“I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.” ~John Burroughs
Spending time outdoors in nature is a big part of my life.
When I first started hiking and backpacking, I liked being able to explore new places and get some exercise outside.
In my twenties, I traveled throughout the Western United States hiking in the mountains and discovering the incredible desert. I moved a lot, I tried new things, and I kept craving more time in nature.
Over the years, I started to realize that the benefits of my time in nature went way beyond physical fitness and seeing beautiful views. Of course, it felt good to exercise, and I loved the views of snowcapped mountains and red rock arches in the desert, but I started to notice other ways nature enriched my life.
Below are some of the benefits I’ve experienced from spending time in nature that have nothing to do with physical fitness or how far you go.
1. More self-awareness
It’s easy to go through the whole day without ever taking a moment to be aware of your breathing or what is happening right here, right now.
I started to notice that when I went outside for a hike, I naturally became more self-aware and more focused on the present moment.
My time in nature started to become meditation for me. Walking among the trees or sitting around a fire on a chilly fall night helped me quiet all the chatter in my mind and land right in the present moment, open and curious about what’s around me.
I would start asking myself how I felt in the moment. I noticed the leaves under my feet and the air filling my lungs.
In nature, I find it easier to focus on deeper thoughts, creative ideas, and solutions to problems.
For example, last summer I was offered a new position at work and I couldn’t decide if I should take the job. I thought about every possible scenario in the future and just felt overwhelmed and stressed about the decision.
Luckily, that weekend I had a backpacking trip planned.
Within an hour on the trail, I confidently decided that I didn’t want to take that job. The decision was no stress at all because I’d created the mental space necessary to find clarity and access my intuition—without stories about the past or future getting in the way. Now, when I need to make a decision or feel creatively stuck, I head into nature to sort it out.
2. More gratitude
On any given day, you probably have a lot going on, right? And while you’re tackling your never ending to-do list, you’re probably also responding to the constant stream of notifications on your phone.
There’s so much focus on bigger, better, greater, and faster that it’s all too easy to get swept up in what you don’t have or all that still needs to get done. And considering how much time we spend on social media, it’s easy to compare our lives to someone else’s.
I tend to focus on what I need to accomplish instead of really appreciating all that I have done and how hard I have worked. When I do this, I feel so much more stressed, anxious, and like I’m not doing enough.
But every time I go on a backpacking trip or a camping trip, I’m always amazed by how quickly I completely forget about social media, my phone, and everything I lack or need to do.
I’m more aware and appreciative of how much I do have.
All of a sudden, a thought that was causing so much stress and anxiety becomes just a thought.
I don’t know if it’s the space, the trees, the fresh air, the smell of the plants, or a combo of all of these things, but when I go for a walk in nature, I come back feeling so much more grounded and less anxious.
I’m not so easily swept up by every thought that floats through my head, and I feel so much more awareness and gratitude for what I have—a healthy body that can walk outside, the supportive people in my life, how far I’ve come, and fresh air to breathe.
3. Recovery from mental burnout
Some of my best ideas come during or after a trip outdoors, and other people I hike and camp with have said the same thing!
The study of how nature affects the brain is on the rise. The Attention Restoration Theory (ART) hypothesizes that nature has the capacity to renew attention after exerting mental energy.
We modern day humans have a lot going on. We’re all over social media, we usually don’t get enough sleep, and our to-do lists are often very long. It’s crucial that we take time to rest and recover so we don’t burn out from mental fatigue.
For me personally, I’ve always felt renewed after a good hike or camping trip, even long before I heard of the Attention Restoration Theory. It’s like hitting the reset button, and I return to my life in the city feeling renewed and energized.
I invite you to try it out for yourself! Next time you’re feeling mentally burnt out or you’re having trouble focusing—maybe you just crammed for a big test or presentation at work, or you’ve been overwhelmed with personal matters—plan a local hike, camping trip, or a walk through the park without looking at your phone. Notice how you feel afterward.
Simple Ways to Experience Nature
While I love going on long multi-day hikes and backpacking trips, you don’t need to do that in order to experience the benefits of nature.
Here are some ways to get outside that don’t involve hiking:
- Visit a local park and sit in the grass under a tree.
- Sit by a stream, lake, or ocean, close your eyes, and focus on the sounds around you. Then, focus on your breathing for a few minutes.
- Visit a local greenhouse and walk around. Admire the plants and smell the flowers. This is something I love to do in the winter months!
- Plant a garden. If you have the space, this is a wonderful way to experience nature!
- Plan a car camping trip with family or friends. Sit around the campfire, tell stories, roast marshmallows, and sleep under the stars.
If you’re feeling confused about what to do, overwhelmed by your to-do list, or mentally burnt out, it can help to spend time appreciating the wonder of nature and letting your mind relax.
There’s an entire natural world that’s incredible to sit and watch. The more time I spend outside, the more I’m learning that it’s not so much about how far you go, but what you notice along the way.