Into the Woods: A guide to the outdoors for the non-outdoorsy

‘The weather’s nice, why don’t you go play outside?’ – Mum, circa 1995

The dreaded words. It didn’t matter the time of year, I hated playing outside. Yes, I know, I was a strange child… What child doesn’t like playing out when it’s sunny? Well, the child who hated the cold and who, at the slightest hint of sunshine breaking through the clouds, would be attacked with hayfever. I’m talking constant, seemingly-endless, streaming nose and bloodshot, burning eyes. And that’s not to mention skin that would burn even on cloudy days.

I certainly did not come into this world with a body equipped for the outdoors! One of the appeals of coming to the big smoke was absolutely the abundance of public transport options, temperature-controlled offices, Deliveroo, cosy pubs on every corner – or wine bars, at least in Chiswick… leaving it easy to disconnect from nature. And those elements still appeal, but over the past year, I have come to love spending more and more time outdoors.

But why? I like staying cosy and dry!

Chances are, if you’re reading this article as a city-loving person, any talk about the benefits of getting out in nature will go straight over your head. A few years ago, it would have done for me as well. But I’d like to think that something has intrigued you about the title, and I would guess it’s probably the idea of getting outdoors and taking advantage of some of those sought-after, oft-talked-about benefits without truly committing to being outdoors.

If, like me, you’re a city-dweller whose parents never took them on camping holidays, and you love your creature comforts, this is the guide for you. But given that 83% of the UK now live in urban environments, for the vast majority of us, if we want any connection with the outdoors, we need to take a proactive approach, so I hope this guide will give you some new ideas around how to think about the outdoors. 

Seriously, why though?

If you’ll bear with me, I will spend a little time convincing you of the Why, because ‘if you know why you’ll comply’ (at least you will if you have a questioner tendency like me):

Mental health

Study after study has shown a clear connection between spending time outside and improved mental health. Here are a few examples: this 2012 study found 50-minute walks in nature improved mood; this 2010 study found that exercising outdoors reduced anxiety; this 2015 study found that time in nature reduced rumination, over and above a walk in an urban environment.

Sleep

Spending time outside can improve your sleep – according to some studies, as reported here, camping outdoors can increase levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone, at around sunset, compared to the hormone levels at home. In my own experience, after a long day’s walking, there is nothing like the deep sleep you enjoy when you get home.

Environmental consciousness

Research suggests that people with a greater connection to nature are more likely to behave positively toward the environment, according to the RSPB. If we want to tackle the environmental crisis and effectively conserve our planet for future generations, we have got to get outdoors, build that connection to nature and understand what we are fighting for at a deeper level than Netflix documentaries would allow (not that I have anything against Netflix documentaries).

Particularly living in urban environments in the west, our lives have become disconnected from the earth. Our food is farmed for us (and slaughtered for us, if we’re meat-eaters), we throw away plastic without knowing where it will end up, we can live our lives with no awareness of the changing seasons. Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, put it beautifully in this article, as he explains:

“We think that the earth is the earth and we are something outside of the earth. But in fact we are inside of the earth. Imagine that the earth is the tree and we are a leaf. The earth is not the environment, something outside of us that we need to care for. The earth is us. Just as your parents, ancestors, and teachers are inside you, the earth is in you. Taking care of the earth, we take care of ourselves.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

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And lastly, and perhaps most importantly it’s free, so all these benefits are available to everyone.

So without further ado, here is my step-by-step guide, starting with the simplest ways you can start to bring the outside, in.

#1 Drink a cup of tea or coffee outside in the morning

Difficulty level: Easy peasy, lemon squeezy!

Price: Free!

How to do it: Yes, I’m starting easy! This is such a simple, easy practice yet it can have a hugely beneficial effect. I took this idea from Dr Ranjan Chatterjee’s book The Four Pillar Plan and it had a really positive impact on my life. He recommends going outside in the morning to help reset your circadian rhythm and therefore improve your sleep in the evening.

Personally, I enjoy having some quiet, peaceful time outdoors before the madness of the day begins. I’m lucky to be able to sit out on the balcony of my apartment, which is sheltered, but if you don’t have any shelter from the elements try to go out for just 2 minutes with an umbrella or raincoat. 

What you need: somewhere to sit or stand!

#2 Find a local, short walk

Difficulty level: Easy, but a little more effort required

How to do it: River, lake, reservoir – wherever there is water is a good starting point! There is something soothing about being near to water, but failing that any park or green space you can access from where you live works wonderfully. Try going once a week to start with, I like to go for a walk on Sundays, and come home to a big, roast Sunday dinner!

Remember to bring: Pair of trainers or pumps, waterproof jacket or coat. In cold weather, wrap up warm – I recommend layers, as you warm up whilst walking you may want to pull some off. But remember that in cold weather it’s better to be too warm – a hat, gloves and scarf can make a huge difference, making the walk so much more comfortable and easier.

Optional upgrade 1: Digital detox walk: Leave your phone at home! Remember the walk is for you, not for the gram. Although sharing photographs of beautiful scenery can be inspiring, and you can connect with others who may want to walk with you. Consider taking a cup of hot tea in a cool leak-proof mug (I like this one LINK) and sipping as you walk.

