Outdoor Insider Fall 2017 - Page 18

When heading out into nature, people often want to leave technology behind. They don’t want to be on call, checking email, or constantly communicating with everybody—they want to focus on the rustle of the leaves, the feel of the kayak slicing through the water, and everything else that makes up the physical and mental experience of being immersed in the outdoors.

A common exception is safety—tech-nology to summon help in the event of an emergency. And some people want to use technology to enhance their outdoor experience. So there’s some tension between wanting to be tech-free in the outdoors, using technology to enhance the experience, and depending on it for emergencies.


Devices like personal locator beacons and GPS messengers are vital in emergencies, and having these devices can make people feel safer when they are off the grid. But even they come with downsides—like false alarms that deploy search and rescue (SAR) personnel unnecessarily. This problem may arise most often when users don’t know exactly how to use the devices, or they use them as a crutch when they haven’t planned adequately. Some SAR personnel have expressed frustration that people have summoned expensive and dangerous helicopter rescues without meaning to—or for relatively minor problems.

“There's been a good amount of cynicism, both deserved and un-deserved, regarding the use of electronics making it too easy to call search and rescue teams to assist in emergencies or semi-emergencies,” said Nate Furman, PhD, co-coordinator of the University of Utah’s U-EXPLORE and an assistant professor. “But we'll never know how many emergencies or semi-emergencies are resolved (a) because of an increased ability to communicate and (b) without utilizing emergency personnel.”

For example, Furman said, “If I can text my spouse at home and tell her that I'm going to be late returning from a weekend in the Wind Rivers, then she's less likely to call SAR to report that I'm overdue. There are many thought experiments we can perform on our own to help project how we will deal with potential emergencies with the aid of, or the absence of, emergency com-munication technologies.”

Some technologies allow you to communicate with friends and family in non-emergency situations when off the grid. GoTenna, for example, turns your phone into a communications tool that lets you text and share GPS locations when you don’t have coverage. The app Cairn allows you to map out your route and keep friends and family updated on your whereabouts. It also provides a cell phone coverage map, so you know where you’ll be able to get a signal.

“There's a strong body of literature that suggests that spending time in nature is healthy and important,” Furman said. “And there's some research suggesting that being distracted by electronics inhibits the power of nature's restorative capacity.” So, to the extent that these communication devices “give users another thing to distract them from their immersion, then it's less healthy than it would be otherwise,” but it depends on each person's goal, he added.

“For outdoor programs, guides, and instructors, this is another tool that can be used to decrease the risks we expose our clients/students to,” Furman said. “But at some point, it's likely that the experience of our students and clients will be impacted if guides and instructors are over-utilizing communication technologies, particularly if one of the selling points of our programs is that they offer a refuge from distraction and technology.”

Enhancing the Experience

Some backcountry veterans might roll their eyes at the thought of using an app to enhance their experience in the wilderness. But for visitors with various levels of experience and comfort in the outdoors, certain apps or other technology might help them get connected with nature. Younger generations—especially people who consider their smartphones extensions of themselves—might be more likely to want to incorporate technology into the experience.

Some parks and schools are using mobile apps to get kids engaged in the outdoors. One example is Agents of Discovery, a game that sends kids on adventures to recover lost “USBees,” which are robotic bees that store knowledge about the world. Players solve challenges by exploring sites using geo-location.

Some parks use Discover Nature apps to get visitors engaged. The Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge uses them to teach visitors about the diversity and ecological importance of habitats and wildlife. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge uses two Discover Nature apps that include a game similar to a scavenger hunt and a way for visitors to find their location at any point on the refuge's canoe trail system, even without cell phone coverage. These apps also allow users to post photos and wildlife sightings to share with others. Making it easier for people to share their experiences with others in this way, proponents say, might get other people interested as well.

At Acadia National Park, Friends of Acadia partnered with the park to explore how youth might use technology to engage with nature. They created the Acadia Youth Technology Team—they hired teenagers and college-age leaders, who researched potential projects and then requested ipads, apps, and other digital tools to find ways to use technology to improve the visitor experience.

One success story is a digital media interpretive kit that allows visitors to watch peregrine falcons from afar, said Paige Steele, Friends of Acadia’s conservation projects manager. The falcons sit on distant cliffs, where they are camouflaged, so it was difficult for visitors to spot them using a telescope, which they had to wait in line to use. The tech team built an alternative--a kit that displays a live feed, using high-magnification telephoto equipment donated by Canon, on a monitor, so that 40 people can see them at once. This way, “everyone gets to experience the falcons,” Steele said.

Another project did not fare as well. The team tried an ipad lab, which used interpretive programming, but park visitors didn’t enjoy it, in part because not all of them could see the ipad at once. “It was not adding value to the visitor experience,” Steele said. She added that being able to test the technology for a particular site is helpful, because one size does not fit all. “Sometimes technology really adds to the visitor experience, and sometimes it can really take away from it.”

It’s important “to have options for people to engage with nature, especially youth,” Steele said. “We want to inspire—to spark awe and create Acadia’s next generation of stewards.” She said an app that educates visitors on the history of Acadia as they stand in that historical spot has the power to reach people. It allows for “really powerful storytelling, connecting visitors to a place that they will hopefully protect.”

People may gravitate either toward or away from technology, but parks and group leaders can provide both, Steele said. The Leave No Trace principles include being considerate of other visitors, she said. So if someone’s using an app in the woods, make sure they don’t play it loudly—ask them to use headphones.

Furman noted, “I think the crux is being able to use the technology that we find appropriate without impacting other users’ experiences. And in some cases, that means keeping the technology stowed out of sight and earshot from the other people in your party or other hikers, climbers, skiers, etc.”

“Respect other visitors’ experience,” Steele said. That way, the no-tech and hi-tech visitors can coexist.


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