The Mental Health Benefits of Camping To Know As You Plot Your Travel Plans

Photo: Getty Images/Witthaya Prasongsin
Perhaps the most classic exercise in social distancing, camping sprang to popularity in the wake of the pandemic. But even as other kinds of leisure travel have since become more feasible with the pandemic’s slow fade, interest in camping hasn’t dipped at all. In fact, according to the 2022 North American Camping Report from Kampgrounds of America, a record 57 million U.S. and Canadian households reported that they went on at least one camping trip in 2021 (and projections put that number as high as 61 million for 2022). As it turns out, there’s likely a deep-rooted reason why so many folks are taking off into the wilderness: We’re naturally predisposed to thrive in, well, natural settings, which can deliver serious mental health benefits.

Experts In This Article
  • John Zelenski, PhD, professor of psychology at Carleton University and director of the Carleton University Happiness Laboratory
  • Patty De Vries, chief experience officer at well-being consultancy Living Well USA

In recent years, a whole variety of studies have uncovered psychological upsides of nature exposure—whether you’re simply in the presence of green space, actively participating in a nature-centric activity, or even just viewing depictions of nature. But the underlying reason why time in nature can be so restorative often comes back to one idea: the biophilia hypothesis.

“Humans have an innate attraction to other life and lifelike processes, which you can think of as healthy or pleasant nature.” —John Zelenski, PhD, professor of psychology

“This is the notion that humans have an innate attraction to other life and lifelike processes, which you can think of as healthy or pleasant nature,” says John Zelenski, PhD, professor of psychology at Carleton University and director of the Carleton University Happiness Laboratory. In other words? Green nature spaces just feel good to be in and around because these environments have, for millennia, facilitated our health and survival.

Given that camping is nothing if not a full, and often multi-day, immersion in that kind of natural space, it’s no wonder it can feel rejuvenating. In fact, in a recent Pinterest survey, 96 percent of campers reported that camping improves their mental health, and 91 percent cited relaxation as their reason for taking a camping trip. And in the Kampgrounds of America survey above, 75 percent of respondents said that camping reduces their stress and contributes to their emotional well-being.

These numbers hint at certain mental health benefits of camping that may extend even beyond the nature-related perks of, say, a hike or a lunch break spent in an urban park. “It’s clear that even a small dose of nature, like a few minutes, can support well-being, but still, I strongly suspect that longer periods of time do offer something different and good,” says Dr. Zelenski. Largely, that’s because all science on nature exposure points to the fact that it supports our mental health and capacities—and, he says, there’s reason to think that the more we get of it (à la full-fledged camping), the better we’ll fare.

5 mental health and cognitive benefits of going camping in nature

1. Less stress

Exposure to green spaces has been proven to be a stress antidote (and camping typically offers a good deal of that). As for why? The “stress-reduction theory” about nature and health posits that the stimuli of natural environments—trees, streams, mountains, lakes—are perceived much more pleasantly by people than that of built environments like cities. And that, in turn, can lead a person in nature to experience lower cortisol levels and less of the fight-or-flight feeling inherent to stress.

It may also be the case that the more remote locales typical of camping can offer even more of that de-stressing calm than, say, a trip to a city park. A 2017 survey of more than 4,500 people in England found that respondents noted higher levels of nature connectedness and restoration when they recalled trips to rural and coastal locations compared with visits to urban green spaces.

While some of that additional mental health benefit of visiting or camping in remote places may be linked to the scenery of the locations themselves, it’s also possible that there’s a positive psychological association between remote spots and getting away from it all. “In modern life, exposure to nature often entails a break or escape from your day-to-day responsibilities,” says Dr. Zelenski. The more remote your trip in nature, the more potent that separation may feel—and the more calming the trip may be as a result.

2. More positive emotions

On the flip side of the stress coin are all the positive emotions you want to be feeling—many of which a camping trip can also facilitate. A 2019 survey including nearly 20,000 people in the United Kingdom found that those who spent at least two hours per week in nature reported significantly higher levels of subjective well-being than those who spent less time in nature. Presumably, any camping trip would easily surpass that timing threshold.

More generally, a variety of studies have linked nature exposure in various forms to greater levels of life satisfaction, says Dr. Zelenski.

Some of these mental health benefits could be the direct result of nature’s impact on the body: When you’re camping and spending ample time outside in sunlight, for instance, your levels of feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin rise, and when you touch the Earth directly, its electrical charge may actually help stabilize your nervous system (based on studies on walking barefoot, called “grounding” or “Earthing”), says Patty de Vries, chief experience officer at well-being consultancy Living Well USA. "When we connect with soil, we also encounter Mycobacterium vaccae [a bacteria naturally present in soil], which triggers a release of serotonin, too, acting as a natural antidepressant," she adds.

At the same time, though, some of nature’s positive effect on mood may also just be the result of feeling more connected to nature while you’re in it. Research has shown that having a high level of nature connectedness—aka feeling emotionally intertwined with nature—can increase your level of eudaemonic well-being, or the kind of long-term happiness that comes from feeling like you have a larger purpose in life.

3. Greater creativity and attention span

The stimuli in nature might also play a role in allowing thoughts and ideas to flow uninterrupted. In a small 2012 study of 56 people who embarked on a four-day nature trip, researchers found that the group of participants who completed a creative problem-solving task on day four of the trip performed 50 percent better than the group who completed the task pre-trip.

Some of that improvement might've simply been the result of spending a few days without technological devices and all the distracting pings and dings that they bring. But scientists also posit that nature itself can enhance your attention span through something called the “attention restoration theory.”

“The idea is that people have informational needs, and that nature hits a sweet spot for satisfying those needs,” says Dr. Zelenski. “While boredom is unpleasant and not restorative, and contemporary urban life often offers too much mental stimulation, nature offers things of potential interest but rarely demands a strong focus for long periods of time.” The resulting feeling of being just comfortably stimulated enough by your surroundings may be the reason why time spent in nature has also been shown to improve performance on working-memory and attentional-control tasks.

4. A sense of revitalization

In a series of studies conducted in 2010, various kinds of imagined and real exposure to natural settings was shown to increase participants’ subjective measures of vitality, which is generally defined as your sense of aliveness, enthusiasm, and zest for life. And that increase in mental energy held steady even when researchers controlled for the potential physical and social activity that a person might do while also spending time outside in nature.

Though scientists aren’t exactly sure what lies at the root of that nature "high," so to speak, it may come from the simple fact that nature is a “prototypical elicitor of awe,” says Dr. Zelenski. That is, being in nature and even immersing yourself in nature via virtual reality can induce a sense of wonder, which, alone, could lift your mood and contribute to your mental well-being.

5. A stronger connection to others

The same awe that induces a "nature high" can spark a reminder that you’re just one small part in a much bigger whole, says Dr. Zelenski. That feeling can, in turn, increase your sense of connectedness to other people, potentially even leading you to treat them with more kindness and generosity.

As evidence? Consider the 2015 study (for which Dr. Zelenski was an author) of 111 people who were shown either nature documentaries or videos about architectural landmarks before being asked to play a cooperative fishing game. Interestingly, those who had watched the nature videos were significantly more likely to cooperate well with others in the game.

The reason why may have something to do with nature "returning us to our authentic selves," says De Vries. “In nature, we can be creative, resourceful, and full of energy without feeling the need to make judgments or competitive assessments of others,” she says. And without that sense of comparison, it may be easier to not only treat others more compassionately, but also, to feel more comfortable in your own skin.

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