I’d Love to Make New Hiking Friends, but I Feel Like a Burden
Lots of people struggle to find new friends for outdoor activities. But taking initiative (and acknowledging your awkwardness) goes a long way.
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I live in a very outdoorsy town surrounded by beautiful nature, and I love to get out hiking whenever I can. Unfortunately, I don’t have a car, which means that I either need to rent or borrow one, or go with a friend. I’d love to go hiking with people more regularly but I’m fairly new to town and I think the friends I have here already have other hiking buddies, so I don’t really get invited out much.
The problem is that I’m really self-conscious about asking anyone for a ride or to go hiking—it’s hard enough for me to ask for things, but I have chronic knee pain so I’m pretty slow hiking downhill. I can definitely hold my own going up, but even using hiking poles (which help a lot!) I still feel like I just slow people down. I know that I can tell people to go on ahead and I’ll meet them at the bottom—which I prefer, to be honest—but then that’s putting them in an uncomfortable position of waiting and/or feeling like they’re leaving me behind.
There have been times in the past when I’ve definitely felt like a burden on the group. And what’s even worse is that I don’t even have a good reason for my knee pain—there’s no obvious injury that people would understand, and I struggle to do the basic physical therapy exercises. (PT is so hard to follow through on!) So it just feels like an ongoing issue that I’m not even putting in my best effort to fix.
I don’t want to make it feel like I’m just using people for a ride to the woods, and I also don’t want to burden them with my slow hiking. What do I have to offer in return? I just feel needy and slow. Thanks for your advice about how I can get out hiking more with people.
If there’s one thing writing this column has taught me, it’s that there are a ton of people struggling to find good outdoor buddies—and that many of them feel self-conscious about their pace. People worry about being too fast or too slow, too inexperienced, or too prone to stopping and smelling the flowers. And a lot of them are embarrassed about taking time on the uphills, which makes your worry about downhills seem almost refreshing. If you can be patient while a companion hikes up, and they can be patient while you hike down, you’ll be solving two peoples’ insecurities at once.
It is absolutely acceptable—and normal—to call a friend (who lives relatively nearby), invite them on a hiking trip, and explain that you don’t have a car so you’d need them to pick you up on the way. Most of us know what it’s like to be car-less, and are only too happy to help out. If someone did this to me, I wouldn’t bat an eye; if anything, I’d feel like the drive was a chance to spend a little more time together, and maybe we could grab ice cream or coffee on the way. And even if I couldn’t go, I’d be honored to be considered as a hiking buddy.
The thing is, taking the initiative to find a hike and suggest it to someone is a gift, and asking for a ride doesn’t negate that. It’s especially nice if you’re specific with your invitation: “Hey, I read about a five-mile loop trail around Saddle Mountain that passes some really pretty waterfalls. Would you want to go there together this Saturday or Sunday? The weather’s supposed to be clear all weekend.” It’s easy for all of us to settle into routines, and lovely when someone does the research and suggests something new. If you want to give back even more, in appreciation for the ride, you can bring fun snacks along, learn some interesting facts about the area that you can share on the way, or snap pictures of your friend in action and text them after the hike. These are all fun ways to contribute to an excursion—even though, by being present and friendly and kind, you’re already giving the most important contribution of all.
As for feeling awkward about your knee, your best bet is to go for full disclosure up front. “Just so you know, I have a knee problem and am slow on the downhills. It’s totally fine with me if you hike ahead and wait. I just wanted to let you know beforehand because I feel self-conscious about it.” Sometimes acknowledging your self-consciousness aloud is all it takes to diminish it. (Plus, it’s a good practice for building trust in friendships.) Also, this gives your companion a chance to back out if they hate waiting and their main priority on hikes is, like, going downhill really fast. But I’m guessing most folks won’t care in the slightest. Truly. They might even feel relieved, and confide an insecurity of their own.
You can also side-step the issue completely by finding hikes without downhills. This is a long shot, but if you happen to live near a gondola, you can often hike to the top and catch a ride back down for free. Another option would be to choose a one-way hike with road access on both ends, hike the uphill route, and then hitchhike back to the first trailhead. And the simplest solution, of course, is to opt for flatter trails, which might be a good choice for your knee anyway.
Whatever you choose, I suspect that you won’t be stuck in this situation for long. Once you get a routine going with a compatible pal or two, there will be no need for negotiations. They’ll know that they’re the driver, and they’ll have a nice stretching routine figured out for when they’re waiting at the bottom of a hill. You’ll know that they’re a total sucker for Fig Newtons, so you’ll keep a bag in your pack to bust out at scenic overlooks, and you’ll also know that they’re obsessed with mushrooms and can’t pass one without pulling out a field guide (which is a great opportunity for you to squeeze in some PT exercises). This is, after all, how some of the best friendships are made: not by not having quirks, but by learning to look out for each others’ as we do for our own. You’re not a burden. You’re lifting each other up.