For people who have already experienced an entirely natural walk in the
woods, the question, "Why hike without any clothes on?", is
easily answered. For those who have to ask, "Why hike
nude?", there are several ready answers. There are some obvious
advantages, such as coolness and a feeling of freedom. An easy
rundown is available on the Naked Hiking for Dummies page. This
article isn't about those superficial reasons, though.
This came out of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. I
can't remember the exact context of the original conversation, but I think
that I said something like, "I live in the natural world as a natural
animal and not as a man. I walk between worlds on a whim." and he
expressed an interest in that. To which I think I said, "It's
interesting to a man, but to an animal it's commonplace.", and then
he asked about that. At least that's the way the conversation is patched
together in my head.
Somewhere in that dialog I believe I used an old maxim, "When you
change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."
Somewhere along the way I think we were talking about The
Human Animal, which is arguably about being naked, but is really about
the topic at hand. Being a natural animal. This process has little to do
with nakedness as such, but has nothing to do with clothing. This article,
to most people, will seem like an encouragement to naturism, but in
reality it's an encouragement to become a natural animal. Again, this has
little to do with nakedness, but nothing at all to do with clothing.
One thing has very little to do with the other, and none of this is to say
that you can't experience nature with your clothes on, but to learn the
process it's nearly impossible to do without cutting through some masks
These masks can be hard to take off. We are all socialized as
children - which is a clever way of saying that we are domesticated.
Victorian prudery didn't help us establish a better connection to
ourselves either. There are a lot of Victorian ghosts that need to
be cleared out of the cobwebs of our minds - ghosts that want to
stay. The sad state of our civilization has led to a very sad truth:
Many of us are broken.
The purpose of this article isn't to encourage you to go out and look
for a cheap thrill, it's an encouragement and an invitation to rediscover
who you are. During this process, it's important to have some
personal honesty. Having said that, if you have never hiked in the
nude, then you are probably just a woodlands tourist.
The vast majority of the hikers and backpackers I know go out into the
wilderness as tourists. They go out, see the sights, stay on the trail,
take a few pictures, come home and post trip reports. Are they part of the
natural world around them? No. They're tourists. Do they have fun?
Certainly. Is there anything wrong with that? Not at all.
But it's not enough for ME, and if you're reading this, then it
probably isn't enough for you either and you're trying to figure out WHY
you feel the desire to do something as insane as walk around naked in the
wilderness. Have no fear; you've come to the right place.
'Wilderness' is a word used by people who are still too far removed
from their natural habitat. There is, for me, no place I have visited -
and I would hazard to say few places I could visit - that I should
consider a wilderness. I have become a natural man, comfortable in my
natural environment. (I am also comfortable in my unnatural environment
called a 'house'.) Should you drop me, stark naked, into many (not all)
kinds of terrain, I would not mind much. I lost my wilderness when I lost
my fear. Would I LIKE to have gear and warm clothes and lots of other
accoutrements (and sometimes a cell phone or a gun)? Of course, but that
is not the point. Once you lose the your 'sense of wilderness' you gain
something much more precious - the sense of existing as a part of the
natural world. This is not something that ends when you come out of the
woods. It's a life lesson that's greater than just running around like
some pervert looking for a cheap thrill in the forest. It's about
experiencing nature in a direct way, and it's also about experiencing yourself
in a direct way after you've removed your masks and set aside your filters
I don't want to be a man in a wilderness. I want to be a human in my
habitat. I want to be a natural animal.
From that standpoint, a well maintained hiking trail is itself an
extension of civilization, no matter how faint - but wilderness is a
matter of degrees. For families who drive to scenic overlooks, stop for 2
minutes, eat a hamburger, drink a coke, then drive off without ever
getting out of the car, that is as much wilderness as they can handle. A
'tamed' trail is as much as some others can handle, but for still others,
wilderness does not begin until they leave the human trails behind. To do
so does not require any great skill.
None of these, to my mind, is better or worse than the other - people
all just experience the world in their own way. As long as someone is
happy with their experience with the world, then I'm happy. That
doesn't stop me from noticing the curative effects of the outdoors on the
mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual heath of men and women, and
from inviting them to encourage them to enjoy nature in a special way.
To quote Benton MacKaye, "The ability to cope with nature directly
- unshielded by the weakening wall of civilization - is one of the
admitted needs of modern times." That need is no less real today. The
Appalachian Trail - as Mr. MacKaye envisioned it - was deliberately
designed to be a place where the sense of nature and freedom was placed
for an intended result. Unfortunately, for many people, it has become one long tourist
attraction. There are a lot of people who will hotly argue with me over
that statement, but I believe that it's true.
