Challenge coordinators Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden discuss the mental health benefits of a multi-day trip into the wilds.

This feature was first published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Great Outdoors.

As other Challengers rush across the sand towards the North Sea, one stands back. Previously ebullient, he is now quiet and tears begin to well. In response to an enquiring look, he says: “When I dip my toes in the water it’s over.” A brief touch on his arm and a shared half smile lets him know he is understood. He need say no more unless he wants to.

For most participants the TGO Challenge is the enjoyable culmination of many hours of winter planning. They will return home with a sense of elation at having completed something most people wouldn’t dream of attempting. But there is a significant minority for whom those two weeks are a longed-for release from difficult home lives. Perhaps they are carers, have stressful or tedious jobs, or are suffering with mental or physical illness.

It feels as if the number of Challengers suffering with poor mental health is increasing, but we suspect what has changed is the willingness to share – a welcome indication that the stigma of mental health conditions is reducing, possibly due to an increasing number of celebrities and mental health campaigners talking about their experiences.

“You don’t need to be exceptionally coordinated to walk up a mountain or have a geography degree to read a map. Just a little perseverance and a few essential skills can get you places many of your friends will never venture”

In 2017 Alex Staniforth cycled, kayaked and walked 4,700 miles to stand on the UK’s county tops raising awareness and funds for Young Minds UK. He talks freely about his personal experience of depression, anxiety and bulimia, showing not only people can live fulfilling lives “with” rather than “suffering from” mental illness but that experiencing remote and wild places can actively improve their health.

Natural England recently commissioned a report which showed that one in four people will experience symptoms of mental illness every year. People are increasingly recognising that among those who live with mental illness are their own family and friends – and possibly themselves.

Many studies have shown that walking can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and the National Institute for Health and Care Evidence (NICE) now recommend regular physical activity not just for chronic physical illnesses but also for mental health problems. Largely, though, NICE are talking about walking around the park for an hour or so – not walking for eight to 10 hours a day, sometimes through horizontal rain. There is good evidence that exposure to “green spaces” is beneficial but not so much for gloopy brown bog…

We can’t find any studies specific to backpacking, but our five years as coordinators of the TGO Challenge – and several decades as Challengers – lead us to believe there are benefits to backpacking in general, and the TGO Challenge in particular, above and beyond simply putting one foot in front of another.

While some backpackers are natural athletes, many are not. Challengers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. You don’t need to be exceptionally coordinated to walk up a mountain or have a geography degree to read a map. Just a little perseverance and a few essential skills can get you places many of your friends will never venture. Self-esteem is an issue for many people, particularly those with symptoms of depression or anxiety, so finding out you can do something others won’t even contemplate can be wonderful. Throw in the skills to wild camp without leaving a trace and that sense of self-reliance rapidly grows.

The Challenge is more than just two weeks in May. There are months of route preparation, gear selection and practice walks. After the event, there are photos to edit, blogs or diaries to write and then of course all those ideas you have for next year’s route need crystallising before the whole cycle starts again. Throughout the process, we and other Challengers are always available with an empathetic ear and during the walk itself Challenge Control offers bucket-loads of encouragement and support. The Challenge is non-competitive – the focus is on getting across and many will go out of their way to help those who are struggling. So when you enter the Challenge, you join an encouraging and supportive community.

Solitude is vastly under-rated. There are plenty of opportunities to mix with other people on the TGO Challenge but often the person we need to connect with most is ourselves. Wandering through the landscape at your own pace lets you process your thoughts at your own speed, often helping you establish what you really think rather than what others think you should. You are not going to solve all your problems, but you may well see a way of tackling the ones that matter most.

A few years ago a Challenger came and shook hands with us on Control. As he departed, he said: “I found something important during these two weeks – the real me.”

Image © Ian Cotterill