Spending Time in Nature Just Might Save the World

Nature is not a refuge—it’s a forge that transforms us

Spending time outdoors can serve as a forge that brings out the best in us.

Nature transforms us

What’s come down are medical studies showing time in nature does a multitude of good things for our health. Add to that the brainwave studies showing the benefits to our mental health. Top it off with the sociological studies showing time in nature leads to increased creativity.

Improved health and creativity are just what the doctor ordered.

In sum, we now have the science to justify it: nature is a forge in which much-needed world-saving values are brought to life.

Ajo Scenic Loop in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Still stuck in the old paradigm

While our appreciation of what nature does for us has evolved, the way our culture looks at time spent in nature, unfortunately, is still much the same. Despite what we know about the benefits of spending time in nature, our culture still views time spent there as passive. It’s often spoken of as a retreat or escape.

Our attitude reflects the society we grew up in. “Nature is so relaxing.” “I go hiking to get away from it all.” “The outdoors is my happy place.” We hear these phrases. The problem is that they’re limiting. They pigeonhole nature and the role nature can play for us.

Even though we now have awe theory and forest therapy, even though we know about the three-day effect and have books like The Awakened Brain and The Comfort Crisis we’re stuck in the old paradigm that defines time in nature is a form of recreation—and holds that the real work takes place when we’re sitting at a board meeting or behind our laptops.

It’s not nature that needs to change, but us.

Wells Gray Provincial Park, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new paradigm

These are dire times and the old paradigm of nature as recreation no longer makes the cut. If we as a species are to shift onto a less self-destructive path, we need to access the values-shifting awarenesses nature can provide.

If the next generation is to care about protecting the natural world, they need to have had positive experiences in it. If these changes are to come about, we need to value nature more broadly and spend time in nature with broader intentions. We need more access to green spaces for those who live in cities. Nature needs to be more than a place to relax. And, so of course, it’s not nature that needs to change, but us.

We need a new paradigm. We need a new story to tell ourselves about nature and the time we spend in it.

Simply put, we need to embrace the idea that nature isn’t so much a place to retreat and relax but rather a forge that can transform us.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the good of the people

The idea that spending time in nature can lead to personal transformation is not new. Far from it! Seers and prophets have been going out into the wild since the beginning of human civilization. When they went, they weren’t going on vacation. They weren’t sipping mai tais by a pool.

Native Americans—and many other indigenous cultures—had a tradition of the vision quest in which young people on the verge of adulthood would go out into nature alone in order to experience spiritual growth.

Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux tells a story from his childhood in which a tribal leader welcomes a group of young men back from a scouting mission with the words, “Whatever you have seen, maybe it is for the good of the people you have seen” (Niehardt 65).

Those simple words signify recognition of what the young people did and its importance. The young people left the community and went forth into the wild. Their purpose was to see. Their seeing was beneficial not just to themselves but to their community. It was “for the good of the people.”

Roseate spoonbills in Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature helps us save ourselves from ourselves

It’s a small shift—thinking of nature as a forge rather than a retreat—but it makes a big difference. I’m reminded of the well-known Thoreau quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Wildness and wilderness can strengthen and preserve us. I have no doubts about that. But the bulk of the world seems to have little interest in wildness. How then could the wildness be important to the world or have a chance of saving it?

The solutions to the problems of today are unlikely to spontaneously show up on the screens of our cell phones. The solutions might just manifest themselves when we’re out in nature, however. This is because nature is a rich source of complexity, mystery, and inspiration; nature is a bottomless well, a source that counters and supplements all that is human.

In light of the new paradigm, in light of what we now understand in terms of how crucial nature is to our health, in light of our dependence on nature for everything from new medicines to new technology, and in light of the popularity of rewilding now—more than ever—we can see Thoreau’s words as being amazingly prospicient.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

Over the course of history, our preoccupation with technology has led humanity to stray from nature but if we’re to survive and if our planet is to thrive (some would say survive) we must ever circle back. And so the time ahead may later in history be seen as the great circling back—a time when people rediscover the power of nature to strengthen our bodies and nurture our spirits. A time when we acknowledge that to be the best versions of ourselves, we need nature—and that nature is an inexhaustible source of new understandings.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Outdoor Activities Bucket List: 18 Fun Things to do Outdoors

From chasing fireflies to floating down a river, this list can break you out of a summer rut

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Not only can heading outside inject excitement into a blah-feeling day, but it can also deliver serious health benefits: Exposure to greenspace is linked to a whole slew of physical perks including reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormone cortisol, according to a 2018 meta-analysis of 143 studies published in the journal, Environmental Research

Separate research supports the outdoors for your mental health too. Time in nature can decrease mental distress while boosting happiness, subjective well-being, cognitive functioning, memory, attention, imagination, and creativity, a 2019 review in Science Advances concluded.

