Wilderness Effect: The Case for Spending More Than a Week in the Wild
The first time I spent more than a consecutive week outside was a Grand Canyon river trip with my dad. Seventeen-year-old me was uninterested in washing the silt from my hair after the trip ended. I was so enamored with the Colorado River that I needed to hold tight to every last remnant, lest I forget what it felt like to float through history itself. The stand-in “trip mom” reminded me showering actually needed to occur before I could re-enter society.
I did not really want to re-enter, though. I held to the sandy vestiges of the trip because it had been a surreal sojourn of enduring days filled with ethereal green chasms, seeping waterfalls, red canyon sunsets and no sense of time. I spent the better part of a month experiencing otherworldliness with 15 strangers. Needless to say, it was 15 friends by the take out. It had been perfect.
The Wilderness Effect
I once had a coworker and friend tell me she never wanted to lead a trip for less than 30 days again. “It’s just not long enough to get to know people!” she said. It makes me laugh, but also it is true. Growth and bonding absolutely happens on a week-long trip, don’t get me wrong. The three-day effect is real and powerful.
After three days in nature, the health and social benefits start to manifest. Robert Greenway, the father of ecopsychology who created the term wilderness effect, however, found psychological benefits begin to emerge after 10 days in the outdoors. He found spending between two and four weeks in the wilderness has undeniable positive impacts on the human psyche.
After 10 days, people begin to feel more alive. There’s an element of invigoration, of reflection, and what Greenway calls an “escape from cultural dominance.” The endless to-dos seem to melt away. A mindfulness and presentness grows. Minds start to quiet and clear. Pre-existing pressures and stressors start to evaporate.
In river canyons, the walls are also mirrors; mirrors that reflect values and beliefs. The sheer red walls, the columnar basalt, and the front row seat to the Milky Way often begin to reveal an image of ourselves that looks a lot like our truest, happiest self.
A tenet of ecopsychology is the way extended time in nature makes humans contemplate our relationships to nature. It makes us begin to see our lives differently than before. The wilderness can be a reset button; it is a homecoming. At 17, I left the Grand Canyon with renewed self-efficacy. I felt invigorated by the experience; I felt proud of my accomplishments; strong, brave, reflective.
Those feelings were so pivotal, and personal growth so monumental, I have spent the decade since chasing whitewater and counting down the days until I can pump up a big yellow raft for the next put-in. Once there, after an exhilarating yet meditative day of river wandering, I toss out a sleeping bag on a white sandy beach, and start the worthy, needed, and loved work of checking in with my psyche.
So, if you’ve never spent more than a week on an outdoor adventure: allow yourself the opportunity to do so. Gift yourself the time to check in with the sound of your own breath and the space to feel your heart beat wildly. Emerge from a river canyon new. Rewild yourself back into your true self. Experience the life-shifting power of the wilderness effect.
Photos: Justin Bailie, Whit Richardson