A Sunset Hike Can Be the First Step

November 09, 2022

Hiking in the late fall means a dip in temperature, but the tradeoff view of the golden, red, and orange peak colors decorating the trees is worth it. Once a week, the organization I’m part of – Sierra Club – and Another Summit run a sunset hike to Breakneck Ridge where participants can enjoy the sunset colors of the leaves on the trail on the way up before catching the actual sunset on the horizon at the top of the ridge.

Though it is a challenging trail, it is one of the few trails that is completely accessible by public transport from New York City. The real challenge comes after the sun sets and we make the hike back down in pitch black, aided by headlamps donated by BioLite. It’s dark enough in the forest that, even with the headlamps, you can see maybe 20 feet in front of you; the rest is unknown territory. Only by moving forward and exploring can you see what’s up ahead.

Sierra Club's Military OutdoorsTo many, the outdoors can feel just as opaque and mysterious, even in the daytime. Programs and outings like the ones that I and my colleagues lead via Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program and organizations like Another Summit aim to cut through that dense unknown.

Structured, guided outdoor programs have become increasingly common. The results of these programs offer a range of better health outcomes for folks, with increased feelings of belonging, wellbeing, empowerment and connection to the outdoors. But less than 1% of the 18.5 million veterans living in the U.S. have the opportunity to experience such programming.

Sierra Club's Military OutdoorsHiking Breakneck Ridge for a sunset view and nighttime climb is not an experience that many people from any community, let alone people in the veteran community, get to have. Whether that’s because of access, cost or any of the multitude of barriers that exist, outdoor experiences like this are unique and out of reach for most.

But that’s what we at Sierra Club are hoping to slowly change with the help of partner organizations like Another Summit and companies like BioLite. Structured programs like the Breakneck Ridge hike can be used as an on-ramp, teaching people how to explore the outdoors on their own, and showing them where the trails are, what to do and how to get there by public transport.

Sierra Club's Military OutdoorsNot every trip has to be after dark with special headlamps though. Military Outdoors and Another Summit offer plenty more for veterans who prefer simpler trails, ADA-accessible paths or simply more daylight on their adventures.

The transition from military service to life after service is not always smooth, and many veterans experience considerable challenges upon returning home from service. For veterans and first responders alike, many of whom have not experienced the outdoors in its full relaxing, healing potential, the outings from Military Outdoors and Another Summit are hoping to soften that transition.

Sierra Club's Military OutdoorsThe outdoors can provide critical therapeutic and healing benefits for veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress and other combat-related trauma, with a lower barrier to entry and potentially fewer stigmas than clinical treatments. Getting outside is a great start for those who can afford to do it. I have noticed that when a veteran joins us for an outing they seem to transform during the trip, becoming more talkative or more open to sharing the challenges they’re facing in their lives. Some veterans gain the support they might be needing at that point in their lives, and some are providing that support to another participant.

This Veterans Day, sign yourself up for an outing. Sierra Club has Military Outdoors programs in the Alaska, Angeles, Atlantic, Connecticut, Florida, Loma Prieta and North Star chapters, and Another Summit outings are listed on their website.

If you are interested in getting involved with Military Outdoors, contact Aaron Leonard at aaron.leonard@sierraclub.org.

Aaron Leonard, Sierra Club Military Outdoors Campaign Manager, is a combat veteran who retired in 2014 as a Lieutenant Colonel after over 27 years in the U.S. Army. He has been leading wilderness adventures for service members and veterans since 2012 to help veterans both heal from the wounds of war while becoming leaders in the veteran community. He has four adult daughters and one adult son, and lives with his soul mate and Sierra Club volunteer Leslie Leonard in Mahopac, New York.

Photos: Participants join Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors and Another Summit on a sunset hike at Breakneck Ridge with the aid of headlamps. (Photo Credit: Aaron Leonard)