Many Australians will take a trip to one of our national parks over the holidays. In New South Wales alone, there are more than 51 million visits to national parks each year. Few if any of us would expect not to make it out of one alive.
But national parks claim lives around the world every year. In the United States, an average of 160 visitors each year die in a national park. Australia’s numbers are unsurprisingly smaller – there have been 13 deaths in national parks since 2013 – but the common theme is that these fatalities are usually avoidable.
Wherever death and injury are avoidable, it pays to alert people to the dangers. In Australia the main risks – falling off cliffs and waterfalls, deadly snakebites, getting lost – can all be reduced by one crucial piece of advice: stick to the path.
It sounds simple enough. But in fact, visitors failing to heed advice about walking trails is a significant problem for national park managers. Venturing off-trail poses significant danger to visitors, and puts unnecessary strain on emergency services and police.
Our 2017 study was the first to gather some hard numbers on the reasons why people tend to disobey the signs. We surveyed 325 visitors at Blue Mountains National Park on their attitudes to off-trail walking.
So, what’s behind our compulsion to get off the beaten track? First, 30% of respondents told us that off-trail walking can result in a shorter or easier walking route, whereas 20% said straying from the path can afford a closer look at nature.
Second, visitors are heavily influenced by other visitors and friends – the “monkey see, monkey do” effect. They are much more likely to leave the track if they see someone else do it first.
Third, in the absence of a handy toilet, many visitors venture off-trail for a private “comfort break”.
Finally, visitors rely heavily on signage to help them stay on the designated trail. Some 13% of our survey respondents said they would venture off-trail if there was a lack of adequate signs.
What might change our behaviour?
There are several tactics park authorities can use to reduce off-trail walking at national parks. They can use direct management techniques such as capping site capacity to avoid congestion – basically, regulating the maximum number of walkers in a given area, so the paths don’t feel too congested. They may consider zoning orders to permit or limit certain events to control capacity.
Ropes or low barriers along the walking trail can give a clear indication of the trail’s boundary. Of course, there is a fine balance between building structural barriers and maintaining the feeling of natural wilderness in a park.
Social media marketing might also work well. Suggested slogans such as “A true mate sticks to the trail” or “Be safe and stay on the trail with your mates” might help influence visitors’ behaviour. Park visitors are ever more connected to social media – Parks Australia’s social media channels reach an estimated 30 million people.
Signs should also let walkers know exactly what they are getting themselves into, by posting clearly the length and typical duration of walking tracks, and the distance to popular destinations such as lookout points. These signs should be posted both at the beginning of trails at at intervals along it, particularly at junctions or river crossings.
When it comes to our national parks it’s best to assume that, as with most things in life, humans will look for alternatives to what is expected. It’s human nature to want to bend the rules in what we might wrongly think is a harmless way.
Bushwalking in a national park is a great way to spend some time this summer. But when going off-trail could turn a tranquil walk into a deadly accident, it pays to stay on the beaten track.
Today Americans live in a world that thrives on being busy, productive and overscheduled. Further, they have developed the technological means to be constantly connected to others and to vast options for information and entertainment through social media. For many, smartphones demand their attention day and night with constant notifications.
As a result, naturally occurring periods of solitude and silence that were once commonplace have been squeezed out of their lives. Music, reality TV shows, YouTube, video games, tweeting and texting are displacing quiet and solitary spaces. Silence and solitude are increasingly viewed as “dead” or “unproductive” time, and being alone makes many Americans uncomfortable and anxious.
But while some equate solitude with loneliness, there is a big difference between being lonely and being alone. The latter is essential for mental health and effective leadership.
We study and teach outdoor education and related fields at several colleges and organizations in North Carolina, through and with other scholars at 2nd Nature TREC, LLC, a training, research, education and consulting firm. We became interested in the broader implications of alone time after studying intentionally designed solitude experiences during wilderness programs, such as those run by Outward Bound. Our findings reveal that time alone in nature is beneficial for many participants in a variety of ways, and is something they wish they had more of in their daily life.
Reflection and challenge
We have conducted research for almost two decades on Outward Bound and undergraduate wilderness programs at Montreat College in North Carolina and Wheaton College in Illinois. For each program, we studied participants’ experiences using multiple methods, including written surveys, focus group interviews, one-on-one interviews and field notes. In some cases, we asked subjects years later to look back and reflect on how the programs had affected them. Among other questions, our research looked at participant perceptions of the value of solo time outdoors.
Our studies showed that people who took part in these programs benefited both from the outdoor settings and from the experience of being alone. These findings build on previous research that has clearly demonstrated the value of spending time in nature.
Scholars in fields including wilderness therapy and environmental psychology have shown that time outdoors benefits our lives in many ways. It has a therapeutic effect, relieves stress and restores attention. Alone time in nature can have a calming effect on the mind because it occurs in beautiful, natural and inspirational settings.
Nature also provides challenges that spur individuals to creative problem-solving and increased self-confidence. For example, some find that being alone in the outdoors, particularly at night, is a challenging situation. Mental, physical and emotional challenges in moderation encourage personal growth that is manifested in an increased comfort with one’s self in the absence of others.
Being alone also can have great value. It can allow issues to surface that people spend energy holding at bay, and offer an opportunity to clarify thoughts, hopes, dreams and desires. It provides time and space for people to step back, evaluate their lives and learn from their experiences. Spending time this way prepares them to re-engage with their community relationships and full work schedules.
Putting it together: The outdoor solo
Participants in programmed wilderness expeditions often experience a component known as “Solo,” a time of intentional solitude lasting approximately 24-72 hours. Extensive research has been conducted on solitude in the outdoors because many wilderness education programs have embraced the educational value of solitude and silence.
