illustration of Adam and Eve covering themselves
illustration of Adam and Eve covering themselves
A subset of us have enjoyed returning to our original state of nature. (Photo: Art Media/Print Collector/Getty)

One Woman’s Wholesome Mission to Get Naked Outside

After a lifetime of prudishness, our writer tries to become one of those people who bares it all in the great outdoors

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Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
—Genesis 3:25

My boyfriend, Dan, has a childhood memory that’s as vivid and warm as the day it was formed. He is four years old, running on Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, naked. As he runs he holds a plastic grocery bag above his head and jumps, letting the bag catch air and pretending it’s holding him aloft like a balloon. “The memory is so nice,” he says, “because I was so naked, and I could feel the strong wind flowing over my body.”

It’s weird to start a story about yourself with someone else’s memory. But I don’t have memories like this of my own. I never ran on a beach naked. I never played naked in the dirt. I don’t think there’s a single naked photo of me as a kid.

It’s not like I think I’ve been deprived. My fully clothed childhood was happy and fine. But I do think it’s probably why, as an adult, I don’t have the kinds of wild tales that Dan and my friends have; stories of skiing butt naked in the backcountry and mountain biking nude under the full moon. If we come upon an alpine lake midhike, I’m the person who gets in wearing my underwear, or worse, who doesn’t swim at all because I don’t want to pack wet clothes out. Once, on a hut trip, some friends stripped down to their avalanche beacons (safety first) and skied off the roof. I cheered and took photos from the sideline. In these moments, my modesty felt like an impediment. I admired my friends who were less inhibited, so comfortable in their own skin.

I did try loosening up. Years ago, some pals and I went on a backpacking trip to Conundrum Hot Springs, outside Aspen, Colorado. Like most backcountry springs, these were clothing optional, and the second morning at camp, I rallied everyone to get in naked.

At least I thought I did. I made it to the pool first, undressed, and got in. Then everyone else arrived.

And no one else got naked.

It was like a bad dream. Only instead of standing in front of a classroom, I was sitting in an alpine pool as clear as glass. I tried to fold my limbs strategically, and my friends and I looked around and made awkward conversation. At one point an older man arrived and, fully clothed, squatted poolside like a gargoyle, just watching. It was agonizing. I wouldn’t disrobe again in public for years.

But that was a long time ago. I’m in my late thirties and harder to embarrass now. So recently, as Dan was telling me about the time he modeled nude for an article in his college newspaper, I blurted out, “What if I became one of those naked people?” I was tired of listening to everyone else’s stories.

“Oh God,” Dan muttered. But he quickly got on board. A lifetime of prudishness would not be undone overnight, so we agreed I should design a training plan of sorts, progressing from a beginner-level warm-up (bathe in a nude hot spring?) to some intermediate challenge (wander around unclad at a clothing-optional resort?) and eventually to a graduation exercise (a naked ski or bike ride?). I would become one of those people I had always admired.

I would become someone who does naked stuff outside.

The original nudists, of course, were Adam and Eve, who at first were so sweet and dopey that they didn’t even realize they were naked. For a while, they had it made in the Garden of Eden, until the serpent duped them with an apple from the tree of knowledge, one of two forbidden trees. This opened their eyes to immorality, and notably, their first revelation was that they were nude. God cursed them and banished them from the garden, and for humanity, it has been downhill ever since.

However, a subset of us have enjoyed returning to our original state of nature. Practitioners of modern-day nudism, more popularly known as naturism, believe that exposure to fresh air, water, and sunlight, preferably while wearing little or no clothing, are key to better physical and mental health. Most of the occasionally nude outdoors people I spoke to distinguished themselves from naturists. But both groups seem to connect with the idea that chillin’ in your birthday suit brings you closer to nature. “The first time I went on a river trip, I was in shock when my girlfriends started getting naked,” says Jenny Verrochi, cofounder of Wild Barn Coffee, whose logo is a naked skier. Verrochi quickly learned that on the river, far from civilization, nudity is only natural. Other outdoor cohorts have their own naked traditions, like the butt-naked ski, immortalized by films like G.N.A.R. and Valhalla, and Naked Hiking Day, which falls on or around the summer solstice and inspires legions of through-hikers to amble in the buff. And Instagram abounds with (mostly tasteful) nudes shot in scenic adventure settings.

It was like a bad dream. Only instead of standing naked in front of a classroom, I was sitting in an alpine pool as clear as glass.

But attitudes toward nudity are changing. A 2015 New York Times article reported that, compared with baby boomers and Gen Xers, American millennial men are much less comfortable stripping down in front of strangers in locker rooms, and a 2018 Economist piece noted that younger Europeans, too, are increasingly shy. As causes, the Economist cited body-image issues stoked by social media, a fear of being photographed by ubiquitous smartphones, increased sensitivity toward unclothed interactions due to #MeToo, and the proliferation of online pornography, which has made it harder to desexualize nudity. Knowing all these ills are in the world, can you really blame my generation for covering up? We’ve come a long way from the innocence of the garden.

