We spoke with Abbie Barnes – a presenter, filmmaker, and mountain leader whose mission is to empower others to improve their mental and physical health by connecting to nature through adventures in the natural world.
Barnardo’s has partnered with Abbie to inspire children, young people and families to find their next adventure outdoors. Read on to find out the biggest benefits to getting outside, what skills you might need, and how to enjoy nature if getting outdoors is difficult.
How did being out in the wild become so important in your life?
Being out in the wild became really important for me when I was quite young. It was sort of around the age of 11 or 12 that I started to take myself off into the fields and the countryside around the town where I lived. I became really interested in birds in particular and learning the different bird songs. I also loved wildflowers as well – just seeing the transient beauty throughout the seasons where no two days were the same. Everything was always changing, and the beauty just completely captivated me.
My relationship with nature got a lot deeper as I got a bit older when I started to realize that I was struggling a lot with my mental health. When I walked through that gate and into those fields, I became much more confident in myself and the struggles that I was dealing with were left behind. From there, my love of nature has just grown vaster and more awe-inspiring as the days go by!
What are the benefits for young people getting out into nature?
Young people are dealing with the stresses of not just education but also figuring out who you are as a person. I really believe that getting out into the natural world can help us on that journey of self-discovery just as much as it can be about discovering the outside world. It allows you to take more time to be in the moment and enjoy the sensations that being out in nature can bring – whether that’s feeling fresh air, the warm sun, or the cool flow of a river.
For me, it's a place of healing and restoration, but it's also a place of creativity and inspiration, of challenge, and of immense beauty. It can give us a sense of meaning and purpose, and it can give us a sense of hope because there's no judgment from nature. It's a place where you're welcome and where you belong.
What’s your advice for young people who are planning on going hiking or camping in the wilderness?
I think one of the most important skills that young people can learn if they're going to be getting out into wild places is patience. It can be hard work carrying everything you need on your back, even if it's just for the day, and you need to remember to look after yourself.
For me, curiosity is really an attribute that can make or break an adventure. And an adventure can be anything from stepping outside, walking your dog and seeing something new, to climbing the highest mountain on the continent – it’s what you want to make of it.
Tell us about your most challenging experience in nature - what did you learn about yourself from that experience?
I spend a lot of time alone in quite wild and remote places and while it can seem very idyllic – and quite often it is – it's hard work. The most challenging experience I've had, at least most recently, was walking in the Outer Hebrides right up in the northwestern point of Scotland, and I was by myself for 12 days. It was raining all the time and it was really boggy, and mentally I was in a pretty rubbish place. I was also in a lot of pain, and I don't do myself any favours because I basically never quit when I’m on the trail.
But I think part of that drive comes from knowing that there's always a bigger purpose to things if you're looking for it. And as miserable as I was, as rotten as my feet got, as much as I stank – reaching the end was a phenomenal experience, and I wouldn't have felt that joy, relief, and pride if it hadn't been that hard. Every time something gets hard in my life, whether on the trail or in day-to-day existence, I build a bit more resilience and awareness that I’m going to come out the other side.
What does ‘adventure is an attitude’ mean to you and how can young people bring more adventure into their lives?
Adventure is an attitude is the motto I carry with me every single day. After having so many awesome adventures in different countries and on the trails, when I’d come back to my normal life, I found myself disappointed with the ordinariness. But I realized that there's actually so much beauty in the ordinary – I just needed to change my perspective and seek out things that made me feel more like myself.
That means following your heart, taking risks, challenging yourself, and discovering what we can about ourselves – whether that’s out on the trail or just in your daily life. The more you can practice being brave as a young person, the stronger you're going to become as an adult.
Do you have any recommendations for ways you can enjoy nature if it's difficult for you to get to a nature reserve or a park?
For me, there are a million ways we can connect with nature on a day-to-day basis, and it doesn't even necessarily mean we have to leave our own front door. If we have houseplants, take some time to look at the plants a little bit closer and notice those tiny little speckles or that little spider that you didn't notice was living amongst the leaves. When you turn on the tap and place your hands underneath that running water, you can feel nature. Even just taking a moment to breathe in deeply and remember that you are a part of nature, too.
Getting close to nature can also mean stepping into the role of stewardship because we need to protect nature now and protect it for future generations to come, and we can help to do that by trying to be more conscious with our decisions. When we go shopping, try to eat close to nature by eating fruits and vegetables that are grown seasonally, things that have lived in the earth or grown on a tree – maybe something that we can potentially even pick and grow ourselves whether it's herbs or strawberries. You can look for things that come in less plastic packaging or choose to buy more environmentally friendly products, and make sure to take the time to really sort your recycling out. All my old walking boots get recycled into strawberry growing pots!
What's your favourite place to go in the UK and why?
I really can’t pick just one place! We are so blessed living in the UK; there is almost every possible landscape we could ever want to experience here whether it's the moors, the valleys, the rivers, the forests, the mountains, or the farmland. We have 50 national parks in our country which are protected landscape space for the flora and fauna, but also for their cultural, archaeological, and historical significance.
If you’re trying to decide where you want to get out into nature in the UK, the best thing you can do is ask yourself: ‘Why do I want to go outside?’ Are you interested in archaeology, rare plant species, or birds? Do you want to learn how the land has been managed or do you want to get as far away as you possibly can from civilisation? After a little bit of research, you can find an adventure waiting for you right on your doorstep.