20 Mental, Physical, and Lifestyle Benefits of Hiking and Backpacking

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Hiking is more than just a form of exercise, it’s a lifestyle. If you’re a hiker or backpacker you know what I’m talking about. The benefits of hiking are plentiful and the positive impacts carry over to every aspect of your mental and physical wellbeing.

Hikers and backpackers are the original forest-bathers. We go into the wilderness for hours or even days at a time and return feeling fulfilled and energized. For experienced hikers the best trails are the least crowded trails. The trails where you can hear the birdsongs and the leaves rustling in the wind.

The rest of society is now catching on too. Patients can now receive a prescription to “walk it off,” and some insurance companies are even paying people to go on hikes or participate in classes like hiking yoga. Hiking and backpacking has a slew of mental and physical health benefits, and I’d go so far to say that for me backpacking has been a life-changing experience.

Luckily hiking is something everyone can do. Strap on a sturdy pair of shoes, head to your nearest park, and grab a map or ask the visitor’s center for advice. It’s easy to start small with short nature trails or well-marked paths and then progress onto more challenging hikes or longer routes. The more time you spend in nature the more you’ll start to crave it. Soon you might even find that you’ve progressed from hiker to backpacker.

If you’re still on the fence, here are 20 health benefits of hiking and reasons why you should plan your first backpacking trip.

1. Gain more confidence

Developing the skills to be self-sufficient in the backcountry is sure to boost your confidence. From navigation to camp cooking there’s a lot to learn, but you don’t need to master everything at once. You’ll find that you’ll slowly start to master the essential skills and before long you’ll be a confident backpacker leading newbies on their first backpacking trip.

2. Be part of a team

Hiking ing may seem like a solo endeavor, but when you’re in the backcountry sometimes it is safest to work with others. I learned this lesson on my 2017 hike on the John Muir Trail. The mountains got an abundance of snow that year and the rivers were raging. We would often wait for others before attempting to cross some of the larger rivers. All of the hikers would gather at the water crossing, strategize about the safest route to cross, and wait until everyone made it safely across.

Backpacking with a team of friends is just one of the benefits of backpacking. If your backpacking friends all wear goofy hats that's a bonus.

3. Learn to be flexible

The best laid plans can go awry. Even if you research the heck out of a trail you never know what you’ll encounter. You could be derailed by weather, animals, obstacles like a downed tree or a river that’s too deep to cross. You need to be flexible and confident enough to safely find a workaround. It’s a good reminder that not everything in life is under our control.

4. Leave indecisiveness behind

When your plans get derailed you need to evaluate your options and make good decisions. No one will tell you what to do, and you probably won’t have internet access to research your options. If you’re backpacking with a group you have the benefit to bounce ideas off of others, but you’ll need to compromise to make a group decision to satisfy everyone. The decision is yours to make.

5. Become more open minded

Hiking trails and backcountry adventures are a great equalizer. I’ve made friends with a variety of people that I may not have otherwise met in my daily life. We may have religious or political differences, but on the trail none of that matters. Interacting with people outside of your daily life will also help you learn to confront any preconceived notions that you may have about who or how people access the backcountry.

Backpacking is a year round adventure. Picture of a line of backpackers trudging through the snow.

6. Find lifelong friends

When you put down the electronic devices and spend hours or days hiking with others amazing things will happen. You’ll learn a ton about the people you hike with and you might just find that you become fast friends. I have lifelong friends that I met while hiking the John Muir Trail in 2017 and backpacking the Three Sisters Loop in 2019.

7. Become less materialistic

When you find that everything you need to survive can fit into a backpack you realize that you need a lot less than you think you do. I’m not a true Marie Kondo minimalist yet, but my spending habits have changed since I started backpacking. I resist buying material goods and save up my money to travel to various hiking trails, like the Grand Canyon and Catalina Island’s Trans-Catalina Trail.