In short, there’s a lot to gain from stepping out of doors. And with a handy list of outdoor activities at your fingertips, you can soak up all the awesomeness of nature.

From chasing fireflies to birdwatching, here are some pretty amazing things to do outside. Let this article be your outdoor activities inspiration guide.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Lace up for a mindful nature walk

Feeling on edge or unfocused? Slip on your sneakers, head outside, and get in some steps. Not only is walking an excellent form of exercise but intentionally strolling through a natural setting can help you chill out.

When people with chronic stress walked outdoors for 40 minutes, they decreased their cortisol levels more than those who did likewise on a treadmill or who watched nature programming on TV for the same amount of time, a 2020 study published in Environment and Behavior found. They also experienced more a mood improvement afterward. 

To make the most of your stroll, tune into the present moment including what you see and hear around you. Mindful hiking is the perfect way to explore how being present in nature can transform how you feel. For more on mindful hiking you can read these two articles:

2. Gaze at the night sky

Stargazing, one of the most underrated outdoor activities has much to offer: It’s free, accessible, and can be incredibly calming. For an optimal experience, try to get as far away from city lights as possible and turn off all sources of manmade light.

The ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places, designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars can shine in all their glory. And the keeper of those Dark Sky Places is the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Across the 94 Dark Sky Places in the United States, you’ll find friendly amateur astronomers and ample opportunities to gaze uninterrupted into the heavens. Consider picking up a red light headlamp—a hands-free way to illuminate your path but not obstruct the experience. Check the weather forecast, bring layers and plenty of water, tell someone where you’re going, and don’t forget to look down every once in a while. You can fall off a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

For more on stargazing and Dark Sky Parks check out these posts:

3. Chase fireflies

Remember how magical the outdoors felt when you were little? Recreate some of that wonder on a summer night by catching fireflies in a jar and briefly observing them before setting them free. 

There are a number of different species of fireflies, none of which are actually flies—they’re beetles. They get the names firefly and lightning bug because of the flashes of light they naturally produce. This phenomenon is called bioluminescence and the bioluminescent organs in fireflies are found on the underside of the abdomen.

A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term glowworm can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult females—some of which are not in the firefly family lampyridae.

Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent. The important distinction is that fireflies have wings and glowworms do not. Fireflies can reach up to one inch in length.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Dust off your bike and go for a ride

Cycling is a healthy exercise that can be enjoyed by people of all ages from young children to older adults. Cycling strengthens your heart muscles, lowers resting pulse, and reduces blood fat levels. A Danish study conducted over 14 years with 30,000 people aged 20 to 93 years found that regular cycling protected people from heart disease.

If you want to blend low-impact exercise with quality time outdoors, make biking one of your go-to outdoor activities.

5. Be a tourist in your town

Can you confidently say that you know your city in and out? Take the time to visit more than just your usual hangout places. 

Be a tourist in your city, go someplace new and you may be surprised by just how wonderful that old town can be. Most cities have free tours too. You could discover streets, shops, and landmarks that you never knew existed. 

Camping in Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go camping

Camping could mean different things to different people. It can be a chance to bond with family or friends, rediscover yourself, or take a break from regular routines and away from distractions. Nevertheless, it is one of those outdoor activities that could spark that adventurous spirit within you.

You may be wondering, “What are the best places to camp near me?” One of the greatest things about traveling around the U.S. and Canada is that from coast to coast there’s no shortage of beautiful places to camp. Nature lovers can enjoy fresh air, glorious mountains, and clear lakes and streams during a weekend (or longer) camping trip.

Not only can you set up an RV or tent at these picturesque locations, but they also come with plenty of picnic areas, hiking trails, and ample opportunities for fishing, swimming, and other outdoor activities. From scenic forests in New Hampshire to peaceful beaches in Florida and majestic Rocky Mountains in Alberta, there amazing places to camp in the U.S. and Canada.

For more on camping, check out my other posts:

Exploring Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Explore a state park

If you are interested in the outdoors, being active, or exploring something new, or the combination of all three, perhaps it’s time to take your day exploring the nearest state park. Whether you are looking to explore the mountains, woodlands, or prairies, hike, mountain bike, or horse ride there’s a state park for you. 

