Backpacking light is a commitment to simplicity and versatility. Traveling light is more than a physical exercise though. For this article, I delve into the mental and emotional aspects of ultralight backcountry travel and how it can impact every aspect of life. To get an expert perspective, I interviewed a therapist who uses outdoor therapy in her practice.
“I believe there is a subtle magnetism in nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright” – Henry David Thoreau
Though the process of backpacking light can become complex, it’s also a commitment to doing more with less. When testing the limits of pack weights, it’s important mentally and emotionally to be in a good place to make sound decisions. Psychologically, traveling light is as important to backpackers as grams and ounces.
Everyone carries metaphorical baggage. I suspect that ultralight and lightweight backpackers on the fringe of extreme carry our baggage by creating challenges. It’s like a form of self-medication using the outdoors.
I am committed to using the outdoors as part of a holistic approach to health, both physically and mentally. I also suspect many outdoors people hold the same commitment. To that end, I decided to explore the psychology of traveling light.
Interview with a Therapist
I interviewed therapist Sherri Wright. Sherri is probably one of the warmest and most enthusiastic people I know. I often bump into her at my Pilates classes, and I have never seen her without a smile and welcoming hello.
Her warm brown eyes and genuine care and concern for others are endearing and charming qualities. She is a beautiful and strong woman who has faced cancer and life head-on while being there for her clients and helping them move forward through the ‘hell and high water’ they face.
Sherri will tell you that everyone has had their share of ups and downs. She talks openly and passionately about self-care and encourages everyone to consider what the meaning of self-care is to them, herself included. Sherri often recommends her clients take time in nature. Nature is restorative, she explains, and she is not shy about taking her own advice and taking a dose of outdoors. As I sat in Sherri’s cozy office, I was struck by the smatterings of nature that infiltrate the decor.
When it comes to mental health, I think it’s fairly safe to say research supports choosing a healthy lifestyle, which includes cardiovascular exercise (I like hiking in the mountains) and Vitamin D (I like sunshine). I wondered though, could an active outdoor lifestyle replace medication for mental health disorders?
Em: Increasingly, I am seeing medical practitioners recommending the outdoors. I saw where doctors in the UK are prescribing time outdoors as treatment.
Sherri: That is very exciting and refreshing to hear. While I see a ‘rediscovering’ of the benefits of the outdoors slowly making its way into Canadian culture and lifestyle, professionals in the overall health care field still have a long way to go in recognizing its benefits when assessing and talking with clients and patients. If we paid attention to our ancestors, we would likely be doing more ‘outdoor therapy.’ However, in a world of being ‘plugged in’ much of the time (living in more than living out) coupled with navigating overall technological advancements, we seem to lose sight of simple steps that can be taken. When I talk about outdoors as therapy, it includes time outdoors and activity; the two are linked in my practice.
Em: Do you think there is merit to outdoor treatments?
Sherri: I certainly do; I sometimes think when we struggle or aren’t feeling well, we automatically want complex solutions or seek solutions solely from research and medicine. We are conditioned to this in large part. We forget to trust our own wisdom as well as forget to notice how the outdoors can help us feel de-stressed and unplugged. In a rapidly advancing culture, our brains seem forced to constantly keep this extreme pace and complexity, rather than trusting natural instincts and common sense. I concur with a holistic approach by drawing on all avenues of support, including nature.
Em: Do you think the idea of outdoors in medicine will spread further?
Sherri: I always hope for that. I think the word medicine can be misleading and can evoke confusion and even debate about its value. I am also not implying, in any way, that ‘nature cures all.’ My position is that nature is restorative, refreshing, calming, and helps ‘ground’ us in numerous ways. In essence, nature is an augment to our healing, as well as to other medical and psychological treatments. Nature provides space for all kinds of unexpected healing opportunities to happen.
Em: When is nature not enough of a prescription?
Sherri: This is a very important question, and not one easily answered. I hope that each of us would benefit from regular doses of nature, regardless of our health and wellness challenges. Nature is not a cure-all treatment or prescription for any medical or mental health issue. Nature is an accessible, low, or no-cost option that could have significant benefits.
