As more and more people are realizing, the outdoors is a special place. Whether on a trail or a park bench, there’s something about being in the natural world that ushers in a sense of peace. Especially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the outdoors became a refuge for many. As we reflect on the challenges of the past year and a half, we’re grateful for the healing that wilderness provides—so is Sydney Williams, founder of Hiking My Feelings (HMF).

Interview with Sydney Williams on Mental Health, Nature, and Founding Hiking My Feelings

As we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month this May, we caught up with Sydney to learn more about the organization she started, how nature has played a role in improving her own mental and physical wellbeing, and how you can support HMF’s work.

Gossamer Gear: Can you start by telling us a little background on Hiking My Feelings?

Sydney: Hiking My Feelings began on a mountaintop east of San Diego, CA in 2018—a mantra, battlecry, and most importantly a replacement to the eating and drinking that had once been my go-to methods for handling the reverberating emotions of lived trauma. 

Since that day, we’ve been on a mission to improve community health by creating opportunities for people to experience the healing power of nature. 

To date, we’ve hosted more than 300 events around the United States, and our community has grown to include folks from Mexico, Canada, India, Australia, Germany, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Spain, United Kingdom, Italy, Malaysia, Nigeria, Netherlands, Uganda, South Africa, China, and Czechia.

What unites us? A deep desire for healing and a growing awareness that self love isn’t selfish.

What is it about nature that you think is so vital for mental health?

When I completed my second attempt at thru-hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail in 2018, I realized that medicine and healing were concepts bigger and broader than a dude in an office wearing a white coat. I had been distracting myself with learned coping mechanisms like eating and drinking my feelings and it wasn’t working. 

What did work, however, was a six-day trek across an island. The Trans-Catalina Trail is a difficult physical endeavor, but the “what ifs” that usually accompany backcountry adventures are relatively mild. Each campground has running water or water provided, the campsites are established, and you’re never too far from civilization in case of an emergency. With a lot of those variables covered, there is ample time to hear your inner voice and decide what to do with the information it shares. 

When we take time to disconnect from the distractions, we can reconnect with ourselves. When I am on the trail, every hike is an opportunity to come home to myself, release the stories that are no longer serving me, and stand tall in my truth.

I am not a therapist, nor am I a doctor. I used to have wild imposter syndrome, asking myself “who do you think you are to do this work without letters after your name?”  

I saw a meme the other day that said something along the lines of "would you rather talk to; someone who studied what you've been through or someone who survived what you've been through?" 

Because at the end of the day, that stigma—that only the right people can talk about mental health or offer solutions for folks who want to live differently—is one of the major contributing factors to the lack of understanding of and access to mental health support. One of our participants said our Blaze Your Own Trail to Self-Love program gave her the confidence that she could speak freely without judgment, like a precursor to therapy. That’s exactly what this work was for me. All of the healing I have done prior to February 2021 was through journaling, reading, hiking, and a rigorous self-reflection practice. It was only this year, after more than a decade of doing this work, that I was finally comfortable pursuing formal therapy services. I'm so in love with BetterHelp and the moves they're making to increase access to therapy that we've created a partnership with them that offers the community 10% off their first month of therapy.

Our programs and events cultivate a judgement-free space where transformational healing is possible. We introduce people to mindfulness and the healing power of nature, and the results are lasting improvements to mental, physical, and spiritual health. Through guided self-discovery exercises, in-the-field education, physical movement, and storytelling, we heal and transform our relationship to self so we can show up more powerfully for our communities.

Do you have a story you could share with our readers that really demonstrates how you’ve seen the transformative quality of nature support the communities and individuals you serve? 

After finding radical healing on Catalina Island, I had what I consider my “dark night of the soul” experience that lasted for eleven days after I got off the trail. I knew that spending that much time away from the hustle and bustle of city life, alone with my thoughts, and moving my body had been one of the best balms for my soul, but I couldn’t wrap my head around what happened. 

In March 2021, we were able to (finally) execute our first Hike + Heal retreat on Catalina Island after 2.5 years of planning and two postponed dates due to COVID-19. By that time, I had been deep in this work for three years, creating and facilitating programs in person and online, and what I witnessed on that island with our participants was incredibly validating. 

Everyone—including our facilitators, participants, and even our outfitter on the island—found deep healing and confidence along that trail. For most of our participants, the absolute shock that their bodies were capable of carrying them up and over a mountain was palpable. When we all arrived at the campground after hiking to one of the tallest points on the island, I heard a lot of “I had no idea I was capable of that,” and similar comments. For so many people, to be able to accomplish such an intense physical endeavor rocks the foundation of the beliefs we carry about ourselves. If we’ve been saying “I can’t do that” or have been told as much, the deep questioning follows in short order: if that was a lie (I can’t), what other lies have I been feeding myself for all of my life? If you’re courageous enough to peek under that veil, deep transformational healing is possible. 

One woman in particular had reached out to us last year, self-identifying as a victim of sexual assault. Over the course of the past year, through our programs like the Virtual Campfire, Blaze Your Own Trail to Self-Love, and now an in-person retreat, she has changed her relationship with her trauma, and is taking what happened to her and turning it into an opportunity to help survivors in her local community. 

As she was climbing to meet me on the summit of Catalina, she shouted “If I can beat ovarian cancer, I can do this!” and she did. These days, she introduces herself as survivor of sexual assault, and attributes her growth and transformation over the past year to the support she has found in her faith community and here with us at Hiking My Feelings. 