From my many articles on state parks here are a few to get you started:

Birdwatching at Bisque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Go Birdwatching

You could go birding right now—this very moment—no matter who you are, where you are, or what stuff you do or don’t own. The most important thing—and really the only thing—you must have as a birder is yourself and your awareness.

There are certain tools that you’re going to want to enhance the experience although the list is short. You don’t need to start out birding by splurging on binoculars that run well above $2,000. Quality binoculars for birding cost between $100 and $400. You’ll also need a bird book (it can be an app as well) and a good amount of patience. You can also connect with any local birders in your area for tips and more.

Here’s more on birding:

9. Float down a river

For super-adventurous folks, whitewater rafting may make the list of ideal outdoor activities. But for people seeking chill time on the water, a gentle river float may be just the ticket. And don’t forget to grab life jackets and tie a whole bunch of inner tubes together and then float on them down a river.  

Rivers are trails. They invite a visitor to put in and travel a distance to a destination or simply float to another landing upstream or downstream. 

The National Water Trails System is a network of water trails open to the public to explore and enjoy. National Water Trails are a sub-set of the National Recreation Trails Program. National Water Trails have been established to protect and restore America’s rivers, shorelines, and waterways; conserve natural areas along waterways, and increase access to outdoor recreation on shorelines and waterways. The Trails are a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively supported and sustained.

I have an entire article on river trails. You can read it at National Fishing and Boating Week: Exploring National Water Trails

You’re bringing sunscreen, right? Okay, good. Just checking! Additionally, you should bring a hat. And although you may feel tempted to leave your shirt back in the car, take it. At some point, you may want to cover up.

Canoeing Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Go Kayaking

Kayaking, as well as canoeing, is a physical outdoor activity you can do in any type of space with water, from a river to the sea. It’s a great way to exercise and improve your body’s strength, all the while being a low impact activity that can offer a whole lot of peace of mind. 

Kayaking can be a great way to get out on the water whether for a leisurely morning paddle or a more rigorous overnight adventure. When kayaking, it’s good to have clothing that you can easily move around in, dries quickly, and will help protect you from the sun. Since you’ll likely be getting wet, you want to stay away from anything cotton which will leave you dripping and soggy all day (and could cause chafing).

Zip line in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Go Ziplining

No outdoor activity bucket list is complete without zip lining included on it! This is an extreme sport where you are attached to cords that zip you from one tree to the next. It has grown so popular over the years it seems to be possible to do just about anywhere! And while it can get your nerves on overdrive before setting off, it’s usually totally safe to do.

Fishing Parker Canyon Lake, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Go fishing

Another outdoor recreation idea is fishing. Regardless of whether you catch anything, it can be a fun and relaxing experience. There’s something about just being out there in nature and the feel of the cold water rushing by you and the sound of the river. Fishing can also be a great way to find a sliver of solitude especially if you go in the early morning when few other folks are out. 

Hiking Thumb Butte Trail, Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Hike a new trail

Each season of the year offers something different for your hiking experiences from the nature around you to the trails that are best to be taken. Hiking offers amazing landscapes with the flowers and the returning greenery! This is your sign to hike a trail you’ve never tried before.

Check these out to learn more:

14. Journal

Journaling allows you to express your innermost feelings and ideas without fear of being criticized or seen by others. It may also assist you in better organizing and comprehending those items. It’s similar to maintaining a diary, except with more freedom. You are free to write (or even draw) whatever you like, so just scribble down any thoughts or emotions as they occur to you!

15. Take a bike ride

Biking is such a great outdoor activity, no wonder it’s so popular. Not only can the bike actually take you to the same places you might otherwise go by public transportation or a car but it’ll keep you fit as you do so. On top of which you might also get some great scenery to enjoy during your bike ride!

For many people, bicycling never stops and continues right into their 80s and 90s and has been an intricate part of their entire life.

Horseback riding Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Go horseback riding

Whether it’s a forested trail or along the beach, horseback riding is another amazing way to enjoy time outdoors and in nature. Horseback riding has an inherent relaxing effect. According to Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, Rheta D. Connor, “The natural rhythm of the horse aids in circulation and relaxation while gently exercising and massaging the rider’s joints, muscles and spine”. These physical motions bring about feelings of relaxation naturally without any thought on behalf of the rider.

Wildlife World Zoo, Litchfield Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Visit a zoo

What is your earliest recollection of going to the zoo? It’s likely that you were on a field trip with your class or your family, being fascinated by the many different creatures that make the place their home.

