For the past couple of years, I've spent my weekends wrangling salamanders, dissecting owl pellets and learning about the ecology of our beautiful Appalachian forest. Now, after 65 hours of class/fieldwork and 48 hours of volunteer work, I am officially a West Virginia Master Naturalist!
This program has seriously enriched my life by deepening my understand of our environment. In retrospect, it has also provided me the experience needed to formulate a few tips that will help you truly enjoy your time in nature too.
These five tips that will make your time in nature more enjoyable.
1. Choose the time of day for our outdoor excursion wisely. This one decision can make or break your experience.
It's sometimes easy to know the best times to AVOID outdoor activity; you wouldn't cut the grass at 2:00 PM in July, right? But there is another time of day that I find pretty uncomfortable in the forest. I never knew why, until now.
After the sun rises, all the green plants of the forest start gearing up for photosynthesis. As part of this process, they move moisture from their roots to the pores on their leaves. They release this water into the atmosphere through a process called transpiration. Now image ALL the green plants doing this at about the same time. The humidity level goes way up! It makes me a little uncomfortable, which is why I prefer to hike in the late morning or early afternoon in the spring and summer.
In the fall and winter (my favorite time in the forest), I like to get outside in the late afternoon. It's generally a little warmer and the light in the forest is magical as the sun starts to set for the day.
2. Be a smarty pants. Seriously, wear smart pants!
For short jaunts in the forest you don't need any gear, and you certainly don't need expensive hiking boots, but you do need to be comfortable to really enjoy the experience.
Good lightweight nylon pants will run you $45-$99, but they will keep you cool or warm appropriately (it's like sorcery). They will also protect your legs from the inevitable bug bites, scrapes and pokes without incurring any damage to the fabric itself. These pants are way lighter and more comfortable than denim, and the specialized nylon is both soft and quiet. Think about that for a minute... it's hard to experience a contemplative hike through the woods if your thighs are swooshing with every step.
3. Take time for both micro and macro viewing.
Sometimes I get so focused on the ground (spying for mushrooms) that I forget to look up and enjoy the beauty of being surrounded by nature.
Take time to admire the sunlight filtering through the tree canopy (the Japanese call this "komorebi"). Scan the distant mountainside for patterns and natural fractals. Sit with a beautiful vista and give yourself time to take in all the detail.
Hiking with a friend or partner is also helpful in this regard. I often point out tiny fascinating details on a tree stump at the very same time Shawn is hollering for me to behold a giant rock formation.
4. Make it a mission.
When the seasons change, and especially when I travel to new areas, I almost always have a checklist of things I want to see and experience. This generates anticipation and makes our adventures feel like a scavenger hunt.
You certainly don't NEED a reason to experience nature, but sometimes it makes it more fun!
A quick google search of the area can provide endless resources for planning your mission. Here's a few seasonal suggestions for the New River Gorge.
Winter - frozen waterfall, teaberry, old-growth trees
Spring - lady slipper orchid, peregrine falcon, morel mushrooms
Summer - Indian pipes, blooming rhododendron, red fox
Fall - sugar maple foliage, chicken-of-the-woods mushroom, liverwort
5. Listen for water.
Not only is the sound of naturally flowing water soothing, it is also very alluring. When you are in the forest and you hear the call of water, answer by following it to the source. Discovering rivers, streams, creeks and springs can be very satisfying on a primal level.
If you are lucky enough to stumble upon a waterfall, let yourself enjoy the positives effects it will have on your mind and body.
Waterfalls release negative ions: oxygen atoms with extra negatively-charged electrons. They are believed to increase serotonin levels which helps alleviate depression and stress. Negative ions also give us a little boast of energy.
Now it's time for you to opt outside!
These tips sure would have come in handy when I was younger. I can distinctly remember a time in my late twenties when I pondered why in the world people enjoyed lumbering through the bug-infested forest.
My inner conflict came from the fact that I inherently knew being in nature was beneficial to my well-being, but I equated it to eating broccoli or running on a treadmill. Sure it's healthy, but... sigh.
My sighs were replaces with smiles about a decade ago when I started getting outside regularly and refining my practices. I know my limits - rarely am I in the wood more than three hours - and I work hard at staying hydrated and comfortable.
You too can reap the benefits of being outdoors. Just one hour a week in nature has healthful benefits and will provide you lots of beautiful memories.
So, what's holding you back from opting outside?
Amy McLaughlin, your personal retreat co-curator at Lafayette Flats Retreats. Find me on Instagram posting about self-care, wellness and mushrooms. Yep, mushrooms.