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Cold Swimming for Mindfulness and Connection

From even before I can remember, I always felt the need to get in whatever body of water was nearby. As a toddler, my mother had to keep close watch whenever we were around water, because if she looked away, I was pulling my clothes off and running for the water. Water temperature and cleanliness never fazed me, at least not that I remember. I just remember needing to be in the water.

It is only in this last year, at 33 years old, am I beginning to understand the pull wild water has always had on me. For all my years spent paddling and exploring in waters all over the world, I never gave this connection much thought, I simply enjoyed it.

A little over a year ago I got super interested in this guy named Wim Hof, and all the cool things he could do just from breath training and cold exposure. As a chronically cold outdoor guide, I wanted to be a better outdoors-woman, and I wanted to be less miserable in the winter. My boyfriend Travis and I started taking cold showers (which I still hate) and swimming in cold bodies of water.

Cold, clean bodies of water are only available during a fraction of the year where we live, and even then are too far away for a daily or even weekly dip. We take opportunities for wild, cold swims whenever we can find them.

This New Years Eve we took just such an opportunity and jumped into the Atlantic at Folly Beach, much to the surprise and amusement of other beach goers who were bundled up against the cold wind. We stripped down to our swimsuits and wondered aloud to each other if we were crazy or just stupid.

Once we were all out there, in it together, something felt really special, and powerful, being in the cold ocean in our little tribe of four. Why is it that swimming in nature feels so magical? What is so special about cold water?

Within choice is where power resides

I hadn't noticed the difference in how he and I face full immersion until Travis pointed it out to me.
"You're always so calm and quiet."

He bounds into the water at nearly a run, slowing down as the cold digs in, until he methodically strides deeper and deeper. He whoops and hollers before plunging in head-first. I think he hypes himself up for it like a warrior yelling a war cry.

I, on the other hand, appear to be just the opposite. I walk slowly and purposefully into the cold. I'm not quite easing myself in, but rather allowing the cold to take over without such a shock to my senses. It feels more like acceptance. I pause in waist high water to breathe and think. It is here where I experience the strongest objections from within myself. Immersion will be shocking, uncomfortable- I dare say painful. It is so much easier to just stay as I am. But here is where choice resides. Here is where I have true power. I choose to have power over my actions, I choose to embrace challenge.

I think everyone's mind screams at us not to dive in. He screams back at his. I'm not sure what I do in that moment of choice. I am not able to silence its screaming, and can't say I just ignore it. I take a conscious breath in to remind myself that in this moment, I am in control of my body, and I choose to dive in. The real moment of choice happens in the second that I push off the ocean floor with my feet, spring upward and launch downward into the cold.

Be here now. 

When I plunge into freezing cold water, there is only right here and right now. I am painfully aware of my body. I can feel the blood vessels in my legs spasm and constrict, cutting the blood flow to my feet. The slightest hint of wind is offensive and I struggle to control my shivering. I am forced to look at my out of control thoughts, telling me how stupid I'm being for making my body so cold and trying they're damnedest to convince me to get out asap.

Meditation is in right now. It's -the- thing to do. Science has proven it can literally change your brain. But man is it hard. It's so hard to rein in your thoughts to focus solely on your breath, or 'om,' or however you choose to meditate. I think most people think meditation is about focusing, but to focus means to eliminate awareness.

Mark Twight says that meditation is "cultivating an intense state of awareness." And to be fully aware, we must also be fully present. I won't say that simply dunking yourself in cold water is like meditating, but it does bring you right into the present and holds you there. It's kind of a hack into presence. If you can live there for a bit, look around and explore the place, you'll begin to cultivate awareness within presence.

I believe we humans feel best when we are connected- to self, to nature, and to others.

That snap into the present that cold immersion achieves brings the mind fully into the body. Mentally, you are nowhere other than in your body, in the cold. There is no daydreaming, no worrying about what to make for dinner or that dumb thing you said yesterday. For me, I become very aware of both the connection of, and distinction between, my mind and body. Feeling fully present means feeling truly alive, and flexing my mind's power over my body allows me a deeper understanding of the connection between them.