From thrilling encounters with lions to petting rabbits to holding a snake and more, a trip to the local zoo is an entertaining, educational experience for people of all ages.

Sunset Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Watch a sunrise or sunset

Whether you’re catching it from a mountain top, the beach, or someplace else, sunsets and sunrises are the days at their most beautiful. So find a spot from where you can clearly see it, preferably against nature’s beautiful backdrop, and perhaps bring along a picnic basket and a mat to fully immerse in enjoying the sight.

Worth Pondering…

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is a society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more

—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

On the Pursuit of Happiness

Finding the calm in the storm of life

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.
—Marcus Aurelius

Happiness is the only worthy pursuit.

There is a saying there are only two things guaranteed in life: death and taxes. It’s not wrong is it?

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is one idea that remains, only one idea that makes sense: to be as happy as you possibly can. In 2019, Ipsos carried out a study and found that only 14 percent of people were very happy. Among 28 countries surveyed, happiness is most prevalent in Canada and Australia (both with 86 percent of adults describe themselves as “very” or “rather” happy) followed by China and Britain (83 percent), France (80 percent), and the United States (79 percent).

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With so many options to spend our time and money, it’s easy to get stuck in a state of consumption. We consume food, television, and social media. In recent years, we also started consuming “experiences.”

We feel the pressure to keep spending. We fear that without consumption life is boring. We have this unhealthy drive to buy happiness.

It makes me think of Viktor Frankl, the famous author who survived the Holocaust. In his book, Yes to Life, he debunks the idea of pursuing happiness.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Happiness should not, must not, and can never be a goal, but only an outcome… all human striving for happiness, in this sense, is doomed to failure as luck can only fall into one’s lap but can never be hunted down.”

Martin Seligman (1942-), a strong promoter of positive psychology, theorizes that 60 percent of happiness is determined by our genetics and environment and the remaining 40 percent is how we choose to respond. He summarized fulfillment and happiness as “consisting of knowing what your highest strengths are and using them to belong to, and in the service of, something larger than you are.”

Related article: Experience the Journey Within

There are dozens of researchers like Seligman who have studied the art and science of happiness. I’ve dived into the habits of the happiest people and decided to share them with you here. Here are the ingredients to a happy life.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Less is more

An ancient Greek philosopher named Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412-323 B.C.) built the idea that he has the most who is most content with the least.

Today we see this play out in many ways, most notably with the minimalism movement. Essentially it plays into this idea that a life lived with less ‘stuff’ leads to a happier one because in the absence of these desires you can enjoy the real stuff in life. The happiest people desire much less than the average Joe.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. The seduction of speed

There is more to life than increasing its speed.
—Mahatma Gandhi

Modern life and modern business tend to center around speed. Convenience stores, fast food, next-day delivery, all of that stuff is about not waiting. Rushing through and not spending time absorbing everything life has to offer. Not enjoying the smallest aspects of life for what they are leads to a lesser life. Slowing down can lead to enjoying the world around you. The happiest people abandon rushing about for the sake of slowing down.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Relax

Calm mind brings inner strength and self-confidence, so that’s very important for good health.
—Dalai Lama

The dictionary definition of “relax” is aspirational and healing: “to make or become less tense or anxious.” For some folks, relaxation takes the form of zoning out in front of a TV. For others, gardening or tending to the house offers calming effects. Whatever your chosen method of relaxation—whether it be time spent horizontally in a hammock or RVing to your favorite camping site—rest should be a built-in part of everyone’s daily routine.

Related article: The Power of Mindfulness

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Deep reading

Books are not the quickest way to consume information. The new era of information gathering means books are perhaps one of the slowest. However, time, depth, and attention all matter when comprehending new information. The time it takes to read a book, to read a book is the very thing that makes it magical. It demands your undivided attention for a considerable time. The happiest people give that willingly.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Live life today

We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are.
—Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes

Life can be sabotaged by thinking of the past and worrying about the future. You forget what is right in front of you. That can lead to a life less lived. Instead, spend time at this moment. You are right there, absorbing the words here and asking questions of yourself at the moment.

That’s what the happiest people I know do.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Little is large

Everyone is trying to accomplish something big, not realizing that life is made up of little things.

