It’s no secret that spending time in the forest, whether on a hike or in a cabin or tent surrounded by a tapestry of trees, can be a real dopamine boost. The reason? For millennia, humans have survived in and thrived off of nature. But spending time in the great outdoors can immediately pay off not just for yourself, but for your relationships, too.
If you’re ever been trekking up a mountain and found that you’ve fallen into deeper, more meaningful conversations with your hiking-mate than you’ve ever had before, it’s no coincidence. As the National Park Service calls out, one of the top benefits of hiking outside of mental health is relational health. Whether you’re embarking on a leisurely nature walk or an extremely challenging climb, going at it with a partner, family member, or group of friends creates a shared experience that can help strengthen the bonds between you.
And there’s science to back it up. A new study funded by L.L.Bean found that sharing a sense of awe in the outdoors forges deeper social connections and friendships. And in a 2021 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, researchers found that when comparing 20-minute indoor and outdoor mother-daughter walks, and the mood and conversational content within each, spending time outdoors together significantly impacted positive interactions and reduced negative affect (AKA feelings of emotional distress) between mothers and daughters. Which made us wonder…
Can hiking boost communication?
“Hiking in nature is a form of exercise which releases endorphins; endorphins are chemicals in the brain that release good feelings,” explains psychologist Alyson Nerenberg, author of No Perfect Love. “Boosting endorphins leads to less stress and anxiety, better sleep, and better mental health, and when your body is releasing endorphins, you often feel less stress and anxiety and are more open to communicating as opposed to isolating.”
Then there’s the fact that hiking and being surrounded by nature can help put things in perspective. “Being surrounded by nature reminds us that our problems are smaller than we think and that we are part of a spectacular world,” Dr. Nerenberg says. “If we are feeling overwhelmed and afraid to share our struggles, we may realize that our difficulties aren’t as gigantic as they seem.”
Because of this, Dr. Nerenberg says that difficult conversations can generally be easier while hiking. “When you are trapped around a table trying to have a serious conversation, it can feel awkward, and one or more people could shut down or get defensive,” she explains. “When you are outside hiking in nature, it releases the pressure of a formal sit-down talk and allows you to take a deep breath and relax. You are often more concerned about your breath as you walk up an incline, or focused on the beautiful surroundings, and communication may flow easier.” For many of us, it’s often easier to have tough conversations when not looking directly at the other person.
Beyond making the conversations less intimidating, hiking also encourages people to be more present. After all, in order to hike and not accidentally break a leg, people typically put away their phones and other screens. By removing those outside stimuli, there’s more space to genuinely connect with the people or person you’re hiking with. That’s why, even if you do have a chance to sit down or take a break mid-hike, clinical psychologist Megan Jones Bell, who is the clinical director of consumer and mental health at Fitbit, says to fight the urge to check emails and social media while in nature. “In order to reap the most benefits of being outdoors with others, it’s important to stay present and engaged,” she says.
How to tap into conversation and connection in the great outdoors
If you’re not sure how to start the free-flowing conversation, Dr. Bell suggests asking questions. “To get out of the ‘how was your day’ routine, try asking open-ended questions to check in and invite sharing,” she says. Don’t be afraid of tackling the big stuff. “It can be easier to leave space for silence while sharing an activity outdoors so sometimes deeper conversations can feel more approachable.”
Another option is to start your time in nature with a moving meditation. “People can make the most of their time outdoors by practicing regular mindfulness together,” Dr. Bell says. “While on your hike, consider trying a moving meditation in the Fitbit Premium app or a guided breathing experience. By combining moments of mindfulness with conversation, you’re more likely to enjoy the hike, rather than waiting for the destination or getting distracted.”
To foster connection, Dr. Nerenberg suggests letting the other person know how glad you are that they accompanied you—gratitude goes a long way and can help us open up more comfortably.
But keep your expectations realistic. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” she says. If you struggle with communication with a loved one, the first time you hike together may not lead to an amazing conversation—just focus on creating a positive enough experience so that you’ll want to hike together again.