Two US war veterans have made it their mission to help more people explore the great outdoors and experience the healing benefits of nature.
Cathy Estrella and Michael Hamilton, who have a combined 32 years of service in the Navy, know all too well the terrible effects that stress and isolation can have on your health.
Having been involved in combat operations including Afghanistan and Kuwait, while dealing with the challenges involved with family and personal lives back home, the pair have used nature as therapy for decades.
“I firmly believe in the healing powers of nature,” said 54-year-old New Hampshire native, Cathy, who now lives in Orange County, California.
“You just have to look towards Japan where they have spent decades researching the effects of nature on human health, and where they have actually been prescribing ‘forest bathing’ for over 40 years now.”
Walking, hiking, and biking in the forest and enjoying open spaces with her children over the years are what inspired Cathy to enter the molded fiberglass camper trailer business with Southern California resident and Kentucky native, Michael Hamilton.
Recently becoming sole distributors of Cortes Campers in California together, the pair emphasize the need for families to escape their hectic lifestyles – and recharge their batteries by spending more time outdoors.
With Michael retiring after 22 years in the Navy and Cathy serving for 10 years, they fully understand the need for us all to look after our mental health properly and reconnect with nature.
Michael said: “Living a life on confined ships certainly makes a person appreciate not being able to enjoy the peace and quiet of nature. There’s nowhere to go to escape the hum of the engines and equipment.
“People live in extremely close quarters for extended periods of time. There’s a level of stress in that atmosphere that sailors rarely complain about and is rarely talked about.
“During Covid the world got a glimpse into what kind of life that would be. Couples and families began to understand the need to escape the house; many were able to maintain their mental health by going walks and getting out in nature.
“We firmly believe that the outdoors, walking in forests, and going on adventures in the wilderness can play a big part in addressing our nation’s health problems – and that’s why we’re encouraging people to do just that through our relationship with Cortes Campers.”
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Cathy and her son moved to a small cottage on the island of Eastport, Maine where, for quite a while, there were no Covid cases and they had freedom to explore the outdoors.
She said: “While California and the rest of the world were on lockdown, we were biking, hiking, walking, and roaming through the forests of Maine, fishing in the ocean, and living our life.
“Honestly, I have a great appreciation for the benefits of being outside. I grew up in New Hampshire where outdoor recreation was very important to our lifestyle and still is.
“We were fortunate because this is an idyllic life for any child, and I realize that to have that during Covid was a gift of massive proportions. My son was only seven when the world shut down.
“I believe I’d have a different child if we hadn’t been able to get outdoors as he doesn’t have any siblings close to his age and he has a lot of energy. He needed that freedom and the socialization that many children were deprived of.”
Post-pandemic there was a surge in camper trailer sales, with people aching to get out of the house and transform their lifestyle following the chaos and claustrophobia of Covid.
Michael adds that camper trailers and camping have been the iconic American getaway for a very long time and this seems to be a common activity people turned to when they could finally get outside. It makes sense in many ways considering the costs associated with travel: flights, hotels, eating out, etc.
Michael mentions the draw of Cortes Campers was the appeal to the general population, “I guess what interested us the most was that this brand is quite lightweight which doesn’t require the additional cost of buying a large truck to tow it. Cortes can be towed by nearly any SUV.
“They are sturdy and durable and offer the comforts of a tiny home away from home, which is a nod to the tiny home movement that has been around for some time now, however, at the end of the day, not everyone can buy a camper but everyone can find a way to get outside and this is important to both of us. We spent careers serving our country and in a small way, promoting health and wellness for others is a way to continue to serve.”
Cathy, whose education and career, in and aside from the Navy, includes psychology, nursing and a master’s degree in Public Health from Loma Linda University, is all about the science. She points towards the studies which show that ‘forest bathing’ – being quiet among trees and observing nature – lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of harmful hormones.
According to Cathy, “This isn’t about living off the land and escaping into the woods and never going home or necessarily long-term camping stints. This is about taking time, even short periods of time, like a walk a few times a week, to breathe and relax in natural surroundings.”
The Forest Bathing Institute (TFBI) in the UK has followed in the footsteps of the Japanese. Along with researchers at the University of Derby in England, TFBI published a study in 2019 which measured the impact of Forest Bathing on physiological wellbeing and mental health.
Forest bathing sessions were led by two qualified practitioners from the Forest Bathing Institute and involved guided discovery, mindful appreciation of woodland, and stopping to observe using all of the senses and engaging in slow, relaxing breathing. Some leaned against trees, others sat under tree canopies.
The results showed improvements in mood (especially in cases of anxiety), feeling more connected to nature, negative rumination diminished, and participants had more compassion towards themselves and others. Monitoring also showed improvements in heart rate variability.
The findings of this study directly led to Guildford Council in Surrey, England, promoting forest bathing as a social prescription through medical practices, and the government then asked The Forest Bathing Institute to treat 200 patients in a pilot social health program.
In Japan, the Nippon School of Medicine and Professor Qing Li, a world-renowned expert, have led the way in evidencing the benefits of ‘Shinrin-yoku’ (forest bathing).
It is seen as a preventative therapeutic intervention for people who suffer from depression, anxiety, mental health issues, and physical complaints such as high blood pressure.
Japan now has over 60 accredited woodland trails across the country, including major cities, where workers are encouraged to take time out each day and go for a walk along these trails, with the aim of de-stressing and recharging.
Both Cathy and Michael point out the psychological signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety that we see across news headlines in America today.
According to Michael, “Covid didn’t cause stress and anxiety in America but if we are honest, the Pandemic certainly didn’t help things either. We have a beautiful country with some amazing public outdoor spaces, and we are hoping more and more people will take advantage of the beauty of these spaces and in doing so improve their state of mind, even if only incrementally.”
Cathy said: “We can all learn a lot from Japan when it comes to public health. We hope that through Cortes Campers in California we will succeed in promoting outdoor recreation, in part by also be actively supporting community outreach activities that assist people from all walks of life to get outside and see for themselves how much this can benefit their health.”