expat network

Exploring The Great Outdoors: The Mental Health Benefits Of Hiking

mental health benefits of hiking

It is probably fair to say that everyone has been on a hike in some form or another. From walking the dog in the park, to an equipment loaded day hike to a gorgeous viewpoint- there is one thing that links them all; the natural world.

Getting out there in the great outdoors, having a good old explore; enjoying nature and the peace you can find within it.

These are the essential ingredients that make up a hike.

It has nothing to do with your equipment, fitness level, goals or distance- instead, it’s about just enjoying yourself in the moment.

If you’ve struggled to the top of a hill, fought to reach a peak or simply wandered around the park for too long, then you’ll probably have felt the strain in your legs the day after. You’ll know that hiking is exactly as much of a workout as you want it to be; and whilst many hike purely for enjoyment, there can be no denying the health benefits.

The age of impossibly clean and extremely trendy fitness studios, 24/7 gyms, and ridiculously perfect Instagram influencers does not seem to have a patch on the traditional hike in the great outdoors- in fact there are more people than ever looking for an adventure on foot.

Why Is Hiking So Popular?

It seems that hiking is popular for two main reasons.

The first being that it is a great form of exercise that requires basically no skills, or general level of fitness to begin with.

Did you know that you can burn approximately 400 calories per hour walking at an average pace? Not to mention a whole load of other physical benefits- which we will come on to later.

The second reason that hiking is so popular is down to the way it makes us feel.

People regularly finish a hike and report feeling reduced amounts of stress, reduced compulsive behaviours, a sense of calm and many more things that may surprise you. 

In fact, there is a clear and present link between hiking in nature and the overall mental wellbeing of a person.

So let’s take a look at some of the things hiking can do for us in greater detail.

Mental Health & Mother Nature

The links between mental health and being in nature may surprise you, but the evidence is irrefutable.

One 2015 study from Stanford University showed that hiking in a natural environment compared to an urban one can actually reduce your risk of depression, and feelings of anxiety.

In fact, the link between positive mental wellbeing and hiking is so strong that eco-therapy, or nature therapy, is a new tool being used by a number of rehabilitation centres across the world.

Just spending 10 minutes in a natural environment is said to improve your overall mood, and spending multiple hours outdoors can have massive effects on the way your brain processes information.

Nature therapy teaches us to decompress and recover mentally from the issues of our day to day lives. It allows us to recover and rediscover ourselves, and not to focus obsessively on negativity.

People spending time in nature learn to let go and find mental peace and clarity- and hiking is the perfect low cost, fully accessible, and healthy way to access this technique.


Mindfulness is also an important part of spending time in the natural world.

In an age where adults and children are spending more and more time in front of a screen, hidden from the light of the sun, mindfulness becomes increasingly more important.

Mindfulness can be explained in a lot of ways, but in its simplest form it teaches us to be present in a moment, and be fully aware of our surroundings.

This may seem like an unnecessary thing to think about, but actually being present and conscious in nature plays a huge part in the healing effects of nature- and many people actually struggle to maintain a state of mindfulness. 

If you’re walking with your head down, rehashing and rethinking elements of your day; or fretting about the future, you’re going to be missing everything around you. Try not to think about your phone, social media or what happened at the office.

Instead focus on breathing, clearing your mind and actually paying attention to everything around you- you’ll be surprised how hard it is at first! 

In a hectic world filled with screens, fast paced plans, and stressors coming from every direction; taking a moment to breathe, re-centre yourself and take full notice of your surroundings is a superb way to avoid anxiety and stress.

Happiness and Motivation

Researchers have also found that spending 90 minutes outside everyday can increase your levels of creativity, cognitive function, and problem solving capabilities.

Physical activity also releases endorphins in your brain which can literally boost your mood in a matter of minutes.

People can actually finish an outdoor activity, like hiking, and display improved moods, better brain function, and an overall more positive outlook after a simple jaunt in the woods.

Feeling better in yourself is the end goal, and hiking can help to get us there- so why aren’t we all out hiking right now?

Grey Matter

Our brains are made up of many parts- but one of the most important is grey matter.

The amount of grey matter our brain contains is directly linked to brain function, cognition and overall mental health- and once we turn 40 we start to lose grey matter.

Exercise in general will help reduce the loss of grey matter, but hiking does have an added benefit.

Whilst you are out in the wild you’re relying on your other senses, as well as your fitness. Your brain will be focussed on foot placement, spatial awareness and you’ll hopefully be fully attentive- all things that help to improve brain health. 

It’s like brain training, body training and mental state training all rolled into one.

What are the Physical Health Benefits?

Obviously a thought must be given to the numerous physical benefits that we get from hiking in the great outdoors.

Hiking on rocky and uneven paths will force you to activate seldom used muscle groups in order to balance- most of the time in the hip, knee and ankle area. Strengthening these zones can help with all other aspects of life in general- for obvious reasons.

If you’re hiking at altitude you’ll find your endurance levels are heightened to a surprising extent. Once you’re around 4,000 feet, or 1,200 metres, your body will have to start using less oxygen to perform the same tasks- so when you return to a lower height and the air thickens, you’ll be able to do much more!

You’ll improve your overall balance, strength and endurance just from a simple walk!

Never Leave The Trail

The bottom line is this; hiking is great. Not only is it great for your physical self, but you can actually start the road to mental wellness from something as simple as a walk.

Part of the reason hiking is accessible to all is because of its simplicity. All you need to enjoy a good hike is some shoes, a bit of water and a positive attitude. Get out into the wild and let nature do its job; forget your daily stresses, reduce your anxiety and rediscover what it means to be you.

Let nature surround you, exercise your body, mind and soul; then and come out the other end refreshed and feeling all the better for it.