The essay below was written as the final paper for my Contemporary Issues in Liberal Studies class. The text is © Chris Wrede 2021, reformatted and with photos added for this blog post.
Natural Healing: The Benefit of Camping Experiences on Personal Wellness
Camping is one of the great American pastimes and for many is a rite of passage. It can take many forms, such as unstructured recreational camping, organized group activities, and therapeutic camping for individuals with special needs. Camping accommodations can range from a tent in the wilderness to an RV in a campground to fully equipped cabins and lodges with all the amenities. In this paper, I will define camping as temporary habitation away from urban areas for the purposes of recreation, education, or rejuvenation in a natural area. Though still an influence, the accommodations are less important than the natural setting and the camping experience itself. This experience may also include related activities such as hiking, boating, and other types of outdoor recreation. Whether unstructured, organized, or therapeutic, camping in its many forms brings with it many benefits that contribute to various aspects of personal wellness, including physical, mental, social and spiritual.
Benefits of Unstructured Camping
For many, a family camping trip is their first exposure to living in the outdoors. For me, this began as a child on a cross-country trip sleeping in the back of a VW Vanagon which led to many later trips with our family’s pop-up camper. I remember annual summer vacations and fall trips to the mountains to hike among the changing leaves. As a child, there was of course a “fun” factor to those trips, but it also contributed to our family relationship building through shared experiences in the outdoors and certain traditions like roasting hot dogs over the campfire. Later, my wife and her sister, who was living with us while attending college, would go tent camping in the mountains every year for Memorial Day. Some of my most treasured memories are sitting around the campfire at night talking and laughing about the day’s events. These days, we have a pop-up camper of our own and my wife and our two children make new memories of places we’ve been. However, it is often the little moments that bring the most joy, such as our son’s first s’more or when our three-year-old said “Look Mommy, a mountain!” when visiting them for the first time. As Rosie Morrow, of the School of Human and Health Sciences at the University of Huddersfield and her colleagues noted, “Camping holidays can also be very nostalgic, where even difficult camping experiences can be remembered against a backdrop of fun or self-development … campsites are viewed as special places and related experiences hold strong nostalgic memories” (50). For me personally, camping offers a respite from the stresses of modern life. A few times a year, I will go camping by myself in one of North Carolina’s state parks. These experiences offer both physical and mental recovery. Physical activities such as hiking and kayaking provide exercise. The solitude of camping solo offers a peacefulness and a break from everyday responsibilities and the opportunity to practice one of my hobbies—nature photography—provides mental stimulation. Although not as comfortable as a hotel getaway, I find the outdoor activities to be much more restorative because of the separation from modern conveniences.
Typically, recreational camping is fairly unstructured, with few, if any, organized group activities. On their website, the National Park Service summarizes some of the physical and mental benefits of camping: “The physical demands of camping in the backcountry clearly count as exercise. But any kind of camping has health benefits. Some are straightforward, like setting up camp or hiking. Mental health improves outside. Researchers linked outdoor activity to a decrease in depressive thoughts. Sleeping under the stars helps you get in touch with your natural circadian rhythms, a foundation for high quality sleep and health” (2019). There is clearly a link between camping and physical activity. Humorist Bill Bryson, in his book A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, notes, “Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week. For 93 percent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car” (128). Hiking, fresh air, sunshine, and the increased effort of living without modern conveniences can all contribute to physical wellness.
Mental Health Benefits
The mentally restorative powers of nature can be equally potent as the physical benefits. Rosie Morrow and colleagues conducted a study of the benefits of unstructured camping in a group of young adults. The responses were categorized into three main themes: peace and relaxation, getting away, and nature appreciation. “A tranquil space was discussed as a prerequisite for relaxation. Lydia explained how busy, noisy environments would be counteractive for her desire ‘to relax whilst on holiday’” (Morrow et al. 52). The majority of the responses related to getting away, particularly escaping modern technology and everyday life. Interestingly, this escape also was found to contribute to improvements in relationship dynamics for some of the individuals (53). The natural environment itself contributed significantly to how the trip was perceived. One study member noted, “how uncomplicated nature was, how she could breathe in the scenery and appreciate its beauty: ‘the scenery is beautiful […] it’s just quiet and tranquil and all you can hear are your own footsteps and the river trickling away next to you.’” (53). Morrow and others conclude by noting that unstructured camping, as a way of escaping everyday life and engaging in physical activities in nature promotes wellbeing in a way that is not found in other types of vacations (54) and suggests that outdoor activities could be useful for the promotion of overall health (55).