In contrast, red flags or indicators which would tell someone time in nature alone is not enough would include:
- Experiencing mental health symptoms
- Not functioning at one’s optimal or normal regardless of steps taken to naturally feel better
- Existing chronic and persistent mental health conditions which are intrusive in day to day functioning
It is essential that when people notice these red flags, they seek out a healthcare professional in the field of mental health and explore their concerns and experiences as soon as possible. If someone is currently in treatment with a professional, I encourage them to talk over the benefits and risks of being in nature when they are struggling with any mental health conditions and/or symptoms.
Em: A lot of psychologists call nature restorative, what does that mean?
Sherri: For example, in Japan, Shinrin yoku (forest bathing) is believed to be beneficial for physical and mental wellbeing. The research found forest bathing improved heart health. Something I find fascinating is that trees and plants emit substances called phytoncides. Phytoncides are thought to help fight disease (like cancer) and enhance our immune systems.
I have also read articles that talk about nature’s benefits:
- reducing stress
- lowering anxiety
- enhancing mood
- increasing calm
- increasing creativity
- lowering cortisol
- enhancing mindfulness
All of those benefits serve to enhance our physical wellness overall. The concept of mind, body, spirit connectedness resonates deeply with me, embracing nature creates space for connectedness.
The point to stress here is that researchers from all walks of life, cultures, viewpoints, and professions are conducting research that supports the value of nature for mental health and wellness.
Em: What is the ‘three-day effect,’ and do you think it’s valid?
Sherri: Florence Williams did work on ‘The 3-Day Effect: How Nature Calms Your Brain.’ When it comes to mental health and the range of diagnoses and treatments, I operate from a place of best practices which upholds my professional standards and ethics. In translation, this means, I seek out what the latest research in my field recommends for specific struggles and conditions. I have yet to come across any research within my professional capacity, which has fully examined the 3-day effect. While I strive to stay current on relevant research, there may be some out there I haven’t seen yet. I am curious and look forward to new research on it as it becomes available.
Technology and Psychology
I have read articles and reports about technology playing a role in mental health disorders and potentially playing a role in burgeoning rates of depression and anxiety. Like many others in North American society, my life is inextricably tied to technology. Could our reliance on cell phones, tablets, laptops, the internet, and technology be mentally wearing us all down to the point of collapse? More importantly, if it is, what can we do to intervene?
Em: Do you think modern societies’ removal from the outdoors is increasing the incidence and severity of mental health challenges?
Sherri: Yes! I cannot help but make that connection. So much so that I incorporated a much more explicit exploration with clients in regards to their total frequency of daily screen time. I explore as much detail around this as possible in the first few sessions. Additionally, I seek the same kind of information regarding how much time they spend outdoors as well as in movement and activity.
The evolution of modern society seems to have created a serious imbalance in lifestyle choices and awareness for many. I believe this is one of the numerous factors that contribute to some mental health struggles. This imbalance might also perpetuate symptoms and aggravate existing conditions. It seems, for many, intrinsic basic needs and inner knowledge are ‘silenced’ as technology advancements and integration thrive. Compelling research continues to be done, which supports my professional impression on this above question.
Em: Do you think modern technology (cell phones, screens, constant digital interruptions) is damaging our brains and psychology as humans?
Sherri: I want to say absolutely. However, I would need to cite a plethora of research to professionally uphold that statement. I will say it is plausible. I have noticed more conferences, workshops, literature, etc. making reference to the negative impact of technology’s constant advancements on our overall well-being, mental health, and social connectedness.
Through my client’s stories, I am noticing repeat themes that would also support this. Issues which seem to be on the rise include:
- sleep issues
- low energy, low mood
- increased anxiety
- somatic complaints
- an overall sense of decreased wellbeing
- lower physical activity
- a sense of isolation
- lack of natural sunlight
- overactivated thoughts
- sore muscles
- overall physical discomfort
- relational conflict
- parent-child/teen conflict
- an overall sense of disconnection to others
Tech-immersion seems to have unintentionally snuck up on people. For example, cellphones on or near the bed seem to be the new normal. I wonder how and when an individual’s brain can rest and rejuvenate. It is plausible that there is a pervasive influence of everyday technology on the brain in our tech-immersed society.
Em: What do you think are the best ways to counteract technological mental health side effects?
Sherri: First steps to self-awareness about tech habits include:
- Monitor professional and personal time using technology.
- Set new more reasonable limits.
- Decrease and regulate time spent (and teach children how to do the same).
- Replace excessive tech time with times of connection, movement, outdoor time and connecting with your surroundings.
