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Hiking. Nature's Medicine

By: Rebecca McGill

Camping on Max's Peak in the Chugach Mountains

When I moved to Alaska from Dallas four years ago, I had very little concept of what hiking involved, especially in Alaska. I moved here on a whim, fleeing an abusive relationship and in search of a new beginning. I was initially disinterested in exploring my new and intimidating backyard, however, that changed overnight.

New Found Freedom

I was asked to join five friends on a hike to the ‘Powder Hut’, a cabin sitting at 1800 feet in elevation on Notch Mountain in Girdwood, Alaska. We set forth in early April, so the trail was still quite snowy. But, thanks to the frequent skiers it was packed enough, so we didn’t need snowshoes. My friends were new to Alaska, but not to hiking. They were patient and encouraging throughout the hike. We arrived at the cabin after a few hours, and despite my unconditioned lungs and legs I felt great. I was completely stoked and proud!

Hiking Backpacking Camping Cabins Snow Mountains Chugach National Forest Hut
Chugach Powder Guide's Powder Hut

We crammed into the loft of the cabin with our sights set on reaching the 3087-foot summit the next day. I woke up surprisingly energetic despite being sore and felt amazing as we began our trek into the clouds. Finally, after a thoroughly exhausting climb, we reached the top.

The summit was quiet and unusually bright through the grey sky and looming clouds. We spread ourselves out across the ridgeline, each taking in our own view. There were snow covered mountains in every direction with rocky peaks jutting out of the landscape.

Suddenly, tears were streaming down my cheeks. I was completely overwhelmed and in awe of where my body carried me. I found freedom I’d never dreamed of. The emotional weight I’d been carrying seemed bearable, and for the first time in years I felt like everything was going to be okay. That day, these majestic Alaskan mountains healed my soul. Today, they continue to bring me peace, comfort, and clarity.

Hiking Camping Snow Mountains Backpacking Backcountry
Exploring A1 Ridge in the Chugach Mountains

The Psychology Behind Hiking

It’s no secret that exercise is good for the mind, body, and soul. Hiking in nature has been proven to improve mental health in all people including those who suffer from mental illness such as depression or anxiety. Depression, anxiety, stress, and trauma cause us to ruminate and brood. With a conflicted mind, we lack the ability to think clearly, creatively, and dynamically.

Backpacking Backcountry Multi-day Camping Hiking
Copper Ridge Loop in the North Cascades National Park

Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for people who live in urban areas to be more affected by mental illness than those who live in rural areas or recreate in nature. Overly stimulating environments like bustling offices, stressful city roads, and prolonged exposure to technology can lead to mental fatigue, stress, and anxiety. Hiking is like mediation and encourages the release of the ‘happy hormones’ (serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin). It helps us to achieve calmness and reduce the effect from our normal conditioning in society.

Hiking in nature, free from distraction, allows our mind to let go of life’s chaos and live in the moment. You must consider each step carefully, yielding caution to uneven surfaces and slippery ground while remaining aware of any potential wildlife encounters. With every step it’s apparent that life surrounds you. Hiking can leave you un-phased by ‘the real world’ feeling a responsibility solely to Mother Nature. The more time you spend in the woods or climbing mountains, the deeper your connection with Earth becomes. It provides a disconnect from the demanding society we live in. Whether you prefer mellow walks through the forest, peak bagging, or multiday ridgeline treks, one thing is very clear, hiking heals. If you want to free your mind, body, and soul, get out and Go Hike!

📷 Credit to Mark Goldberg

Hiking Camping Backpacking Backcountry Through-hike
Crow Pass Trail in the Chugach Mountains


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