BDN columnist Aislinn Sarnacki and her dog Oreo hike along the Schooner Trail in Shackford Head State Park in Eastport. Credit: Courtesy of Derek Runnells

“Soft hiking” has recently become all the rage on TikTok, and the funny thing is it’s nothing new. You’ve probably been soft hiking plenty of times yourself.

Nevertheless, the fad is introducing outdoor exploration to more people and making it seem more accessible. That’s a wonderful thing.

The term “soft hiking” is believed to have been coined by Emily Thornton and Lucy Hird, two British TikTokers who just recently started posting videos on their channel @ softgirlswhohike.

On April 9, they explained the term “soft hiking” in a video that has since received more than 367,000 views and nearly 1,000 comments from around the world.

“Hiking doesn’t have to be hard,” they state in the video. “We’ve been on hikes before with seasoned hikers, and we just felt we weren’t good enough, strong enough or fit enough to keep up.”

I think many people can relate to that feeling. It can be discouraging to try to keep up with someone whose pace far exceeds your own — whether it’s due to your fitness level, climbing skills or preferences. I, for example, prefer to stop and photograph mushrooms and birds throughout my hikes. This slows me down considerably.

Soft hiking, as Hird and Thornton define it, is hiking with the goal of simply enjoying yourself, with an emphasis on slowing down, exploring, taking breaks and being present in the moment.

“It’s not about pushing yourself to the limit or ticking something off,” they explain in the video.

By “ticking something off,” they mean checking something off a to-do list.

After watching several of their videos, I think I have a firm grasp on the concept. Soft hiking is about being happy outdoors. It involves a bit of meandering. And while you might reach the top of a mountain in the process, it’s OK if you don’t.

It’s low-pressure, low-stakes adventuring. And packing a good snack seems to be crucial.

In this case, “soft” doesn’t mean weak. It means being gentle — with yourself, the environment and any companion you might have joining you on the adventure.

Given that definition, I’ve been soft hiking for ages. Sometimes I trek hard, zipping up and down a mountain with the goal of pushing myself physically. But other times, due to my interest in nature, I mosey along at a leisurely pace. An easy, 1-mile gravel trail might take me hours to complete. That’s soft hiking.

So the concept isn’t new, but the term — or at least the rising popularity of it — is. And words have power.

The word “soft” makes hiking seem less daunting or challenging. It also separates the activity from other types of hiking that require more skills, endurance and gear, such as speed hiking, mountaineering and long-distance backpacking.

Lastly, by assigning the activity its own special name, the TikTokers have made it much more possible for a community to grow around it. And with any outdoor activity, communities can offer knowledge and support.

One concern I have about the trend is that it may result in beginner hikers visiting a trail unprepared — without a backpack or proper footwear, for instance. But I hope that a growing community would lessen that problem by being a source of information for those just starting out. Thornton and Hird have already started that education by posting a video about the importance of hiking boots.

Here’s another thing to consider. Having been a part of Maine’s hiking community for a long time, I’ve witnessed many discussions about hiking styles over the years. And sometimes, these conversations can become quite heated.

For example, when hikers break speed records for completing the Appalachian Trail, inevitably there will be discussions about how fast people should or shouldn’t hike. Hikers are chastised for not slowing down and enjoying the journey. Others argue that such incredible athletic feats should be celebrated.

These conversations almost always end with someone contributing the common diplomatic saying: “Hike your own hike.”

In other words, hike in the way that you prefer and mind your own business. As long as you’re respecting the environment, the trail and fellow hikers, you’re golden. People experience the outdoors in many different ways. The important part is that they’re out there, experiencing it.

TikTok trends come and go. But I hope this fad, and the friendly term “soft hiking,” sticks around. It’s nice to be able to put a name to my more leisurely treks.

Correction: A previous version of the story misquoted Hird and Thornton. They said soft hiking is not about “ticking something off.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...