All the same, we might be missing out, because research shows that being nude in nonsexual settings can have positive impacts on our psychological well-being. A series of studies led by Keon West, a social psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, found that people who spent time nude in front of “non-intimate others” reported improved body image, self-esteem, and life satisfaction.

“Most people aren’t entirely happy with their bodies,” West explains. Again, that’s a product of the constant exposure to idealized bodies we get through the media. We compare ourselves with these images, and that hurts our own body image and mental health, he says. Viewing real bodies counters these effects.

West emphasizes that people who have cultural, religious, or even personal reasons for remaining clothed shouldn’t violate those values. But if you’re holding back because you’re afraid that people will recoil at the sight of your imperfections, “Well, that is a real shame,” he says. “Because the research shows that you’re not correct about that, or at least you’re vastly underestimating how good you look, or how people will respond to your body.”

West approves of my three-step plan, with one caveat. Based on my story about Conundrum Hot Springs, he remarks, “You’re a lot braver than I previously imagined.” He doesn’t think I personally need to slow-roll it. “If you can find a safe space to do it,” he suggests, “jump into the deep end.”

And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” — Genesis 3:22
rear view of person naked near a lake
(Tamara Lichtenstein/Trunk Archive)

Valley View Hot Springs lies at the end of a dirt road so long, straight, and lonely that you can hit 70 miles per hour without realizing it. The closest thing resembling a town (Moffat, Colorado, population 123) is 20 miles away.

The remoteness is reassuring. Valley View offers natural hot springs and spartan cabins in a clothing-optional setting that’s more scout camp than glamping resort. Groves of ash, poplar, and cottonwood—and, incidentally, two apple trees—burst forth from the otherwise scrubby landscape, lending the entire place the feel of a high-desert oasis. Even though it’s late January, radiant sun and blue skies contribute to the balmy atmosphere.

Dan and I arrive midday. Wrapped in towels, we hike a steep, loose trail up to the topmost hot spring, which is dug into a hillside within a grove of piñon pine. Everyone in the pool—two millennial couples and a middle-aged guy soaking peacefully alone in a corner—appears to be nude. I step out of my boots and place them under a wooden bench. Then I take a breath and unwrap my towel. No one even looks up. We slip into the steaming water.

I’m pretty desperate to unwind. For the past few months I’ve been anxious and misanthropic, increasingly jaded by a constant barrage of bad news that has made me question my once shiny view of human nature. I’d stopped making conversation with strangers and pulled back from all but a few very close friends. For a while I blamed the pandemic, but in reality, I was stuck in a bit of a self-perpetuating cycle: I expected everyone to annoy me, so everyone annoyed me.

I’m primed for immediate irritation, then, when a rakishly handsome blond guy who appears to be in his early thirties overhears us saying we’re from Golden, a small town in the foothills outside Denver, and interjects, “I mean, Golden is pretty much Denver,” before returning to dominate the conversation he’d been having with his young-looking girlfriend and two sweet-faced twentysomethings. He reminds me of one of those know-it-all bros who have become endemic in Colorado’s urban Front Range, always sizing you up in the trailhead parking lot through their Pit Vipers before deciding if you’re cool enough to acknowledge. I hold my magazine over my face and roll my eyes.

Fortunately, he eventually departs. For a while, Dan and I talk idly about nothing, and I enjoy the novel sensation of water coursing over parts of my body that are normally girded by a bikini. Another couple get in the pool, and we strike up a conversation. Both men look handsome enough to be on television. One of them claps his hands with delight when he learns that I’m writing about this experience. “A year ago, I don’t think I would have been comfortable doing this either,” he says. They’d walked up in shorts and only stripped once they saw that everyone else was naked. But being here, seeing and finding all these different bodies beautiful in a nonsexual way, he marvels, “It makes you realize our bodies are amazing, what they do.”

I leave the pool full of warm affection for our new friends. I was going to wait until tomorrow for this next-level exercise, but what the hell. I drape my towel over my shoulder and start hiking down in the buff. Sunlight bathes my chest, my stomach, the soft parts of my thighs.

Movement above catches my eye. A gray-haired man, maybe in his fifties, walks down the hillside to the pool we just left. He is nude but for hiking shoes and a backpack that is belted at the waist, and he holds trekking poles. Our eyes meet and he smiles, an expression that’s almost childlike. I smile back.

A few minutes later, I hear new footsteps crunching. A young man with a long black ponytail and wearing basketball shorts is walking up the trail, talking on the phone. I hesitate—should I pull my towel around me?—but then he seems to acknowledge the sudden nakedness that both his clothing and his device makes me feel. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly, lowering his phone, “still connected to the real world for now.”

To be nude requires a certain level of trust—trust that we can present our soft, unarmored selves without being judged or leered at.

