How to Take Your Hike to the Next Level With River Tracing

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What Is River Tracing?

River Tracing
Danielle Press

Hiking through deep mountain valleys rarely traversed by people. Boulders and pebbles. Stepping stones and fine-grained sand. The river you walk along doesn't simply set a nice backdrop – you need to cross the river, wade through and fight against the running rapids, then finally, after hours of hiking, climbing, and traversing cold currents, you drop your pack and ease your body into a natural, emerald hot spring.

You are river tracing – also known as canyoning, canyoneering, and river trekking – and your senses are lit up by the trail, the beauty, the buzz of your body, and a slight hint of fear. Growing in popularity in Japan and Taiwan, river tracing incorporates the skills of hiking, bouldering, and river crossing. Each natural element: earth, water, fire, and air challenges and reinvigorates your body. In this adventure, the journey melds seamlessly into the destination as the elements guide and test you. 

More: Fitpacking Guided Hikes and Tours

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Earth

River Tracing, Earth
Danielle Press

Earth, the first element you have to fight against and work with.

From the sand and the rocks to the incline and decline of nature’s path, no step feels like the last. Nature’s trail doesn't fix itself in a single form, it changes with each new storm or each new season. The landscape around you seems unreal as each step moves you further away from civilization and closer to nature’s freedom.

Earth, rocks, and boulders immediately challenge your body. Far from the smoothed asphalt of the city, or even the soft cushioned trail of a forest floor, the ground is carpeted with stones, ranging in size and shape. Your eyes constantly shift and scour the ground for flat, large rocks to step on. You find yourself engaging and tightening your body, from your toes to your core. You jump, hold positions, balance, push up and over, and steadily lower yourself down from elevation changes.

At times, you pass boulders larger than cars, strewn down onto the ground from powerful landslides of years past. As paths narrow and change, you find yourself climbing these boulders or gripping slick stone faces. Even when the ground gives way to sand, you have to confront each step with determination and drive. The relief that comes from a softer surface soon transforms itself into a new obstacle as your walk feels burdened by your pack of camping equipment. Your legs and butt may be screaming, but you know what awaits you: a natural hot tub. During this trip you don't simply marvel at nature, you feel it within every part of your body.

More: How to Turn Nature Into a Gym

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Water

River Tracing, Water
Danielle Press

Water, your next challenge and an ever present, looming, and inevitable obstacle. A friend and a foe, the river exhausts and exhilarates you. Waiting for the guide's decision to cross, you walk in anticipation, never knowing when the moment will arise.

When it does present itself – and it will – you have no choice but to get wet! Some crossings remain shallow and prove easy to traverse, while others run deeper and faster. If you're lucky, a river tracer before you has considerately tied a rope at each end to help anyone attempting to cross. If not, you only have yourself, your friends and guides, and your strength to rely on.

With or without ropes, you have to employ your entire body. The temperature of the river offers the first shock, followed by the immense strength of moving water. With ropes at hand, you must pull yourself through this awesome force. You hesitantly try to steady yourself over the smooth, slick, or nearly invisible rocks. Without ropes, you must direct your body toward the current, using the opposing weight to try to keep your balance. Then you muster all the power in your quads and calves to take one step after another toward land.

Adrenaline streams through your body as the current threatens to pull your legs from under you, but with the proper support team, you soon find yourself on the other side. Slightly weak in the knees, you continue on your path, mind filled with adventure, body radiating strength, and soul overwhelmed by possibility. Just as quickly as the river tests you, you soon find it also revitalizes your aching legs. The cold temperatures keep the pain at bay and aid in the reduction of potential swelling. It serves as nature’s own cryotherapy. 

More: 5 National Parks Where You Can Scuba Dive

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Fire

River Tracing, Fire
Getty Images/CO2

Fire, it's one of our most basic necessities. As with most necessary and worthwhile things, it doesn't come without trial. Wood needs to be collected and sorted. Fire needs to be cultivated and attended. For a proper, long-lasting fire, you need more than thin branches – you need thick, large limbs of wood, ones that burn deep and through, smoldering for hours until extinguished.

Additionally, when you're in the middle of nowhere, and night's thick blanket descends upon you, you'll want to feel secure with a large amount of collected wood waiting to be burned. This means multiple trips out into the wilderness surrounding your camp. The terrain remains the same as before – a land covered in rocks. You try your best to carry as much wood as possible during each trip while balancing on the challenging surface. Sweat drips down your face as your arms and back burn with the burden of dense wood. Squat down, lift up, transport, repeat. Yet there remains a certain unique and primal satisfaction that comes from making a fire. The work that goes into it reflects itself in warmth as you stoke the flames. Your muscles soon relax as your mind drifts away and you're left with nothing but a glow on your face and in your soul.

More: National Parks Perfect for Trail Running

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Air

River Tracing, Air
Danielle Press

Air may not strictly challenge you during this adventure, but it's an ever-present element that holds great importance. As soon as the air hits you, with its crisp, fresh tones, you understand its significance. For those who live in major cities, it becomes crucial. Your lungs are constantly taxed with pollutants. Emissions from cars and smog from industry. In some places, haze amounts to a viable type of "weather." You owe it to your body to get out of the overwhelming environment of pollution too common to the modern era. You need to fill your lungs with clean, fresh oxygen.

You need to understand the magnitude and the benefit of clean air. In river tracing, you'll find it. Additionally, as you travel through the environment, through lands left untouched, your breath will be taken away. The greens and browns of the land, the ice blue of the river, and the emerald green of the hot springs. This is our world, but it feels other-worldly. And if that doesn't take your breath away, I don't know what will. 

More: Fitness Adventures to Add to Your Bucket List

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Finding a River Tracing Adventure

River Tracing, Hot Springs
Danielle Press

The key to finding a safe river tracing tour is knowing what they're called in different parts of the world. In Taiwan, Japan, and other Asian countries, look for guided river tracing or river trekking tours. In other parts of the world, look for canyoning or canyoneering tours. 

Many of these tours are multi-day adventures that include hiking, camping, and bouldering. Make sure your guide has extensive experience, knowledge of the area and appropriate wilderness first aid training, as well as appropriate support in case of emergency. All outdoor adventures do carry a measure of risk, so it's important to make sure your guide is prepared to manage risks. 

Check out a few of the guide programs available: 

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