Jo Peacock, University of Essex, reports:
The Wilderness Foundation and the University of Essex are collaborating on a piece of ongoing research which explores the heath benefits derived from participating in wilderness trails.
Many different groups of young people have taken part in the trips, including Norfolk army cadets and members from Envision and Clouddog. Since collaboration began, 44 people (29.5% male and 70.5% female) have participated in these wilderness trails in Snowdonia National Park, North Wales and Imfolozi Game Reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. The trips have involved a variety of activities, such as camping, back packing and hiking, story telling, observing wildlife, cooking, campcraft, conservation volunteering and learning about the environment.
All participants were requested to complete a questionnaire immediately before and after participating in a trail, so that we could identify any changes in their self-reported self-esteem levels. There was also an opportunity for participants to express their feelings concerning the special moments of the trip, in addition to rating the enjoyment levels of various aspects of the trail.
Participating in the wilderness trails significantly enhanced individuals’ self-esteem, and therefore improved their psychological well-being. Figure 1 highlights the overall positive change in self-esteem, with values improving from 18.1 to 15.8 (the lower the value, the higher the self-esteem).
The beauty of the scenic environment was a fundamental part of the experience and a lot of enjoyment was also derived from interacting with the wildlife and spending time outside in the fresh air. The narrative consistently referred to the enjoyment of forming a “great team” and establishing new and special friendships, so the social element was an important part of the experience (see Box 1). The personality of the group leaders were a notable influence and the trail enabled participants to feel very connected to their surrounding natural environment. So, it appears that spending time in the natural wild environment can help to re-connect you with nature as well as to each other and this compelling bond can empower and inspire you.
What was Special? Comments from Participants
“Looking at things from a different perspective, in particular looking at life overall in a more positive way. Also, it was most special to find out about others within the group and forming special friendships. Overall, it was special simply because I had not dreamt of having such an opportunity”
“Meeting new people was fantastic as was getting away from the pressures of modern life”
“Having no sense of time and being able to enjoy it all without being stuck to a time structure. Seeing animals in their natural environments”
“The way a group naturally bonds together to support each other. To acknowledge humans can live comfortably without spoiling the environment.”
“I found it an amazing new experience being away from a large city environment. Having to experience this on such a personal level really brought home how much I'm missing and reminds me to take time out for similar things.”
“I thought Rob [the guide] was very special. His knowledge and ability to pass on his experience and knowledge is a fantastic skill. I also have made some very good friends here. I learnt that people are supportive and caring even in a tough situation. It was an invaluable experience that I feel privileged to have been a part of “
“I found the interaction between the different plant and animal species including humans a special part of my experience. Furthermore, I found the opportunity that allowed me to understand the wilderness is special. Most of all the knowledge I have gained and friendships that I have made special”
“The experience taught me immense amounts about myself and the world I live in. It was absolutely amazing, and I think I am beginning to understand the world and my place within it”