A Hike Can Make Your Entire Vacation More Relaxing, Studies Show
An increasing amount of science-backed evidence shows that spending time in nature can reduce stress and anxiety. Good news: It’s easier than you think to reap those benefits on your next vacation.
On a chilly July evening in 2015, I rhythmically flicked my fly-fishing rod back and forth over Lane Lake, hidden deep in the Hoover Wilderness Area just outside of Yosemite National Park. I was traveling solo by motorcycle across the country, hoping to escape the stressors of everyday life in Philadelphia. During my previous travels, I’d focused on metropolitan areas, rushing frenzied from one attraction to the next. But on this trip, I balanced the days spent in cities with time in nature.
Trout were rising to the surface, but they stayed just beyond the reach of my cast. Eventually, I admitted defeat and retired the fly rod, but I continued to watch the fish chase bugs on the water’s surface as the setting sun reflected pink off the clouds. For the first time in years, I felt at ease. I was able to remain present, appreciating the subtleties—a refreshing breeze on my face, or the beauty of an ancient tree—that often get lost in a whirlwind trip.
Travel trends like outdoor yoga and mountain-top meditation may sometimes seem like nothing more than opportunities for new Instagram content, but we’ve actually long recognized the mental and physical benefits of outdoor activities. As far back as the 1800s, parents would send their children away to summer camps to escape urbanization and to enjoy the positive effects of nature. And now, new articles and research published in journals are providing hard evidence that even small amounts of time outside can reduce overall stress, whether you’re at home or on the road.
Nature has a proven effect on mental health and stress reduction
In a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, participants were asked to walk for 90 minutes in either a natural or urban setting. Researchers determined that, compared to those in urban environments, people who walked in the natural setting had lower levels of repetitive negative self-thought—or rumination—and a decreased level of activity in the prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain linked to mental illness, anxiety, and stress).
“They don’t know exactly what the mechanism is,” says Dr. Jason Strauss, the director of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard’s Cambridge Health Alliance. “But being in nature makes people less distressed and more relaxed. The parts of the brain that connect to this prefrontal cortex become less active. And that sort of perpetuates the decrease in anxiety.”
Dr. Strauss often prescribes nature to his patients struggling with depression and anxiety, and many of them report that they experienced better results than they did with medication. “They’re more actively taking control of their symptoms,” says Dr. Strauss. “It’s not like they take a pill and feel better. They know they can take a walk, and because of their own activity they themselves are feeling better.”
Disconnecting allows for the deepest relaxation
Spending time in nature also gives you a chance to disengage. Much of the stress we experience stems from our excessive use of technology. In fact, some studies suggest that overuse of the internet and smartphones directly correlates with poor mental health, including depression, anxiety, low self-confidence, and obsessive compulsive disorder. If you take a break from constant connectivity on your next trip, instead of simply continuing your stressful everyday habits in a new geographic location, it is likely to be much more rejuvenating.
According to Nichol Ernst, a licensed therapist at and co-owner of a Maine-based wilderness therapy program Summit Achievement, unplugging by spending time in nature also allows you to slow down and engage in mindfulness, both of which have been shown to alleviate a lot of stress and anxiety.
“It’s much less frenetic to be out in the woods than it is to be on your iPhone,” says Ernst. “I think in our culture we are constantly being bombarded with future information. Like, ‘What’s next, and what am I missing?’ And I think things sort of slow down a little bit in the woods and tend to force us to be more present.”
You don’t have to climb a mountain—or go completely off grid
We often associate “getting outdoors” with scaling mountains, standing on dramatic summits, trekking into the jungle, and doing other adrenaline-driven activities far from the reach of cell service. But for some, jumping headfirst into a demanding adventure in a remote setting or throwing out their smartphones may induce more anxiety than scrolling through social media.
Spending time in nature doesn’t have to be intense. It can mean walking on an empty beach as the sun sets, resting by a stream, sitting on the lawn behind your hotel, or even just being more aware of outdoor surroundings: The term shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” describes that simple act of practicing mindfulness in a natural setting. After originating in Japan in the 1980s in response to the emerging tech-addiction crisis, the exercise remains relevant today. As a meditative practice, forest bathing focuses on engaging the senses and gaining an appreciation of your surroundings.
“It’s akin to other mindfulness practices, such as meditation, yoga and tai chi,” says Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author of The Joy of Forest Bathing—Reconnect with Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life and certified forest bathing guide. “But it has the added benefit of soaking up the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and even tastes of your natural surroundings.”
For others, the antidote to stress is even simpler than that: AJ Hunter, a guide for and owner of Mountain Life International, a snowboard guiding company in New Hampshire, deals with PTSD and anxiety on a daily basis. He finds that a short, leisurely walk with his dog is all it takes to alter the trajectory of his entire day.
“When I’m able to go outside in nature, even if it’s a 15-minute walk with my dog around a pond, that daily practice for me is really helpful,” says Hunter. “It sets me up for the rest of the day. It allows me to slow down and appreciate what the world has to offer, despite my stress.”
Like Hunter, most travelers don’t always have time for more than a 15-minute morning walk. Luckily, mounting evidence shows that it may be all it takes to reap nature’s benefits.
For me, enjoying the great outdoors on that motorcycle trip all those years ago changed the course of my future. I realized I couldn’t return to the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia. Eventually, I arrived in North Conway—a small town in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that I would end up calling home—and left the stress of city life behind for good. And it was all because I decided to make time for nature during my vacation.