Hiking Towards Happy: Four Ways it Improved My Mental Health


I haven't always been a hiker. When I was younger, if I needed to shake off a bad day, there wasn't any better way for me to escape stress than to drive away from it. With hard rock music blasting out of my speakers, nothing but the road ahead of me, the sky (and sometimes, stars) above, and my troubles in the rearview mirror, life seemed to balance out. The possible psychological benefits of hiking? Exercise? That never entered my mind.

Then I moved to a place where I no longer had the opportunity to drive, and I needed to find a new way to decompress and clear my mind. As luck would have it, I made a new friend who was obsessed — and I don’t use that term lightly — with hiking, and, shortly thereafter, I found myself regularly waking up at ungodly hours to get to mountain hiking trails just after sunrise, doing so both willingly and enthusiastically… even though I’m not really a morning person.

A funny thing happened on the way up those mountains

I couldn’t deny it: As I became a regular hiker, I felt healthier, happier, and more well-rounded. I started paying closer attention to the trees, flowers, insects, and other wildlife around me. I soon found that another of the benefits of hiking was how I would appreciate the way sunlight would hit certain spots at different times of day even when I wasn’t on a trail. I was more observant and thoughtful, than ever before.

Over time, life changed, as it does. I got married and moved from where I’d been a regular hiker to new places where both hiking and driving opportunities were few and far between. After moving back to Arizona a few years ago, I rediscovered how therapeutic driving was for me (at least, when not in heavy traffic), but when it came to hiking and the psychological benefits of hiking? We were too busy, and I barely gave it a second thought anymore.

Hiking climbs its way back into my life

Then came 2020. Life became slower for everyone, more contemplative, and one day my wife suddenly suggested going hiking together as a way to shake off the funk of months of the monotony of a life stuck inside.

Our first hiking outing together was to my wife’s favorite place in the world: Sedona. It was winter; the air was frigid, and the ground was covered with melting snow — and mud, but more on that later. We’d parked near the Sedona Airport Scenic Lookout, a place we’d been to several times before but had never thought to explore beyond the scenic lookout point.

Thanks to a trail app, I knew which trail to take. But, ever since I’d first taken up hiking, I had actually preferred getting lost and finding my own way to plotting out a course along a set route. Why? In my opinion, taking the mind out of its comfort zone is one of the main psychological benefits of hiking: It helps you become more adaptable.

After a bit of exploring, we found the trail, but also soon found that our shoes seemed no match for the mud from the melting snow. The squishing and squelching slowed us down considerably, and my wife grumbled about going home. After all, she hadn’t signed up for a trudge through mud! For a split second, I was tempted to agree with her, but in the end I urged her — and us — onward; giving up wouldn’t help us get us out of the funk we’d been in.

As I said before, becoming more observant of my surroundings had been another mental benefit of hiking in the past, so I soon found little detours up the hillside that allowed us to skip much of the mud, and in the process also found stunning views we might have missed had we stuck to the beaten path. We took more breaks than we would have otherwise, simply to take it all — and breathe it all in.

At the end of the trail, we came to a scenic viewpoint neither of us had ever known about, despite going on numerous trips to Sedona in the past. I mean, how could we have known, when we’d never gone hiking there before? No, our troubles weren’t forgotten, but they sure seemed smaller in comparison with the way the sunlight hit those red rocks at this new vista — and after having reached the end of a trail we almost gave up on.

We looked at each other and smiled. Yeah, hiking was back in our lives, and it was here to stay.

What about the benefits of hiking for you?

The benefits of hiking aren’t reserved for a chosen few; they’re available to all who seek them out. I guarantee that with enough hiking, over time you will notice — as I did — that:

  1. You’re more observant of the world — and, possibly, the people — around you.
  2. You’re more adaptable, and able to make your own trail if you can’t find the right one.
  3. You’re healthier; after all, hiking is exercise, using a variety of muscle groups.
  4. Above all, you’re going to be happier; who wouldn’t be, with all that fresh air and exercise you’re getting, along with being more observant and adaptable?

So get outside and try hiking. I’m certain you will find some benefits for your mental health along the way!