Honestly, I still feel awkward “claiming” these kinds of stories, as our events and programs create an environment where healing, growth, and understanding are possible. We introduce participants to some different tips, tricks, and tools to deploy when they’re ready to take another step toward healing, but it isn’t like we’re assigning homework and grading their performance—that’s not how healing works. While there are some kudos to be earned for creating this space, the real work comes from our participants.

Can you tell us a little about your book and how it fits in with your overall mission? 

My first book, Hiking My Feelings: Stepping Into the Healing Power of Nature, is the foundation of everything we do at our organization. It is a memoir and it’s also a starting point for anyone who is interested in embarking on a healing journey in the outdoors. 

The book itself covers topics like suicide, cancer, sudden death, sexual assault, workaholism, and a whole host of difficult topics. We introduce our mindfulness practices in the opening pages of the book, encouraging readers to make notes in the margins if any part of my story is triggering for them and inviting them to answer the following questions: 

  1. What am I feeling? 
  2. Where do I feel it in my body? 
  3. Have I felt this before? If so, what caused the feeling last time? 

These questions are helpful for identifying triggers within my story, and by taking those questions out of the book and into the world around you, you’re able to identify patterns and lean into your healing from that perspective. 

We also include a coloring page to get folks out of their head and back into their body, as well as three to five journal prompts that correspond with each chapter to pull the life lessons out of my story and integrate them into yours.

We know that when there are spaces where vulnerability is recognized as a strength and empathy is the norm, deep healing is possible. Everything we do is designed to support participants as they embark on this journey to blaze a trail to self-love. All of our programs integrate mindfulness practices, healing music with intentional lyrics, and movement to create a well-rounded experience for the mind, body, and spirit. 

The only reason I’m still on this planet is because other survivors took responsibility for their healing and found the language to articulate what had happened to them. My first book is the story of everything I’ve overcome that brought me to this point—proving that talking about the darkest days of our lives is always a worthy use of our time, and everything that has grown as a result of the book being proof that our wildest dreams are possible.

What are some ways people can get involved with Hiking My Feelings?

We are always looking for new folks to connect with, and the easiest way to stay in the loop on all things HMF is to join the Hiking My Feelings Family. We used to have a Facebook group but when I think of Facebook, I don’t think of healing, so we’ve moved our community efforts to a platform called Mighty Networks. It’s like our own private social network with groups, events, a newsfeed, and the ability to post like you would on Facebook, while also housing our educational programs and resources. It’s free to join or you can join our monthly giving program, The Summit Circle, for as little as $11/month. 

This year we are on a mission to activate our community to hike one million miles for diabetes awareness through our Take a Hike, Diabetes campaign. If you hike, walk, run, roll, or ruck, we’d love to have you donate your miles to our campaign! And, if you live in or around Chicago, Michigan, or Washington, D.C., we’ll be backpacking on a trail near you to raise awareness for the brands, organizations, and community leaders who are making the outdoors more inclusive and supporting the local diabetes community. 

The reality is, 122 million Americans live with diabetes (type 1, type 2, and others) including nearly 49% of U.S. adults. We are looking for volunteers to host a hike where they live on October 2, 2021 for #TakeAHikeDiabetes Day—a global event with satellite hikes happening all over the world. If you’re interested, sign up for more info here!

And, of course, we are a donor-funded organization and our work is possible because of generous souls like you. Whether it’s $3, $33, or $333, every dollar makes a difference and goes directly to our mission to fund our programs, scholarship funds, and the next iteration of our Mobile Basecamp! Click here to learn more about our current fundraising campaign and make a gift today.

In what ways has Gossamer Gear helped support your work and what has this meant for fulfilling your mission? Also, we have to ask... What Gossamer Gear product is your personal MVP?

Gossamer Gear has outfitted our board with gear to make sure we’re working with top of the line equipment out in the field, AND they’re donating two Vagabond Trail backpacks per month to incentivize people to create healthy habits as part of our #TakeAHikeDiabetes campaign. When you sign up and complete at least four activities per month, you’re entered to win! 

My Gossamer Gear MVP is a hot race to first place between the LT5 trekking poles and the Mariposa 60L. I started with a pair of poles from some random brand online, graduated to Trail Buddy poles from Amazon, and now cruise through tough terrain using the Gossamer Gear poles. My husband has long called his trekking poles “getaway sticks,” but after putting these to use in Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, Joshua Tree, Sedona, on the CDT in New Mexico, and around Colorado, he has renamed them to be “meditation sticks” and I am totally piggybacking on that. When the poles are an extension of your arm and not a cumbersome addition to your journey, it really makes all the difference. 

As for the Mariposa, well let’s just say it was love at first try-on. I didn’t realize how over-constructed my old pack was until I adventured with the Mariposa. The frame is simple, the padding is perfect, and I have my beloved hip pockets. Adding one of the pouches to the shoulder strap to give me quick access to snacks—particularly fast-acting glucose in case my blood sugar goes low—was a must-have, too.

Learn More About How You Can Support and Join Hiking My Feelings

If you’d like to learn more about Hiking My Feelings, you can follow along through the different platforms below:

Also keep an eye out for an event near you! Here’s the latest schedule:

May 26, 2021 — Korrin Bishop