Thursday, January 6, 2005

The Naked Truth Of Freehiking

By Ed Jensen

as posted in Sports Magazine (Online) at

“The best dress for walking is nakedness.”

Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker III

A great deal at Amazon for a penny for a used copy)

A cool and breezy Sunday afternoon in May found me in Utah’s west desert at an obscure and trail-less canyon in the Stansbury Mountains. A mere 50 minutes from Salt Lake City, this place has provided me many times with all the solitude, serenity, and scenery that a naturist hiker could want so close to the big city. As far as equipment goes, I am about to participate in one of the most cost effective adrenaline addictions since the Greeks invented the Olympics. I’m in the mood to be nude. Devotees of the sport call it free hiking; a euphemism for hiking sans clothing… au naturel… free as a bird… the full Monty… stark raving naked!

With the exception of shoes, hat, and sunglasses, I eagerly strip down at the car, coat myself with repellant, and begin the 300 yard walk to the canyon’s mouth. Still within sight of the paved road, anyone with binoculars could observe my trek up the hill, but the only signs of human activity I can see are the dusty plumes from a couple of ATV’s a mile across the valley. Free of my clothes and laden with only a fanny pack and a small digital camera, I am still wearing far more than I care to. My fanny pack (now officially a “butt bag”) contains only the essentials of sunscreen, repellant, and water. Undaunted by the gathering clouds, I traverse the alluvial plain at the canyon’s entrance and enter its quiet realm.

I don’t even know if this place has a name. Once inside its broad limestone corridor, the V-shaped canyon twists itself upward toward the rugged Cambrian anticline that forms the spine of this arid range and the craggy peaks that were once islands in the ancient Lake Bonneville. The rocky, seasonal streambed that doubles as a trail contains the imprints of fossilized sea creatures now long extinct. I have never been to the end of this canyon, always running out of time, motivation, or daylight before I can get there.

The tactile sensations of being nude in nature bring out the hedonist in me, and I revel in the sensation of the desert breeze skipping and dancing its way down the canyon, pausing just long enough to tiptoe across my pale, pathetic skin before waltzing away to somewhere else. Springtime in the desert is breeding season for a trillion noxious insects, and without this breeze I’d be nothing more than a walking all-you-can-eat buffet. Emphasis on ALL!

It’s not always like this, of course. The insects here, although prolific in the springtime, dwindle away as the summer wears on, until by autumn there is hardly a biting insect to be found. It makes me wonder how they survive so far from water and with only the occasional naked hiker to feed on.

Mosquitoes, sunburn, and cold weather are the only real deterrents to free hiking, although such inconveniences don’t bother hardcore enthusiasts like Ben Miller. Miller is the moderator of a free hiking Yahoo group and has over 300 free hikes under his belt, as it were. Unlike me, he doesn’t always seek out the most desolate desert locations, preferring on occasion to hike the shady alpine trails of the Wasatch Front in nothing but his birthday suit. In so doing, he has become an unofficial ambassador of free hiking etiquette and good will.

While the legal ramifications of free hiking can vary by jurisdiction, Utah State Law trumps agencies like the BLM and Forest Service with regard to perceived obscenity violations. With some of the most provincial nudity laws in the country, Utah is a difficult place to be a nude recreationist. Frequent practitioners of the sport know this, and go out of their way (literally) to avoid confrontations with “textiles.” Fortunately, there is an unspoken code amongst trail users of all types, and an encounter with a naked hiker often results in nothing more than a smile and a nod. Others react with confusion.

Miller chuckles as he recalls the following run-in with a textile hiker: “We (I was in a group) encountered a man on the trail. He looked at us and said ‘That’s one way to avoid tan lines!’ I was still in the habit of getting dressed when encountering others, but I was laughing so hard at that comment that I couldn’t pull my shorts on! He didn’t really seem all that bothered by it, just amused. From that day forward I realized that most people are not as irrational about nudity as the vocal (and obviously “hung-up”) minority would lead us to believe.”

On another occasion, Miller surprised a male hiker who, looking totally perplexed, asked “Hot today?” Miller smiled and replied “EXTREMELY hot!” Says Miller, “I do try to avoid these situations. But when and if they are inevitable, I try to make the best of them. I try to leave the impression that I mean no harm. I’m just there to be myself and nothing more.”

One logical but erroneous assumption is that naturists in general are either exhibitionists or voyeurs or worse. I remember questioning my own desires to enjoy nature in the buff, but it wasn’t until I discovered that I was not alone in this pursuit that I dismissed those notions. After meeting other like minded folks, I have come to the conclusion that we just enjoy a good outing more than most people do, trading the imposition of shame and social restriction for the chance to experience life through eyes of renewed innocence and a heightened sensory awareness.

An avid free hiker from Virginia explains it this way: “It is hard to explain why I enjoy (free hiking) so much. Clearly it feels good to be without clothing now and then, provided the weather is cooperating… One certainly feels more alive when naked outdoors… It is a very healthy thing to do, mentally as well as physically.”

As I wend my way across the hardscrabble ground, I feel the sun at my back, the earth beneath my feet, and a sense of belonging. For the moment, I am a part of this place: alone but not lonely, naked but not vulnerable, unseen but not invisible, wary but not worried. I have never seen another soul here, but the occasional beer can or gum wrapper tells me that this is someone else’s sanctuary too. Actually, I’m not totally alone, for I can hear muted gobbles from the flock of wild turkeys that live here, concealed by the sagebrush and juniper trees that line the dry, eroded banks. I frightened them once, and they burst into a collective cloud of feathered hysteria, squawking and fleeing in flightless desperation. I wasn’t much better off, for we surprised each other, and it took me a few moments to get my heart rate back to normal. I can’t see them today, but I am reassured by their presence.

Using my self-timer, I capture a few images of myself in this place. If they pass the censorship test, one or two of them may adorn this article. The rest will serve as wintertime reminders of hikes past and hikes yet to come.

I got here late, and as the sun crouches below the jagged horizon, I reluctantly begin my journey back. Even though I am in no hurry, the car comes into view all too soon. As I drive away, still undressed, still happy to be away from a world of convention and pretense, I wonder about the people who would perceive my actions as some sort of perversion. Why do I have to drive so far to avoid being seen by them? What are they so afraid of? What’s the big deal? Still, in the interest of prudence, I pull on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt before entering the Interstate, and drive home through the desert darkness.

I will spend the next five days toiling away in anonymous servitude, a corporate prisoner in a cubicle cell, chained to the promise of a paycheck and my image as a civilized citizen. But I’ll just smile, content in the knowledge that the trail awaits, and that underneath the clothes they make me wear, I’m still very naked!

Guidelines For Freehiking Responsibly

1. Drink lots of liquid. Damp clothing is an indicator of how much you’re perspiring. Without clothing, you may not realize how much liquid you’ve been losing to evaporation. Use an effective sunscreen to avoid burning.

2. While hiking bare, keep a towel or pair of elastic shorts in hand (or under your hat!)

3. Try to avoid confrontations with other trail users who
may not appreciate your desire to be bare. When chance encounters do occur, be polite, use humor to put the other party at ease, and continue on your way. Remember that modesty is a state of mind and not a state of dress. Some people will be offended no matter what, but you may just make someone’s day!

4. Hike in hot weather. Fewer people hike on extremely hot days, and those who do will be more understanding about your wanting to be bare.

5. Never use freehiking as an excuse to be lewd or vulgar.
If you’re into that sort of thing, buy yourself a raincoat and hang out on Main Street.

6. Give back to the sport by participating in organized trail
restoration projects. At the very least, leave every trail better than you found it by picking up litter along your way.

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