- Balance tech time with non-tech-related self-care; put your phone down!
Non-tech self-care would benefit from including:
- movement and physical activity
- time in nature
Decompressing through non-tech-related activities after a workday or school day is essential. Other options could also include:
- Join together as a group at your workplace for ‘tech-breaks’ to move, stretch, step outside, take a brief walk, etc.
- Create a proactive weekly plan which intentionally includes time with nature. This ensures time has been set aside to unplug. Keep it simple and easy, but stick to the plan.
- Put all devices and screens away at mealtimes, when working out, when you are with family, loved ones, or friends.
- Remove technology from your room during your nighttime routine and when preparing for sleep. Cheer yourself on when you are successful with this.
- Have the same rules for all family members in your home when it comes to setting limits on tech-immersion by putting time limits on phone/tech devices. Also, try to set them aside when socializing, walking the dog, eating, or playing outside with children. Make this intentional, be mindful of it, and notice how different you feel after you have done this.
- Advocate for yourself where you need to and get informed.
Em: How much time in nature do you think it takes to counteract the strain of technology, light pollution, and overstimulation on the modern brain?
Sherri: I wish I knew the answer to this, it would be a groundbreaking game-changer. I believe findings like these would be pivotal to how we are living in modern society. Those kinds of stats would give deeper substance and evidence for the value of nature as a form of therapy and would support suggestions health care professionals could discuss with people. I think those kinds of questions and answers would help enlighten us as a society to the serious nature of this conundrum. What is clear is that we all need to be our own researchers to find our own conclusions on how this affects us!
Em: Is there such a thing as too much nature?
Sherri: That is a very intriguing and curious question. From my perspective and knowledge base, generally, I would say no. However, every person’s life is unique and has its own story. There may be a possibility of “too much” time in nature in certain circumstances:
- It becomes an obsession.
- It causes preoccupation regularly interfering with other aspects of life.
- It becomes more about thrill-seeking and unsafe, risky behaviors or interests.
- If health conditions are negatively affected by spending time outdoors.
Additionally, there are situations where being in nature might be too high risk, such as when someone is wrestling with intrusive and active mental health symptoms. I think it depends on the situation, the person, the ‘who, what, where, when, and how’ of nature immersion. Most importantly, the answer is safety first.
Em: What do you think is the most important thing anyone can do to maintain good mental health, and how can/does nature contribute?
Sherri: Be proactive, maintaining positive mental health starts with pillars such as:
- an adequate amount and quality of sleep
- surrounding yourself with positive influences
These are all factors that support a healthy, positive mindset. Additionally, nourish yourself through self-care activities that are easy to integrate into your day, and that resonates with you.
- Get outside.
- Notice your surroundings.
- Breathe fresh air.
- Get some sunshine.
- Move your body.
- Express yourself creatively.
- “Unbusy” yourself (even if only for a few minutes).
- Practice living in a mindful and intentional way.
- Learn to set your limits and say “no” more often.
- Pay attention to your day to day routine, take breaks and take time to literally breathe.
- Remind yourself of the value of breath.
- Try different techniques to help engage deeper breathing rather than shallow breathing (which can be perpetuated by stress and chaos).
- Find a life balance that includes taking breaks and ‘unplugging.’
- Quiet your mind.
- Engage your senses in a calming way.
- Find joy and laughter.
- Reach out to others.
- Take solitary moments.
- Set healthy boundaries and limits.
- Connect with others.
It is important to find the balance that works for you and feels right for you. Time in nature offers the opportunity for many of these ideas to occur with relative ease. Create a mindset that looks at including regular doses of nature into your lifestyle. Ultimately, make it a lifestyle, not a task, and be creative in how you embrace time in nature in your life.
Outdoors People and Decision Making
So we’ve talked about nature being restorative, let’s talk a bit about how important mental health is when being outdoors and making complex decisions.
Ultralight backpackers especially have a “go lighter for longer” mindset. Or “if I have less gear I can go further and longer”, which physiologically is true but psychologically may not be a good idea in some contexts.
Ultralight backpacking also means using less robust gear and having less of it to compensate for shortfalls. Many ultralight backpackers are also soloists, with no one to test ideas and decisions. Though this strategy avoids groupthink and finds more solitude (and isolation), it can lead to hubris.
Em: All outdoors people face complex decisions, how can that be compromised by an untreated and ignored mental health concern?
