As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, the need for connecting and prioritizing your mental health does not. The theme for this year’s #MHAM is “You are Not Alone.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states: “Now more than ever, we need to find ways to stay connected with our community. No one should feel alone or without information, support and help they need.” The link between mental wellbeing and the outdoors is without contest— The question, then, becomes how do we build community around this? I recently sat down with Leo Walker, co-founder and current president of HIKE for Mental Health, a non-profit organization dedicated to alleviating the suffering of mental health through organized group hikes to promote the benefits of hiking while funding mental health research and trail conservation.

Leo, how did HIKE for Mental Health come about?

In April 2011 Tom, Nancy and I, having never met before and coming from completely different professions in different parts of the country, arrived at the same hotel in New Jersey for extended stays for our respective jobs. Within a week, we met each other in the hotel restaurant and began planning weekend activities to entertain ourselves during our time away from home. Through conversations on weekend hikes along the Appalachian Trail, we discovered a shared desire to do something to give back, something that involved hiking and the grounding it brought to our lives. One day as we were noodling out ideas, I turned to Tom and asked, So why do we hike? And without pause Tom answered, “We hike for mental health.”

That was the beginning of HIKE for Mental Health. Tom, Nancy and I wanted to help others discover what hiking could bring to their lives. Quickly, we realized we could also use our hikes to raise funds for brain & behavior research. Why fund research? Because mental illness is often accompanied by a stigma which can be as debilitating as the disease itself, we believed that increased scientific research would shed increasing light on the mysteries surrounding mental illness and help to extinguish that stigma.

Since those days in New Jersey ten years ago, thousands of hikers from 39 states and five countries have participated in HIKE for Mental Health. We continue to self-fund most of our operating costs with our day jobs so 100% of the money raised from our hikes supports our mission. Eighty percent of those funds drive break-through research with the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, while twenty percent goes to non-profit trail maintenance organizations to conserve wilderness trails. In total, our hikers have raised more than half a million dollars, including more than $50,000 for programs for veterans battling PTSD.

How does HIKE for Mental Health support its mission?

Two main ways. First, we organize small group hikes. Through these hikes, we introduce people to the benefits of time outdoors, create stigma-free zones for conversations about mental illness, and help our hikers to experience the sense of accomplishment from completing a hike and the restoration that many feel from time in Nature. We also share Leave No Trace principles. We are not therapists and the hikes are not therapy per se, but for many they are therapeutic. Others join just because they like to hike.

In addition to group hikes, we also enable people planning their own hikes – day hikes, weekend hikes, section hikes or thru hikes – to register their hike with us. Hikers on the AT, PCT, CDT or any other trail can share their story about what hiking means to them while also raising funds for mental health research and trail conservation.

Registration for our hikes is free, and hikers are able to share their hikes and stories via a personal fundraising page so that friends and families can show support with encouraging words and donations. 

Whether doing a group hike or registering their own hike, each hiker who raises $100 or more will receive a quick-dry HIKE for Mental Health hiking shirt as our thank you. We pay for these out of our own pockets so that all the funds raised by the hikers can go to our mission.

What are the different ways to be involved?

We are an all-volunteer group so everything we do relies on the generosity, time and talent of volunteers. I suppose the obvious answer to getting involved is to sign up and join a hike, or register a hike you are already planning. Of course, none of our hikes happen without great leaders, so we always need experienced, outgoing hikers who want to organize and lead a day-hike for us. We also rely on behind-the-scenes volunteers to work on our website and social media, to provide hiking photography, and to write blog articles about hiking and mental health, among other things. Finally, since 100% of the funds raised through our hikes go to our mission, donations to help us offset our out-of-pocket costs – for the shirts, bandanas, website hosting, software licensing, and everything else we need to operate – are always appreciated. 

Any suggestions for someone interested in hiking for the first time?

Do it! Get outside into Nature, even if just for a few hours. If you’re not sure where to go, connect with a local hiking club – hikers are always happy to help newbies – or just Google “hiking trails near me.” For most hikes, you do not need a lot of specialized gear, but you do want to be prepared. There are great gear lists online such as to get you started. Quality fitted hiking shoes or boots, properly fitted by an outfitter or specialist, are a good place to start.  Of course, if you are looking for an amazing first hike, check out our Summit Mt. Washington in August. Yes, it is strenuous, but every year, first time hikers with a wide range of physical abilities tell us how the experience changed their life and restored their souls.

Any events you’re particularly looking forward to?

As you might guess, our most popular hike is our annual Summit Mt. Washington, which brings together novice and veteran hikers alike to ascend the highest mountain in the Northeast each August. 2021 will be our 10th year for Summit Mt. Washington. Also popular is our Bear Mountain (NY) Hike to Oktoberfest each fall. We hope to resume that tradition this year. The autumn foliage in the Hudson River Valley is stunning, and hiking into the region’s Oktoberfest celebration is a great way to cap off an exhilarating morning trek.

Finally, we have a month-long program called #hikeOctober that allows people to hike wherever they choose, as much or as little as they want, during the month of October. #hikeOctober came about because people wanted to join a hike for mental health, but we didn’t have one scheduled near them. As a “virtual” event, everyone can participate. Hikers contribute their miles to the total, and we celebrate as the miles and dollars rise through the month.   



To check out HIKE for Mental Health, visit Upcoming group hikes include a Mt. Washington ascent, Sleeping Giant State Park, and Fernwood State Forest. There’s also at-your-own pace hikes for AT hikers, horseback riders, and trail blazers who wish to create their own, among others.  Share the joy of hiking while bringing hope to those battling mental illness by supporting this awesome organization.