Can a Virtual Hiking Retreat Fill the Travel Void?

Mountain Trek, the B.C. lodge famous for its trekking-focused wellness programs, has taken its offerings to Zoom. Here’s what it’s like to join a three-day retreat.

Can a Virtual Hiking Retreat Fill the Travel Void? 

Not the view from the writer’s office window. (It is, however, a view you’ll see when you visit Mountain Trek’s lodge in British Columbia.)

Courtesy of Mountain Trek

It’s intensely quiet, the lodge. The timber-framed building—modest but elegant, in harmony with its environment—is surrounded on all sides by evergreens, by fresh mountain air, by the vastness of Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park in southeast British Columbia. If you were to sit in one of the Adirondacks with your back to the lodge, you’d look out over the 100-mile Kootenay Lake, the 10,000-foot peaks of the Purcell Mountains towering above it. When the lodge reopens—July 1, 2021, if all goes as expected—travelers will once again hike for four hours each day in these very mountains, part of Mountain Trek’s emphasis on cultivating health and wellness in relation to the natural world.

I, however, am sitting on the floor of my home office, staring into my laptop’s all-seeing eye, ready to embark on an adapted three-day version of Mountain Trek’s week-long program. There’s not an evergreen in sight.

Over the past 365 days, I—along with 99 percent of the world’s population—traveled little (just a road trip here and there) and Zoomed a lot. I’ve lost my head in worry and stress, found my zen, abandoned my zen, increased my carb and wine intake, and tried valiantly to reduce it again. The holidays, the turn of the calendar year brought with it a new grayness, and despite the excitement of the vaccine on the horizon, a slight restlessness, a fatigue with the sameness of it all. I was no longer as inspired to log into MasterClass or tackle a 3 p.m. workout class. My cookie intake had increased alarmingly. Real travel still felt out of reach. And so when I learned that Mountain Trek had, in May 2020, launched 48-hour Basecamp Weekend Retreats, I decided to take the plunge.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hit send on my reservation email. I do gentle yoga most days, and hike once a week, but I’m by no means a fitness monster. My work life takes place on the computer and I wondered: Would it really feel restorative to spend a weekend on Zoom, at home, with the chaos of life around me?

During the weeklong retreats at Mountain Trek’s lodge in southeastern British Columbia, they only host 16 guests at a time.

During the weeklong retreats at Mountain Trek’s lodge in southeastern British Columbia, they only host 16 guests at a time.

Courtesy of Mountain Trek

But first, a little human history

I had reason to hope. Mountain Trek’s program takes an “anthropological approach,” says Kirkland Shave, the gentle-voiced yogi and former park ranger who helped craft Mountain Trek’s research-based program nearly two decades ago and still runs, and tweaks, it today. Fundamentally, the program is based on “how humans have lived for the past 200,000 years,” he says.

Genomically, Shave says, humans have changed, maybe, 2 percent over those thousands of years. While our worlds have altered radically, again and again, we are at our core still the same homo sapiens obsessed with survival, with food, with not being eaten by lions. We just have iPhones now, which help with the food but maybe not so much with the lions. When it comes to health, Mountain Trek believes our bodies still operate much the same as they did back in the Paleolithic age. We need to move, ideally through walking, which we as bipedal beings are uniquely suited to do; we need fuel, critically whole foods, in order to move; and we need to rely on our senses, on our gut.

Mountain Trek’s lodge program (which also extends to its sister lodge in the Appalachians) and the weekend Basecamp retreat aren’t an exploration in savannah survival, though. You also won’t hear buzzwords or quick fixes—Mountain Trek’s programming is grounded firmly in long-standing research. It isn’t swayed by fads, either. In fact, Mountain Trek has drawn extensively from centenarian populations around the globe, such as the Vilcabamba in Ecuador and the Hunzakuts in Afghanistan.

In 2004, National Geographic famously launched the Blue Zone project, which studied long-living (and thriving) populations like the Sardinians in Italy and the Okinawans in Japan and, in the United States, the Seventh Day Adventists. Through the course of that research, the team discovered commonalities throughout these groups—reasons these particular groups of people live long and happy lives.

“By day three, there’s a reawakening. Their senses start to reopen. Their heads start to come up. They start to see things and smell things and hear things they weren’t noticing before.”

There are nine links, Shave says. People from these communities have a mostly vegetarian diet, they only drink a tiny bit of alcohol with their meal (and not daily), they have a spiritual path of some sort, they have a strong community, and all work until they die—they have a sense of purpose, among other things. And so Mountain Trek’s program folds in many of those human needs: meals are mostly vegetarian, alcohol and sugar are verboten, and people are encouraged to connect with their fellow “pilgrims.” Most critically, the stresses of daily life, as well as most technology, are stripped away.

