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The Free Range 'Great Outdoors' Project – The 'Great Outdoors' (O) Handouts

Sheet O10.
The Wilderness Effect

The Psychology of being 'outside'

Version 1.1, September 2008. Produced by the Free Range Great Outdoors Project
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The past nine units of this series have looked at the practical benefits of learning to live outdoors. Now we look at a wholly different issue – psychology. Recent evidence shows that living outdoors "in nature" makes you feel better, and has been shown to help those with mental health problems. More importantly, by coming into closer contact with the natural world we can find the space to slow down from the pace of technological society, and in these circumstances perhaps we can more easily visualise our slower, simpler, low-energy future lifestyle.

Wind-up lantern image 'Wilderness' – a problem of definition

The Free Range Network's 'Great Outdoors' initiative encourages people to camp outdoors because it is a means to learning both the skills to live with less material goods. However, it also creates in us, through practical experience, a sense that we are each capable of leading such a lifestyle. As William Cobbett stated1 more than a hundred and eighty years ago, "'Health, peace and competence', one of the wisest of men regards as the only things needful to man; but the two former are scarcely to be had without the latter". Our hope is that the 'competence' that we can develop through simple 'rough' or 'wild' camping can enable us all to find health and peace in the coming strife of the global energy crisis.

Although we might put emphasis on the practical, it is also true that we can find mental relief through experiencing closer contact with the natural world. When we take day trips outdoors, or when we rely on ordinary camp sites or on formal holiday accommodation, our interaction with "the outdoors" can only ever be limited; but if you can take all your needs easily on your back then you are able to venture deeper into the wild areas of the country, and take as much time as you wish about doing so, because you are not tied to being somewhere at a particular time.

In the USA, there is an increasing body of research on what is known as The Wilderness Effect. This has been the result of formal and informal studies of the effect long contact with the wilderness has upon people (both "ordinary" people and those with certain psychological conditions). What these studies show is that close interaction with nature allows people to unbundle their problems and experience their own feelings and capabilities in a new way. Provided that people are able to act upon experiences that their wilderness trips provide, they are then able to make positive changes to their lives.

The problem is, in the context of the UK, we don't have large areas of land available to disappear into – consequently it can be difficult to translate the weeks of trekking that are possible in the USA with the limited opportunities available in the UK. However, provided that you can competently camp and carry a few days of food, even in the UK it's still possible to put yourself a day's walk away from civilisation in parts of the South-West, Mid- and North Wales, the Northern Pennies and much of North-West Scotland. We also have a good network of long distance footpaths that allow you, whilst not in 'the back of beyond', to take a more leisurely pace of travel across the country for a week or more.

A new study – Ecopsychology

A large part of the body of research on The Wilderness Effect has come from the new research into ecopsychology2. Traditional psychology, as with other 'Western' scientific disciplines, gives no weight to the value of the natural environment to human beings – only the individual matters. Ecopsychology attempts to Environmental damage image rectify this deficit, which does not exist in many Eastern philosophies and traditional/aboriginal cultures, by studying how people interact with nature, and to what extent our evolution as nomadic peoples over a few million years, which ended only a few thousand years ago with the development of formal agriculture (and of course, large-scale urbanisation is a phenomena of just the last two centuries), still has an influence on us today through our deep desire for interaction with the natural world.

The factor that we see again and again in the study of ecopsychology is something often referred to as "the other"; in our daily lives we only get to measure our self image and our abilities against those of other humans, and of human creations. But when we immerse ourselves in nature we lose these pressures because it represents something "other" than human. More importantly, the "wholeness" or "interconnected" form of the natural world stands in stark contrast to human society – where in nature do we find traffic jams, waste dumps and a pressure to conform/consume?

The "otherness" of nature allows us to unbundle our problems and focus more clearly on addressing them because the deep feelings that nature awakens puts our modern human problems into stark perspective – we create the time and space to think.