Solo often emerges as one of the most significant parts of wilderness programs, for a variety of reasons. Alone time creates a contrasting experience to normal living that enriches people mentally, physically and emotionally. As they examine themselves in relation to nature, others, and in some cases, God, people become more attuned to the important matters in their lives and in the world of which they are part.
Solitary reflection enhances recognition and appreciation of key personal relationships, encourages reorganization of life priorities, and increases appreciation for alone time, silence, and reflection. People learn lessons they want to transfer to their daily living, because they have had the opportunity to clarify, evaluate and redirect themselves by setting goals for the future.
For some participants, time alone outdoors provides opportunity to consider the spiritual and/or religious dimension of life. Reflective time, especially in nature, often enhances spiritual awareness and makes people feel closer to God. Further, it encourages their increased faith and trust in God. This often occurs through providing ample opportunities for prayer, meditation, fasting, Scripture-reading, journaling and reflection time.
Retreating to lead
As Thomas Carlyle has written, “In (solitary) silence, great things fashion themselves together.” Whether these escapes are called alone time, solitude or Solo, it seems clear that humans experience many benefits when they retreat from the “rat race” to a place apart and gather their thoughts in quietness.
In order to live and lead effectively, it is important to be intentional about taking the time for solitary reflection. Otherwise, gaps in schedules will always fill up, and even people with the best intentions may never fully realize the life-giving value of being alone.
Brad Daniel, Professor of Outdoor Education, Montreat College; Andrew Bobilya, Associate Professor and Program Director of Parks and Recreation Management, Western Carolina University, and Ken Kalisch, Associate Professor of Outdoor Education, Montreat College
The link below is to an article reporting on the opening of the world’s longest bushwalking/hiking trail – The Great Trail in Canada.
Have you ever wondered why you feel healthier and happier when you stroll through the trees or frolic by the sea? Is it just that you’re spending time away from work, de-stressing and taking in the view? Or is there more to it?
For more than 20 years, scientists have been trying to determine the mechanisms by which exposure to biodiversity improves health. Japanese scientists pioneered the search when they travelled to the island of Yakushima, famous for its biodiversity.
The Japanese already had a name for the experience of well-being in nature: shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”.
We do know that a diverse ecosystem supports a varied and beneficial microbial community living around and inside us.
We also know that exposure to green space, even within urban environments, increases our physical and mental well-being. But what are the mechanisms?
The forest air
The Japanese researchers suggested that we are taking in beneficial substances when we breathe forest air.
Research has identified three major inhaled factors that can make us feel healthier. These factors are beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions.
From birth to the grave, beneficial bacteria surround us; they live in the environment and, importantly, in the air we breathe. We also share almost our entire body with them. The more interaction we have with them, the happier and healthier we are.
Plants and the bacteria living on them can produce essential oils to fight off harmful microorganisms. These are referred to collectively as phytoncides, literally, “plant-derived exterminators”.
Notwithstanding some of the pseudoscience that gets wrapped around negative ion generating machines, there is evidence that negative air ions may influence mental outlook in beneficial ways. There are relatively higher levels of negative air ions in forested areas and close to bodies of water. This may factor into the benefits of walking in a forest or near the ocean.
But as the German writer Goethe once said:
Nature has neither kernel nor shell; she is everything at once.
Bacteria, essential oils and negative ions interact and influence each other. For example, negative ions and phytoncides may dictate the microbial make-up within a natural environment. There is evidence that this could also be taking place in the human gut.
More to be done
But we have a long way to go before we can more fully understand the mechanisms by which an innate love of nature can benefit our health. An important part of this discussion – an overlooked one in our opinion – is further understanding of an individual’s connection to nature.
Psychologists have convincingly demonstrated connections between nature relatedness and mental well-being. But how does a greater personal affinity to nature interact with dietary habits, personal microbiome, physical activity levels and many other lifestyle variables that might be intertwined with having such an affinity?
In the meantime, while scientists turn over stones and search for important mechanistic clues – including those related to biodiversity – there are many simple ways to capitalise on our biophilia.
Why not run in the park or by a river instead of on a treadmill, or take a walk through a park on the way to work or at lunchtime?
Critically, there is increasing evidence that we can help shape our children’s mental and physical health by exposing them to more green environments as they work, rest and play. The US-based Children and Nature Network is a great resource of research news and activities bringing children and nature together.
In the World Health Organization report Connecting Global Priorities – Biodiversity and Human Health, released in December last year, it was concluded that:
Considering ‘microbial diversity’ as an ecosystem service provider may contribute to bridging the chasm between ecology and medicine/immunology [… ] the relationships our individual bodies have with our microbiomes are a microcosm for the vital relationships our species shares with countless other organisms with which we share the planet.
It is easy to see that discussions of natural environments and human health are no mere matter of intellectual fancy.
In a paper published last month in Journal of Physiological Anthropology, we’ve called for more research into the links between biodiversity and human physical and mental well-being, particular in relation to childhood, that most formative of times.
Wouldn’t it be good if by nurturing our environment we were also nurturing our children’s future health?
10 Tips for unpacking your gear and making the last bit of your trip less painful
You’ve had the best trip of your life! You saw unbelievable sights, cooked amazing meals, and made unforgettable memories. You’ve packed up your gear, drove the long trek home, and as exhausted as you are from your trip, you have one more task: to unpack your gear. But it doesn’t have to painful. It can actually be quick and organized! Here are 10 tips for unpacking your gear:
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