Before you can actually experience your natural place in nature, you
have to discard and devolve all of civilization's masks. Before you can be
comfortable anywhere else, you have to be comfortable in your own skin.
This is more than just taking off your clothes.
To use a simile, driving in a car down the interstate is a 'safe'
activity. The vehicle is a shield that protects us from the
experience of the 'open road' in some way. Yes, we're driving, and we have
a level of actual physical safety - but also some mental safety as well.
What do I mean by mental safety? Well, think about driving down the
interstate at 100 mph in a big car. Now think about that same speed on a
motorcycle. On a motorcycle, the experience of the 'open road' is much
more direct. Not only have we lost some physical safety, but we've lost
some mental safety as well. We don't FEEL as safe on a motorcycle.
Now imagine that same 100 mph on the motorcycle, but you're naked.
The truth is, at 100 mph, you'll be just as dead if you hit the bridge
supports head on no matter what vehicle you're in or on, and no matter
your state of dress. The physical safety is a lie - but the mental safety
makes us feel safer in the car, and with our clothes on.
Clothing is just a mask; The same (false) mental safety. By wearing
clothing in the wilderness we're staying in the car and looking out the
glass. We aren't experiencing our animal nature directly. Wearing a
bathing suit in the middle of nowhere when nobody else is around is what I
call the 'civilization reflex'. By wearing clothes, you deny that your
body is part of the natural environment, and you can't hack pure nature.
Of course the civilization reflex in you will have come up with a few
objections by now, the most logical of them being, "You have to wear
clothes when it's cold, silly! You'll freeze to death!" I'll
acknowledge and agree with that. I'm not going to go trekking around in
Upper Siberia au natural either - but having beaten the civilization
reflex mindset, I'm a little freer for it. When the climate allows, I
experience nature directly. I'm not encouraging anyone to freeze to death
or to get a bad sunburn.
Other objections will be things like, "The Indians were a part of
their environment, and they wore clothes!", and I don't disagree with
that on the surface. Native Americans had a complex culture and a complex
civilization and, yes, they wore clothing. When they went on vision quests
and during other times, however, they wore no clothing. This is easily
supportable by so many sources that I won't bother to quote any.
These objections are just proof of what I'm saying.
There are two ways that clothing conflicts with our experience of
nature. The first way is the fact that an anchor of civilization
(otherwise known as 'civilization infrastructure') has come with us into
the wild. Clothing isn't always critical gear; sometimes it is just a rock
solid representation of the outside world. That isn't primitiveness. It
allows the wearer to separate himself from the natural state of
wilderness. What makes wilderness natural is the fact that you are
immersed in the natural world. Once you put clothing on in a deep woods
spot, you aren't part of the wilderness anymore, you are in direct touch
with civilization. You are wearing a mask that protects you not just
physically, but also mentally from the wilderness. Hence, through your
actions you have broken the idea of wilderness and cannot experience it
directly. It's as though you're sitting in a car, eating a burger, and
drinking a coke while parked at a scenic overlook and looking out the
window at the scenery.
The second and more important way is the wilderness/conservation
mindset. When you elect to wear clothing when unnecessary in the
environment, you unwittingly tell the world (and yourself in a subliminal
way) that a sense of nature is a problem for you that you need to
overcome. The natural world as it exists isn't really what you like and
you need to counter nature's reality by introducing something to shield
and comfort - and this is the important part - not your body, but your
This is a kind of sabotage of the direct experience - like the bars on
the cages at a zoo.
This is not a new idea.
John Muir wrote "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized
people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home;
that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are
useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as
fountains of life." This statement predates MacKaye's observation
above by many years and certainly he was aware of it and drew on it for
"The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive
ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a
sojourner in nature." - Henry David Thoreau
Ah! Henry! How right you are! Not a mere tourist, but a sojourner in
nature. I sort of like that turn of phrase. Henry has got more of that
kind of thing too:
"We cannot adequately appreciate this aspect of nature if we
approach it with any taint of human pretense. It will elude us if we allow
artifacts like clothing to intervene between ourselves and this Other. ...
To apprehend it, we cannot be naked enough. ... In wildness is the
preservation of the world." - Henry David Thoreau, Walking
Clothing is an artifact of civilization. That's a good way to put
"The body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the
campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through
all one's flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure
glow not explainable." - John Muir
In all of this it might seem that I am 'anti-clothing', when all I am
is pro-nature. I am promoting a real, natural idea as proposed by
such people as Thoreau, Muir, and MacKaye.
