Five Studies That Show How Spending Time in Nature Helps Veterans
November 01, 2022
Sarah Hubbart

Spending time in nature can be healing for former members of the armed forces. 

A Pew Research Center survey found that roughly one in four veterans say the transition back to civilian life was at least somewhat difficult. This is especially true for those who return home with stress or trauma. About 11-20%  of veterans are believed to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a given year and many do not receive mental health treatment. 

Man in camouflage in wheelchair, veteran, with his arm around woman, both smiling

If you or a loved one need access to free and confidential mental health resources, the CDC has more information. 

Studies show that getting outside can help retired service members feel better. The US Department of Veterans Affairs recommends that doing something as simple as taking a walk or a hike, riding a bike, or doing yard work or gardening can help veterans cope during times of stress. 

Outdoor Experiences and Nature Based Therapy Have a Positive Impact

“Nature-based therapy” is an umbrella term for therapy based on experiences and activities in a natural setting. Being in nature while working through trauma can help veterans handle challenging life situations and improve their sense of well-being. 

Young woman in camouflage hat and jacket, veteran, looking at the camera and smiling.

Therapy that incorporates outdoor recreation is still a relatively new field. Researchers continue to investigate the many benefits of nature on mental health. Below are some recent examples.

Mental Health Outcomes of Peer-led Therapeutic Adventure for Military Veterans

Skepticism about therapy is a significant barrier that holds back veterans from getting help with mental health issues. Therapeutic adventure activities can provide support without the stigma. In this study, veterans recorded improvements in overall psychological well-being immediately following time spent on Military Outdoors camping trips hosted by the Sierra Club.

Outdoor Recreational Activity Experiences Improve Psychological Wellbeing of Military Veterans With PTSD

Researchers in the UK found that group outdoor activities such as surfing, falconry, or horseback riding decreased participants' anxiety and stress while increasing social connections. A four-month follow-up survey concluded that the effects were sustained over time.

Everything Just Seems More Right in Nature'

Danish veterans participated in 10 weeks of nature-based therapy at an arboretum and were interviewed about their experience. The results indicated that the veterans had new tools to use in stressful situations and experienced an improvement in PTSD symptoms. Feeling relaxed helped with the healing process. 

Natural Medicine: Wilderness Experience Outcomes for Combat Veterans

Researchers with Warrior Expeditions analyzed how engaging in a six-month thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail impacted the mental health of combat veterans. Feedback from participants revealed themes around social re-connection, inner peace, and reflection. Respondents reported, “I accept myself more for who I am” and that their time on the trail was “the time I [was] taking to heal.”

Enhancing the Well-Being of Veterans Using Extended Group-Based Nature Recreation Experiences 

American veterans were surveyed before and after participating in multi-day, group-based outdoor experiences including backpacking, canoeing, whitewater rafting, and fly fishing. The findings suggest that these group activities can have significant positive effects, especially for veterans struggling with serious health problems.

Nature-Based Resources for Veterans

Bearded man in camouflage hat and jacket smiling and holding a dog

Do you know a veteran who might benefit from spending more time outside? Resources are available to help military members and their families experience the benefits of nature. 

  • The Veteran Outdoor Alliance manages an updated list of organizations serving veterans and opportunities for outdoor excursions and nature therapy programs. 
  • Veterans can explore opportunities to work or volunteer on public lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management, or US Forest Service. Did you know? NPS employs over 4,000 veterans, which accounts for more than 20% of their paid workforce.
  • Gold Star Families and US military veterans are eligible to receive the Interagency Annual Military Pass, which provides free lifetime access to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including national parks, wildlife refuges, and forests.