We have all felt it: the uncanny sensation of clear-headedness and relief that comes from a long walk in the woods, a climb to a mountain overlook, or a stroll on the beach. Even a quick dive into cool ocean surf can do it; you emerge feeling somehow cleaner despite being covered in salt water and brine. It turns out there is a heap of science behind that sensation, enough to encourage the use of our precious vacation time to immerse ourselves in nature travel for extended periods.
As John Muir said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Below is what the experts have to say on the extensive benefits of getting out into nature in your everyday life, and especially when traveling.
Nature Travel Increases Your Attention Span
The constant barrage of information and images that characterizes modern life is thought by many to have a negative effect on our ability to control our attention—but time in nature has the capacity to correct it, according to this study. It turns out that even viewing photos of nature can have a positive effect; while I’m not much for armchair travel, it actually seems to work when it comes to exposure to nature.
These benefits seem especially important for kids, so get started early on the nature trips and hikes.
Nature Travel Boosts Creativity
Heading out into nature has been found not only to assist attention span, but to boost creativity considerably as well—by up to 50 percent, according to a University of Kansas study. The study emphasizes that these benefits accrue “after living for a few days steeped in nature,” much as you would on a nature trip to the mountains or the woods.
Awe Is Good for You
Looking out over the planet’s most spectacular natural landscapes isn’t just good for your Instagram account; the awe these places inspire is also good for you. A Stanford study linked awe to improved patience, increased interest in helping other people, and greater life satisfaction.
Nature Travel Encourages Mindfulness
The concept of mindfulness may be a bit of a fad at the moment, but the underlying concepts are as old as human history. Deliberately turning your attention to sounds, smells, changing light, and other details of your environment is a favorite type of mindfulness training for many, and is fun and easy—and almost unavoidable—when you travel in nature.
Nature Travel Offers a Reset
One important benefit many of us seek from a trip is a reset, an increase in our enthusiasm and overall liveliness that doesn’t evaporate when we get back to the grind. It turns out that travel in nature offers just this; this study by researchers at the University of Rochester found a direct link between time in nature and increased energy and vitality, even when controlling for the benefits of exercise.
The Air Is Healthier
According to the EPA, Americans spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, where concentrations of some pollutants can be two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations. Go deep into a natural landscape, and the relative air quality improves even more.
Sunlight Is Good for You, Too
While it is well known that UV radiation from the sun can cause health problems, it is also essential to good health; in fact, the benefits of UV rays may be much greater than the risks. A study by the World Health Organization found that adequate sunlight exposure lowers the incidence of major musculoskeletal disorders, autoimmune diseases, and some types of cancers.
Take care not to get a sunburn, and the benefits of sunlight are free for the taking on your next nature trip.
Nature Travel Can Help Your Mood
According to the USDA, Duke University researchers found that walking regularly was more effective than Zoloft in reducing depression symptoms. And it’s not just the walking that does it. The Duke study quantified the effects of walking three times per week, which are considerable but significantly amplified when done in nature, according to a study at the University of Rochester.
It’s not just the exercise with your friends that makes you feel “more alive,” as the study notes; it is the immersion in nature. Do this on a weeklong nature trip, and the benefits continue to pile up.
It Can Also Help with Other Difficult Emotional Conditions
Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) appear to be helped by time outdoors and in the wilderness, according to U.S. News & World Report. Experiencing nature helps them recover from their experience and offers a slow and more natural reintegration into civilian life. These findings suggest that anyone with PTSD could benefit from nature travel, whether or not they’ve served in the military.
It’s an Easy Way to Jump-Start a Fitness Routine
In addition to all of the science above, I have found no better way to jump-start a workout regimen than nature travel. A trip that puts you in natural surroundings typically requires walking, climbing, carrying your stuff, and other relatively low-impact but high-payoff activities.
Compared to a half-hour or so in the gym every other day, an entire week of carrying even a 10- to 15-pound backpack all day leads to greater and gentler fitness gains every time, in my experience. Weight loss becomes easier, too; when you are moving around burning calories 12 hours each day, “dieting” becomes less critical to creating the calorie deficit that weight loss requires.
Sure, you can get fit walking around Rome all day long, but the temptation to Uber it home from dinner can be almost irresistible; not so much at the campfire.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Survey Says: Travel Makes Us Happier
- 9 Travel Survival Skills We Hope You Never Need
- 10 Great American Hikes Anyone Can Do
Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a biweekly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.