There is growing evidence that immersion and interaction with nature can have significant health benefits for all humans. Most of us can attest to how different we feel after a short immersion in nature through camping and backpacking experiences. Spending significant time outside makes us feel calm, rested, and energized. The good news is, science backs up these claims.
What does the research say about the health benefits of immersing in nature?
It’s clear that nature has definite health benefits for both younger and older populations. In recent years, there’s been an increasing call for research to explore exactly how nature can be both a prevention and treatment for chronic health conditions. A research agenda put out by the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives shows several evidence based health benefits of contact with nature. These benefits include improved attention, social connectedness, immune system improvement, stress reduction, and enhanced knowledge of important environmental concerns.
A research review published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health says that the smell, sight, touch, and sound of nature relaxes the cardiovascular system, reduces stress hormones, calms inflammation, and may even boost our gut microbiome.
Also, the review reports that just breathing the air in nature can improve our health. Plants emit a substance called phytoncides, which helps them defend against decay or attack by herbivore animals. However, breathing this substance has been shown to improve immune system function in mammals.
Negative air ions, which are in abundance in nature, are found to treat depression, asthma, allergies, and inflammation in humans. Many people buy negative ion air filters for their home to help replicate this benefit found in nature.
However, all we need to do is get outside as often as we are able. Taking time in urban green spaces can be helpful, but nothing can rejuvenate us more than a backcountry camping or hiking trip where we are living with nature for a short time.
Maximizing the health benefits of backcountry camping excursions
Some people might shy away from such adventurous immersion with nature because they’re afraid of getting sick, injured, or developing health problems, which can be a risk when heading out into the wilderness.
However, there’s a lot we can do to prepare and protect ourselves on these backcountry trips to help decrease health risks while maximizing the health benefits as described above.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prepared some great tips on staying healthy and safe when going on camping trips. These tips involve some key learning around physical conditioning, safe food and water, and protecting against hazards and environmental dangers. Education is empowering and can help you prepare well for backcountry excursions.
Ensuring we have the right skill set for backcountry camping trips is paramount. Making sure we’re in good shape before heading out into the wilderness is equally important. Lastly, bringing a proper first aid kit with knowledge of how to use it, can put our fears at ease so we can reap the rewards of nature’s healing properties.
What does it mean to have the right skill set for backcountry camping excursions?
If you’ve never been on a backcountry camping trip before, it goes without saying that you’ll need to learn a few skills before you make that leap. It’s best to take some outdoor education courses, reading how-to books, or start with smaller car camping trips until you feel comfortable about your knowledge. It also helps to go with an organized group or experienced friends so you can learn from them.
You’ll need to know many skills in terms of what to pack, how to use your equipment, and how to transport your gear. You’ll also need to have skills in fire-building and safety, wilderness first aid, camp set-up, and take-down, creating a tarp shelter, and some basic survival skills.
Making sure you have solid skills before backcountry trip planning is one of the best ways to maintain your health and wellbeing. It will also alleviate much anxiety so you can relax and get the full health benefits of time in nature.
What does it mean to be in good shape before a backcountry camping excursion?
Knowing the strengths and limitations of your body can help you prepare for backcountry camping experiences. When we head out to the wilderness, we leave our cars, phones, emergency help, and access to healthcare, behind. Therefore, we need to be sure that our physical health and strength is good enough to withstand the journey.
You’ll want to be sure you can move, hike, and carry gear through rough terrain, which requires a certain amount of physical strength and cardiovascular condition. It takes time and effort to build up to this conditioning, and working on this goal can also improve your overall health in many areas of your life.
Many people with chronic health issues think they can’t go on a backcountry trip, particularly for older adults, but this is not always the case. If you’ve conditioned your body and you have good knowledge and control over your health issues, there’s no reason you can’t participate. However, be sure to talk with your doctor about your health issues ahead of time and see what’s possible for you.
A good test of physical strength can be to strap on a backpack filled with the gear you would take on your trip, and walk up and down a flight of stairs several times. If you can do this without any problems, then it’s a good sign you have the physical strength.
Dr. Samantha Van Gorder, a physical therapist, has published an excellent pre-camping workout routine specifically for backpacking. She suggests creating a training schedule and making the exercises fit for your unique capacities. Many of these exercises can be done in the comfort of your own home.
In the last few years, there’s been an increase in backcountry mobility products to help you as well. These include specially made backpacks, shock-absorbing hiking poles, and custom shoes, to name a few.
