around you! Here are some hints.
Slow down and do fewer miles.
A common rule of thumb for expected hike time is to plan to do about 2 miles per hour on flat ground and to add 30 minutes to your expected hike time for every 1000 feet of elevation gain.
But even that moderate pace can be too fast to really see or observe things – especially when the purpose of your hike is to study something rather than get from A to B in a specified time.
If you are doing a nature walk or a guided tour or something like that, in which you plan to stop often to read/write/photograph/collect things or do activities or experiments, then you should probably expect to do 1 mile per hour or slower.
This will limit most folks to 3-5 mile hikes but that will provide lots of time to really observe what you’re seeing.
Hike with a partner or two
Three or four sets of eyes is better than one when you are trying to find or spot something. Not only are you more likely to see something if you’ve got several people looking, but you’re more likely to realize you saw it because everyone’s brain is wired differently.
Some people are great at spotting arrowheads in the bottom of a creek but they can’t tell you the difference between an apple and a mayapple. On the other hand, some folks seem to be wired to notice subtle differences between plants and they will spot the coyote track that the previous 20 people stepped right over.
Take a couple of buddies with you and you’re likely to see more on your hike.
Look for something specific
It doesn’t matter what it is that you are specifically looking for – the act of looking for anything tends to break you out of the default mode of watching your feet as you walk.
When I’m doing a road or urban hike, I count blue trucks – not because I care about how many blue trucks there are, but because it gets me looking up and around.
If you are doing a hike in the woods, you can count beech trees or buzzards or whatever. Just have something specific that you are looking for and you will be surprised at how much more cool stuff you see.
Right places at the right times
You should try to learn the names of common local plants and animals and a fact or two about them because it is easier to recognize old friends at a glance than strangers.
If you want to see some particular living thing, take some time and learn a little bit about that creature. Is it more active at night or in the daytime? Does it live in forests? If so, is it a canopy or understory tree/creature? Does it prefer wet or dry places? When does it breed/bloom/nest?
If you don’t know at least a little bit about what you are looking for, you will only ever see it by accident.
Stalk don’t tromp or run
If you don’t have relatives that took you hunting or fishing when you were young, you might not have ever had the pleasure of being told to be quiet or you’ll scare off all the animals. If you did hunt or fish as a child, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
If you tromp through the woods, playing music and talking, You’ll probably only see flashes of fleeing creatures – if you see that much.
Look up, down, left & right
To avoid staring at the ground in front of your boots, alternate looking up to the left, then down in front, then up to the right.
Synchronize this with the rhythm of your footsteps. For 1-2 paces, look up to the left. Then for 1-2 paces, look down at your path. then for 1-2 paces, look up to the right. Then back at your feet and repeat.
Every so often, stop and turn around and look behind you – especially at forks or features. This will keep you from always looking at one side of everything. This is also especially important if you plan on coming back along this same path because you’ll want to know what the return path looks like.
Look for turtles on fenceposts
If you happened to find a turtle on a fencepost, wouldn’t it make you wonder, “How’d that get there?”
When you see something strange, something that makes you say, “Wow! That’s weird!” Don’t just walk on by but stop and try to figure it out! Take pictures or write notes so you can learn about it later.
Navigation by observation
Learn to navigate without GPS, compass, or map. This will force you to be more observant.
Look to the sun and moon and stars for direction. Use your senses of sight, smell, feeling, and hearing to glean hints about your surroundings. Pay attention to the flight of birds and the growth of trees and the directions of winds and you’ll start to notice patterns that will help you stay oriented.
If you are new to this or the thought of getting lost makes you timid, start near your home and make short trips into nearby territory. Work your way up to longer and longer jaunts and you will start to see a lot of cool things that you didn’t even know were near your house. Not only that, but you’ll improve your sense of direction and ability to navigate using your senses.
Read observant authors
When you are not on the trail hiking, read about famous explorers and outdoorsmen to see what things they paid attention to. Read to see what caught their attention – then go see if you can see the same things!