The finer value of MacKaye, Thoreau, and Muir is that it clues us in to
a kind of universal anti-nature response wherever modern man meets nature.
Getting out for a walk and a little recreation is great, but shouldn't we
be trying to get more out of our experience in nature? To go higher
and entertain greater goals?
I like my walks to be a more sophisticated venture where the type of
recreation and its effect both mentally, spiritually, and environmentally
are considered in order to produce an outcome. I like my walks to take me
somewhere special, not just out and back again through some kind of tree
museum. To have a full understanding of nature and your part in it,
you have to understand that it is there for much more than just
recreation. It is, in fact, your natural habitat. The habitat of the
animal of man.
How are you to discover this, as so many people have already
discovered? It isn't difficult, and to allay any fears of the timid;
NO, I don't expect you to go exposing yourself all over the
countryside. At least not yet. Some discretion is warranted,
and some rules for this are included on the Naked Hiking for Dummies
page. [UNDER CONSTRUCTION] You must use some sense in all of this and understand what
you're reaching for.
NAKED BODY, NAKED MIND
The first thing to do is to acknowledge your civilization reflex. Your
discomfort with the natural world. Fortunately, this is easy to do, and
you can even stay dressed for the first part. Walk out into the woods for
a bit, get off the trail a few hundred feet somewhere, and drop your pack.
Everything. Hiking sticks too. Take everything out of your pockets. Now
walk away from it. How far can you get before something inside you starts
pulling you back to it? How long does it take for the civilization reflex
to tell you, "Hey! Stupid! We NEED that stuff!"?
Most folks don't get far.
NAKED BODY, NAKED MIND
Second experiment: Take off your clothes, and drop them next to the
pack. Now walk away again. Most folks won't get near as far as they did
the first time. Now go back and get the pack, but leave the clothes. Make
sure that there aren't any clothes in the pack and nothing you can cover
up with either. Now walk away again. Most folks don't get any further than
the last time.
In this exercise you discover something interesting: Your response
isn't about the gear. It's about the masks.
How do you fix it? How do you get comfortable in your own skin? For
some people it just happens almost instantly. Other people take a lot
longer. The key to it, as I said before, is to have some personal honesty.
You can lie to me all you like, but don't lie to yourself. If you aren't
comfortable standing around naked in nature, then you aren't comfortable
in your own skin. If you can't just walk away from the clothes, then you
aren't there yet.
Walking away from the clothes AND the pack and never feeling the need
to go back for them is another thing entirely. The end goal is to make it
so that the clothing doesn't matter at all. The point in all of this isn't
to have a naked body, it's to have a naked mind. After that,
you can dispense with the nakedness in places where it is impractical
because the goal is reached. Once you reach the goal, though, the clothing
will be irksome to you sometimes because you will recognize it for what it
really is. If you get to the point where neither the gear nor the clothing
matters at all to you, then you have achieved something.
NAKED BODY, NAKED MIND
You may use insect repellent. You'll need a good spot with nobody else
around. I usually do this after setting up camp in the evening. Strip off
completely, apply some insect repellent, and walk away from camp. If you
have a hiking partner and they want to do it too, make them go in the
other direction. This is a solo exercise. Shoes are OK if you need them,
but nothing else. No watch. No light. Nothing. Find a place at least 50
yards from camp. The further the better. I like to find a big tree.
Once you've got the spot, take off the shoes, toss them someplace where
you can't see them, make sure you can't see any of your gear, and sit
down. Yep. With your own butt right on the ground. If you managed to find
a tree or a nice rock, you can lean against it. Now just sit there. Don't
move. Breathe. Relax. Reach out with your feelings. Feel the tree behind
you. Feel the canopy above you. Don't look! Just feel. Eyes open or
closed, I don't care, but don't move. Breathe. Relax.
Your civilization reflex will start screaming immediately.
"Bugs! Dirt! Something is sticking you!" It
will try to make you feel silly, stupid, and uncomfortable. Tell
your civilization reflex to calm down and shut up. Everything is OK.
Breathe. Relax. Reach out with your feelings.
Bugs crawling on you yet? Great. Don't move. Bugs are natural.
Don't move. Look around with your eyes if you want, but don't turn your
head. Relax. Breathe. Once you've sat there perfectly motionless and
perfectly quiet for awhile, something will start to happen. The wilderness
will come alive. The critters will have forgotten that you're there, and
they'll start moving around. You'll see things that you've never seen
before. Quiet. Breathe. Relax. Don't move.