"Losing it"

Warning sign image Recent psychological research makes a clear case that the increasing pressures created by the faster pace of modern society, from mass media-led consumption, to debt, to longer working hours, is causing increasing levels of psychological stress. This trend was even examined in a UK government study, eventually released as part of a sustainable Development Commission publication3, in which Cabinet Office researchers concluded that –

The difficulty is that our modern, growth-led, consumer society is a delusion; it exists in ignorance of the clear physical, technological and environmental constraints on the human species – not least that the oil, gas and coal, which sustain economic growth, are all going to enter a decline in production between now and 2050. But if, tomorrow, most people were to perceive these problems as real there would be chaos because so many of us are inextricably bound-up within the current form of our society and can see no alternative option to these patterns of living. In fact, even those trying to leave "the system" are to some extent bound up within the ecological (and human) damage that underpins the operation of the global economy. This leaves everyone who may perceive the deeper truths in our society in what may seem an inescapable state of despair Litter bin image and hopelessness. Or, as Theodore Roszak says in his essay, Where Psyche Meets Gaia4

This is why reconnecting to natural systems, through activities like wild camping, can be such a valuable tutor. It's not just that you become more self-reliant, and able to learn life-skills that require less resources to sustain. At the same time the "otherness" that nature provides allows us to look at our difficulties, individually and as a species, and find ways through what may seem from within mainstream society a wholly insolvable set of issues.

The Wilderness Experience

As noted above, we don't have a lot of "wilderness" in Britain – certainly in terms of the scale of wilderness which ecopsychologists in the USA talk of. What areas there are, with perhaps the exception of the far north-west of Scotland, are already under tourist pressure, and much of the rest of the country has been re-modelled by modern agriculture since the 1950s. Even so, there are pockets that you can find where, if only fleetingly, you can experience a clear contrast to the patterns of modern life; watching the sunset or sunrise, listening to insects and birds, or, when camping over-night far away from the most urbanised areas, perhaps seeing the night sky in all its brilliant detail for the first time.

Compass image In the book Radical Simplicity5, in which Jim Merkel outlines his ideas on how we can all radically reduce our consumption, the process of encountering nature is summed up as follows –

In the context of the Great Outdoors initiative, it's the activities that you carry out when outdoors that are also relevant, not just the experience of being "in nature". Camping simply not only allows you to develop your skills of self-reliance, but once you've become proficient you'll find, without distractions such as the TV, mobile phones and the Internet, that you'll have more time to slow down. Then, with this slower pace, you will begin to attune your senses to your new surroundings.

In his essay, The Way of the Wilderness4, psychotherapist Steven Harper outlines his experiences of leading groups into the wilderness and the effect it has upon the senses –

This might make everything seem "fun", and so it's important to note that he goes on to talk about how the "problems" of being outdoors are helpful –

Chopper image He finishes his essay by noting that some of the most significant effects that he has studied occur when the participants return from their trip –

The answer is of course that if you perceive a problem with your "ordinary" life then you should change it. There is one obvious truth that, on returning to our "modern society", we can all perceive clearly: You cannot consume your way out of a crisis of consumption! In the absence of any clear, non-consumption-based plan from politicians, and even many in the mainstream environment movement, we are on our own. We should take our new skills and our new inspiration, developed through the practical experience of camping, and seek to form a new lifestyle and social networks ourselves.

Slowing down and finding "mindfulness"

Speed requires energy, and in fact as society speeds up it must use more energy and resources; going faster doesn't just exponentially increase the energy required to move, but in order to maintain safety the vehicles we travel in must be built more strongly (which adds weight and increases the energy and resources consumed further). Learning to slow, to relax, to let go, and find your own pace can allow you to find new opportunities for change in the space created by living life at a slower speed. In his book, In Praise of Slow6, Carl Honoré states the benefits of walking over other modes of transport –

Returning to Steven Harper's essay5, he also talks about the "mindfulness" created by slow travel –

Touring bike image There are other ways to develop the same sense, such as cycling – where the rhythms of pedal, breath and wheels create a space for your mind to become attentive to other things. The issue about developing an independent sense of "mindfulness" is that it exists in opposition to many of the trends that exist in modern society. From political spin, to advertising, to the layout of supermarket shelving, society tries to shape your attentiveness to reflect their concerns, not yours. This concept was developed over eighty years ago by Edward Bernays, the originator of the term "public relations". He outlined the idea in his 1928 pamphlet, Propaganda7

Camping is a means to an end, not a panacea

The focus of the Great Outdoors initiative is communicating the most basic of skills that are essential to life – cooking, making fire, heating water and finding shelter – so that we can rediscover our potential as "human animals"; functional beings who can look after their own needs irrespective of what's happening around them.

