November 15, 2012

Who Said Technology and the Outdoors Don’t Mix?

You’re getting ready to go camping and like the good, ever-prepared Girl Scout that you are, you check your packing list one more time. There at the bottom is a line that you’ve seen many times before and it looks something like this, “Leave your electronic devices at home.” 
Outdoor professionals give all sorts of reasons why they (eh hem, we) don’t want you to bring electronics into the woods.
·         They might get lost or damaged. After all, you’ll be exposing your expensive equipment to dust, mud, rain, dew, humidity, sweat, drops, raccoons, sasquatch… I mean who knows what could happen!
·         It distracts others from their enjoyment. There’s nothing more annoying, when standing at a scenic overlook that you’ve just hiked to, then someone else yacking obliviously on a cell phone.
·         Communication with the outside world can take away from the benefits of the program. If every kid called home as soon as they felt the littlest bit homesick there wouldn’t be any campers left! Ninety-nine out of one hundred kids overcome the homesickness that they initially feel at an overnight program. It’s hard to encourage participation in an activity or the building of new friendships when a camper is on the sideline chatting away with her thumbs.
·         When minors are in a program, the ability to post pictures to social media sites, like Facebook, opens up the potential for bullying, legal questions over photo permissions, and other legal grown-up things that could be avoided when facilities just don’t allow the technologies required to post.
·         It distracts from your own enjoyment of the program. Nature is a powerful teacher if you can let it take control. Being unplugged is essential for a full and real natural experience.
To hit on that last bullet point more, there have even been all sorts of studies on how the mind works while exposed to technology as opposed to a technology free experience. Over the last few years, tons of literature has been published coining terms like nature deficit disorder which is basically the diminished ability to find meaning in life around us due to lack of connection to the natural world. (Check out Last Child in the Woods or The Nature Principle, by Richard Louv.) The New York Times followed a bunch of brain scientists for an article as they personally experienced technology withdrawal and rebirth on a rafting trip. Popular magazines like Outside, Newsweek, and People all jumped on the bandwagon publishing articles urging both children and adults to power down and head outside.
But, is it possible that technology can actually add to an outdoor experience?
There’s no arguing that technology has changed the way that our brains process information. How many of us have waved our hand under a regular faucet expecting water to come out hands-free or have swiped our fingers over a non-touch screen and been slightly embarrassed even though there were no witnesses? And there’s no denying that successful wilderness experiences need the type of peace and quiet that can only be achieved by an escape devoid of technology. Many make the black and white argument that the quality of an outdoor experience is so drastically diminished by the presence of electronics that they simply should not be allowed in the woods. Ever. But what these folks seem to overlook is that kids aren’t going outside anymore. They’re not exploring their neighborhood woods. They’re not building forts and secret club houses. They’re not growing up having learned everything from physics to critical thinking and problem solving in their natural backyard classroom.  
So, what’s more important? Having a PURE outdoor experience or having SOME outdoor experience at all? For most of us armchair environmentalists and couch campers, who spend fewer than five nights a year outside, technology can not only enhance our experience but can entice even more people to experience the outdoors.  Wouldn’t that be fantastic? MORE kids saying, “Mom, let’s go hiking this weekend!” or “Dad, can you take me fishing!” or “Big brother, can you help me build a fort after school?” In the grand scheme of things, does it matter that a kid has their headphones in while they cast a hook into the lake or that she updates her status with a mountain top, in-the-moment picture? When the alternative is casting a Wii fishing line or chatting online, wouldn’t we all prefer the outdoor option?

Electronics and the outdoors are not mutually exclusive things. It’s not an either/or choice. Geocaching is a prime example of a melded outdoor/techno experience. Geocaching has gotten millions of people to turn off the computer and go outside. If you’re not familiar with geocaching, visit to find out more.
With the more iThis and iThats popping up everywhere, app options offer endless opportunities for outdoor and environmental cross-overs with technology. Field guides, guitar chords, photo editing software, and tons of other possibilities are all at our finger tips with the right device in hand.
This coming summer at Camp Molly Lauman, there will be multiple new technology-based camp sessions, seeking to entice girls who might not normally be interested in spending a week in the woods to do just that. Girls will use iPads to create stop motion animation films, play music in an all-app camp band, identify wildlife and plants, edit photos, and look up fresh garden recipes to prepare over the campfire. They’ll use GPS receivers to hunt for hidden treasure in the woods. They’ll use SkyScout personal planetarium scopes to explore the night sky. And they’ll swim, hike, cook over a campfire, and sleep in tents. They’ll come home with dirt under their fingernails and a bag over flowing with dirty clothes. They’ll be bubbling with enthusiasm and stories that they can’t wait to share about the iPads, but also about the bug in their tent and the flaming marshmallow that they roasted. So who are we to say that the outdoor experience of those girls was less important or meaningful than that of a girl who hiked and played with sticks and bugs all week?
After camp this summer, I took some time to go backpacking in the Carson National Forest of New Mexico. I took a GPS and my iPhone with me. They were both turned off almost all of the time, but when they came on, they sure were useful. I snapped photos. I hunted geocaches. I tried to identify strange birds. I sent a message to my mom in Virginia, letting her know that I’d made it to the 13,161 foot summit of Wheeler Peak, the highest elevation I’ve ever been. Did having my iPhone out for ten minutes at a time take away from the splendor of the mountaintop seen below?
If anything, I think it added to it. Taking time to hunt for that geocache meant that I took time to really take in the scene. I didn’t just hike through. I spun in all directions on a trail that I would have just walked straight ahead on. I stopped, I sat, and I took it in.  I saw marmots and pikas which otherwise would have stayed hidden, squeaking and chirping as we hikers clomped past. I saw birds soaring on the mountain updrafts. I saw rain falling on the neighboring ridge. I slowed down. I savored. And then I powered down, looked around, took a deep breath, reveled in the experience, and saved my battery for the next magical moment.
 What do you think about technology in the outdoors? Is it okay in certain cases? What ideas do you have to integrate technology into outdoor experiences? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. 

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