8. Become more mindful and aware of your impacts on the environment:

I rarely notice trash on city streets, but once I’m on the trail every plastic water bottle, toilet paper bloom, and ramen noodles wrapper is painfully obvious. Finding an aluminum can that is probably about 30 years old is a good reminder that our trash never disappears, Seeing leftover camp suds or food particles in the stream where you’re trying to filter water stresses the importance of having clean water. If you’re not already an environmentalist, seeing how irresponsible humans have negatively impacted pristine environments is sure to make you one!

9. Improve Your Health

Our bodies are built to move, but most of us have sedentary jobs. After hiking for multiple days in a row you’ll have more energy and feel more limber. As you rely on your body more you’ll also witness how proper nutrition and water intake impacts your body’s performance. (If you’ve ever experienced muscle cramps from dehydration you know what I’m talking about!)

Backpacking lets you see beautiful locations that most people will never see.

10. Learn to love your body

As women we often don’t appreciate our body, and often we wish that we could change certain “problem areas.” It took hiking the John Muir Trail in 2017 for me to truly appreciate my body. I went from hating my thighs to loving my quadriceps and hamstrings that helped carry me over the mountains. What I once saw as problem areas have become power areas.

11. Appreciate the little things in life

A hot shower, a chair to sit in, eating fresh vegetables, these small things will bring you incredible joy after a backpacking trip. You’ll never take the small things for granted again.

12. Know what true happiness and relaxation feels like

When most people picture a relaxing scene, they see a hammock strung between two palm trees on a beach. Backpacking may be the exact opposite of a relaxing beach vacation; you are climbing mountains, after all. Even though the physical exertion can be strenuous, eating lunch next to an alpine lake or waking up to the sound of the birds immediately makes all the effort worth it. You’ll have everything you need in that moment, and all thoughts of deadlines, emails, and schedules melt away.

13. Be more creative

Maybe it’s the problem-solving and navigation, or maybe it’s the beautiful, wide-open spaces. When I’m backpacking my creativity always goes into overdrive. The best part is that there is always time to write in a journal, sketch in a notebook or have long conversations about the miracle product you just invented.

14. Live in the moment

Backpacking removes all distractions and allows you to truly live in the moment. You’ll soon discover that your days revolve around small things like making a meal, filtering water, or climbing one last mountain pass. It’s just you and nature.

15. Experience ultimate freedom

As long as your feet can take you there, you can go anywhere. Ever wonder what’s on the other side of the ridge, or where the fire road leads to? Backpacking opens up a world of wonders and can take you to beautiful places that most people will never see.

The options are limitless when you are backpacking. Picture of a woman crossing a waterfall while backpacking the John Muir Trail.

16. Banish negative thoughts

Mental fortitude is just as important as a physical endurance. If you want to continue the hike you need to learn how to banish negative thoughts and learn how to change “I can’t” to “I can.”

17. Have a Glowing Complexion

I’ve always had problem skin, but when I’m backpacking my skin is clear and glowing. Sweating for hours each day and drinking lots of water is the skin care secret my esthetician never told me.

18. Fight the aging process

Backpacking and hiking can help reduce the impact of certain ailments that come with age. Hiking on uneven surfaces helps improve your balance. The impact of walking also helps strengthen bone density and reduce the effects of osteoarthritis.

19. Increase your attention span

If you’re finding that you’re less productive at work, or that simple tasks take you longer to accomplish maybe you should head into the woods. The constant buzzes and pings of texts, emails, and app notifications has made us easily distracted. If you find it difficult to put down your phone kick-off your digital detox with a few nights out of range.

20. Build community

“But I don’t have anyone to go with!” That’s one of the most common complaints I hear from hikers who haven’t yet planned their first backpacking trip. It can be difficult to meet fellow backpackers when you don’t backpack. But, if you head to the nearest trail you’ll find some backpackers eventually. Join a local hiking group, volunteer to help with trail maintenance at your local park, or find hiking friends on social media. Organizations like the Sierra Club have local chapters that often host regular hiking events and there are many hiking groups on Meetup.

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Take your hiking to the next level

If you want to be totally immersed in nature, add backpacking to your goal list for 2020. My Backpacking Trip Planner and start the planning process for your first backpacking trip. This easy PDF workbook helps you plan your route, secure your permits, and prepare for your first night under the stars.

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