We stood on the beach, wrapped in towels and trying not to shiver, considering our next move. I was thinking about how I'm so much more willing to be cold when it involves swimming in a natural body of water, and how much easier it is than a cold shower. Matt's thoughts were in the same place.

"Its funny how different that is from a cold shower. You know, a cold shower is entirely mental, its all self discipline. You have to choose to turn the water colder. That [ocean] water is already cold. You either get in or you don't."

Ah-hah. This experience is authentic. The ocean is as it is, and we are as we are. There is nothing contrived. We immerse ourselves in a wild, naturally cold thing over which we have no control.
We form authentic connection with nature through wild swimming.

Our little tribe did something challenging together, and we became closer because of it. Doing challenging things with my partner and friends makes me feel so much closer to them, and so much stronger and braver. We connect with others through shared experience.

Did this post inspire you? Do you want more inspiration and motivation? Click the photos to snag the books that inspired me!


Are we addicted to comfort?

I admit that addicted might not be the best word, but it’s unfortunately the closest in the English language to describe what comfort is doing to us. I suspect German may have a better word. When we are addicted to something, we need more and more of it to feel the same effects. We’ve made our modern lives as comfortable as technology allows, and we’ve cocooned ourselves. The deeper into the cocoon we go, the more sensitive we become to smaller and smaller levels of discomfort. 

Our bodies are actually incredibly good at adapting, but we insist on keeping the thermostat at 70° year round. We curse the heat in the summer and then again curse the cold in the winter- making ourselves miserable year-round unless we are indoors. We’ve long exchanged sustainably warm wool for snuggly, plush polyester and nylon. 

Let me explain with an example from my past. I used to lead sea kayaking expeditions during the summer on the coast of North Carolina. I spent six to seven hours a day sitting in my narrow kayak paddling in 100 degree heat. We camped each night on a beach. Everything was covered in salt and sand, and there were always mosquitoes stalking our every move. My memories from my first trip were of how gritty everything felt all the time, how itchy and prickly my skin was, how the heat was suffocating and the headwind exhausting. It was radically uncomfortable, but also beautiful and epic. By the end of the summer, I didn’t even notice the grit and I was accustomed to the heat. I have a distinct memory of walking into my house barefoot and marveling at how soft the carpet was. To me, the pristine white sand was soft- but the carpet in my dilapidated college rental was impossibly, remarkably soft. I was so accustomed to the heat, I had to take a fleece jacket out to dinner to tolerate the air conditioning in the restaurant.

It is currently winter, and I’m not leading outdoor trips at the moment. As I walk into the grocery store in fleece pants and a fleece jacket on a windy 36 degree day, I feel piercing cold when the wind blows. I haven’t spent enough time outside over the last two months for my body to acclimate to the change in temperature. I’m hyper-sensitive to the discomfort, and my brain resists hard (aka screams) when I try to force it to adapt by wearing less clothing on cool days, taking warm-not-hot showers, and turning down the thermostat. It’s SO EASY for me to avoid discomfort and therefore requires an enormous amount of discipline to not make myself more comfortable by flipping a switch or staying inside. 

I would argue that we’re all generally worse off for this extreme level of comfort. Climate controlled homes are great at keeping us from dying of hypothermia, and are critical for public health and safety. Our comforts are life savers for those of us with chronic illness and with disabilities. I am thankful for running water, electric heat and a gas stove when I'm sick or overwhelmed from work.  But for many of us, we’re making ourselves more miserable year round by avoiding the discomfort of acclimatizing. So bump your thermostat closer to outside temps, get outside when the weather isn’t perfect, and marvel at your body’s ability to adapt. 

Video: Padde Boarding to Climb a Magical Tree

It is so hard to pick a favorite tree, but this one just might be mine. The only way to get to it is by water, and it reaches down to the water's surface with big strong branches to let us climb up. I can't think of a better way to have celebrated the Autumn Equinox than by enjoying a paddle in the sunshine and fellowship with a human I love and a beautiful tree.

