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Does Your Phone Help, or Hurt Your Relationship, with Nature?

Photo: Courtesy of João Silas

My 15-year-old son recently confessed that he actually enjoys walking the family dog on the busy trails near our home in Colorado. He trudges into nature and plugs in his headphones, streaming techno music as he goes, snapping photos of rodents and unusual braids of tree roots. His reliance on his phone during these hikes initially drove me a bit crazy, but then I came to understand that he was experiencing the outdoors on his terms, not necessarily mine. Most of all, he liked being outside. He was not impacting anyone else’s experience and was enjoying the solitude.

Better living through tech

Smartphones provide us with endless apps that can track locations, record trip stats, map routes and create instantly sharable video. We can use Twitter or ditch the phone and listen for the tweets of mountain chickadees, if we prefer it. For some of us, the prospect of logging on while in nature is cringe-worthy, yet for others it is the way they are most comfortable in the natural world. The outdoor experience is highly personal and the argument for technology’s diminishment of the outdoor experience may not be as forward-thinking as it once was.

Please be respectful

However, while one person’s Spotify selection may provide the perfect soundtrack for their hike, consider that peoples’ motives for seeking time in the natural world are as diverse as we are. Before heading to the hills: silence your phone; use headphones, keeping one ear free for potential interactions with other people and wildlife; although phones can provide a sense of safety, communication and information, cell service is not always reliable, so plan for anything; consider holding your calls, or if you must pick up, take the call quietly away from others; consult local regulations for acceptable uses of photo and video sharing on public lands, especially in federally-designated wilderness areas.

Remember, you are not alone. Respect for other people and the wildlife around you will serve you and your natural world well. In the end, to unplug or not to unplug is the question — and only you can answer.

Susan Alkaitis, Deputy Director, Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, [email protected]

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