Hiking for Our Lives: Nature as a Lifeline in COVID-19 — and Beyond

Expeditions Hiking

When the world feels like it’s crashing down all around us, drinking in a fiery sunset can remind us that there’s still hope. Whether it’s hiking to a mountain peak or camping by a pristine lake, getting out in nature is a crucial lifeline. But beyond rescuing our sanity during COVID-19, nature is also saving lives in ways you wouldn’t believe.

Exoeditions Girl Hiking

Initially when the pandemic restrictions hit, many of us who had never struggled with mental health were thrown into a confusing new reality: the wrenching toll of depression, anxiety, restlessness, and hopelessness that many of our loved ones experience daily. Together we were looking for something — anything, to ease the uncertainty… 

Expeditions Man Sitting Outdoors

Being outside was a literal breath of fresh air — even just walking down the street or sitting in the park. Any excuse to leave the house was welcome. And when the chance to go camping opened again, even crashing the BC Parks website, it was abundantly clear that for our own mental health and wellbeing, the outdoors was how we could safely find peace, connection and stability. But for those who struggle with mental health and addiction, our collective realization was nothing new. The healing power of nature has long been used to combat one of the most sinister health crises we’ve ever seen. 

As the COVID-19 public health crisis continues to impact us, another, even deadlier one has been raging for years now and is only getting worse. BC’s opioid crisis has tragically taken the lives of 728 people between January and June this year. 175 people died from an overdose in June alone — the deadliest month of this whole crisis since it began in 2016. It’s taken people like Reece Draayers, a beloved Indigenous hero in the Downtown Eastside community who was devoted to saving people from overdoses and advocating for housing. 

Now the crisis is largely spurred on by COVID-19 restrictions like social distancing and border closures, leading people to use alone or with higher concentrations of fentanyl. Sadly it’s not only affecting those who use drugs. Their loved ones and others who are on the road to recovery are also reeling from the devastating impact. 

Downtown Eastside Alley

Throughout all this, nature has been a primary healer. But for those feeling trapped in homelessness or addiction, how could nature help, especially during a pandemic? The answer lies in one of Union Gospel Mission’s most intriguing programs: Expeditions

Men in our Alcohol and Drug Recovery Program can sneak away from the chaos of the busy city and the Downtown Eastside, and into the serenity of nature. Often, the city reminds them of their own trauma and struggles, or even the sadness of the loved ones they have lost to the opioid crisis. 

City View

But the fresh air and space to think as they journey into the woods or up a mountain is a complete contrast! They can finally experience joy, peace, freedom and healing — key milestones in their recovery journey. 

Participating in Expeditions can expand the world of these men in recovery when encountering the beauty of creation. They’re given a sense of rest, encouragement, and an awakening that there’s something more to life. Many describe the hikes as a metaphor for their recovery journey: that they are literally climbing out of addiction (the rough switchbacks, steep trails, and burning lungs and legs) and into freedom (the mountain-top experience, breathtaking view for miles, transcendence, and accomplishment). 

“I was numb in my addiction. I didn’t understand how beautiful this world is. These hikes didn’t just help my recovery, they were my recovery… I wouldn’t have had a chance in recovery without Expeditions. This program saved my life. It gave me my life back.”

– UGM Expeditions Participant⁠

Expeditions Hiking Trail

And beyond simply staying a metaphor, hiking can tangibly give these men inspiration to face and overcome daily obstacles that can so easily make them feel discouraged. They become confident that they can conquer their struggles with trauma and addiction. Expeditions shows them they have the strength to continue and achieve new heights and goals in their recovery journey! 

Expeditions Hiking Mountain Top

During this pandemic, we’ve been leaning into Expeditions in innovative ways to directly counteract the loneliness, isolation and disconnection that many men in our recovery program have been feeling. With social distancing measures, many of them couldn’t connect in-person as part of their recovery journey — making battling their addiction, trauma and past experiences of homelessness even harder. Connecting with nature alongside close friends has been incredibly life-giving for them. 

“The most helpful thing for me in overcoming addiction was getting out in creation and feeling within the group the sense of community while hiking together. Hiking changed my life. It got me out of my own head and gave me a chance to think. The outdoors helps me mentally, emotionally and physically — it’s all in one. People need the outdoors to come back to themselves in life.”

– Matt, UGM Alumni⁠

So if hiking, camping and getting out in nature has been so transformative for us and our wellbeing during this global pandemic, imagine how much more life-changing, healing, and connecting it can be for someone who’s in the daily trenches of recovery! 

The risk is very real with the opioid crisis in the foreground. But for some, UGM’s Expeditions Program is saving them from the looming danger of a potential relapse — or even losing their life from a fatal toxicity overdose. The ‘great outdoors’ is so powerful — not only can it boost our mental health, but it can be a literal life-saver, too.

Feeling inspired to help our neighbours struggling with homelessness and addiction? Watch our Expeditions mini-documentary and learn how you can support this life-changing program by clicking here