The best way to guard against health issues is to know your body’s strengths and how it reacts to physical activity. If you’re not in the best shape, you may need to do some training ahead of time so that you’re well-prepared for an upcoming trip.
Even people in good health and physical condition can still benefit from some pre-trip training so they can get the most out of their excursion. Again, be sure to check with your doctor so you can plan accordingly.
What to bring in your first aid kit
Once you know you have the right skills and physical conditioning, you’ll want to bring a well-stocked first aid kit that isn’t too bulky or heavy. There are several online sources you can look to when considering what to put in your first aid kit. Wikihow has a great easy-to-read list of first aid items that can help you get started. Also, wikipedia has great information not only for first aid kits but survival-based equipment as well.
Keeping your gear light is an essential part of backcountry excursions so you’ll want to be thoughtful about your choices and packing for your kit. Everything you put in it should have a few uses, and you’ll want to cover as many potential health issues as possible.
The list below outlines some items to include and why they’re needed, but you may have to make changes or additions depending on your unique situation. This list is only a starting point, and you’ll learn over time what works best for you.
Basic over the counter medication
There’s some standard over the counter medications you may want to bring for a variety of common health issues that come up on backcountry excursions. However, check with your doctor to be sure that they don’t interfere with other medications you may be taking.
You’ll want to bring an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Muscles and joints get tired and achy in the outdoors, so these medications may be needed to help alleviate inflammatory pain.
Also, if you happen to sustain an injury to a joint, muscle, or even cuts and scrapes, anti-inflammatories will be necessary to ensure you can make it through your trip without further problems.
Anyone who’s wandered into nature knows that bug-bites, poison ivy, and other allergic reactions can make things rather miserable. Bringing a non-drowsy antihistamine for day-time use can help. Medications like Benadryl should also be included in your kit, and although Benedryl makes you more drowsy, it’s the best medication for more serious allergic reactions.
When you go out into the wilderness, you know that you have to filter or boil water to drink. Sometimes, things can go wrong in this process, and we swallow unfiltered water. Untreated water can give us the dreaded “beaver-fever,” which is a severe gastrointestinal illness due to giardia-infected water. Also, nowadays, water is increasingly infected with high amounts of E. coli bacteria. Both giardia and E. coli can cause serious illness with diarrhea.
The danger with diarrhea in the backcountry is that it can lead to dehydration, so you want to prevent this by bringing along anti-diarrhea medication.
Along the same line, you’ll need to bring something that can help with dehydration if you happen to get a bout of diarrhea. Also, sometimes dehydration occurs in the outdoors even without gastrointestinal illness, so it’s a good idea to bring electrolytes as dehydration can be very serious.
Many camping stores and pharmacies carry powdered mixes you can put in water, which is light to carry and works well.
When taking electrolytes, be sure to drink enough clean water with it, and you’ll need to increase electrolyte intake if there is both diarrhea and vomiting. Electrolyte powders should contain sodium, potassium, glucose, and calcium.
Your eyes and your ability to see correctly is incredibly essential for your safety in the wilderness. At the same time, there may be an increased risk of eye injuries, infections, and reactions as we trudge through the bush or get exposed to allergens in nature.
You’ll want to bring eye drops for both allergic reactions as well as eye drops that have an antibiotic and a steroid. This way, all potential eye issues are covered.
Another health risk of backcountry trips is swimmer’s ear, which is an infection caused by bacteria or fungus that can happen when the inner ear is exposed to water. Most backcountry excursions involve swimming, dealing with rain, or moisture from morning dew. This water exposure can increase the risk of an ear infection, so be sure to take ear drops that contain both an antibiotic and antifungal.
Check out this video for additional helpful details:
First aid for cuts, scrapes, and punctures
Cuts, scrapes, and punctures are relatively common on backcountry excursions, but if we bring the right gear, we can manage them well. The most important thing to avoid is an infection. Believe it or not, a straight cut heals better than a scrape or puncture because straight cuts are easier to keep clean.
A straight cut refers to a slice in the skin that can happen from accidents using a camping knife. Straight cuts are easy to open up, clean, and then close again with a bandage. However, scrapes and punctures are more challenging and have a higher risk of infection.
Scrapes often contain tattered skin and areas that may have a deeper cut than another area. Scrapes usually take up more surface area too, so it’s harder to cover and protect them.
Be sure to bring something that can gently scour your skin, such as a non-stick gauze or a special cleaning pad for wounds. This way, you can clean the wound properly without leaving behind small bits of debris or dirt that can cause infections.
