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7 tips to overcome the fear of heights when hiking

Does your heart already start pounding as you prepare to cross a rope bridge or to walk along a rocky wall over a steep slope? If you are familiar with that feeling then you may be prone to acrophobia: the fear of heights. Here are 7 tips to overcome this fear and hike more calmly.

Please note: this guidance does not replace advice from a phobia expert. If your fear of heights impairs you too much when hiking, we encourage you to see a professional.

7 tips to overcome the fear of heights when hiking

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VERTIGO AND FEAR OF HEIGHTS

But first, what are we really talking about? Vertigo or fear of heights? The term vertigo is used in a general sense although it is a physiological phenomenon. Those who suffer from vertigo become ill due to the gap between the signals sent by their sight and their inner ear (which controls balance). To make it simple, if you stand up in an elevated glass cage your eyes will tell you that you're in a void whereas your feet will tell you that you are on firm ground.
If you suffer from vertigo, see an ENT specialist who can diagnose any damage to the inner ear.

Fear of heights, or acrophobia, however, is a real phobia. Like any phobia, it may irrational and rather difficult, but not impossible to treat. So here are our tips to help your hiking not to turn into a nightmare.

#1 TALK TO OTHER HIKERS

Don't be afraid to talk about it. You will meet more people than you think that share your fear. Nobody will judge you and your fear doesn't make you any less of a hiker! You may be lucky to meet people who have overcome acrophobia. They will be able to share their experiences and help you. This is a good reason to meet other hikers!

7 tips to overcome the fear of heights when hiking
7 tips to overcome the fear of heights when hiking

#2 HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF AND YOUR EQUIPMENT

There are no bad tools, just bad craftspeople. However, you can count on a slight placebo effect from your equipment. Invest in shoes that you trust, hard-wearing poles and a backpack that doesn't impede your movements or unbalance you. To give yourself every advantage, learn how to distribute the load of your backpack here and also how to adjust it here to make you feel safe and more able to face your fear.

#3 QUANTIFY AND RATIONALISE

If possible try to identify what triggers this fear. Is it the slopes? The bridges? Under what circumstances do you start to get jelly legs? Then try to rate your fear on a scale from 1 to 10. This will help you to rationalise and step back from the situation to compose yourself. If you aren't severely acrophobic, ask yourself if your perceived risk in each situation is real. Put into perspective and take control of your fear in specific situations.

7 tips to overcome the fear of heights when hiking

#4 FACE YOUR FEAR STEP BY STEP

You can get help in your endeavour. Treatments are available specifically for this type of phobia. The best known are cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT). The principle is simple: face your fear gradually to take back control and overcome your thoughts.
This doesn't mean you must take a great leap immediately. Take your time. The first steps for the more phobic ones will be to think about the heights while remaining calm.

#5 LEARN TO BREATHE AGAIN

Anxiety largely feeds the fear of heights. There are very simple breathing techniques that are extremely efficient in helping you to regain composure and get through this difficult step keeping you from the summit. Meditation, sophrology or even yoga breathing exercises, such as those explained here in this article by our yoga friends at Domyos, can help you to reduce stress in daily life and also when hiking. When you walk, be careful not to hyperventilate (very fast breathing) and slow down your breathing by inhaling deeply with your stomach.

7 tips to overcome the fear of heights when hiking

#6 DON’T LOOK DOWN

You have surely already heard it: never look down. The gap will “suck you in” which will only exacerbate your fear. If you find yourself facing the heights during your hiking without being able to turn around, you should instead focus your sight on a fixed point in the distance. Don't forget to lift your feet up and to test unstable ground to avoid sliding or falling.

7 tips to overcome the fear of heights when hiking

#7 DON'T BE AFRAID TO LOOK STUPID

In the most frightening situations, forget your ego and walk on your hands and knees if necessary. A moment of humiliation is better than a severe crisis followed by a long slide. You can help yourself using a wall. Avoid holding on to the person next to you as they could lose their balance and take you both down!

Don't hesitate to use your poles to help you on steep slopes. Discover how to adjust them properly in our article here.

How about you, what are your tips to overcome the fear of the heights? Share your comments!

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