—Frank A. Clark

It’s the smallest things in life that we often overlook as a total inconvenience. Mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, cleaning the house, weeding the garden, washing the RV! They all feel like necessary evils. You speed through them to make it to the other side and then you can enjoy your day. Not so fast; the small things make up most of your day. The happiest people enjoy the small things—they know they are the big things.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Enjoy the moment

It turns out that taking the time to “smell the roses” truly does enhance happiness in life. When you enjoy the small moments—good or bad—you’re more aware of what’s happening around you. The happiest people focus on what they can control and it’s possible to choose happiness at the moment, no matter the struggles you may be going through.

Related article: Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Growth mindset

In the book Mindset, Carol Dweck explains that the most successful and happy people have what she calls a “growth mindset” compared to a “fixed mindset.” A fixed mindset seeks success as an affirmation of intelligence or worth; a growth mindset thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence or unworthiness but as a catalyst for growth and stretching beyond existing abilities. After twenty years of research, Dweck concluded that those with a growth mindset had happier relationships, achieved more success, and were much more persistent through challenges.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Have a dream

Without a future to look toward, the past is the only thing we can look back on. Whether your dream is to travel America in an RV, start your own business, or learn a new language, having a dream is one of the most important things in remaining optimistic when things get tough. This concept of having a purpose is especially prevalent in Eastern Asia. In Japan, there’s an actual term called ikigai which is translated as “the reason you wake up in the morning.” When some of the happiest and longest-living people were studied, they all had such a reason.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Luck and life

Luck (or random chance) question talent. Work hard and be successful. Save money and have enough for a rainy day. Build good habits and live a long life. The reality though is that people who do these things can still get unlucky. They become ill or make a bad decisions. While I can do everything in my power to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to me, I can also recognize the rightful place of bad luck and not beat myself up at every setback. What about you? Does recognizing the role of random chance make you feel better or worse? Do you agree that much of life is due to luck? The happiest people understand that random choice is a large part of life and they accept it for what it is.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Lifetime Learning

Despite his early onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, Stephen Hawking has made prominent scientific discoveries. What is more, he has found the words to tell the world about his findings. Like Hawking, the happiest people all have one thing in common. They are lifelong learners, constantly reading new books, exploring other cultures, learning new languages, etc. It is an ongoing process because without growth there’s no life.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The happiest 14%

It’s easy to rush through life, forgetting all the little things, focusing on tomorrow, and wanting all the things that big advertisers show you.

It’s easy to compare and question ‘why not me?’ when it comes to success and money. Those things are built in us by the markets that consume us. If we want for more and strive for better, we buy more and more.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead, though, the happiest people enjoy life for what it is, a game of luck. And find joy in the tiny things, like mowing the lawn or reading a good book.

I always remind myself of this. Happiness is a byproduct of usefulness. Of dedicating your life to something bigger than you!

Related article: On Camping and Spending Time in Nature

When you find something and dedicate your life to it, joy will arise automatically.

What makes you happy? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Happiness resides not in possessions and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.
—Democritus (c. 460-c. 370 BC)

Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.

—Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)

It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.

—Dale Carnegie (1888-1955)

Experience the Journey Within

How the forest can change your life

Who could have imagined that being confined to our homes would bring so many people closer to nature?

As we wrap up the first month of 2022, let’s remind ourselves to hit the “reset” button. America offers RV travelers the opportunity to do just that and tap into true joy and fully relax and reset. Improving your health and well-being can be as simple as getting outdoors to enjoy parks and forests and trails. The health benefits of outdoor recreation inspire healthy, active lifestyles, and a connection with nature.

Enjoying nature at Lackawanna State Park (Pennsylvania) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Humans are custom-designed for nature awareness. Before there were computers, smartphones, and televisions, most of our time was spent outside in the fresh air, tuning in with birds, plants, trees, and all the aspects of nature.

This deep level of knowledge and understanding about edible plants or how to move quietly in the forest and get closer to wildlife was developed out of a need for survival.

Enjoying nature at Roosevelt State Park (Mississippi) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But beyond the surface appearance of a basic need to find food, shelter, and navigate without getting lost, using our sensory awareness in nature also brings significant benefits to our health and wellness.

Related Article: Get Outside and Enjoy Nature

Just check out some of these nature awareness quotes by famous people.

“If you live in harmony with nature you will never be poor; if you live according to what others think, you will never be rich.”
—Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher (4 BC-AD 65)

Enjoying nature in Custer State Park (South Dakota) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

 “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even
spiritual satisfaction.”
—E.O. Wilson (1929-2021)

Enjoying nature at the Coachella Valley Preserve (California) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”
—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
—John Muir (1838-1914)

Enjoying nature on the Creole Nature Trail (Louisiana) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a reason why history’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and leaders tend to have close relationships with nature!

