Heading into the wild, there is an innate sense that technology is not welcome. Passing over tall mountain ranges and through thick wet rainforests, there is nothing square, nothing shiny, and no notifications. But reach the summit of a popular mountain, whether you’re in Nepal, New Zealand or the U.S., and you will increasingly find a line of people with phones in hand, waiting patiently for that shot.
So, what is technology’s relationship with the wild? Is social media’s love affair with the outdoors destroying the very thing it celebrates or reintroducing us to the natural world and reigniting an awareness and appreciation for something that needs our protection?
The purist’s point of view
The Leave No Trace Centre for Outdoor Ethics, an international organisation that promotes seven principles for a healthy interaction with the outdoors, made an interesting decision in 2019. They amended their social media guidance to explicitly state that “Shaming is Not the Answer”.
Dana Watts, Executive Director of Leave No Trace, has said that “Leave No Trace should not be used to exclude anyone, online or outdoors, and we are working to ensure that it is a tool that works for all people.”
This has come as a response to the vitriol seen online towards those who don’t comply with the purist’s view of getting outside. People are accused online, implicitly or not, of failing to have the correct form of respect for or relationship with the outdoors. Some argue that there is only one way to connect with the wild and that is unfettered by digital distraction.
It is hard to argue against some of this logic. Enter #bisonselfie. In 2015, five people were attacked by bison in Yellowstone Park either when they tried to get a selfie or image of the animals. In one instance, a woman was less than 18 feet away from the bison and had her back to the animal as she tried to get a selfie. In California, the U.S Forest Service threatened to close a hike as people were rushing bears in an attempt to get pictures with the animals.
But this inflexible criticism of how people now relate with the outdoors, such as through social media and other digital forms, might fail to see how technology is lifting people's consciousness towards the health of the environment and the value of the outdoors for their own health.
What's so wrong with getting pumped?
Technology has for a long time been synonymous with exercise, but recently its influence on performance has been studied further. A 2015 research team published their findings in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research in which they found that various forms of music – from slow or fast music during running to calm music post-workout – all had beneficial effects on both performance and recovery.
Anyone who has used music to accompany their exercise can speak to its benefits, giving them the added 'magic' they need to push themselves to the next level in their exercise. But what about when we take this into a natural setting?
It is generally accepted that we exert two types of focus: soft and hard. Solving a crossword puzzle or reading a book uses our hard focus, while our soft focus turns away from internal effort and passively allows our focus to filter external stimuli. This is where the wild can come into its own.
There is increasing evidence that simply being outdoors when exercising can have better physical and mental benefits than when we exercise indoors, by allowing for this soft focus. Seeing, smelling and feeling the natural environment changes our exercise from a strictly internal experience to a multi-faceted one, where the natural elements become entwined with our exercise. If we block these out with technology, we potentially risk losing out on the benefits of inhabiting this soft focus when exercising. Do we miss out when we block out the sounds of birds or when we interrupt our focus with more mentally demanding digital distractions?
"I don’t think there is any right or wrong when it comes to people’s use of technology," says Jacqui Bell, mental health ambassador and the youngest person to run an ultra-marathon on all seven continents. "I think it really depends on the individual and the intention behind their personal use of their phone or whatever the technology is."
Finding Frontiers with Jacqui Bell
"During the multi-stage ultra desert races, my favourite part is being disconnected to the point of not even pulling my phone out for a photo. I mentally take in all the surroundings and really enjoy it. I leave feeling super clear-minded after a week's break. But then I also enjoy using my phone and social media to show others places I run, train and explore so that they too can pop those spots on their to-do list and have an amazing adventure as well!"
"I think the key is just checking in with yourself on your intent behind whatever it is you are doing and being self-aware of how you feel about it. Soak in the outdoors and the adventure and do what makes you happy. If that means leaving technology at home, so be it, but I don’t think that we should judge each other on it."
On the road with technology
Kathmandu ambassadors Alesha and Jarryd are professional photographers, writers and founders of adventure travel blog NOMADasaurus. They’ve been exploring the world together since 2008, and have balanced their relationship with technology as they have searched for off-the-beaten-track experiences, cultural engagement and new destinations on their travels.