The combination of the above, plus vigorous daily exercise and clean meals, means that most travelers at the lodge undergo a “transformation,” Shave says. “At first it’s uncomfortable, at first there’s resistance and discomfort. But by day three, there’s a reawakening. Their senses start to reopen. Their heads start to come up. They start to see things and smell things and hear things they weren’t noticing before.”

When people enter the lodge on the first day, it’s as though they’re “coming from kind of a sleepwalk state,” Shave says. But by the end of the week, it’s like they’ve reclaimed “10 years of their life.” Some of the biggest shifts come late at night when people drift toward the Adirondack chairs gathered around a campfire, quiet after days of hiking and healthy foods and soaks in the nearby mineral springs. They gaze up at the stars—brilliant thanks to a lack of light pollution—and their spirits open.

“When people settle into that level of expanse, those deeper questions—those contemplative questions—start to bubble up about the context of their lives,” Shave says. “It’s not just about fitness and health and the body changing. It’s about how do I really find myself and reclaim it?”

But how would all (or any) of that translate to three days on Zoom? A weekend cannot, of course, capture the magic of a week in a Canadian alpine environment. It can, as I learned, offer a much-needed reboot—a reminder that no change for the better is too small.

Mountain Trek program director Kirkland Shave walks participants through the lodge’s five branches of health.

Mountain Trek program director Kirkland Shave walks participants through the lodge’s five branches of health.

Courtesy Mountain Trek

Let the countdown begin

The week before our retreat, my seven fellow pilgrims and I received a schedule, a grocery list, and a list of items to have on hand, including a yoga mat and a blender. As I scanned the agenda, I realized that, over the course of the 48-hour retreat, we would join two cooking classes, two workout classes, two morning yoga classes, meditations, a restorative yoga class, and several workshops covering topics like sleep hygiene and stress management, among other things. In other words: We would be busy. Most importantly, each day had hiking and walking time built in, both an opportunity to take a break from the screen and to put the company’s core mission into play.

Hiking, along with cross-country skiing, is considered one of the best cardiovascular interval training activities, one reason Mountain Trek puts such an emphasis on trekking. Plus there’s just the sheer natural beauty you experience as you’re pushing your cardiovascular fitness, and “time goes by in a different way than when you’re in the gym,” Shave says. “We feel it’s the best gym in the world, the best air, the best soundtrack.”

Maybe I’m projecting, but I think most of us on the call that first day (Mountain Trek caps Zooms retreats to 12 participants so that people can connect more freely) were all a little shy, a little unsure what was about to unfold as we introduced ourselves and our reasons for joining. Fortunately, we got to kick back and listen as Shave outlined Mountain Trek’s five branches of health—nutrition, exercise, sleep, mental and emotional, and elimination. Those five branches are supported by the “roots” of mindfulness, nature, and connection, he explained—roots that would stretch throughout the weekend.

“We’re going to kick you outside,” Shave joked. “We are animals. We’re meant to be outside.”

Soon after wrapping our intro, we transitioned into a cooking class with chef Jillian Fae, who taught us how to steam and soften cabbage and grape leaves for the beef-stuffed dolmas that would be our dinner. An hour later, my dolmas were wedged on a bed of lemon, tomatoes, and other aromatics, a Mediterranean technique for steam-cooking the rolls, while chef Jillian walked us through the steps to make a dynamite buckwheat tabbouleh. At each step, nutritionist Jenn Kierstead was on hand to answer questions and share the nutritional benefits of each ingredient.

I also felt, a bit, as though I’d turned my travel brain back on: My neighborhood looked different in the twilight and as I walked, I noticed new details.

Our postdinner schedule encouraged a 20-minute walk, something I always say I’ll do but never actually accomplish (a book or TV exerting a much stronger pull). As I strolled in the dwindling dusk, energized by the almost-spring air, I felt a sense of hope, a reminder that life will change again, and until it does, we aren’t at the whim of our own bad habits. I also felt, a bit, as though I’d turned my travel brain back on: My neighborhood looked different in the twilight and as I walked, I noticed new details: warm light spilling from buttoned-up homes, papercut shadows of trees against the darkening sky.

Seven p.m. brought smoothie prep for the morning—a core tenet of the program is to eat every two to three hours, including within 30 minutes of awakening. Before we each fell into bed, Shave guided us through an evening gratitude meditation that sent me to sleep feeling lighter than I had in weeks.