Yet today things are quite different.

Related Article: Fun and Healthy Ways to Enjoy Nature

Most people today have barely any awareness of the natural world.

Enjoying nature at Bernheim Forest (Kentucky) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ve become preoccupied with technology, video games, and how to fit into an expanding world. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, they simply don’t stimulate the human brain in the same way that nature does.

That is why so many people around the world are now coming back to the wilderness and intentionally rebuilding practices of nature awareness into their daily life.

Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a hefty dose of nature look no further than a National Natural Landmark. From tidal creeks and estuaries to mountain wilderness, underground caverns, and riparian areas, America offers a diversity of stunning landscapes to explore and enjoy.

Enchanted Rock (Texas) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Managed by the National Park Service, the National Natural Landmark program was created in 1962 to encourage the preservation and public appreciation of America’s natural heritage. To date, 602 sites in the country have received the designation.

Francis Beider Forest (South Carolina) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead. Whether I am hiking in the mountains or traversing trails in the desert, nature is a refuge—it’s a change of pace from city life, from being stuck inside, from being sedentary.

Hiking Catalina State Park (Arizona) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With national and state parks, millions of acres of national and state forest, and thousands of miles of trails, America offers a lot of opportunity and free access to the outdoors with numerous options for outdoor recreation including hiking, biking, birding, photography, canoeing, rafting, skiing, and simply taking a walk in the woods. Activities such as these have proven major benefits for human health and wellness due to their ability to clear the mind, engage our senses, and get our bodies moving.

Related Article: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Birding (Little blue heron) at Corkscrew Sanctuary (Florida) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending time in the outdoors is something we need at any age. Spending time in nature is inherently calming. The patience that birding requires only serves to enhance this meditative effect. As birders learn to appreciate nature’s slower pace, it inspires reflection, relaxation, and perspective. The exercise benefits that come from walking outdoors also contribute to increased happiness and energy levels.

Birding (Sandhill cranes) at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking for a fun hobby you can do anywhere, anytime, without spending much cash upfront? You can’t go wrong with birding, commonly known as bird watching.

Birding (Black skimmer) at South Padre Island Birding Center (Texas) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can do it purely for fun or keep a life list—a birding term for the running list that bird enthusiasts keep of all the different species of birds they see. Whatever your goal, you’ll be rewarded by the sights and sounds of beautiful and interesting feathered creatures.

Birding (Great kiskadee) at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (Texas) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve been considering joining the ranks of the 47 million birders in the United States, there’s no better time than the present to take the plunge—or at least dip your toes in. 

Related Article: Getting Back to Nature: How Forest Bathing Can Make Us Feel Better

Anyone who spends time birdwatching knows intuitively why they keep going back: It just feels good. Being in nature—pausing in it, sitting with it, discovering its wonders—brings a sense of calm and renewal. 

Worth Pondering…

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Elevate Your Hiking with Mindfulness

Mindful hiking is the perfect way to explore how being present in nature can transform how you feel

In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead. Whether I am hiking in the mountains or traversing trails in the desert, nature is a refuge—it’s a change of pace from city life, from being stuck inside, from being sedentary.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking in nature helps me destress, reprioritize, feel more energy, and boost my chances of living longer.

A new study finds quantifiable evidence that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression. Specifically, the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.

Hiking Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another study published in JAMA Network Open suggests that walking can lead to a longer life. And you don’t even need to aim for the magical (and completely arbitrary) 10,000 steps per day. The benefits of walking are relative: If you’re only getting about 2,000 steps per day now, getting to 4,000 will come along with some added benefits.

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This new study found that people who took 7,000 steps per day had a 50 to 70 percent lower risk of dying from all causes during an 11-year follow-up, compared to those who took fewer steps.

Related: The Power of Mindfulness

Researchers found incremental benefits when people took more steps which ultimately began to taper off around 10,000.

Hiking Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They also found that speed didn’t matter. Step intensity, or the number of steps per minute, didn’t influence the team’s findings. In other words, a slow saunter could be just as beneficial as a quick walk. The key was the number of steps.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The researchers didn’t really examine how walking contributed to a longer life. That said, physical activity is linked to better cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, weight reduction, lower blood sugar, more efficient use of cholesterol, and better brain health. And all you really need is time and a pair of comfortable and supportive walking sneakers that fit well!

When I became aware of mindfulness practices in tandem with hiking, my time in nature took on new meaning.