Optional upgrade 2: Meditative walk: leave your phone at home AND do a walking meditation. Personally, I keep it simple: breathe in for 4 steps, breathe out for 4 steps, focusing on the breath and observing what is around you. When you are distracted (which will happen), without judgment, simply return the focus on the breath. Maintain this for as long as you like – you may want to start with 2 minutes and build up over time. Another option is to download the meditation app insight timer (here LINK), which has mountains of free walking meditations you can experiment with to find what works for you.

“When we take mindful steps on the earth, our body and mind unite, and we unite with the earth.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Side note: Walking vs Hiking – What’s the difference?

Out of curiosity, I’ve looked into this and concluded there is no obvious, clearly-defined, agreed-upon distinction. I heard that young people hike and older people walk! I also heard that it is only hiking if you’re going uphill. Elsewhere I heard that for British people, it is all walking, and only Americans make any distinction. For this post, I’m using walking as an umbrella term. If anyone can enlighten me on a technical distinction I’m happy to hear it! 

Optional upgrade 3: Take your run outside. The treadmill is a staple feature of most gyms, and whilst these are excellent cardio equipment, taking your run outside can give you the benefits of spending time and exercising outdoors, as well as challenge you in different ways. Your body has to constantly adapt to different trains, you have to manage uphill as well as downhill training, your lateral agility improves through making turns and you don’t have to pay for the privilege! Just a pair of running shoes and you’re off!

Walking in your local area not enough? Upgrade to….

#3 Venture out further, challenge yourself with a mountainous walk!

Even on a rainy day, the Lakes can look stunning

Difficulty level: Starting to heat up!

Price: £ – you may need a bit of gear!

How to do it: I recommend finding a local walking group or grab a friend who has some experience navigating more challenging walks. As you venture into more hilly and mountainous territory, having an experienced walker with you will make your experience much easier.

Remember to bring: A MAP. This is so important. If you go beyond your local park, you need an old-fashioned, paper (ideally laminated), map. You are unlikely to get phone reception in hilly or mountainous regions, and you can quickly get into trouble if you lose your way and the weather changes. Even if you have an offline map on your phone, in the event the battery dies, again, you need a back-up. Be safe not sorry.

Walking shoes. For lighter walks and hikes, you will be fine with some simple trainers, but even some basic walking shoes can make a big difference by offering increased grip. The first time I went to the Lake District with Dan, I spent hours in an outdoors shop mulling over all the different walking boots, worrying I would get the wrong type, or look naive/make a rooky error. I was overthinking it. I bought a simple pair of shoes from Decathlon which had added waterproofing and they have been incredible. They were cheap but well-made, and have survived climbs as high as Hellvelyn, and as wet as it can get in the Lake District.

Walking socks. To an outsider, good socks may seem extravagant, but I can assure you, if you want to prevent blisters, some thick walking socks are the answer.

Suncream + bug spray. If you use a bug spray containing DEET, it will be more effective, but it will also reduce the SPF rating of your sunscreen. My doctor told me: put DEET on after sunscreen, and choose a factor 15 higher than your standard. So with my fair skin, I use factor 50, plus DEET spray.

FUEL. By this I mean: Water and Food. This is common sense, so I will just add a few tips that helped me. Consider the weight you are carrying: metal, insulated water bottles are great for keeping water cool, but much heavier to carry. You need to check if there is somewhere on the route where you can fill up on water, and also be thinking about the fact you may be outdoors for upward of 8 hours with no plumbing! For food, I love to take sandwiches, a bag of crisps and a high-protein snack bar, to eat at the top! You can also look at energy gels, which give you a shot of glucose to keep you going on longer walks.

I hope it goes without saying that this is not an exhaustive list, but just some tips and pointers – use your common sense, don’t burden your bag down with too much to carry, adapt what you need to the conditions e.g. late night or early morning walks may require a flashlight or headtorch.

#4 Test the water with festival camping

Difficulty level: Easy-medium

Price: ££ – £££

How to do it: If you’re not sure whether camping is for you, consider borrowing a tent and sleeping bag, and getting tickets to a festival. Arguably, festivals are more of a challenge than a well-equipped campsite. Poorly run festivals can feel like an endurance test, with endless queues for portaloos, food vans, and increasingly muddy swamps to trudge through.

But camping at a festival such as music festival can be fun and exciting, and the camping becomes less significant than the event you are there to see, the friends you want to spend time with, and generally, you get a whole experience beyond the camping alone.

There are likely to be food vendors for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so no need to worry about what you are going to eat if you don’t want to cook your own food.

This year, we went to The Big Retreat in Wales. It was a long way to go and hard to access except by car, but offered camping, great food, beautiful views, time in nature, wild swims for those who felt like braving the waters, and endless entertainment.

