Forest Bathing Is Your Ticket to Wellness—and Better Hiking, Too
A slow walk through the woods has psychological and physiological benefits—and it could teach you a few things about hiking, too.
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I have a friend who is very zen, almost annoyingly so. One time I asked him to describe what his mind is like at rest, and he likened it to waves of thought gently lapping at a beach. My mind feels more like a busy city street: lots of honking, overlapping conversations shouting over each other, and chaos.
I’ve always assumed that my chilled-out friend’s life was full of winning lottery tickets, four-leaf clovers, and good karma, not the regular-life stresses I face every day. Turns out, I was wrong. Not only does he have a normal life, but he works pretty hard for his easy-breezy disposition. How? He regularly goes forest bathing.
It’s not what it sounds like. Forest bathing, derived from a Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku, is a form of relaxation and peacefulness in nature. It’s not about getting to the top of the mountain or white-knuckling it to be the first to reach the campsite. It’s about moving slowly, engaging your senses, and expressing gratitude for the natural world around you. Being present with your natural surroundings is the top priority for forest bathers.
How To Forest Bathe
There is no right or wrong way to forest bathe, but there are techniques to simplify it. Sometimes, it can be challenging to fully open yourself to what the forest offers.
“There is a tendency toward asphyxiation of our perceptual senses when we live immersed within indoor, digital, and otherwise nature-deprived environments,” San Diego-based forest bathing guide Rhana Kozak says. “Simply realizing that our busy minds wall off the present moment and the richness of life can motivate us to pause, slow down, reflect and experience a sense of awe.”
But, when we’re in the forest, how do we ignore the constant buzz of incoming notifications and stresses waiting for us back home? When you’re ready to begin, take Kozak’s personal sensory inventory.
First, note the temperature on your skin, the humidity, the seasonal light, the angle of the sun, and changing colors. What are you hearing? Is there a scent in the air? Are you feeling a breeze, or is the air still? Pause. Breathe. Look up to the sky, and notice the outlines of the trees and plants. If you take a personal sensory inventory, you’ll see more colors, textures, and details, and distracting thoughts will disappear.
It’s normal for your mind to drift when you’re new to forest bathing. The more you practice opening your senses to the forest, the quieter your mind will sound. When you’re one with nature, opening that BeReal notification or responding to that text won’t seem so important.
If your mind is the wandering type, it’s helpful to prepare before hitting the trailhead. To focus your mind, write down your purpose for entering the forest that day. Establish an intention or purpose for that day’s forest bath. Maybe you want to connect with the natural world on a deeper level, or maybe you want to tune out the loud thoughts in your mind. Any reason is a good one.
Prefer a guided forest bath? The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs has a directory online with expert guides all around the country.
Benefits of Forest Bathing
Considering the millions and millions of years of human existence, we have spent an infinitesimal amount of time in our modern, technology-based environment. But, even though the indoors might seem like our home base now, that’s not necessarily where we truly belong, according to biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson. In the 1980s, Wilson popularized the idea that we are all inherently biophiles, meaning we feel a deep-rooted connection to living beings and nature.
“Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life,” he wrote in his book Biophilia.
Connecting with the natural world doesn’t just have spiritual benefits; it has physiological benefits too. Scientists have found that forest bathing can reduce your heart rate and blood pressure levels, activate your parasympathetic nervous system (aka the “rest and digest” system), and strengthen your immune system, so it can be used as restorative and preventative treatment. The holiday season can trigger high levels of stress and anxiety for many, so forest bathing is a way to enter 2023 on a more relaxing note.
“We are very much a part of the natural world,” Megumi Kato of the Portland Japanese Garden says. “The relief you get [out in nature] is the same relief you get from coming home.”
How Hikers Can Forest Bathe
As hikers and backpackers, we’re a pretty goal-oriented bunch: We’ve got milage targets to hit, setting suns to chase, and peaks to bag. There’s no time to waste. Ironically, however, sometimes we can be too focused on our goal to truly appreciate the trail itself.
Forest bathing can actually elevate your experience on the trail. On your snack, water, or sunscreen breaks, integrate moments of silence and gratitude into your hike. Block off some time on your next hike to explore your senses and take a dip in your first forest bath.
Live far from the forest? Just because it’s in the name doesn’t mean you need to be surrounded by trees. You can still get the benefits of it in whatever natural setting you choose. You could also go to a nature sanctuary or botanical garden. These areas are specifically designed to give visitors a verdant escape from their everyday lives. When you’re there, find a good sitting spot, take a personal sensory inventory, and feel the benefits of the nature around you.
“Forest bathing is something I’ve done all of my life without naming the practice as such,” Kozak says. “The same is true of many people who love the beauty of nature. Nature is transforming and transformative. Engaging with this profound and infinitely dimensional quality and power is the essence of life well-lived.”