You’ll also want to bring different sized bandages, bandaids, and tape to help cover scrapes and cuts of all shapes and sizes.
Punctures are the worst for getting infected because they create a hole deep in the skin that is very difficult to clean. You will want to bring a small syringe without the needle as this makes it easier to force clean water into the puncture wound so you can remove any dirt and infectious material.
Many people bring along ointments that contain antibiotics and antifungals for the skin. However, they can be risky in the outdoors because they often mixed with petroleum or other sticky creams. While this may work well at home, the creamy ointment can attract more debris and dirt when camping outdoors.
A great secret weapon for all skin-related issues in the outdoors is tea tree essential oil. Be sure to get it in a pure and concentrated form. Also, make sure you’re not allergic to it by testing it out on a small patch of skin ahead of time.
You only need a tiny drop of tea tree oil for any cut, scrape, or puncture. It also works well on fungal infections of the ear or skin. However, do not put tea tree oil in your eyes as it can cause severe stinging and irritation.
Tea tree oil, when placed on open cuts, can also cause stinging. Washing wounds with clean water after applying the oil will help alleviate this stinging. Be sure to cover up scrapes and cuts right after applying the oil to prevent any external pathogens from entering.
Also, another item that has multiple uses is a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Not only does peroxide help clean out wounds, but it can also treat lake or river water rendering it safe to drink.
For wound cleaning, you’ll want to dilute the peroxide with clean water first as direct contact can cause burning in the wound, which may increase the risk of infection. Diluting with one part peroxide with three parts water is best.
For treating drinking water, a few drops of peroxide per one liter of water works well. Of course, you should bring a proper water filter with you or boil your water, but peroxide can work as a back-up in case your filter breaks, or you can’t get a fire started.
First aid for burns
Starting and maintaining a fire is an essential part of backcountry camping excursions. Unfortunately, fires also carry a risk for burns. If you’ve brought different sized bandages, this will help keep burn wounds clean and covered.
Also, you’ll want to bring different sizes of burn pads, which are moist pads that keep burns hydrated while preventing gauze or clothing from sticking. Burns need to be cleaned often to avoid infection, and they can be very painful. In this case, an antibiotic ointment with pain relief can be beneficial.
First aid for musculoskeletal injuries
Injuries such as sprains, muscle pulls, and strains are common on backcountry excursions. Bringing a few tensor bandages can help keep these injuries protected. You can also use them to secure a splint in the case of a more severe sprain or broken bone. Splints can be made from smooth straight tree branches secured in place by a tensor bandage to keep limbs aligned and in place.
Knowing how to use your first aid kit
These are only the basics to include in your first aid kit. You may need more or less equipment based on your unique issues and needs. All of these items can be packed in a lightweight first aid pouch, and you should always know where it is during your travels.
It’s also recommended to take a short wilderness first aid course so you can learn more about what to pack in your kit but more importantly, so you know how to use your first aid equipment. It’s one thing to bring an epi-pen or suture kit for allergic reactions or severe cuts, but if you don’t know how to use those things, they won’t help you much.
There are plenty of in-person and online courses as well as several books and articles to teach you how to use your first aid equipment properly.
Spending quality time in nature through an immersive backcountry camping excursion has many health benefits. It boosts our immune system, reduces inflammation, helps us recover from stress, and can improve our overall health.
Even though there are health risks with leaving civilization for nature, the benefits can outweigh these risks so long as we’re well-prepared.
Be sure you understand your level of knowledge and skills when undertaking a backcountry camping excursion. You wouldn’t want to embark on this kind of adventure without knowing how to traverse wild terrain and what gear to bring. This understanding alone can reduce your risk of injury and illness.
Knowing your level of fitness is essential and necessary to ensure your safety and wellbeing. Also, taking time to train, learn, and condition your body is a step you need to consider before embarking on backcountry camping.
Lastly, make sure you have a basic lightweight first aid kit. The items listed above are only a start, and you may need to change or add things for your unique health issues. For example, if you have a severe allergy to bees, you’ll want to bring an epi-pen as the chances of a bee-sting are high when you spend much time in the outdoors.
More than ever, humans need nature to rejuvenate and maintain our health. There’s no better way to get nature therapy than to spend a short time living in the outdoors through backcountry camping excursions. All you need is good preparation, knowledge, and some proper gear, and you can safely enjoy all the health rewards that nature has to offer.