"Our relationship with technology while being in nature has always created a sense of personal conflict. On one hand, we strive for the purist outlook, trying to be completely in the moment, focusing on the elements surrounding us without distractions. On the other though, our passion for photography means we want to try and always capture the beauty of the world that surrounds us. We also rely on social media and constantly being connected as part of our business, and that results in us spending an above-average amount of time on our devices, even if we're deep in the mountains or exploring a new city. We are acutely aware that our own necessity to be using technology in nature goes against why we want to be out in nature in the first place."
"We've come across negativity from people who feel that our reliance on technology means we are missing out on the full experience of where we are. The Catch-22 is that people often turn to social media, videos or blogs for inspiration on where to go for their next travel adventure, but may feel agitated when they see someone on the trail using a device to create that exact content.
"Trying to find a balance that works for you is the only way to truly tackle this debate between purists and documenters. Use your devices when you want to capture a moment, but try to save connecting with the digital world for when you're off the trail or back in a hotel room."
Tech for safety
There is no doubt that technology has opened up the wild to more people but whether that means people are safer than without it, that is another question. For some with accessibility constraints, their use of tech in the wild is more nuanced than what many assume.
North Carolina resident Trevor Thomas, ‘The Blind Hiker’, was diagnosed with a rare eye disease at 35 and by 36 was completely blind. Since then, he has solo trekked more than 22,000 miles along some of the most extreme long-trails of the United States.
“Most people believe that I am heavily reliant on technology because I am a blind solo hiker,” says Trevor. “I do use some technology, but not as much as people would think, and not in the way they would imagine. I have a selection of digital cameras so I can document our thru hikes. I have a website and use social media to share our expeditions with the world. I carry two SPOT emergency personal rescue beacons, one for me and the other for my guide dog, Lulu. I would probably use a GPS, but there isn’t one on the market that is accessible for the blind. I use an iPhone for navigation, but not in the way most would assume. There is no app for what I do. I write my own data books for the trails I hike, and save the material to my phone so I can refer to it when needed.”
(Learn more about Trevor's relationship with the trail in the video below.)
The Blind Hiker
Trevor’s relationship with technology in relation to his hiking is also nuanced. Tech wasn’t as ubiquitous when he began to hike as it now is, while its influence on the wider community and their relationship with the outdoors did not exist when he set out on the trail.
“In some ways technology has enabled me to take on some backcountry challenges that I would not have been able to do before, but in others it has become burdensome. I learned to hike without any technology, and have enough experience to know not to rely on it exclusively for my survival in the backcountry. There seem to be an alarming number of unexperienced hikers entering the backcountry who are solely reliant on their technological devices. This concerns me because they are not prepared for what happens when their gadgets fail. No matter what side of the debate someone is on, technology has found its way into the backcountry, and whether we like it or not, it is here to stay. I think we would all be better off if we, as a community, remember to hike our own hikes.”
Tech for health
There is a long history of poets and writers jotting down some of their best work just after a long walk through nature. From Thoreau to Wordsworth, the benefits of the natural world on the brain’s ability to function seemed even then as clear as day.
In Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, the American writer Henry David Thoreau touched on our relationship with nature.
“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
166 years later, science is deep into its own study of our relationship with nature.
In research done at the University of New England’s Applied Psychology Lab by Associate Professor Navjot Bhullar, it was shown that while people get a clear psychological benefit from physical exposure to nature, there was a similar benefit to exposure of simulated natural environments.
Professor Bhullar notes that the form of this digital experience impacts the benefit to subjects’ psychological states.
“Simulated natural environments providing realistic representations of nature, such as interactive virtual reality, resulted in greater psychological benefits than less immersive mediums such as photographs of natural settings.”
This takes us back to that earlier question. If even the sight of the wild, not to mention the virtual interaction with it, can bring positive benefits to our mental health, perhaps the natural world's growing status as a digital influencer is influencing us in a number of ways. Not only are our brains healthier, but we are potentially reigniting deep connections with the natural world that help us to better understand it and ourselves and how to look after both.