Andy Fisher, in his book Radical Ecopsychology8, summarises the purpose of solving our present-day problems through interacting with the natural world –

What fifty years of consumerism has done for Britain is de-skill its citizens relative to their grandparents. If we look at the practical skills of our grandparents, which at the time were taken as a normal and in many cases essential part of living, then it is clear that we have lost a large part of the "culture of living" that our society once possessed. Given the problems that lie ahead – first with the global peak of oil production and then the far more problematic (for the UK) global peak in natural gas production – the fact many people today have only the vaguest idea of how to manage without mains services and ready-prepared food does not give confidence that this transition can be managed without strife.

Learning to camp can provide the skills, the experience, the confidence, and the psychological strength for making difficult changes to your life, but it's not solution in itself; it's not a magic gadget that you can buy and solve all your problems. What it is is a means to begin a process of change which, in present day society, can be very difficult to start because of the pressures on us to work, live and consume in certain ways. More importantly, whilst learning the skills to look after yourself with very little resources is important (and doing so without spending lots of money), it's the space and time to think that living outdoors can provide that is probably greatest force for change that this approach provides. We have to imagine change, new possibilities for living, before we are able to make them happen.

The modern mantra – "What's in it for me?"

Change is inevitable – it's actually the result of the physical laws of the universe which dictate that energy flows in only one direction. The natural order of things is that, at some point in the future, the human species will have to become less "energetic".

What's important is how you meet this change. Politics and the media tell us that growth, or the current global economic consensus, is the only option; this not just inaccurate, the fact is that the system that supports this point of view cannot survive the peak in global oil production. The present credit crunch was not just an issue related to "sub-prime mortgages", but the reason people couldn't pay those mortgages in the first place was that higher fuel and food costs, generated by the lack of oil production capacity globally, ate up what little income they had and so they defaulted on their mortgages.

The peak tent image Whilst we can all learn the skills necessary (using a popular, if ugly, phrase) to "survive the oil crash", what's important is that we don't just learn a new set of working practices. We must also find a new spiritual motivation to adapt to the changes that will inevitably take place over the next few decades.

For the last fifty years the motivation of society has increasingly been the acquisition of "stuff". Arguably this trend, at the global level, has been disastrous for both humans and the environment. Instead of acquisition we must find a new motivation for our lives, and this is where natural systems, and the inspiration they can provide, will be critical to our future.

We can adopt camping as a simple means to learn the skills of low-impact self-reliance to deal with the problems of peak oil and peak gas. What we hope this unit has made clear is that, if we wish, we can take away something far more significant to our lives – a new state of mind and "being" to support ourselves during the difficult process of change and regeneration that lies ahead.


  1. Cottage Economy, William Cobbett, 1821/2; published by Verey and Von Kanitz, 2000 (ISBN 095-383-250-3).
  2. For a general summary of ecopsychology see Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecopsychology
  3. Redefining prosperity: resource productivity, economic growth and sustainable development, Jonathon Porritt, Sustainable Development Commission, 27th June 2003 – available from http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications/downloads/030627 Redefining prosperity, resource productivity.pdf
  4. These essays are contained in the book, Ecopsychology – Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, Theodore Rozak (editor), Sierra Club Books, 1995 (ISBN 9780-8715-6406-1).
  5. Radical Simplicity – Small Footprints on a Finite Earth, Jim Merkel, New Society Publishers, 2006 (9780-8657-1473-1).
  6. In Praise of Slow – How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed, Carl Honoré, Orion Books, 2004 (ISBN 9780-7528-6414-3).
  7. Propaganda, Edward Bernays, 1928 – available from http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/bernprop.html
  8. Radical Ecopsychology – Psychology in the Service of Life, Andy Fisher, SUNY Press, 2002 (ISBN 9780-7914-5303-2).

Produced by the Free Range 'Great Outdoors' Project – http://www.fraw.org.uk/
© 2008 Paul Mobbs/The Free Range Network. This document has been released under The Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike License ('by-nc-sa', version 3).