A form of wilderness therapy developed in Japan, Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” has caught on in the United States in recent years as more people are turning to the outdoors to bolster their health and overall well being.
To clarify, forest bathing has nothing to do with soaking in water. (Though you certainly can add that to your experience if you want.) In general, the practice involves walking slowly or sitting in the forest, opening your senses to your surroundings and consciously seeking connections to nature.
In Maine, the most forested state in the country, this practice is especially easy to pursue.
“It’s really just reconnecting with your natural environment in a very personal way,” said Jeff Brogan, who guides forest bathing excursions throughout Maine. “It’s going into nature with the purpose of improving health and wellbeing and also rekindling your relationship with the natural world.”
A Registered Maine Guide, Brogan is also a certified Forest Therapy Guide through the California-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, which involved a week of intensive training followed by a six-month practicum guided by a curriculum and mentor.
When Brogan guides forest bathing walks, he typically covers less than 1 mile in the woods and ends with a ceremony of sharing tea made from foraged local plants.
“For a lot of people, just the basic step of slowing down is extremely challenging because we live in a crazy, hectic world now,” Brogan said. “People are used to going a million miles an hour all day long, and the mind and body are almost never in the same place.”
The practice of forest bathing hinges on belief that time spent under the canopy of a forest — or in other wild habitats — can benefit a person in multiple ways. While the experience is unique to the practitioner, forest bathing is often said to reduce stress, spark creativity, improve mood, and even strengthen the immune system and promote physical healing.
“It requires you to open your senses and let the environment and natural world kind of come to you,” Brogan said. “It’s definitely something that has to be practiced. It’s very different from say going for a hike. The more you do it, the more you practice it, the deeper the relationship you have with the environment will be.”
While Brogan believes that forest bathing can be practiced in any natural environment, including deserts and meadows, he prefers some outdoor locations to others. When selecting a trail for a group forest bathing walk, he takes several things into account.
First and foremost, Brogan considers the difficulty of the trail. For most groups, he selects easier paths with few obstacles. However, if a group is especially athletic, he may plan a more difficult trek that leads to a scenic location where they can then slow down and forest bathe.
In addition, Brogan takes into account the vegetation on and around the trail. He prefers places with an open understory, where people can spread out and sit down on the forest floor without becoming tangled in underbrush. And he avoids places with poison ivy and poison oak, both of which cause bad skin rashes.
Brogan also avoids places where man-made noises might drown out the sounds of nature.
“A bit part of it is actually remembering what it’s like to listen to the wind blow through the trees and listen to birdsong or a babbling brook,” Brogan said. “If you have constant road noise or people’s leaf blowers or chainsaws going off nearby, it definitely takes away from that.”
In addition, during the spring and early summer — the buggiest times in Maine — it may be best to stay away from especially wet forests, where mosquitoes and blackflies are more numerous. Instead, you may want to take your forest bathing to the coast or a mountaintop, where the wind can blow biting insects away.
A word of caution: While forest bathing in Maine, watch out for ticks, which can transmit diseases. Because forest bathing is largely a sedentary practice, it presents ticks plenty of opportunities to crawl onto your body. Currently, ticks are present throughout the entire state of Maine, but they’re far more numerous in the southern half of the state and along the coast. Stay out of tall grass and underbrush, which is prime tick habitat. Also, wearing clothing treated in permethrin can help repel ticks. And always perform several tick checks after spending time outdoors. To learn more about protecting yourself from ticks, visit the University of Maine Tick Lab website.
If thinking of trying forest bathing and would prefer to practice without a guided experience, a few helpful books have recently been published on the topic, including “Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature” by Amos Clifford, the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, and “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness” by Qing Li, an expert in forest medicine and a medical doctor at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School. Both books were released in 2018. Try finding them at your local bookstore or library!
As for where to forest bathe—sometimes the best place is right in your backyard, granted you have one. However, if you don’t live on a property that features pocket of wilderness, or if you’re simply looking for an outdoor experience away from home, there are many public trails that I think would be excellent for this activity. Here are just a few:
Frank E. Woodworth Preserve in Harrington
Located in a small eastern Maine town, this beautiful preserve sees limited traffic, even during Maine’s busy summer months. (This makes it ideal for forest bathing, since frequently interacting with other trail users can be disruptive to the practice.) The forest of this preserve contains a lot of old red spruce, northern white cedar, white birch and stands of fragrant balsam fir trees. A carpet of lush green moss covers much of the forest floor, and colorful mushrooms and lichens are abundant. The preserve is home to a 2.6-mile trail network, and if you’re not keen on sitting on the ground, there are rustic benches located at overlooks along the shore, when you can breathe in the salty breeze coming off the ocean.