Pitch Your Tent Like a Pro

Take the Right Tent
A tent in the wrong environment spells misery, no matter how well you set it up! 
  • High winds: (beach, mountain-top, plains) Take a low profile dome or pyramid. The lower the better! If you're camping on the beach, take a tent that's shorter than the dunes. 
  • Hot and humid: Two wall tent with as much mesh as possible means better ventilation. Go as big as you can get away with- a bigger tent won't get as hot.
  • Cold and dry: Single wall tents are warmer and more wind-resistant. Get the smallest one you fit in, because your body heat will keep a smaller tent warmer. 
  • Raining cats and dogs: Make sure your rain fly covers the tent entirely and reaches all the way down to the ground. A vestibule (a covered 'porch' area under the rain fly) is a gear saver in wet weather.
Follow the Video for the Perfect Pitch
Can't watch the video? Keep reading...

Pack Before you Go
Unpack, and then re-pack
  1. Unpack: and separate the tent, poles, rain fly, footprint and stakes
  2. Stuff don't roll: stuffing protects the waterproof coating on your tent and rain fly
  3. Stuff in opposite order: rain fly at the bottom, poles on the side, then tent, then footprint, then stakes
Use the Right Tools
Buffy chose the right stake for killing vampires.
You should pick the right stake for your campsite
The stakes are high.....
See what I did there?! But seriously, you need the correct type of stakes for the environment you're camping in. Those cheap aluminum stakes your tent came with? Leave them at home.
Forests and general use: MSR Groundhog Tent Stakes are super strong and won't bend when you hammer them, and resist being pulled out due to their design
Sand: 12" Sand Stakes because bigger is better

Set-up in this order
  1. Stake it first: Stake out the footprint and tent, with the narrow side into the wind. Stake down the windward side first. 
  2. Poles: Set up the poles and connect the tent to the poles
  3. Rain fly: Put the rain-fly on the tent and connect it. Connect the windward side first.  
  4. Guy lines and vestibules: Stake out all the guy lines and vestibules to make your tent strong against the wind, and to keep the rain fly tighter. A tight rain-fly will shed water and is less likely to leak. 
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Super Powers and Full Frontal Nudity
(Sorry Mom and Dad)

This is the story of how I discovered my super-power, and how I am unable to share the single best photo of myself because in it, I was naked. If you’re wondering what this has to do with adventure, just keep reading. 

By August of 2013, my friends in North Carolina were accustomed to my being out of the country more than I was than in it. I had spent the better part of a year working as an outdoor educator in Oman, did a high altitude trek in Nepal, and then spent the summer in California teaching horseback riding. Two close friends from high school decided that this was the perfect moment for an epic road trip. They flew to meet me in San Francisco and the three of us drove back east, trying to pack in as many sights and shenanigans as we could. 

On the first day of our trip, one friend hesitantly shared with us a goal she wanted to achieve, that she could not fulfill without our help. She wanted to be photographed naked in the desert. This wasn’t a sexual thing- it was about freedom and artistic expression. We said yes without hesitation. What are friends for, if not to help you live your best, weirdest life?

Blissful Beach Camping

how to beach camp
Beach camping in Hong Kong
Beach camping is one of those outdoorsy things that sounds like a great idea. Spend your day fishing, swimming, and soaking up the sun then drift off to sleep to the sound of the crashing waves after a glorious sunset.

Our imaginations tend to gloss over the not-so-nice realities of our daydreams. Just like dreaming of moving to Paris means you'll have to learn French and pay 5 euros for a coffee, camping at the beach comes with a few challenges that can make for a miserable time. Has one of your beach camping trips ended in disaster or misery?
Things that (usually) Suck about Beach Camping
    The worst line in any Star Wars movie? I think so.
  • It's hot
  • Sunscreen is sticky and gross
  • There are bugs that bite
  • Your tent blows away in the wind, or leaks when it rains
So while I can't magically make any of those things go away for you, I can share the tricks I've learned that make camping on a beach actually really wonderful.