Benefits of Organized Group Camping
While much can be said for the freedom of unstructured camping, there can be benefits to organized group activities as well. For four years, I had the privilege to lead my son’s Cub Scout den as they grew in rank to earn their Arrow of Light. The influence of scouting on young people is incalculable. Although many of the lessons and activities are held at their sponsored meeting place, some of the most memorable occur while on campouts. Within my son’s scout den, there were boys with a variety of challenges, including early childhood neglect, extreme shyness, low family income, and mental and behavioral issues. Camping is a great equalizer, because in the woods they are all learning together. I have witnessed firsthand as young scouts gain confidence in their abilities to set up a shelter, prepare meals, build campfires, and many other useful skills. There is great joy in a child who has just successfully lit his first campfire or learned to use a pocketknife properly and safely. This translates into improved self-confidence and self-esteem in their everyday life, not to mention the social and leadership skills that are gained as well. My son and I have both made lifelong friends and our families have even camped together outside of scouts. Throughout Cub Scouts and into Boy Scouts, young people learn a wide variety of skills, all within a context of safety, which, of course, helps to preserve health and physical wellness. Reverence to God also promotes spiritual wellness, and can be another important part of a campout: “Evenings are also a great time for simple chapel services that allow Scouts to reflect and show reverence toward God, according to their beliefs” (Boy Scout Handbook 261). Of course, even though many of the activities on a scout camping trip are planned, there is also unstructured time set aside for play, relaxation and recreation, which has already been noted to promote mental wellness as well.
In a similar way, a study in the Czech Republic reviewed the social benefits of structured multi-family camping. “By moving outside the routine comfort of an urban environment, the family that camps must come together to assure a safe and successful experience. This process of relating to and depending on one another while camping promotes family interaction” (Jirásek et al. 80). The advantages are not limited to within the family however. With multiple families in the camping group, some of the surveyed adults noted “friendship, relationships among our peers as well the [sic] between generations” (87), while children learned from adults and from each other, stating “I can deal with various situations in better ways” (89). The study concluded that “camping contributes in unique ways to the family, to the community of other campers, to the spiritual dimension of one’s life, and to an appreciation of nature” (91), thus encompassing various aspects of social and spiritual wellness.
Recognition by Academia
While organized group camping is typically associated with extracurricular groups like the Boy Scouts of America and their international counterparts, the benefits of structured camping are also becoming recognized within academic circles as well. In their paper, “Ставови наставника о логоровању као облику ваннаставних активности” (“Teachers’ Attitudes towards Camping as an Extra-Curricular Activity”), Dragan Martinović and others note that nature promotes learning, curiosity, and creativity, which aid in children’s development (2). Their study concluded that 92% of teachers surveyed viewed camping as a benefit for students’ motivation and learning and 88% believed that it improves social skills and cooperation (104), all of which could be considered as contributing to mental and social wellness. Meanwhile, in a study through Ohio University, Janie Welsh and colleagues focused on a different aspect of mental wellness: empowerment. The study analyzed the responses of an all-female group of college students following a two-week canoe camping trip. Historically, outdoor recreation has been represented as typically masculine due to the high level of physicality of outdoor activities (Welsh 76). However, in a single-sex group, one participant discovered that “the absence of men allowed her to become more self-aware about the invisible barriers that she and other women tend to place upon themselves” (80). Another woman noted that “witnessing her technical skill development with canoeing was a powerful and meaningful experience” (80). Many of the participants later described growth and change and an increase in confidence in themselves beyond the trip (82).
Therapeutic Benefits of Camping
Outside of academia, many studies have shown the health benefits of camping, particularly in a therapeutic setting. Childhood disease can cause low self-esteem, poor performance in school, depression, and other negative feelings (Békési et al. 1). Camps for individuals with serious health concerns have been shown to improve self-esteem, social relationships, and feelings of acceptance (Desai 556). “I used to think that I was the only one in the world who had a heart problem and when I found out about heart camp I was thinking, wow maybe I was wrong…I did not feel like I was an outcast anymore…it felt good” (557). The benefits of therapeutic camping are many. Campers create social and support networks with others with their same condition, sharing advice on ways to cope (557). Like in the unstructured camping study mentioned previously, “getting away” is another common benefit of therapeutic camps (558). Participants are also able to learn more about their conditions, both from their peers and through formal teaching (559). Some therapeutic camps also allow siblings to attend as well, in order to learn about their illness as an additional form of support (Kiernan et al. 904). As one camper described his camp, “Bátor Tábor is a place where all the positive energies previously having been taken away by the disease are recharged” (Békési et al. 7).