As we walk on, I’m overcome by an emotion I can’t yet place. A common refrain from nudists is that being stripped down makes everyone equal. It’s tough to posture or flex your ego when you’re naked. (Later, Dan would observe that that’s what made the blond bro so obnoxious: his behavior seemed like a violation.) I’m disarmed by the interactions I’m having here, by the mutual vulnerability they ask of me and of the strangers I’m meeting. To be nude requires a certain level of trust—trust that we can present our soft, unarmored selves without being judged or leered at, that we’ll be treated with kindness and respect.

Before I came to Valley View, I spoke with Meghan Sinnot, organizer of the Portland, Oregon, chapter of the World Naked Bike Ride, an international “bare as you dare” protest against fossil-fuel dependency. She had described the feeling of cycling nude alongside thousands of strangers. “You just feel beautiful,” she said, “and you feel like the world is good.”

Being naked in front of others is having all the effects that West said it might. I am seeing and appreciating other bodies, and appreciating the beauty of my own. But it’s having another effect that’s taking me by surprise. It’s restoring some of my faith in people.

On a Wednesday night in February, I meet two friends on a dark canyon road above Boulder. We don headlamps, shoot whiskey, and slip on several layers we plan to remove in short order. Then, under the glow of a half-moon, we set off into the woods.

I feel mostly dread, but it has less to do with being naked in front of my friends and more to do with hiking naked at night in February in Colorado. It wasn’t easy to find accomplices for something this dumb. I’d gone through a short list of more seasoned outdoor nudies, all of whom were “busy,” before sending an SOS to a group chat of my closest girlfriends. They are rarely-nudes like me, but what they lacked in credentials they made up for in loyalty. My phone pinged twice: “What time?” asked my friend Butcher. “You owe me a Coke,” replied my friend Mel.

Mel and I had hammered out the logistics: Naked night hike instead of naked mountain bike, for obvious safety reasons. National forest instead of city open space, to minimize the chance of exposing ourselves to innocent bystanders (a ground rule of mine for the experiment). We’d avoid dying of hypothermia by hiking in puffies until we’d generated enough body heat. Butcher didn’t contribute much to planning, but she did show up in a shirt that read PANTS? MORE LIKE LEG PRISONS, and made a lot of jokes about buttholes.

About half a mile in, out of sight of the road, we strip down to nothing but our packs, boots, gloves, and beanies. Surprisingly, there’s not a  hint of shyness among us. “You guys, we’re so cute!” Mel exclaims. My worries about the cold dissipate as we tramp up the hill; our exertion generates enough heat to keep us comfortable. Our bodies are amazing, what they do. I feel strangely normal and not at all exposed—the opposite of the feeling I’d had at Conundrum all those years ago. As West said, “There’s not so much an appropriate level of clothing as an appropriate level of clothing for a situation.”

A brochure from Valley View explains that there is a subtle difference between being nude somewhere sanctioned and somewhere not: “Unlike stripping or streaking, being naked here is practical, not provocative.” Activities like what we’re doing now, on the other hand, have an illicit spirit about them; there’s more of a thrill involved.

But the experience can still be transformative. Last March, Verrochi of Wild Barn Coffee led a naked backcountry ski lap for 22 women. “It was the most freeing feeling I’ve felt in my life,” she tells me. “We were all laughing and howling. It was like everyone just came back to a childhood version of themselves.”

Part of the fun is the sense that you’re getting away with something, she acknowledges. But the other part, she says, is reversing the shame around nudity that many of us, especially women, learned growing up. “We were always taught to cover up, and now we’re exposing our bodies as adults,” she says. “It’s our choice, and it’s so powerful, and only women really understand that.”

My friends and I walk into a clearing. We admire the city lights in the distance, the clouds glowing in the pewter sky.

We take some photos here, which proves to be our undoing—standing still allows the cold to catch up to us at last. We pull out the wearable sleeping bags we packed for a quick cover-up in such a scenario. But as Butcher wriggles into hers, she becomes stuck, and Mel has to help her tug the bag up over her bare hips. “This is the first moment I have felt naked,” Butcher says.

Making our way out of the woods, I’m filled with love for my friends. In German there’s a common expression, mit jemandem Pferde stehlen können. It translates literally as “someone you can steal horses with,” or basically, a partner in crime. Taking my clothes off with others wasn’t the exercise in courage or cutting loose that I thought it would be. It was an exercise in faith. To be naked, I had to believe that the world could be good. And tonight it feels like it can be.

Verrochi says she experienced a similar connection with the other women during their naked ski, a bond that came from stepping out of their comfort zones together. It inspired immense joy. “I had goose bumps not because I was cold but because I was so happy,” she says.

I still have yet to know the feeling of running down a beach unclothed while holding a plastic bag above my head. But I can leave you with this memory now, which is my own. It is a memory as cold and dark and vivid as the night it was formed. I am walking through the woods under the moonlight, like Eve returning to the garden. My friends walk beside me, and a strong wind courses over our bodies. We are naked and we do not know it.

From May/June 2022 Lead Photo: Art Media/Print Collector/Getty