Does using a cellphone in the great outdoors destroy the unique experience of getting back to nature?
Some say yes, with outdoor recreation traditionalists generally holding the view that digital technology has no place in natural settings.
However, recent Lincoln University research suggests high-tech devices are more likely to enhance outdoor pursuits than detract from them.
PhD student Caroline Dépatie has surveyed recreationists in the Port Hills to discover how technology can transform the outdoor experience. She also investigated whether people found it difficult to deal with the paradox of experiencing the natural environment while using their devices.
“The Port Hills are a unique peri-urban setting, in that they combine the natural and the urban, so perhaps technological devices will be used more readily here than in true wilderness settings,” says Recreation, Sport and Leisure Senior Lecturer Dr Roslyn Kerr, one of the project supervisors.
“Some research participants felt awkward about using technology due to its potential to erode their experience of nature.
“But more commonly, they used devices to enhance their experience. Many felt safer carrying a cellphone and some listened to music or used fitness trackers to increase their motivation to exercise.
“Ultimately, they used their devices in different ways for a personalised experience. They described making very deliberate decisions about when and how to use their digital devices based on their motivations and setting.”
Dr Kerr says these findings are significant, as recreation policymakers could benefit from offering varied technological options in outdoor areas rather than considering policies that restrict the use of technology.
“Outdoor recreation literature might also want to move away from the view that technology is detrimental to the outdoor recreation experience.”
Initially, more than 500 research participants were surveyed about which digital devices they used during their activities and why they used them. Then 30 recreationists were interviewed about how the devices either altered or enhanced their experiences.
The most popular activities performed by research participants were walking and mountain biking, and 87 per cent carried some form of digital technology, most commonly a cellphone.
Reasons included safety, communicating with friends and family, taking photos, collecting fitness data, and listening to music.
“Recreationists often carried their phones to increase their perception of safety, but they acknowledged that sometimes it provided a false sense of security, as the phone is limited in its ability to act to save an individual. Concerns were raised about limited battery life, breakability and network coverage,” Dr Kerr says.
A mountain biker said her experience was enhanced by using technology to self-track fitness data, which pushed her to go further each time and increased competition amongst friends.
Those who listened to music said it boosted their motivation to exercise and enhanced the enjoyment of the activity, but only if they were alone.
“Digital devices were not seen as eroding solitude; they offered a way to potentially improve the per-urban outdoor recreation experience,” Dr Kerr says.
“However, participants seemed to deliberately leave their devices behind when recreating with others, as it represented a potential disruption to the social experience.
“This adds weight to the fact that people are happy to be able to pick and choose when they use digital technology in outdoor settings, rather than be deprived of the option to use their devices at all.”
PHOTO: Roslyn Kerr