Words: Charlotte Ellis

Walking changed Zahrah Mamood’s life – and with it, the perception of walking itself. Now the self-styled ‘Hillwalking Hijabi’ joins ECCO in trialling the new-season Biom 2.0 W

“I have two friends who are keen walkers and they insisted I’d benefit from getting outdoors,” Zahrah recalls. 

Zahrah was 24 and living in Glasgow – a city whose innermost streets still command a view out onto the crystalline slopes of its surrounding hills and mountains. Yet she had always thought of walking in the countryside as something for ‘other people’. She never exercised and didn’t think she could ever make it to the top of a hill. But that day, her friends changed her mind. 

“They took me up Ben Lomond, a mountain about 40km from Glasgow,” Zahrah says. “That was my first experience of hillwalking and my first ‘Big Hill’. It was also my first experience of intentional physical exercise!”

She felt the change almost instantly – physically and mentally. “When I realized how much better I felt when I took the time to walk, I knew it was something I should incorporate into my life regularly,” she says. “There’s no doubt that walking and getting out into nature helped me to manage my anxiety and to pass my exams.”

It was as if a door had been opened. She signed up to a 37km hill walk for The Brain Tumour Charity with her two ‘walker girlfriends’, Pamela and Fiona. 

Although the training was tough, the feeling of elation on completing the walk had Zahrah hooked: “My friends are superfit. At first, I thought that I wasn’t fit enough to walk, that it was their thing. But I’m proof that walking really is accessible and that when you put the work in, you’re capable of amazing things.”

Even when she doesn’t have a 37km challenge in sight, the Glasgow native, now 31, pencils in one day, every weekend, for hillwalking. “It’s good to do something selfishly,” she says. “Something all for yourself. And hillwalking has changed me. I used to be anxious and get wound up quite quickly, but taking time for myself and being out in nature helps put things in perspective.”

Zahrah credits this lift in her mental health and approach to life to the experience of the natural world that walking offers.

Physical exercise is good for you, but the beauty of nature – the unfiltered, untouched, raw beauty – helps you really connect with your environment and reflect on your life.

Culturally, Zahrah’s personal journey is opening doors for others, too. 

As a Muslim woman of South Asian heritage wearing a hijab in the Scottish hills, Zahrah is very conscious of being in a minority as a hillwalker. She doesn’t see herself as any kind of pioneer, but she does hope that by being visible, she will encourage other women to experience the sheer exhilaration and the physical and mental benefits of hillwalking. 

“I hadn't seen any walkers who looked like me,” she says. “You know, wearing a hijab. Then my sister started calling me ‘the Hillwalking Hijabi’ – and it stuck!” The name became Zahrah’s Instagram handle, and she posts photos from each walk. “I cover my hair for religious reasons,” she says, “but I have never let it stop me from going after what I want.”

There are so many people, especially in cities, who still feel walking is something ‘for others’. This is something Zahrah wants to change.

“The main purpose of sharing my walks and my outdoor experiences is to show other people that they can do it too,” she says. . “If you don’t walk or you don’t have any friends who walk, you really don’t know where to start. Which hills should you head to? Where should you park? How safe will trails be? How good is the signposting? How should you prepare, or what should you pack to take with you? I get a lot of questions and I always respond. Now I get a lot of questions about walking with the baby, too.”

“If you’re not seeing people like yourself being represented in the outdoors, then you’re going to feel it’s not for you”

Zahrah, her husband and their son, Harris, are working towards more serious hikes by tackling some of Scotland’s Munros – mountains more than 914m (3,000ft) high – later this year. “We haven’t done big hill walks yet as I’m recovering from giving birth,” she says.

“Now that the days are lighter for longer, it’s a perfect time to be outside. We used to start really early. Now we move slightly later, around the baby. We will always plan where to walk depending on the weather forecast – we might drive for two hours and then walk for maybe six, so we pack lunches and snacks, plenty of water and always layers, sun cream and waterproofs.”

It’s important to go prepared, she says – not just for safety, but because it leaves you free of worries. “In most cases there is no phone service, but that’s perfect because I’m never on my phone during a walk. It’s a time to be present,” she says. “We take a Garmin device that allows us to contact emergency services, but we’ve never needed to. We also walk with a temporary shelter in case we ever get stuck!

Zahrah on hillwalking in the ECCO Biom 2.0 W

“My aunt is a huge fan of ECCO shoes and has a pair for every activity, from walking in the city to being more active, so I was really intrigued to try them out for myself. They are so unbelievably lightweight that I thought they might not be able to give me the grip or support that my usual hardy walking boots do. But they did!

“The grip on the terrain was brilliant. They also felt like a second skin as soon as I put them on. It usually takes time to break in a new pair of walking boots, and you have to wear them around the house for a while beforehand. With The ECCO Biom 2.0 W, I just put them on and went out. I was comfortable, secure and my feet were dry all day – despite how boggy the start of the walk was and how steep the gradient was on the way down, I didn’t slip.”

Zahrah’s headline hills

Most walkers will come across hills when they’re out hiking. But hillwalkers set out with the specific aim of getting to the top of named peaks, often to build up their ‘collection’. The headline hills are the Scottish peaks the Munros, named after Sir Hugh Munro, but there are many lower peaks that are just as interesting.

Zahrah’s favorite hill walk is up Ben Vrackie, Perthshire, with the town of Pitlochry at its foot. “Every time I have hiked there, I’m always bowled over by how stunning it is,” she beams. “There are so many parts to the walk. You head into woodland and then open moorland, and then you pass the picturesque Loch a’ Choire – and when you reach the Ben Vrackie peak, you can see for miles.”

Photographs: Andrew Cawley, Alamy, Gary Ellis/Unsplash, iStock, Adobe Stock 

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