The point of the exercise is to stop being IN the wilderness and
actually become a part of it. It is a meditation of a very special kind,
and not something I can really explain. It involves not just you and your
immediate wilderness, but the whole planet. From your earliest youth,
you've learned that you are something apart from other things. In reality,
this is not true. Sitting on the bare ground, you are home. If you have to
wonder whether or not you have achieved this, they you haven't done it
yet. Until you forget that you are naked, you are still just a tourist.
NAKED BODY, NAKED MIND
Once you get tired of sitting, stand up. It's best to spend no less
than 20 minutes sitting, but 15 will do. An hour is better. Now lay down.
Yep. Right on the ground. Face up. Don't be shy. Spread your arms and
legs. Be open. Wiggle around. Relax. Smile. Do not shield yourself in any
way. Be open. Don't just try it for a little while. Lay there. Breathe.
Relax. Do not move. Reach out with your feelings. Look up at the sky. Be
thankful. If you fall asleep, then this is a positive sign. Have a nap.
Once you have observed the sky for as long as you like, roll over.
Involve yourself with the ground. Look at it closely. Smell it. FEEL it.
This is your ground. It is connected to every other piece of ground in
some way. It's all the same in a way. All sacred.
Pull a big pile of leaves into your chest and give them a hug.
At some point your civilization reflex - pounded into you by your
parents telling you not to get dirty! - will rebel. It will make you feel
stupid, or silly, or angry and it will want to know what the point of
rolling around unprotected on the ground is when you've got nice clothes
and shoes just waiting to be worn. You will feel foolish and think that I
am playing some kind of stupid joke on you in all of this. Ignore all
that. Roll around on the ground. Make love to the planet with your whole
body. I don't mean that in a sexual context in case you have a dirty mind.
In this particular instance, you want to have a dirty body.
Once you get past your civilization reflex, you'll discover that your
body likes all this attention. Rolling on the ground is a great way
to have a good scratch.
Breathe. Relax. Roll over.
Once you have achieved the goal in this, you will find that from time
to time your body longs to roll around on the ground sometimes. I try to
let mine have its way whenever possible.
Once you think that you are finished with this exercise, it is helpful
to have a nice body of water nearby to take a dip in. It's OK if it's
cold, just as long as it isn't so cold that you'll freeze to death.
Get into the water. Sit down if you can, or kneel, or stand. Whatever.
Rub the leaves and the dirt off yourself. Be aware of your body. Touch it.
Have some loving care towards it. Say to yourself, 'This is my body.', and
discover it. Be comfortable with it. Most people that I know never achieve
this. They are not thankful for their bodies. Be thankful. Breathe. Relax.
Feel the water all around you. Reach out with your feelings. Are you
really separate from this water? If you think that you are, then you have
not achieved the goal. You must lose yourself. You must surrender.
When you come home at the end of a hard day, you let go and unwind. You
must achieve that here, in this place, on this sacred ground. In the water
and on the land. Between the ground and the sky, you must find your place
in the system of the world. A world from which you are not separate, but
rather an intimate part.
If it gets dark, it doesn't matter. There is another exercise.
NAKED BODY, NAKED MIND
Light a little fire. All fire safety rules apply. Get it going well to
a medium size. Have nothing around you. No gear at all. Sit on the ground
in front of the fire and contemplate it. No clothes. Relax. Breathe. Don't
move. Reach out with your feelings.
Stand up. Turn around. Reach out with your feelings. Let the fire
caress you with its warmth. Feel the night press around you. Stoke the
fire up a little and then turn around and walk away. You want to walk
until you can still see the fire in the distance like a beacon. 60 or 70
feet should do it. Less if you're in heavy tree cover. Now sit down.
Relax. Breathe. Reach out with your feelings. You are a creature of the
night. Learn to be comfortable in this place too. Watch the fire die out.
Breathe. Relax. Do not move.
There are other lessons and exercises, but this is a start. Until you
can be comfortable in your own skin, and until that skin is comfortable in
the wilderness, you will never be anything but a tourist here. By day it
is an amusement park. A museum of the natural world that you look at
through a glass partition. By night it can be a house of horrors with
imagined monsters prowling in the dark. If you can beat all this, and
actually be HOME in this place, then everything I have said will make
perfect sense to you. You will cease to be a man and become a natural
animal. The difference will be subtle, and all the exercises that come
after that will be as plain to you as the lines in your own hand.