Sherri: Mental health symptoms and conditions left untreated, affect us on so many levels. Some could include (not limited to):
- poor judgment
- perceptual disturbances
- emotional dysregulation
- memory impairment
- fugue states
- vision or hearing disturbances
- erratic behavior or reactions
- compromised spatial awareness
- narrowed focal range (tunnel vision)
- social isolation
- not oriented to person, place or time
When our brains are struggling with mental health concerns, we are not functioning at our optimum level or in a typical way (the way we are used to). It is also possible that an individual may or may not be aware of this occurrence. All of these factors and more would compromise any form of decision making and would put a person at a very high risk for something to go wrong. Cognitive processes can be severely impacted.
Em: What are some of the reactions an outdoors person with untreated mental health concerns might have when making decisions in isolation?
Sherri: Reactions might include:
- fugue states
- anxiety attacks
- derealization (detached from self and surroundings)
- depersonalization (outside observer of one’s life)
- other perceptional disturbances
- impaired attention
- poor or no planning or preparation
- difficulty acting on decisions
- erratic behavior
- rambling or impaired speech
- difficulty reasoning
Em: I would say those would all be extremely detrimental (and/or dangerous) to a backpacker.
Mental Health First Aid
We also have to remember that outdoorsy people can face trauma on the trail, and it can cause shock or Critical Incident Stress (CIS), which could compromise safety and well-being. If unaddressed, CIS could lead to longer-term issues.
Em: What could cause an acute mental health trauma or incident (shock, CIS) on the trail?
Sherri: When I think about CIS, I automatically go to people who have had previous experiences with PTSD or trauma (war veterans, first responders, survivors of sexual assault, or other assaults, for example), especially if the trauma occurred outdoors. Individuals who have experienced trauma outdoors may find themselves “nature averse.” Nature aversion, meaning they might have a negative association with the wilderness, can create a negative association with their nervous system. If they are not consciously aware of being nature averse, being on the trail or in the wilderness might, in some way, replicate past experiences and could trigger an event.
Some trauma survivors may be self-aware, but an event could still occur. A self-assessment and/or assessment by others (such as a mental health professional, psychiatrist, or physician) is wise. A safe and prepared plan is critical; for some people, the risk may be too high.
Em: It’s a bit like when I was crushed in an accident. When I started backpacking again after physical injury, my first few trips out were ones I could easily bail on. I also had a buddy system in case my body gave up on me. Mental health should be treated with the same care and respect as a physical injury.
Sherri: That’s a solid example Em. The activity must match the individual’s needs as well as what is safe and reasonable. Conceptually, it is possible to get closer to nature without fully immersing oneself in it. Benefits can be reaped by simply getting outside, which is a very healthy, safe & useful first step. Getting outside can include sitting on your step or deck, a park bench, or a patch of grass; or walking in a park or walking the path in your neighborhood.
You just start wherever you are at. Time outdoors can begin and end there or can eventually be extended to other contexts. There can be an in-between. As an important reminder: some form of exposure is better than none.
Em: Stretching the comparison from physical health to mental health, I can totally relate to this. With my injuries, at first, I started just walking down the block. I was in a double-arm sling, and being cooped up inside was killing me. It took everything in me just to walk half a block, but I would have lost my mind otherwise. Getting outside was part of caring for my mental health while I recovered my physical health. Of course, like with any trauma, I certainly experienced some mental health symptoms like nightmares and sleep disturbances, among others. To go from extremely active to barely able to put on my own socks also came with emotional and mental trauma. I was not and am not the same person on any level. Meeting my needs safely meant I couldn’t go far, but at least I could go outside.
Em: What would be indicators that someone is struggling with mental health?
Sherri: Some of the most common would be:
- freezing/locking up
- shock/deadpan facial expression
- erratic behavior
- breathing too fast or too slow
- loss of speech or incoherent speech
- muscle weakness
- cold/clammy skin
- pale or flushed
Em: Similar to symptoms of medical distress, but without an obvious physical injury. Some of those could easily be seen as exertion symptoms, as well. How could that impair safety and well being?
Sherri: As previously discussed, when struggling with mental health issues, our brains are not working to their optimum in the way we are used to or are typical. It is also possible that the individual is not aware that this is the case: other times, they are aware. Individuals may not be fully oriented to person, place, and time. Our spatial awareness can be compromised, things like vertigo, and visual disturbances such as blurring and narrowed focal points. Add in symptoms like loss of balance, coordination, or muscle weakness, and it could be a recipe for disaster on the trail.
