An Interview with Sierra Club’s Stacy Bare on Health and the Outdoors

Stacy Bare, Director of Sierra Club Outdoors, has no small task ahead of him. He aims to reorient the way America does healthcare by redefining our public lands—all of our lands—as our largest and best public health (and preventative health) care system. To accomplish this feat, a great deal of research is required and possible thanks to the combined forces of the Greater Good Science Center and the University of California-Berkeley. Together, they’ve created the Great Outdoors Lab.

The Great Outdoors Lab is a cutting-edge, science-based approach to understanding, simply, how the outdoors impacts our psychological, physiological, and social health. With more and more generations growing up in urban environments, it’s important to understand that the more people who intimately know Earth, the more people will work to protect the land for future generations. This collection of data backs up what we already have a hunch about (but need proof!), along with instilling the idea that in order to appreciate nature, you need to connect with it. Read below as Stacy talks more about the Greater Good Lab, and what’s on their plate for 2016… including a Hipcamp partnership!

Hipcamp: You’ve said before that the outdoor industry (maybe even unbeknownst to them) is actually in the healthcare business. Can you elaborate on that?

Stacy: Time outside is powerful for preventative health care, as well as, I think, a positive intervention for several different mental and physical health ailments. The outdoor industry facilitates and encourages time outside, that being good for health, they’re in health care! We’re learning through a growing body of research, as well as our own partnership with the Greater Good Science Center at Cal-Berkeley, that time outside, often facilitated by the emotion of awe which occurs outdoors, makes you sleep better, reduces inflammation throughout the body, moderates your cortisol levels and DHEA hormones that all lead to improved health. People are more pro-social, empathetic, and likely to feel a part of a community and all of those things have huge health benefits. We think of outdoor recreation too often as a nice to have, rather a must have—but good health is a must-have, and running shoes, climbing gear, a good pack, an easy way to make a camping reservation—all of these things support good health and we may learn that in many cases, better than any medication for a lot of people.

HC: Do you think the outdoor industry and the general public would agree? And if not, what will it take to convince them?

SB: Not yet, though I think that’s starting to change with the growing research in reporting on the issue in academic and popular journals. We still think of health care as white coats (hospitals and clinics) and suits (insurance companies), bad fluorescent lighting, huge bills, and a a system that is difficult to access for most people. That’s not to say our existing health care practitioners are all bad, they’re just not as holistic as they need to be and we need to prioritize preventative health, something we don’t do in this country.

The system we have in place now still largely makes its money off of the # of procedures or pills assigned to one individual. Part of that is a desire in our country for a quick fix—a pill to solve it all, and part of it is just the screwed up incentives we have in health care generally.

HC: What will it take to change that?

SB: Research and more research to prove the hypothesis for policy makers, insurance officials, and hospital administrators to understand what happens when you go outside generally and what ‘doses of the outdoors’ are required to address issues—a walk around the park, a weekend backpacking trip, a week long rafting trip—and how long the effects matter. It will require good marketing and perhaps a fee for service model in the outdoors that can be modeled somewhat off of the pharmaceutical companies who have a huge profit incentive in a way that outdoor programs currently don’t—but they could. Imagine if your local guide company could take a doctor out on a climb so they’d prescribe Mountain Guides or Climbing Shoes alongside or instead of an anti-depressant?

Similar to health care in general, we have to make the outdoors accessible to all people, and right now it is not. Most folks living below a certain income level and without access to transportation, still can’t access our large public landscapes, let alone nearby parks—if there are nearby parks. So we also need to promote far more access.

I’m with Alex Honnold in the Waku Kungu region of Angola. (Photo by Abazar Khayemi)

HC: What role has the outdoors played in your own health?

SB: Everything. Without rock climbing I’m pretty confident I’d be pushing up daisies. Time outdoors introduced me to a group of people that accepted me for who I was, helped me define a new set of goals, commit to training, and gave me the encouragement I needed to seek out professional mental health treatment. It gave me a purpose and mission, supported my sobriety, helped me end addiction, made me happier and more positive in general, helped me lose about 40 pounds, keeps me sane. The list goes on and on.

HC: How do you see time outside benefitting mental health, physical health and spiritual health? Do you think it’s best for improving one over another?

SB: What’s great about time outdoors is that there is something for everyone and everyone will experience it a little bit differently so I think for some folks they’ll find an immediate spiritual connection that they want to keep pursuing and the improvements in physical health will be a huge, almost side benefit. For others, they’ll be drawn by the physical challenge and then look up one day deep in the woods, and feel this incredible sense of awe that triggers all these great things in their bodies, and still others may just stare out the window, dreaming about the serenity of a flower or outside a window and that relaxes them and from there they go outside and keep moving down the street looking for beauty…that’s what happened to my friend BriGette McCoy:

But honestly, part of the problem is we create divisions in health that aren’t actually there. Physical, mental, and spiritual health are in fact health. The body impacts the mind impacts the spirit which impacts the body.

HC: Who are some of the heroes working today to drive the outdoor health movement forward?

SB: Dr. Dacher Keltner and his research team at the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley who we work with, and Dr. Robert Zarr are two in a host of incredible doctors and researchers. Congresswoman Judy Chu from LA who helped ensure the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles became a national monument precisely for health issues, and of course the everyday practitioners of folks like Rue Mapp at Outdoor Afro, Vanessa Morrison and Morgan Dixon of Girl Trek, Jose Gonzalez of Latino Outdoors, My team that works hard everyday to connect more people to nature: Mel Mac Innis, Rob Vessels, Debra Asher, Susan Kohut and Sascha Paris and policy champs like my colleague Jackie Ostfeld…I could list a thousand people here all doing amazing work.

