The forest has been an important part of my life since childhood. As a kid, family vacations often consisted of camping trips, and I was lucky to live in a rural area where nature was right outside the front door. As I’ve gotten older, and over the past year in particular, escaping to the forest has become increasingly valuable to me. In some ways, I would even say it is essential to my well-being and ability to function as a normal human being.
It seems that more and more, I have been reading about the benefits of spending time in nature. Whether or not you have spent much time in the woods or have even thought much about it, there are some pretty compelling reasons to give it a try. Here are my biggest motivations for taking as many hikes as possible:
If you live in or near a city there is a very good chance that you are constantly bombarded by noise. Often we don’t even notice all the sounds that are constantly coming at us: cars driving down the road, sirens blazing, or even just the buzzing of the refrigerator. Though we might not be acutely aware of the constant noise, there is evidence that noise pollution may have negative health effects, including cardiovascular disease, psychological symptoms, and impaired learning(1). And for some of us, all those sounds coming at us on a regular basis are just annoying. They can make it difficult to sleep, communicate, relax, and sometimes even to think.
Enter the benefits of spending time in the woods. The forest is by no means silent. On the contrary, there is quite a bit of sound. But it is a different kind of sound. Birds, streams, breeze, squirrels, insects. These are sounds humans evolved with, and consequently to which we are well adapted. The volume is lower, at levels our ears are built to handle; unlike decibel levels produced by many modern vehicles and tools, which are known to cause hearing impairment and to promote stress(2).
Moreover, the sounds of the forest are relaxing. So much so that nature sounds have been shown to significantly reduce pain during medical procedures(3). Overall, the woods feel quiet. When you are deep enough into a trail that you can no longer hear the cars on a road, something just clicks. An extra layer of stress seems to fall away and your brain finally gets a true break.
Hiking is an active endeavor by nature. Even an easy stroll in the woods involves some movement. I’m not talking about getting lean and ripped here. That isn’t the point (it rarely is). I’m talking about moving your body in a way that nourishes it. Countless studies have illustrated the many health benefits of walking. In fact, walking has frequently been cited as the most beneficial, and least dangerous, form of movement for improved health(4).
Even beyond the benefits associated with walking, there is quite a bit of research showing that simply being exposed to nature and the outdoors can have beneficial health effects(5). Some studies show improved immune function associated with exposure to forested parks(6,7). Others have found exposure to nature to be associated with decreased cortisol levels, lower pulse rate, and lowered blood pressure(8,9). There are also many noted mental health benefits of being in the woods(10). Some researchers have even used exposure to nature as a successful treatment for ADD and ADHD(11,12).
Ok, so I don’t have any studies to cite here to back this one up, but I absolutely love the smell of the forest. On my first solo hike, I literally cried at one point when I hit a pocket of fragrant subalpine air. It might have been partly due to nostalgia, having spent a good deal of time in the woods as a kid. But I think it also has to do with the uniqueness of that smell and the fact that it signifies separation from the city and ‘civilization’, a return to my human ‘roots’, if you will. That particular hike also took place at the end of an extraordinarily stressful period of time in my life, and the relief of being somewhere secluded and safe and away from everything was incredible.
Again, this one may be more of a personal preference for certain smells. When I reach the woods and smell the evergreens, I am overcome with happy fuzzy feelings. Every single time. I would be interested to know if others are as obsessed with the smell of the forest as I am, so let me know if you feel so inclined.
For me, there is nothing like hiking to help me appreciate my body. Even when I was in the midst of some pretty disordered eating behavior, most of my neuroses were suspended on backpacking trips. I knew that I was truly eating to fuel my body and that I had to keep it nourished if I wanted to keep up with everyone else. Now that I have largely moved past any disordered eating behaviors, hiking is an incredible reminder of what my body is capable of. It is a reminder to be grateful for the fact that I have legs that can carry me up a steep slope and a heart and lungs that can keep me moving.
When I’m on a trail, I don’t ever think about the size of my legs, stomach, etc (I do this waaaaaay less than I used to in the ‘real’ world now too*, but it still happens on occasion, especially during times of stress). I think part of this could be related to the fact that I don’t have access to a mirror when I’m in the woods. It’s impossible to constantly look at yourself and assess the attractiveness of different body parts. If anything, it’s a good argument for avoiding mirrors altogether as much as possible. But I actually think there’s more to it than the absence of mirrors. When it comes down to it, when you’re in the woods, it doesn’t freaking matter what your body look like. Of course, it really doesn’t matter out of the woods either, but for some reason it feels as though there is more reason to be concerned about it. Hiking requires only that your body do what you ask of it to keep you healthy, alive, and moving in the direction you want to go. Everything else is superfluous. Which brings me to my next thought…
I often wonder to what degree body insecurity is a coping mechanism for dealing with stress in our daily lives. It’s a distraction; something tangible we think we can control if we just do everything perfectly. So we obsess and manipulate. Out on a hike, when all you have to focus on is getting up the mountain or to whatever beautiful destination you have chosen, there’s less of a reason to distract ourselves and fixate on what’s “wrong” with our bodies. Because, really, nothing is wrong with our bodies. They’re getting us where we want to go and allowing us to do some pretty darn amazing stuff.
One of the cooler things about hiking, and especially backpacking, is that you get to see things you just wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Mountaintop views, alpine lakes, and marmot sightings are just a few of these. I actually find this to be one of the more compelling arguments for some people. Even if you hate physical activity and aren’t that into the smell of the woods, there is something pretty incredible about the views you find out in the middle of nowhere.
To me, the benefits of spending time in the woods feel a bit intangible (yes, I realize I just listed off some very tangible aspects, but those don’t quite encompass everything). All I know is that I feel happy and rejuvenated every time I go. So, if you’re feeling up to it, try venturing out into the forest sometime (on a well-marked trail of course!). If nothing else, hiking is a lot of fun, and you will probably get to see some amazing new things.
*This is thanks largely to the insights and stylings of Summer Innanen