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness can be explained in a lot of different ways, but most simply, it’s the ability to be present and aware of the current moment. It’s bringing awareness to what you are directly experiencing through your senses.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Similar to mindfulness, many studies tie nature therapy, or ecotherapy, to increased awareness and decreased stress. Research has even tied nature to increasing the part of our nervous systems that helps our minds and bodies relax and calm down after being provoked. No wonder I fell in love with mindful hiking: Mindfulness and nature are two of the best strategies especially when combined—available at my fingertips—to relieve stress and re-focus.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So let’s get into how. Whether you’re a mindfulness beginner or an experienced pro, mindful hiking can be both a great entry point and a great way to take your mindfulness practice to the next level. 

Related: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Set an intention. Mindful hiking is intentional beyond briefly noticing a leaf or an interesting rock as you hike. So, set your parameters before you start. Are you going to practice mindfulness for three 15-minute intervals? Are you going to start your practice from the beginning of the trailhead or after you get into your hiking rhythm? Make sure you have a plan so that you can be as focused as possible once you start.

Hiking Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When I walk—which I do almost every day, as basic sanity-maintenance, whether on the trails through the forest or looping the campground—I walk the same routes, walk along loops, loops I often retrace several times in a single walk. There is an appeal in such recursiveness as it sharpens my observation skills. But I walk to observe and think more clearly which means to walk with the ever-broadening scope of attention to reality.

Hiking Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I spend a lot of time on my computer, writing. So to boost blood circulation and keep fit, I walk the trails up and down and around. And I believe it behooves us old fogeys to make as many decisions as possible, no matter how tiny, to keep our brains in gear.

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sometimes to help me be intentional, I’ll include an affirmation to set the tone for my mindful hike. I might say to myself: “I don’t need to be anywhere else right now. I can take this time to focus and be in nature.” At first, this will feel a bit awkward, but you’re just reminding yourself of your purpose.

Remove distractions. Once you’re ready to start your mindful practice, try to remove unwanted distractions. This will help you to focus and be in the moment. 

Hiking Waterboro Sanctuary, Waterboro, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, if you have made it a goal to practice mindfulness for a certain amount of time on your hike, pick a point in the distance and practice mindfulness until you reach that tall tree, large boulder, or giant saguaro. If you’re a hiker that loves music, put the headphones away while you’re trying to be in the present. Being focused requires more energy than you think. Removing the distractions in your control can help you.

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you begin, take a physical inventory of how you feel. Notice your body. What muscles are tight? Where are you feeling fatigued? Where are you feeling strong? Notice your mind. Are you feeling foggy? Are you focused on other things? Taking a physical inventory helps you see the impact of your mindful hike as you compare it to how you feel at the end of your practice. It can also help to take those things that try to tug at our focus, acknowledge them, and set them aside as we move into our mindful practice.

Hiking Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take several deep breaths. Try breathing in for four counts, holding for two, and exhaling six. Do this as many times as you like. Your breathing will flood the body with oxygen which helps to ground you in the present and relax as you begin to focus on your senses.

Related: Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

Hiking Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you begin to deepen your mindfulness, your senses become the entry point to the next phase of your practice. Focus on one sense at a time. Notice what you can see. A leaf dancing in the breeze. A leftover snow patch from winter. The outline of a lake in the distance. Narrow your focus to one specific thing. Trace the outlines of the object with your eyes. Take your time. Next move to the details in the center. What lines do you see? What colors are you noticing? Think about all the details you observe.

Hiking Waterboro Sanctuary, Waterboro, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Softly take your attention from a specific object and move it to what you smell. Take a couple of deep inhalations and notice all you can with each. The wet soil from recent rain or mountain run-off. The scent of the deep forest. Notice how the smells change as you continue your walk down the trail or as you take several deep breaths. 

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Slowly take your attention from what you smell and listen to what’s around you. First, focus in on sounds closest to you—a branch cracking close by or your steps on the trail. Next, extend your attention out farther. What do you hear in the distance—the low rumbling of a waterfall or a bird up high in a tree?

Related: Hiking Arizona

Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After you have trained your ears to be active and take in the surroundings, notice what you can feel. Focus on what muscle groups you’re using to hike. Notice how your feet feel in your hiking boots. Feel how the air brushes past the skin on your face as you move or how the breeze floats by as you’re still.

Hiking Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you meditate on your body, take a final scan of how you feel. Do you feel calmer? More focused? Is your body more relaxed as you have walked along the trail or rested in a still spot? Use this as a time to do a post-practice inventory.