HC: I’m sure you’ve seen the Nature Rx video by now. What’d you think of it and do you have any other favorite pieces of media that talk about the importance of the outdoors?

SB: I thought it was good. It doesn’t address the need for increased diversity and diversity representation in the outdoors, which is a big fight we all need to be more consciously engaged in but I like it. I think REI‘s #optoutside campaign has been fantastic. What started out as a one day campaign I think has turned into a movement that will only keep growing. Duct Tape and Beer did this piece I referenced earlier about BriGette McCoy, that’s amazing—and they do the NatGeo Adventurer of the Year piece which is always incredible. With youtube and the democratization of film there’s a ton of great stuff out there. I honestly try and watch one or two inspiring media pieces every day to keep going. I think this is my favorite one right now—I mean, who doesn’t want to hang out with this guy?


HC: You’re a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. Super impressive. What’s your favorite NatGeo memory, photo or article?

SB: I got to write a blog for NatGeo, that was incredible. But as a kid, my grandparents in Lincoln, Nebraska had stacks and stacks of NatGeos and my brother and I would spend hours reading those, looking at photos, having them all spread out around the floor, making a huge mess. Its something I’m worried my daughter won’t have—because we’re all so digital and I love that tactile memory of reading and hanging magazines back and forth with my brother.

HC: Top three places to camp?


  1. Southern Utah. It’s a huge wild place and there’s so much beauty and shocking diversity in the landscape…pick anywhere and go!
  2. The Arctic. We don’t have a lot of big wild spaces like this left anywhere in the world and its one of the most incredible places in the world. Go there.
  3. The Boundary Waters in Winter. Its the closest thing to Alaska in the lower 48. So quiet, so immense. There’s something incredibly home like about being tucked up on a frozen lake next to a stand of huge evergreens in the winter.

Sadly, all of these places are at risk, so we must fight for places like this to stay healthy…because they are our best health care systems in the world.

HC: How does one even get into the running for an honor like that?

SB: Total luck. It could have been any number of great veterans out there getting this award doing great work to connect veterans and others to the outdoors like Sean Gobin of Warrior Hike, who got recognized as a CNN Hero of the Year; DJ Skelton who founded Paradox Sports, Nick Colgin who works with Warriors to the Summit, any one of a number of people from Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Team River Runner, etc.
Nick and I were lucky to know someone who knew someone who loved our story. Mary Anne Potts and her team do an incredible job and each year the adventurers they find are more and more amazing and I don’t think I’m worthy to be on the list.

HC: You’ve been returning to places to ski or climb that you’ve only previously visited under less than ideal circumstances while in the military. What’s driving that and where are you headed next?

SB: My experiences in a lot of these places was both incredibly positive and negative. There was a lot of beauty in each of these places that I could not fully engage and experience, both in the people and the landscape and unfortunately a lot of folks back here and outside of those areas only see the negative. I want to go back and fully explore the beautiful and hopefully help tell a story about these places that creates empathy and connection at a human level in the States and globally. Seems kind of arrogant when I say that, but these are incredible places with incredible people. I guess its a drive to share the human experience and in a way, to write a different end to my own personal story there. Its a hugely privileged position to be able to do it. Angola happened this last year and Alex Honnold came along which was awesome—he’s a super cool dude. 2017 could be a huge year for the project, maybe Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia—Abkhazia is also on the list and Siberia sort of as well. Nothing in 2016 though…expecting a little girl to join my wife and I…that should be the biggest expedition, eh?

HC: What’s your role as head of the Sierra Club Outdoors?

SB: To support and inspire our amazing volunteers and staff to connect 250,000 people a year to explore, enjoy, and protect the great outdoors. We have three main programs: Local OutingsInspiring Connections Outdoors, and Military Outdoors. Its the dream job I didn’t know I could ever have! I also work to find and develop innovative projects like the Great Outdoors Lab, partner with great people like you, and support the passions of our volunteers and staff. A huge emphasis for us right now is making the outdoors more accessible to all people regardless of race, religion, identity, or veteran status. The outdoors has to be for all people—in my mind our public lands represent our highest patriotic ideal.

HC: What is the Greater Good Science Center and what’ve you been up to with them?

SB: They’ve been 100% partners on our research with day one. We’re working at the cutting edge of science to determine the health benefits of time outdoors. They’re an incredible group headed up by the inestimable Dacher Keltner.

HC: Could you elaborate on your partnership with Hipcamp — what’s up your sleeve for 2016?

SB: We’re super stoked to be partnering with Hipcamp! We’re excited to work together on a conference highlighting things like outdoor research and keep sharing each others programming and ideas to inspire more people to get outside!

Stacy Bare is the Director of Sierra Club Outdoors, a 2014 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, 2015 SHIFT Conservation Athlete of the Year and is a brand ambassador for The North Face and Combat Flip Flops. A veteran of the war in Iraq, he lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and daughter.

Hipcamp is an online marketplace where you can list, discover, and book campsites and accommodations on private and public land. Hipcamp is your go-to guide to getting outside. If you’re a landowner, Hipcamp creates new revenue streams for your business, which can help conserve your land and keep it wild. #FindYourselfOutside #LeaveItBetter

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