Camping for Mental Health

Last year I read an article over on Semi-Rad.com, How Much Outside Time Do You Need?. In his post, Brendan Leonard says he likes to spend at least 30 nights a year sleeping outside in order to maintain proper mental health. Whether you strap a pack to your back, or simply camp out of your car, I can’t think of anything better for recharging your batteries than getting out of town for a camping trip. You don’t even need to go far away. It’s just a matter of getting out under the stars, and knowing you don’t have to immediately come back to the daily grind. Getting away from the constant bombardment of information, putting down our devices, and connecting more intimately with the natural world quiets our minds and brings into focus what’s really important in our lives.

Twenty Lakes Basin
Steelhead Lake, Hoover Wilderness

Prior to 2012, I think we were lucky to spend half a dozen nights in a tent each year. At the end of last year though, backpacking became one of our family’s favorite past times. Not only is it a lot of fun, but it forced us to simplify and update our camping gear. Camping became less work. Going into 2012, we decided to make sleeping outside an entire month’s worth of nights one of our goals.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Humboldt Redwoods State Park

The best thing about camping is that you don’t have to leave your destination right away. On a day hike, spending time at your favorite lake may be short lived. It’s hard to fully relax and let go when you’re worried about where you need to be next. You have to allocate a lot of time to hiking out and driving back home from the trailhead. Being able to stay the night at your destination allows you to appreciate the place even more. Seeing the mountains in the evening or morning light gives it a whole new look. And sometimes it just takes several hours to slow your brain down enough to become fully aware of where you are. I’ve exclaimed over dinner, “Look where we’re at! Look at those mountains!”, as if it just suddenly hit me.

Zion
Zion National Park

Living in the backcountry for a night or two is good for the soul. The stresses of life disappear, and you are really only concerned with your immediate needs. Shelter, Water, Food, and Navigation. It can take a lot of work to do these basic things, but you soon realize it’s really all that matters. The stuff you were stressing about back home fades away.

Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park

Places we’ve camped this year:

  • Washoe Lake State Park – Nevada
  • Zion National Park – Utah
  • Arc Dome Wilderness – Central Nevada
  • Lava Beds National Monument – Northern California
  • Crater Lake National Park – Oregon
  • Whistler’s Bend County Park – North Umpqua River, Oregon
  • Beachside State Recreation Site – Oregon Coast
  • Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
  • Humboldt Redwoods State Park – Northern California
  • Grover Hot Springs – Eastern Sierras, California
  • Lee Vining Campground – Tioga Pass, California
  • Steelhead Lake – Hoover Wilderness, California
  • Green Lake – Hoover Wilderness, California
  • Highland Lakes – Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, California

On the Road in Oregon
Meeting up with family at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

The year started off with an overnighter out at Washoe Lake State Park, just a few miles up the road. Although its location is right at the edge of civilization, it does not fall short on the outdoor experience. In all our travels this year, no place rivaled the wildlife we’ve experienced at Washoe Lake. We don’t always see them, but we always hear them. Washoe Lake and the mountains above the lake are coyote habitat. They come alive at sundown, and their yips and howls continue throughout the night. They travel through the state park on their way back and forth from the beach dunes and the safety of the hills. On our first trip to Washoe Lake this year, we were just waking up in the morning when a meteorite the size of a minivan exploded in the nearby skies. Talk about being close to the action. Many local people in their houses never even noticed. You don’t always have to go far to get your outdoor fix.

Arc Dome Wilderness
Arc Dome Wilderness

The ground seemed unreasonably hard earlier in the year, but it wasn’t long before our bodies adjusted. I still wake up more often in the tent than I do in my own bed, but I now easily get back to sleep. We even eventually took the luxuriously thick memory foam mattress off the top of our bed at home. That much padding seemed silly, and just the mattress was plenty. For backpacking, we just use our Thermarest self inflating pads, and for car camping, since we can afford the space, we throw in a roll of spongy foam to lay under our pads.

Green Lake Backpacking Trip
Green Lake

I’ve also found I worry a lot less about bears in the backcountry than I did when we first started backpacking. I used to wake up and listen really hard for any noises. If I heard a stick break, I’d stop breathing and feel a rush of adrenaline as I awaited the imminent attack. In reality it was probably nothing more than a squirrel. I listen more passively now, enjoying the sound of a nearby creek for a while before drifting back to sleep.

On the Road in Oregon
On the Beach in Oregon

Another benefit of frequent camping is how natural it becomes. When we did our two week road trip through Oregon and Northern California, we camped more than we stayed in motels, saving the indoors for only the rainiest of days. When we got to a campsite, we’d all go instantly to our camp chores without much discussion, and things were all setup in no time. We got used to different weather conditions, and knew that we’d still sleep good and stay warm and dry. Additionally, we were spending very little money on the trip, and were able to extend our days on the road. We spent less in two days travel than we spent taking the family out to dinner before we left!

Hiram Peak and Highland Lakes
Highland Lakes

As of this writing, we’ve spent 18 nights outdoors so far this year. With the weather changing and our calendar filling up, it doesn’t look like we’ll hit 30 this year. We’ll be lucky to squeeze in 1 or 2 more nights. Still though, it’s the most we’ve ever done, and we’re looking forward to next year and even more camping. It’s addicting. The more you do it, the more you can’t wait to get back out there. You know how good it feels to get away.

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