Hiking + Nature = Wellness

Another majestic waterfall in Gros Morne National Park | Jenny Wong
Another majestic waterfall in Gros Morne National Park | Jenny Wong

By Robin Esrock

Wellness travel has become incredibly popular, and for good reasons. People travel to spas and retreats for cleanses, yoga, hot springs, and meditation: anything and anywhere that might heal, calm and recalibrate brains and bodies from the hecticness of modern life. “If someone is not well, physically or mentally, just put them in a natural space, and leave them alone for 15 minutes.” I heard these wise words from an elder in the South Pacific, a man who hikes across the island of Rarotonga every single day, barefoot and smiling, each step of the way. His words and attitude left a deep and lasting impression.

Enjoying the view on the High Note Trail |  <i>Tourism Whistler/Mike Crane</i>

Anyone who spends at least 15 minutes in Canada’s vast and diverse wilderness is bound to feel something:

  • A sensory appreciation for the landscape;
  • A triumph that accompanies the physical pursuit of hiking, biking, climbing or paddling; and
  • A re-connection to the forests, mountains, rivers and plains that existed long before cities, smartphones and the relentless barrage of information.

Born and raised in a major city, I’d sooner visit a mall or museum than go camping and hiking. Biting insects terrified me, as did the idea of snakes, spiders and the fearsome wolves that lurked beyond the shadows of my imagination. Beyond the safety of street lights, nature simply felt raw and dangerous. Two things changed my rigid mindset: I began to travel extensively, and I embarked on my first multi-day hike in a national park.

It was my first time carrying a pack with everything I’d need to survive a weeklong trek in the wilderness. Reassurance came from an experienced guide who had done this many times before and knew the drill well. He was well versed in the anxiety of first-time hikers that slowly but surely gives way to the spirit of adventure and the undeniable impact of spending quality time outdoors.     

Over the next seven days, I lunched on GORP (granola, oatmeal, raisins, peanuts), bathed in ice-cold rivers, built bonfires on the beach, and engaged in hearty banter with fellow hikers I’d met on the trail. It’s incredible how delicious a simple dish like tuna pasta or packaged rice becomes when prepared by a campfire after a long day of hiking. Simple pleasures like soaking my tired feet in a cool stream or spotting wildlife became something so much more.

My senses were flooded with fresh air, the smell of forest and earth, and the sound of birds and bugs. Not having a cell signal felt nerve-wracking at first, as if training wheels had been removed from my bike for the first time. What if something happens? What if I fall? What if something important happens... out there? Yet, like a child riding on two wheels for the first time, a balance is quickly restored. Each day, I worried less about those loud, newsy headlines I’d be missing, the memes and scandals that have so little bearing on life outside the media cycle. There’s a lot to be said for a true, distraction-free digital detox.

Enjoying a peaceful walk through the woods |  <i>Sherry Ott</i>

Being immersed in the outdoors on an outdoor adventure is accompanied by a calm sense of presence. Distractions vanish, and the task at hand – getting from where you wake up to where you will sleep – is straightforward and focused. If so inclined, there’s plenty of time to meditate, forest bathe, and do yoga too.

Sunsets become a memorable time marker. Depending on your location, you might be on a beach or cliff-top, spent from the day’s efforts, warmed by the evening’s fire. Once your eyes have feasted enough on the stars, nobody has much reason to stay up late. Hiking gear has come a long way from sleeping on the cold, hard earth. Tents provide a welcome sanctuary, and sleep is quick, still and deep. Your biological clock soon adjusts to the constellations and rising sun. Striking camp, I enjoyed leaving no trace of our presence in the designated forest clearing, which would no doubt welcome a new group of hikers just as surely as it had welcomed us. Each day my pack got lighter as the shared load of food was consumed. Each day my muscles got stronger. Shaky legs at the start of the trail had become stronger and sure-footed.  

Wilderness campsites and beautiful sunsets |  <i>Jenn Dickie Photography</i>

Emotions flooded in when my group reached the end of our trail. My first multi-day hike concluded with a powerful sense of achievement and elation. I felt a deep appreciation for the camaraderie of my hiking group and the calm, superhuman strength and confidence of our guide. There was plenty of excitement for a well-earned cold beer, a hot meal, not to mention a hot shower and a soft mattress. But a resignation, too, that the adventure was over and it would take much work and effort to return to this wondrous feeling of calm and accomplishment.

As we exited the trail, new hikers were packing in, starting their journey from the opposite direction. They looked impossibly clean, eager and somewhat anxious. Give it about 15 minutes, and their minds and bodies will feel the healing power of nature too. 

Robin Esrock is the bestselling author of The Great Canadian Bucket List

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