The Mental Health Benefits of Backpacking

As we transition to a post-COVID world, mental health issues are running rampant. Over 40 million adults in the U.S. have some type of anxiety. Depression, excessive stress, and loneliness are other common problems. 

Needless to say, people are looking wherever they can to give their mental health a boost and to find the help they need to feel good again. In some cases, that might mean talking to a therapist or counselor. 

Other times, you can manage your mental health and well-being by giving your brain a natural dose of a mood-boosting activity. The psychological benefits of hiking and backpacking are great for helping you manage your mental health. Whether you’re already an outdoor enthusiast or you’re trying to find ways to improve your mental wellness, understanding the mental health benefits of backpacking can make a big difference. 

So, what can you expect from the “nature pill” of getting outside and staying active? Let’s look at some of the benefits and how you can get started as a hiker. 

You’ll Unplug and De-Stress

We live in a digital world where it seems like we always have to be “connected.” While technology has its benefits, it can also have some drawbacks when it comes to your mental health. One survey discovered that people who are always checking their digital devices tend to have higher stress levels. 

The psychological benefits of hiking and backpacking include forcing you to unplug and disconnect from things like social media, text messages, and work emails. The activities can even get you off of the couch and keep you from spending your weekend binge-watching a new show. Streaming shows and movies can be fun, but watching more than four hours of television a day can decrease your dopamine levels, increasing your risk of depression. 

Being outside, however, has the opposite effect. Some of the mental health benefits associated with being in nature include: 

  • Lower stress
  • More focus
  • Boosted mood
  • Improved attention span
  • Reduced risk of psychological disorders

It might feel impossible to go “off the grid” for a long period of time. But, taking a weekend backpacking trip can help you to feel rejuvenated and keep your mind clear so you’re ready to tackle whatever your life throws at you. 

Reduced Rumination

One of the biggest factors contributing to poor mental health is worrying about the past or future. People tend to exaggerate the “negative” things that have happened in the past, making them worse in their own heads. More prominently, however, those with anxiety will spend a lot of time fearing the future – especially the “what ifs.” 

When you’re backpacking, you’ll have less time to ruminate on those worries. It’s also the perfect time to practice mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is something you can do every day, but with so many distractions in life, it can be hard to find the time or do it the “right” way. When you’re outdoors on a long hike or setting up camp, it’s the perfect time to choose to be mindful. If you need some tips to get started, try these: 

  • Set a positive intention before you go hiking
  • Focus on your breathing
  • Take in your surroundings whenever you take a break
  • Pay attention to how being in nature makes you feel

The more prepared you are for your backpacking adventure, especially as a beginner, the easier it will be to have those moments of mindfulness. So, make sure you feel comfortable with the route you’re taking and that you have all of the necessary supplies. When you choose to be mindful, you’ll focus on the present instead of worrying about the past or future. You’ll also learn how to manage those fears when they come, and push the negative thoughts and worries aside. 

How to Get Started

One of the great things about backpacking is its global availability. You can hike almost anywhere in the world as long as you can find a good trail and a safe place to camp. All you need to get started is the right gear, basic safety knowledge, and a bit of strength and stamina (something you’ll get more of as you’re more active outdoors!). 

What we touched on here is only a fraction of the mental health benefits of backpacking. The runoff benefits are just as important. For example, backpacking is a sustainable hobby. You can find peace of mind in knowing you’re doing something good for the planet, and possibly promoting others to do the same. If you choose to go with friends or family members, you could also be giving their mental health a boost – and that’s something to feel good about!

Whether you need to find a way to relax and get rid of stress or you’re struggling with your mental health and want a way to cope, backpacking is a wonderful option. Keep these mental health benefits of backpacking in mind as you pack for your next adventure. The more you understand how backpacking can help, the more you’re likely to focus on your mental health while you’re hiking through the woods. 

About the author

Dan Matthews - Guest Author at The Backpacking Site
Dan Matthews
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Dan Matthews (@danielmatthews0) is a freelance writer and content consultant who specializes in valuable insights for a wide variety of audiences. You'll find that sustainability and environmental preservation topics extend past the working hours and into Dan’s daily routines – and he would like to impart those ideals and awareness unto as many readers as are willing to give him the time.
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