Mindful hiking has become one of my favorite ways to destress. Unlike meditations where you sit and close your eyes, mindful hiking allows you to be out in nature and its healing powers. 

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For me, sometimes the motivation for walking in nature is to escape our fast-paced world but mindful hiking leads me to escape in a new way. I can escape from my stress, negative feelings, and restlessness while still remaining present in my body and in the present. Mindful hiking is an easy addition to any outing and though it may take some extra effort, I hope you enjoy feeling less stressed and more grounded as you practice.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

The Power of Mindfulness

Mindfulness can improve both mental and physical health

Mindfulness is a key component of many meditative and contemplative practices and it can also be an illuminating approach to everyday life. To be mindful is to focus our awareness and attention on the experience of the present moment. We can be mindful of our thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions; the natural world and our immediate environment; the people around us; and other parts of our lives.

On the road to Peralta Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A huge body of research now shows that mindfulness can have an incredibly positive impact on our lives. It has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It improves our focus, resilience, and memory, and it has a whole host of health benefits including increased immune function and powerful anti-aging properties.

Related: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

On the trail at Coachella Valley Preserve, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness practices encourage us to slow down and notice what we can be directly aware of at any given moment. A recommended way to begin is to sit in a quiet place and notice the movement of our breathing. By bringing mindfulness to this one simple and flowing experience, we may be able to temporarily let go of our habitual thinking, daily narratives, and worries.

On the trail in Lake County, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along with formal meditation practices, we can be mindful in our everyday lives. Eating a meal, walking, driving, and other seemingly mundane tasks are all opportunities for mindfulness. The more we ground ourselves in the present, the more fully we can experience being alive.

Related: Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

On the Okefenokee, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why is mindfulness so effective? In a world that’s hectic and fast-paced, it’s beneficial to stop and re-center by noticing what’s around you.

Hiking the lava fields, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I often find myself stuck in one of two places. I am either ruminating on a past—perhaps revising what I had seen and done and trails hiked on past snowbird travels before COVID. Or I am desperately concerned about and planning the future—what if I’m no longer able to drive my motorhome or what if someone I love gets really sick?

Relaxing at Racoon State Recreation Area, Indiana

It’s easy to spend the majority of a day doing what’s been described as “rehashing the past” or “rehearsing the future.”

Related: Fun and Healthy Ways to Enjoy Nature

The biggest problem with rehashing or rehearsing is that those thoughts are often a source of stress and anxiety. This is where mindfulness can become a powerful antidote. Spending time each day meditating and grounding ourselves in the present has been tied to less stress, fewer unwanted thoughts, heightening creativity, encouraging appreciation, and combating overall mental and emotional fatigue.

Along the byways of Bluegrass Country, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness practices have also been found to reduce stress, boost immune systems, and improve brain functions.

How could simply tuning into your thoughts and feelings lead to so many positive outcomes throughout the body? Researchers believe the benefits of mindfulness are related to its ability to dial down the body’s response to stress.

Along the boardwalk at Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chronic stress can impair the body’s immune system and make many other health problems worse. By lowering the stress response, mindfulness may have downstream effects throughout the body.

On a Hyannis Harbor Cruise, Massachusetts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because mindfulness is so helpful at easing negative and stressful feelings, it can contribute towards us living healthier, happier lives. It may even slow down the aging process because while stress has the side-effect of speeding up our biological clock, mindfulness can help to slow it down.

Related: Camping Benefits Mind and Body…Here Is How

Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a study from Stanford University, a 90-minute walk in a natural area was shown to lower the risk of depression and one survey found that 65 percent of people who put away digital devices while on vacation enjoyed their way more (not surprising, right?). But where can you go to truly unplug? Turns out, that’s the easy part. I’ve got some ideas to get you started. Stay tuned for a follow-up article.

Relaxing at Mount Washington Resort, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the quotes below, practitioners discuss the essence of mindfulness and its myriad benefits.

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnified world in itself.
—Henry Miller, writer

Walking the trails at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness is nonconceptual awareness… It [is] the direct and immediate experiencing of whatever is happening, without the medium of thought.
—Henepola Gunaratana, Buddhist monk

Exploring Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness, though so highly praised and capable of such great achievements, is not at all a ‘mystical’ state, beyond the ken and reach of the average person. It is, on the contrary, something quite simple and common, and very familiar to us.
—Nyanaponika Thera, Buddhist monk and author

Along Champlain Canal, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our mind should be soft and open enough to understand things as they are… It is called mindfulness.
—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen monk and teacher