Em: If you encounter someone on the trail experiencing these symptoms, what would be the best way to counter and address them?
- Approach with caution.
- Try to ascertain reality orientation to person, place and time.
- Ask if the person is ok from a safe distance (for you and them).
- Call for assistance if there is cell service.
- Ask if there is someone the person would like to contact.
- Ask others who come along for help which might include hiking down to get help or going to the nearest forest ranger location.
- If it’s safe, do not leave them alone.
I would also recommend everyone try to get into a Mental Health First Aid course. It can be very beneficial at addressing people in crisis. Running into someone in crisis can happen to anyone at any time, and having some tools to help is worthwhile for everyone.
Em: What if you notice some of these symptoms in yourself, what should you do?
Sherri: First, it is important to be self-aware, many people ignore symptoms. It’s also really important to “check-in with yourself” taking note of your thought content and processes, feelings, and why the context and scenario might be triggering symptoms. The self-administered first-aid for mental and emotional reactions include:
- Sit down in a safe place.
- Connect with the ground below you and surroundings (feel it below you, holding you, keeping you safe).
- Focus on controlling breathing.
- Use grounding techniques (techniques to bring you to the present moment) by focusing on your five senses.
- Hydrate (with some electrolytes if possible) once your breathing is controlled (dehydration can contribute to mental health symptoms).
- Snack once you are hydrated.
- Strive for reassuring self-talk.
- Call 911 if able if symptoms do not abate.
- Reach out to someone for help as soon as possible.
As an aside I always encourage people to hike with some form of tracking device (like the Garmin inReach Mini) that others are aware they have, the kind and how it is used. Secondly, it is imperative that when taking off on a hike that at least two people are aware of your plans and location with emphasis on location and return time and day.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, there is restoration and healing. Don’t face mental health challenges alone, talk to someone. Talk to a friend, family members, and preferably a registered professional. This could not only save your life but also eliminate years of unnecessary suffering alone in silence.
Almost everyone faces trauma, which negatively impacts their mental health, at least temporarily; it’s human and normal. No one lives life unscathed from trauma. Some trauma is visible; some are hidden scars. No one is immune, and some are more susceptible than others. Life is hard, and it’s much harder alone.
Sherri’s recommendations on getting mental health help:
- Ensure you reach out for help.
- Ask around, ask friends or family.
- Contact your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) department or human resources and see what is available in your workplace.
- Call your local mental health center.
- Inform yourself about helplines in your area and have them available.
- Talk to your doctor and ask for counselor referrals.
- Search on Psychology Today.
- Google “counselors or counseling” in your area.
- Rely on natural supports as well as outlets to manage symptoms.
It is constructive and progressive to be inclusive in your mental health recovery journey. Resources may include:
- therapist or counselor
- support groups
- therapy groups
- life coach
- educational workshops
- alternative health providers
Find those quiet outdoor spaces for moments of solitude, it can bring solace and rejuvenation. I believe in being proactive with mental health and wellness. While time in nature can be very helpful to augment psychological treatments and intervention for mental health challenges, it is not a complete antidote. I posit time outdoors may be helpful in unexpected ways, current research suggests there is value. I maintain time in nature will provide something different, beneficial, and meaningful to the mind, body, and spirit.
Sherri: Carl Jung (an analytical psychologist) spoke of the “sacred space” in his work, likening this to the deep inner space within us where soulful experiences take place. Nature is a safe and inviting space for deeply meaningful and enriching experiences to occur. Nature in and of itself is a sacred space.
Em: Backpacking Light emphasizes packing less and being more. I think “packing less” in the context of mental health means addressing mental health and not carrying it as baggage. If you are carrying mental health concerns as baggage, you could be compromising your health and safety or the health and safety of others. Part of leaving that baggage behind might include backpacking and time in wilderness spaces. For myself and likely all of our readers and members, wilderness space is our sacred space. In taking care of our mental health in that sacred space, we are healing and progressing forward to be more.
“Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.” – Gretel Ehrlich
- Depression and Wilderness, by Cameron McNeish
- Depression and Wilderness, Part 2, by Ryan Jordan
- We talk a bit about the impact of spending time in nature on mental health towards the end of our podcast with Jeff Garmire