Going camping could the answer to better mental health

Camping could be the mental-health therapy to save the world.

Every day, we wake to email, Instagram and Twitter waiting on our bedside tables. We take an instant hit of everything from terrifying political lunacy to the ever-increasing demands of our digital workplaces; news of a world tearing itself apart contrast disturbing images of happy friends on far-flung beaches before we even get out of bed.

No wonder we're stressed and anxious.

Going off grid

The only way to truly switch off is to go camping. There's something about sleeping under damp nylon and cooking on a small explosive device that absolutely soothes the psyche like nothing else.

A recent experience, at Mungo Brush north of Newcastle, reinforced this firm belief. My partner and I joined her parents on their campsite for a few nights last week. It was more fun and deeply therapeutic than the finest of international spa treatments. And there wasn't even a shower.

Here and now

What can focus your mind on the moment more than putting up a tent? My camping gear had been at a mate's for a few years. When I picked it up, we carefully checked the tent to make sure everything was there. I even got a bonus mystery thing in a small blue roll, that we both thought belonged to the other.

As I was putting up the tent, which I boasted had "many rooms", there came the moment when I was holding the poles and gazing sadly at flaccid fabric. My partner asked icily if there was anything wrong. "No, all good," I mumbled, wondering how the wrong poles had made their way into the bag. We weren't sleeping in this tent.

Amazingly, the mystery blue roll was a two-man tent, with the correct poles. It was my "back-up" tent, I explained, for when some idiot lost the poles to the big tent. Lying and exaggeration for effect is a key element of camping culture.

That was my partner's introduction to camping with me. Other wonderful moments involved her realisation the only toilet was a long-drop and smelled, no doubt literally, like the bog of eternal stench. She grimly vowed to "hold on for a week."


Getting overly familiar

Her parents and I have started calling each other Father-in-Law, Mother-in-Law and Son-in-Law, which my partner says creeps her out, given we're not at all married.

F-i-L is a committed handyman, to the point where, when something on the boat inevitably breaks, he's at it with a pop-riveter in a jiffy. He has erected a canvas shower cubicle that uses a shower-bag full of water, left in the sun all day to warm. Filling two 20-litre shower bags from a tap nearly 1km away and carrying them back was one of my jobs.

Again, it's hard to worry about a work email when your main concern is the flies drinking the sweat in your eyes.

According to taste

All food is about 50 per cent tastier when you're camping. I brought a lamb shoulder wrapped in garlic, rosemary, lemon and olive oil for a few days and cooked it in a pan over a gas cooker. As it rested I browned off some little canned spuds in the lamb fat.

It was unbelievably delicious. We feasted to a symphony of insects and the roar of the gas lamp, drank wine and talked rubbish for hours. (F-i-L's unique relationship with Siri has to be heard to be believed).

Days were spent bobbing in the warm lake water with a drink, failing to avoid too much sun, try as we might, on some remote beach, courtesy of F-i-L's cool boat.

Out of reach

Phone power and coverage was sporadic. I just didn't care, in the end. We spent days in our bathers, getting grimier and wilder. It was like Lord of the Flies. In the morning, we'd wake, sweating, as the morning sun hit the tiny tent, covered in ants we later discovered came from a nest under our tent.

Longdrop, breakfast, boat, drinks, lunch, drinks, swimming, drinks, boat, shower (with bag) eat, drink, talk, drink, talk drink sleep, repeat. That's how the days went. Sometimes we really didn't know what time it was. We smelled. My partner got real beach hair, apparently.

When we left, we missed M-i-L and F-i-L, the wonderful simplicity of life reduced to its analog basics, food and shelter. With that comes companionship derived from having time to talk, and, dare I sound a bit too hippy here, the rare, joyous experience of being in nature. Hearing the thump of a kookaburra's wings as he swoops your tent in the faint morning light becomes a beautiful, transformative, memorable moment.

Barefoot pleasures

Getting back to nature is a privilege we should all exploit for our own mental health.

Less is indeed more. When we're worrying about the gas not lighting or the ice-to-esky ratio, we're not worrying about ourselves.

Our brains get to idle for a little while. The dirtier your feet, the cleaner your mind.

If you go zero, not five stars, you'll experience infinite stars.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher New Holland. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

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