Bog Brook Cove Preserve in Trescott and Cutler
Stretching along the Bold Coast in eastern Maine, the 1,770-acre Bog Brook Cove Preserve is owned and maintained by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and features about 5 miles of hiking trails for people of all skill levels. These trails visit cobblestone beaches, travel over a ridge and wind through a mixed forest to a freshwater pond and scenic outlooks along the rocky coast. Because of its location being so far east, this preserve sees limited traffic. And due to its large size, even if you are sharing it with other visitors, you likely won’t bump into each other too often.
Branch Lake Public Forest in Ellsworth
Covering 239 acres of forestland on the shore of Branch Lake, this public forest as conserved in 2010, and features 3 miles of hiking trails. The land connects to more than 7,000 acres of unfragmented forest, which makes it an especially quiet, tranquil place to enjoy nature. For forest bathing, you could find a nice spot in the forest — I suggest somewhere along the Lake Loop, which travels through a mostly evergreen forest — or you could sit on a rock on the lakeshore.
Furth and Talalay Nature Sanctuaries in Surry
Located next to each other, these two sanctuaries two rectangular parcels of beautiful mixed forest and share a network about 2 miles of hiking trails. These trails travel through a mossy old-growth forest filled with towering white pines and hemlocks, old white and yellow birch trees, and stands of northern white cedars. The sanctuaries also feature younger stands of trees and bubbling brooks.
Edgar M. Tennis Preserve in Deer Isle
Covering about 145 acres on the coast of Deer Isle, this preserve is especially quiet because parking for it is limited. The preserve features a 3.4-mile trail network that travels through a spruce-fir forest full of bright green moss and lichen to viewpoints and beaches on the ocean.
Fernald’s Neck Preserve in Lincolnville
This 328-acre preserve occupies much of a peninsula that juts out into Megunticook Lake, a beautiful body of water in Lincolnville and Camden. It’s home to an old evergreen forest, nearly 4 miles of shoreline, The Great Bog, and about 3.5 miles of walking trails. While this preserve is fairly popular, it’s not usually as crowded as some of the nearby hikes in the Camden Hills. Dogs aren’t permitted, which removes one potential distraction to forest bathing. And if you grow tired of being in the forest, there are plenty of overlooks on the lake that would be ideal locations for slowing down and embracing the natural world.
Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson
Home to nearly 30 miles of multi-use forest trails, Hidden Valley Nature Center is a nonprofit education center that gives visitors access to 1,000 acres of contiguous forest in Lincoln County, including more than a mile of shoreline on Little Dyer Pond. Because of the sheer size of this property, its trails seem especially removed from civilization. And with so much space to share, it’s very easy for visitors to find their own spots to be alone and commune with nature.
Torsey Pond Nature Preserve in Readfield
With mixed forest uplands filled with ferns, a mile of shoreline and significant wading bird and waterfowl habitat, this 92-acre preserve is a great place to unwind. It features a 2-mile network of easy walking trails and a wildlife observation blind — a small building with a partially open front — at the edge of Torsey Pond. Because this preserve is located in a small town that’s removed from big tourist destinations, it’s usually fairly quiet, attracting mostly local residents.
Moose ponds loop near Greenville
Located in the hilly forest near Moosehead Lake, this 3.8-mile loop trail is moderately difficult and leads through a mostly evergreen forest to the shores of Big Moose and Little Moose ponds. Compared to other trails in the region, this one less challenging and less traveled, making it a nice quiet place for forest bathing.
River Pond Nature Trail near Millinocket
Located just outside Baxter State Park’s southern boundary, this 5-mile network of trails visits several interesting natural features, including the West Branch of the Penobscot River, a black spruce plantation, and the scenic shore of River Pond, which provides a stunning view of nearby Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain. This isn’t well known and therefore doesn’t see much traffic.
Greenlaw Brook Division of Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge
Featuring a network of about 5 miles of trails, the Greenlaw Brook Division of the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge is home to a variety of habitats, including a mixed forest, a beaver flowage, a large brook and two ponds. The property’s Spruce Hill Trail travels through a thick spruce forest that may be an especially peaceful place to forest bathe. Another great location may be on the edge of one of the ponds, where ducks and geese are often seen. Located in far northern Maine, this property is never crowded.