Utah National Parks Council Camps are in partnership with EternalCore: A God Centric Mental Health Conference, exploring how our camps can promote better mental health. 

Join them March 29t–30th. We’ll be there talking about Scouting’s outdoor resources. To learn more or register, click HERE.

Read a related post in The Boy Scout

Recently, I came across an article on MentalFloss that promised the outdoors is “good for the brain, body, and soul.” I agree; it’s one reason I have been with the BSA for sixty years. I love camping and hiking. And as I have always said, three-quarters of Scouting is OUTING.

Over those years I have hiked the California Redwoods and inhaled the forest musk. I have trekked along the 37-mile shore of Assateague Island National Seashore to walk in the surf during a total eclipse. I have reached out to the moon rise through Delicate Arch and pondered the vistas of the Lake Superior Trail. Have you had similar experiences in the outdoors?

If you have, it is no surprise that being outside is good for your physical, mental, and spiritual health. As I experience moments like these, I crave more and as often as not, I got my “outdoor fix” at Council Camps, which I have attended in California, Idaho, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Utah.

In my younger days, I used to think my need to get outside was just for the adventure—and it was at first. But now, after 60 years of registration in the Boy Scouts of America, I have come to know it is more. I feel healed in the outdoors, I feel connected with Earth and it’s creator, and when I return to work I feel renewed, ready to do better.

I decided to research why time spent outdoors is so good for youth (and the rest of us). To my delight, I found a study on Scouting and going outdoors that fit exactly with my own experience. 

This is Your Brain on Scouting

A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health took a look at Scouts’ brains as they matured. The study showed that adults at age 50 who had been Scouts (or Guides, the program for UK girls in Scouting) “had an 18% lower odds of …mood or anxiety disorder”1 compared to others their age.

Could those without Scouting be suffering from what Richard Louv calls Nature-Deficit Disorder? This study did not use Louv’s term, but their conclusions reflect inoculation against the disorder. Researchers wrote, “Participation in Guides or Scouts was associated with better mental health and narrower mental health inequalities, at age 50.” 

These researchers concluded that Scouting supports resilience throughout childhood. As Scouts, youth developed “the potential for continued progressive self-education, ‘soft’ noncognitive skills, self-reliance, collaboration and activities in natural environments.” In other words, they camped and hiked.

This study analyzed a group of 9,603 adults, of whom 28 percent had been Scouts. Their findings are striking regarding participation in Scouting, saying it “may be protective, instituting a resilience to stressful life events that may lead to mental ill health” later in life.

The “explanations and implications” they listed are very interesting:

  • Scouts are outdoors more than others their age, and “there is now evidence that exposure to natural outdoor environments is protective of mental health.”
  • The “benefits of physical activity for protecting or improving mental health are well established,” and clearly a part of every good pack, troop and crew program.
  • In relation to camping, hiking and being outdoors, Scouting is not “purely recreational and unstructured, as a youth sport club might be, activities to allow young people to learn ‘to know,’ ‘to be,’ ‘to do’ with adults assisting, rather than directing.”
  • Scouting employs a “system of progressive self-education based on: promises (laws), active learning, interactions within small groups and stimulating, individual-driven, self-learning through awards.”
  • Scouting promotes the habit of life-long learning so that they can “structure and run their adult lives in a way that is relatively more protective against mental ill health.”
  • Activities in Scouting develop “confidence, personality, motivation, charm, that are increasingly recognized as important for achieving adult social position.”

Nature-Deficit Disorder

In his book, Last Child in the Woods,  Richard Louv describes his experience growing up when he wrote, “I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams.” Then he laments that many of today’s youth are suffering from “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” his term for a condition that links the lack of nature in today’s wired generation to some pretty disturbing childhood trends. Things like the increase in obesity, attention disorders, and depression in today’s kids.

His worry, however, it not new. More than one hundred years ago, Scouting’s founder, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, grew concerned about the poor physical condition of young men in England, saying city life had made them soft. According to one 1904 report, only two of nine men serving in the military were fit to do so.  Physical “deterioration,” as well as “moral degeneracy” were common topics on his mind as he formed Scouting. 

Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.

Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.

As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobody in the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming. But I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.2

In 1907 he took his first group of boys camping and soon afterward troops were popping up all over Britain. Girls started forming troops soon after.

In the USA, with President Teddy Roosevelt’s push for more fitness among youth, Scouting was a natural outcome that swept the nation. An entire cadre of city youth was going outdoors and improving their brains along the way.

During Scouting’s 100th Anniversary, Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., in Psychology Today, wrote: ” I must admit that I was very skeptical when my son wanted to join Cub Scouts with some of his friends a number of years ago. …Five years later, my now 14-year-old son is fairly close to becoming an Eagle Scout and is currently completing a 75-mile backpacking trip with his troop in the High Sierra Mountains of Northern California.”

Troop 222 on a 75-mile backpacking trip

Plante says Scouting has “become the most important and best extracurricular activity” his son has participated in. “Unlike youth sports that are so popular today, Scouts is about cooperation and not competition. There are no cuts in that all boys are welcome and you can participate as much or as little as you wish. You get out of the experience what you put into it. Ethics, service, and skill development are highlighted in multiple ways. So is fun.”

Plante says of his son’s experiences, “My son is spending about a full month backpacking through the high sierras in California this summer without any distracting technology. He has to learn to help care for the younger Scouts and manage without really any creature comforts. He has done many 50+ mile backpacking trips over the past 4 years. He loves it. He appreciates nature and the need for conservation and sustainability. He enjoys helping the younger Scouts. He can happily be without creature comforts and technology for weeks at a time. And very importantly in today’s culture, he can be at peace with silence. He has learned more about ethics and values in Scouts than through sports, schoolreligious, and other activities and organizations.”3

The Brain (and Body) Outdoors

Sarah Allen Benton, M.S., LMHC, LPC, Benton Behavioral Health Consulting, LLC t

Sarah Allen Benton, believes there is a “healing power in nature.” Though you can neither measure nor explain it, “it is very real. Time in the wilderness seems to have a healing effect on even the deepest wounds.”

