It's no secret that being outdoors is good for your health. Study after study has shown that spending time in nature can reduce cortisol levels (or the body's reaction to stress), increase vitamin D (known to boost mood), and reduce risks of depression and other psychiatric disorders.
These benefits may be doubly important to military veterans and service members affected by difficult and long workdays, deployments away from loved ones, and the lasting effects of combat experiences. Thankfully, the U.S. government and private organizations alike have begun to offer outdoor programs for veterans to get outside at little to no cost to themselves—if they know where to look.
Free Outdoor Programs for Veterans
On the governmental side, veterans get a free Military Lifetime Pass to national parks and outdoor education programs have begun accepting the GI Bill for tuition payment. In addition, a new bill in the works, known as the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act, could make outdoor recreation an official treatment option for veterans suffering from mental health disorders.
Plenty of nonprofit organizations in the U.S. also offer veterans outdoor experiences in everything from fly fishing to horse packing to mountaineering. These organizations are committed to giving back to the service members who've already given so much. They provide once-in-a-lifetime outdoor experiences as well as a deeper community, opportunities for self-discovery, and a sense of purpose.
Check out these top five outdoor organizations for veterans. The best part is, they're completely free!
1. Warriors and Quiet Waters
Montana-based Warriors and Quiet Waters hosts fly fishing and hunting retreats on its 112-acre ranch in Bozeman. Specifically designed for post-9/11 combat veterans who feel stuck or isolated and want to make positive changes in their lives, the programs helps veterans find purpose and meaning after their military service has ended.
The first-timers program, called Built For More, begins with five days of fishing in Montana, followed by six to 12 months of online support and community, where participants can explore spirituality and improve their mental health. Veterans then return to the ranch for a final five-day fishing experience.
Alumni of the Built For More program can apply for additional programs: Hunt for Purpose, which is a six-month bowhunting program; a multi-week photography learning experience; or a small-group couples' retreat with their spouse.
All costs associated with Warriors and Quiet Waters programs are free of charge to veterans, including round-trip airfare and even child care for the couples' retreats. Just be aware that applications are over a year out and with stiff competition for the relatively few spots.
2. Outward Bound
Outward Bound is one of the leading providers of outdoor education courses in the U.S. With expeditions across the country—from backpacking in Joshua Tree to sailing in the Florida Keys to dog sledding in the Boundary Waters—Outward Bound has something for everyone, including veterans.
The veterans-specific courses are open to active-duty service members as well as vets who've deployed as part of their service. They're designed to help veterans readjust to their lives at home through learning outdoor skills, becoming a part of an expedition team, and participating in group discussions. Outward Bound can also provide custom programs for groups of three or more veterans. Most of the veterans' courses are offered free of charge.
3. Heroes and Horses
Started by a former Navy SEAL, Heroes and Horses serves as an alternative way for combat veterans to learn to live with their physical and mental scars by redefining their purpose and taking ownership of their lives. The organization's main offering is a demanding, 41-day experience on Double-H Ranch in Montana that incorporates meditation, breathing techniques, and a backcountry wilderness experience.
At the ranch, veterans receive instruction on horsemanship, animal husbandry, and horse packing. The days are long and grueling, and they end with guided conversations about the tasks completed and the life lessons taught through the work. After a month on the ranch, veterans head out on a 10-day trip into the Montana backcountry with their horses and mules to put their new skills to the test and break through any self-imposed limits.
4. No Barriers
No Barriers is a Colorado-based organization that provides free-of-charge programs for veterans with disabilities. The goal is to help create a greater sense of belonging and self-discovery as those recovering from the physical and mental scars of service learn to define their new normal. No Barriers hosts two different experiences for veterans: Backcountry Expeditions and Basecamp Experiences.
Backcountry Expeditions take place either in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. They are typically five- to seven-day backpacking trips, river trips, or summit attempts.
Basecamp Experiences are hosted on the No Barriers campus in the northern Rocky Mountains, which offers lodging, ropes courses, and climbing walls. The Basecamp Experiences are meant to serve disabled vets with different needs and abilities who may not be able to complete a backcountry trip. Activities include whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and hiking, made accessible as needed.
Both experiences also include campfire conversations, journaling practices, and other activities to foster connection and self-exploration.
5. Veterans Expeditions
Let by vets for vets, Veterans Expeditions hosts outdoor expeditions to help attendees feel empowered and connected with a wider service member community. The programs are open to all who have served but are particularly designed for those returning home from combat.
The various excursions include winter backpacking trips in Washington, mountain biking and rock climbing in Utah, whitewater rafting, and even golfing.
Through these programs, Veterans Expeditions creates a community of folks with shared experiences both on and off deployment. The organization also offers a specific purpose to vets by creating employment opportunities for them in the outdoor industry.
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