We started again bright and early on Saturday morning: yoga, a workout class that left me sore for a good two days, and an introduction to the benefits of hiking while fully present (what some might call forest bathing). According to, well, science, we spend 47 percent of our waking days in habit. We habitually brush our teeth, make our coffee, take our showers. These habits save us energy, but they can leave us sitting outside of our own experience at times: lost in thoughts, unable to fully inhabit a moment. Shave encouraged us to spend 90 minutes out in nature, attuning each of our senses to the experience—the act of savoring. “Savoring explodes our lives to a new level,” he says. “If I go to savoring, I can never be in habit.”

Studies have shown that just 20 minutes of walking attentively in nature can lower cortisol levels.

Studies have shown that just 20 minutes of walking attentively in nature can lower cortisol levels.

Photo by Aislyn Greene

Armed with our new tools, we were ushered out into the world. It was a clear day, and as I climbed the hill of a trail I’ve hiked a dozen times, I tried to shut down my thinking self and tune into the nature around me. I heard a plane buzzing above and the sound of my own breath in its wake. In the distance was a sprawling tree in full bloom, branches dripping yellow. Thirty minutes into the hike, I felt my shoulders drop and my spirit lift, a visible change in my mental landscape.

Back home, my blood pumping, my senses more alert, Shave explained, during a talk on stress management, why I had experienced such a shift on the trail. There are five ways for humans to lower their cortisol, the stress hormone that causes inflammation in the body, he said. Petting an animal for five minutes is one; engaging in right hemisphere work (music, painting, anything creative) is another. Another biggie: spending time in nature. Studies in both Japan and Sweden have shown that cortisol levels drop after 50 minutes in nature, no matter how distracted you are. “But if you’re noticing what you’re seeing, smelling, feeling?” Shave added, “It only takes 20 minutes.”

Why is this so important? According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 90 percent of illnesses are stress induced. In many ways, this is the epidemic of our times. It’s normal to have stress, of course. After a stressful event, rest and release are critical to lowering hormones, especially cortisol. “Stress events without release and rest destroy us and lead to autoimmune issues,” he says. “The immune system is literally attacking the body.”

That night, we (stress-freely) cooked dinner alongside chef Jillian again—citrus-marinated chicken thighs roasted over squash—as well as a soup for the next day, tackled a body mechanics class with kinesiologist Kristy Shields (a former competitive bobsledder), and melted into a restorative yoga class so relaxing that one participant fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the middle of the night. The next morning brought a similar schedule: yoga, workout class, lunch, and another invitation to hike for several hours, another opportunity to see the world around us with fresh eyes.

Studies in both Japan and Sweden have shown that cortisol levels drop after 50 minutes in nature, no matter how distracted you are.

On our final day, Shave walked us through the process of goal-setting and habit formation. Without this, Shave says, the weekend is just a reset—it’s a break from the routine, rather than a catalyst for change. Mountain Trek’s hope, though, is that the weekend can launch micro-changes in our lives. Shave shared a 10-step process for habit formation, as well as questions to ask ourselves to remain mindful when faced with a choice (ehh, I don’t really feel like meditating), then had us walk through the process with our own goals: writing down the habit we want to adopt or remove, making the goal realistic (don’t shoot for daily meditation at first, for example), and planning when and where you’ll tackle that goal during the week.

Still, Shave says they know that a weekend away can’t approximate their in-person program. “We know that people still have kids in the house—it’s not like they’re in a retreat,” he says. “But they still get the reminder: ‘Oh yeah, if I just take five minutes to get a quiet moment for myself and breathe, I can settle my mind’ or ‘If I go into nature and I open my senses it’s a richer experience’.” The weekend serves more as a reminder of how to tweak our lives and get back on our path.

Weeks later, I’m still feeling the ripple effects of my 48-hour immersion. I’m back to meditating four days each week, one of the goals I carefully wrote by hand during our final session. When a wave of stress hits, I try to remember to breathe more deeply. To just take a minute. (It’s 50-50 whether it works—for now. I’ve pledged to keep practicing.) While hiking in the Mendocino Headlands recently, I let the experience wash over me: I felt the wind on my face, tasted the salt on my tongue, listened to the wild Pacific thrash in the distance.

My life, surprisingly, feels richer and a little bit better. Would I get even more out of a week in nature, way up there in British Columbia? Sure, of course. In some ways, though, I’m more grateful for the opportunity to test out new ways of living in my day-to-day. It’s easy to feel inspired and committed to change when we’re far from home and free of responsibility. But to feel that way in the same place we’ve been for the past 365 days? That’s real transformation.

Mountain Trek expects to reopen its British Columbia lodge in July 2021. Until then, it is offering three more virtual retreats, one on Mountain/Pacific time (May 14–16) and two on Eastern/Central time (March 19-21 and June 11–13).

>>Next: Retreat Like a Rockefeller at These Spectacular Adirondack Lodges

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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