Benton reminds us that many of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders and teachers “have gone to the wilderness to find healing and purpose in preparation for their life’s work. One of the gifts of the wilderness is the way it gives us an honest look at ourselves, our gifts, talents, weaknesses, character defects, and our true potential are all made obvious.”

This kind of personal revelations allows us to look at ourselves and “allows us to find love and acceptance for who we are and a vision of who we can become.” She reported that many of her “clients report that they feel most connected to their Higher Power when they are in nature. Even those who identify themselves as agnostic will often agree that they are aware of this connection.” 4

Interesting to us as Scouters, that Baden Powell, looking back to his own preparation, saw playing outdoors as vital to brain and body development. He recorded his thinking in Scouting for Boys and tested his ideas at a camp with 22 boys on Brown Sea Island. The key he discovered was to organize boys into small groups, called patrols and let them learn to live and get along outdoors.

Wisely so, too, since there is scientific evidence that being outdoors improves our brains. In fact, there are dozens of studies beyond the Dibben, Playford, & Mitchell study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods, cited dozens of studies. Personally, I have compiled some information here, you can get more details at Ten Scientific Reasons to Get Outdoors.

  1. Being outdoors improves mental healthBarton and Pretty, in research published in 2010 suggest that being in natures leads to “positive short and long-term health outcomes.” Exercising in it is even better.
  2. According to Dr. Gregory A. Plotnikoff, in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, reported findings that sunlight reduces pain through natural Vitamin D production. Just 10–15 minutes a day is enough to get this “Sunshine vitamin,” but 70% of kids do not get enough of it.
  3. The out of doors is a stress reliever, this according to the ” Forest Therapy Association of the Americas. A stroll or hike in the forest significantly lessened depression and hostility, those who were outdoors “felt significantly more lively.”
  4. Studies done in Japan show that breathing in forest air boosts our immune system because plants give off phytoncides, which protect plants from insects and have antibacterial and antifungal qualities. As we breathe these chemicals in we get the same benefits.
  5. If you need a late afternoon energy boost, Richard Ryan suggests you skip the caffeine “and sit outside instead. Nature is fuel for the soul,” he says.
  6. One study suggests outdoor exercise benefits mental well-being more than the same work-out done indoors; the changing terrain focuses your mind differently than it would on a gym floor.
  7. There are cognitive benefits from being in nature according to a study in Psychological Science. Nature “is filled with intriguing stimuli” they reported and it naturally “grabs attention” in a way that gives the brain “a chance to replenish.”
  8.  Being outside help mitigate seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Doctors at the Mayo Clinic said: “Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.”
  9. Gardens improve healing, as suggested in one study. Tension, anger, fatigue, confusion, and anxiety were all mitigated “when viewing the garden compared with the city scenes” and even more so for men over women.
  10. Research shows a walk in nature restores concentration. Green space seems to further help children with ADHD (attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder) and adults suffering from Directed Attention Fatigue.

Each of these authors expressed something I already knew from my own experience: spending time outdoors (as a Scout, in my case) can change your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health for the better.

Being Outdoors Can Be More Than Camping

But beyond Camp Tracy, there was an alpine paradise filled with wildlife, trees (so many kinds) and wildflowers everywhere. My older brother studied botany at the university and taught me common and scientific names, the plants’ uses, and ecology (only that wasn’t a word we used back then).

By the time I was 16, the farmland around our home had given in to dozens of subdivisions. I needed to escape serving on a camp staff many miles away, high in the Uintah Mountains. There I taught younger Scouts to appreciate nature and all of its pristine, high altitude plantlife, not to mention every other kind of Scoutcraft. It was a pretty idyllic time to grow up. 

By the time I was a Scoutmaster at age 25, all the camping land in the valley was gone, but not the camps. I thank heaven the for the councils in Utah saving places to take our Scouts camping and thank those same heavens there is place there for me, my family and friends. 

Get Outside at Your Local Scout Camps

Whether you need a wilderness getaway or a quick trip outdoors, many local Scout camps offer their space up to the public, as well as Scouts. For example, in my local Council, the Utah National Parks Council, we have 13 camps across Utah. In addition to traditional Scout camp amenities, they have campsites and cabins that anyone can rent.  

One of our most popular destinations is Camp Maple Dell, where you can either rent a cabin through Airbnb or a traditional campsite. In southern Utah, home to the red rock desert and Zion National Park, you can rejuvenate in the outdoors and explore the nearby landmarks by staying at Zion Base Camp. 

You can check out this extensive list of properties available to the public in our Council. 

And for those outside of Utah, make sure to check with your local Council before heading out on your next outdoors getaway.

We would love to hear how spending time outside has changed your life for the better. Share with us in the comments below!


Footnotes

Chris Dibben, Chris Playford, & Richard Mitchell. “Be(ing) prepared: Guide and Scout participation, childhood social position and mental health at age 50—a prospective birth cohort study.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Volume 71, Issue 3, March 2017.
Richard Louv. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books, Kindle Edition: p. 1.
Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D. “Should all boys become Boy Scouts? Psychology Today, Aug 01, 2010.
Sarah Benton. “Nature and Recovery.”  Psychology Today, Oct 15, 2012.

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Darryl Alder
Darryl is a retired career Scouter with more than 30 years of service. However, his pride in Scouting, is his volunteer service as an Associate Advisor, Varsity Scout Coach, Scoutmaster, Cubmaster, Chartered Organization Representative and Commissioner.

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