Encouraging Outdoor Activities
So if camping is such a healthful activity, how do we preserve and promote it? In my blog post, “5 Ways to Instill a Love of the Outdoors in Children,” I suggest ways to involve children in a relationship with nature. Start early and often to engage them with outdoor activities at a level that is appropriate for them and invest in outdoor experiences such as camping, hiking, and zoo or park memberships (Wrede). Scouting organizations are an excellent resource with a full support system of experienced adult leaders. As an adult, you can help conserve our natural spaces to ensure they are there to be enjoyed by future generations. Support legislation that protects and funds our state and national parks and other green spaces. Bill Bryson writes,
Shenandoah National Park is a park with problems. More even than the Smokies, it suffers from a chronic shortage (though a cynic might say a chronic misapplication) of funds. Several miles of side trails have been closed, and others are deteriorating. If it weren’t that volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club maintain 80 percent of the park’s trails, including the whole of the AT through the park, the situation would be much worse. (137)
Bryson goes on to mention closings of other specific camping and recreation facilities in the park (137). In order to protect and maintain these green spaces, funding and support must be available from lawmakers and private citizens. Other legislation more directly addresses the health benefits of camping and outdoor activities. A bill by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) was passed and signed into law, requiring the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to investigate the use of outdoor recreation as treatment to help veterans diagnosed with PTSD. Rep. Smith quoted a veteran, “When the depression, anxiety and everything else that comes with PTSD creeps back into my life, I know just what to do: Strap on a pack and get outside” (Baldwin). Support of such legislation also helps to promote the awareness and use of outdoor activities for physical and mental health improvement.
The benefits of camping and outdoor activities have been well-documented over the years. However, it is important to note some considerations before setting out on a trip. While previously mentioned that the camping accommodations are less important than the experience itself, campers should consider how it and other factors would affect their experience. For example, someone who has never camped may not enjoy it if they choose primitive backwoods camping for their first trip. A lack of preparation can lead to a negative experience that may negate some of the wellness benefits received. For first-time campers, consider easing into it with a camping cabin at a campground or sleeping in a tent in your backyard (especially helpful as a “trial run” for small children). Camp with friends or family that already have camping experience. Build in some fun activities such as easy hikes to scenic spots or roasting marshmallows on the campfire for s’mores. Above all, plan ahead and don’t stress. As Morrow and her colleagues noted in a quote from one of their study participants, “if you can’t chill, the negatives about camping will get to you,” implying “a ‘getting used to it’ period” (53). It may take a few trips to truly appreciate the great outdoors. However, for many, the physical, mental, spiritual and social benefits of camping contribute to a holistic sense of personal wellness.
Baldwin, Carly. “Rep. Smith’s Outdoor Therapy for Veterans Bill Signed into Law.” Patch, 9 Dec 2020, patch.com/new-jersey/middletown-nj/rep-smith-s-outdoor-therapy-veterans-bill-signed-law.
Békési, Andrea, et al. “Health-related quality of life changes of children and adolescents with chronic disease after participation in therapeutic recreation camping program.” Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, vol. 9, no. 43, 2011, doi.org/10.1186/1477-7525-9-43.
Boy Scout Handbook. 13th edition. Boy Scouts of America, 2016.
Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. 1st ed., Broadway Books, 1999.
Desai, P. P., et al. “A qualitative study exploring the psychosocial value of weekend camping experiences for children and adolescents with complex heart defects.” Child: Care, Health and Development, vol. 40, no. 4, July 2014, pp. 553-561. Wiley Online Library, onlinelibrary-wiley-com.liblink.uncw.edu/doi/full/10.1111/cch.12056, doi: doi-org.liblink.uncw.edu/10.1111/cch.12056.
Jirásek, Ivo, et al. “The Impact of Families Camping Together: Opportunities for Personal and Social Development.” Leisure Sciences, vol. 39, no. 1, 2017, pp. 79-93, doi.org/10.1080/01490400.2015.1136251.
Kiernan, Gemma, et al. “Outcomes associated with participation in a therapeutic recreation camping programme for children from 15 European countries: Data from the ‘Barretstown Studies’.” Elsevier, vol. 59, no. 5, Sept. 2004, pp. 903-913, doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2003.12.010.
Martinović, Dragan D., et al. “Ставови наставника о логоровању као облику ваннаставних активности [Teachers’ Attitudes towards Camping as an Extra-Curricular Activity].” Inovacije u Nastavi [Teaching Innovations], vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 100-106, 2019, doi.org/10.5937/inovacije1903100M.
Morrow, Rosie, et al. “Back to Basics: Can Unstructured Camping Promote Wellbeing?” Therapeutic Communities, vol. 38, no. 1, 2017, pp. 49-56. ProQuest, www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/back-basics-can-unstructured-camping-promote/docview/2080988069/se-2?accountid=14606, doi: dx.doi.org/10.1108/TC-08-2016-0016.
National Park Service. “Why Camp?” 5 June 2019, www.nps.gov/subjects/camping/why-camp.htm.
Welsh, Janie, et al. “Paddling Toward Empowerment: Exploring the Effects of an All-Female Canoe Camping Expedition on College Students.” Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education and Leadership, vol. 12, no. 1, spring 2020, dx.doi.org.liblink.uncw.edu/10.18666/JOREL-2020-V12-I1-9964.
Wrede, Chris. “5 Ways to Instill a Love of the Outdoors in Children.” The Casual Outdoorist, 8 July 2020, www.casualoutdoorist.com/2020/07/08/5-ways-to-instill-a-love-of-the-outdoors-in-children/.