Remember to bring: For any kind of camping you will need to beg, borrow or steal buy a tent, sleeping bag, and all the basic camping gear to get started. Make sure what you are taking is appropriate for the weather – check the sleeping bag temperature rating. I had the genius (*ahem*) idea of bringing a hot water bottle only after I was lying in bed shivering in my (bright pink, kids, summer-weather) sleeping bag – if you have a gas stove and portable kettle, you could easily pop a hot water bottle in a sleeping bag and stay toasty warm! Before camping for the first time, I didn’t realise how much the temperature drops at night – you’ll need lots of layers, even in summer in the UK, so you can adjust as the temperature changes.

OR Test the waters option 2: Book on to a camping tour

Difficulty level: Easy-Medium

Price: £££

How to do it: This is a more pricey option but can be a good way to ease your way into the world of camping. A guide will help you navigate through to a campsite, there will be activities and a group you can make friends with. If you don’t want to invest in camping gear before you have tried it out, you can often hire equipment. This is the priciest option long-term, but if you want to test the waters you can save money in the short term.

Remember to bring: For a camping tour, I highly recommend you contact the tour company and ask them. They get this type of question regularly, and may even provide you with a packing list when you book. If you’re unsure, they can help you and perhaps even direct you toward the shops where you can buy the gear you need!

#5 Go all in and start camping!

On our last trip, we walked past the most beautiful campsite hidden away behind these trees

Difficulty level: Medium

Price: ££

How to do it: If you have tested the waters with some walks, a few overnight stays or a guided tour and you may be excited to jump all-in with camping! There are plenty of guides to camping online, and in a lot more detail than I can give here, but I will share some top tips and advice to making the transition to the outdoors a little easier!

When identifying a campsite, you will want to make sure it has the facilities you need. If you’re new to camping, I would make sure the campsite has a good power supply with showers, toilets, a shop either on-site or nearby for essentials. Some campsites operate a quiet site with no noise after 10pm, which is not ideal if you’re with a group of friends and plan to drink beers and sing folk songs around a fire until the early hours! Likewise, if you plan for a long day of walking and want to come back to just food and sleep, a quiet site may sound like the dream for you. Consider if you want adults-only or a kid-friendly campsite, as well as access via car, train etc.

Remember to bring: The up-front cost can be higher, but it’s worth investing in good equipment that will pay for itself in the long term. In particular, I would strongly recommend a good sleeping bag, that is suitable for the temperatures in which you intend to camp. Getting this right can make it a much more comfortable experience! Also, this may sound obvious to some, but I think it’s worth saying as it can so easily be a nightmare: make sure you buy a tent which is simple to put up. The last thing you need is to arrive late a campsite after getting stuck in traffic, trying to figure out which way is up in the dark, cold, rain.

Again there are plenty of camping guides online, but for camping my top advice to make the transition easier is to have plenty of lighting options. You’ll need a flashlight, but a headlamp can be helpful for going to and from the bathroom in the middle of the night too. I’d recommend a solar-powered or hand-wound light that you can hang in the middle of your tent, and if you want to make it a little atmospheric consider some battery-powered fairy lights.

#6 The ultimate test: backpacking camping!

My next goal: Hike out to a beautiful location, set up a tent and enjoy the serenity

Difficulty level: High

Price: £££

How to do it: This is the ultimate challenge, and I think if you have got this far you can officially consider yourself ‘at one’ with the outdoors! This is where you carry all your equipment and hike up to a remote campsite. On our walks in the Lakes last week we saw quite a few hikers with tents on their backs, as well as some DofE participants trudging along, looking exhausted and worn! (For those of you not in the UK: DofE = Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, a young people’s programme that involves an expedition, usually navigating around the Lake or Peak District of the UK!) I never did DofE in school, but now that I am older I see the appeal. Hiking out to beautiful locations, setting up a tent, cooking food that you have carried on your own back must be such a rewarding experience. 

Yet, alas, this is my next task, so I’m not going to give you a packing list because it would be irresponsible for me to stretch beyond the limits of my knowledge! So instead, I will end with a little inspiration:

Wild by Cheryl Strayed – I’ve recently re-watched the film and cannot wait to read the book. Hitting rock bottom in 1995 after a divorce and a pregnancy scare resulting from drug-fuelled nights with strangers, Cheryl decided to escape it all and walk the Pacific Crest Trail, completely solo. With nothing but an exceedingly heavy backpack, her walking boots and 1,100 miles ahead of her, Cheryl set out on a journey that changed her life.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – On the opposite coast of the US, two years later in 1998, Bill Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail, the longest, hiking-only trail in the world at 2,200 miles. His journey is arduous, terrifying and – in typical Bill Bryson style – hilarious.

For the ultimate inspiration, check out Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer, who set the world speed record for RUNNING the Appalachian trial, and documenting the whole journey in a Netflix documentary.

And lastly, an article about the outdoors cannot be complete without mention of Alex Honnold, who climbed El Capitan, a 3000 foot (900m) sheer, vertical cliff face in Yosemite park, with no ropes. You read that right: NO. ROPES. I’ll end with his Ted Talk, and a recommendation you check out Free Solo, the documentary that captures his climb – it’s nail-biting, thrilling, keeps you on the edge of your seat and leaves you in awe of what humanity is able to achieve.

Please note: All photos in this article are my own