“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery–air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.'” -Sylvia Plath
To many, including myself, being immersed into the outdoors is a unique experience. There is infinite freedom and simplicity to nature that causes me to feel relaxed and at peace. COVID-19 has impacted all people giving each person their own unique challenge. The pandemic has pushed many Americans to hit the trails and reembrace the outdoors. How is this impacting humans, how is it impacting the trails, and what can we do to make a difference?
Just a bit about nature’s positive impact on the human brain:
In a world full of chaos, it is easy for a human brain to become fatigued. What if I told you there is a therapy and restorative process that is easily accessible and could improve (improve not heal) your emotional and cognitive functioning for free?
Interacting with nature can increase your ability to focus and decrease stress. In the demanding American society, our brains can be quickly depleted from the overwhelming amount of stimulation. However, only one of our two types of attention can be depleted. Direct attention is intentional thought that can be fatigued with use. For instance, when you are reading this article it is requiring your brain to use direct attention to focus and retain every word. On the other hand, involuntary attention is subconscious and effortless; therefore, it never fatigues. Involuntary attention can be stimulated by wind, bird calls, shiny things, bright colors, and more.
Throughout my recent years as an undergrad student, I had many moments where the work I needed to complete outweighed the amount of direct attention span I possessed. According to studies performed at University of Michigan, Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that interacting with nature can boost our ability to learn new information, perform complex tasks, and problem solve. ART suggests that when one is in nature one’s direct attention can rest and be restored.
One could argue that a person can restore their directed attention walking outside in an urban area because they are not forcing themselves to focus; however, the stimuli in a city environment are so dramatic the involuntary attention (hearing a car honk) can quickly turn into directed attention (don’t get hit by that car). Moreover, the rush and stimuli in cities can be reminders to our overwhelming responsibilities in our careers or household. Whereas, when one walks in nature the stimuli (a bird chirping) consistently only requires involuntary attention (there are no stressful side-effects to birdsong), making nature much more restorative to a person’s cognitive functioning.
Unfortunately, even if we as Americans want to start enjoying nature by embracing its simplicity and restorative effects it will not be without a cost.
Enjoying the outdoors and protecting it at the same time:
With the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have been hitting the trails! As shown above, getting outside does wonders for our health (the above info is only one example), but with all this extra traffic outdoors what is happening to our protected areas? Unfortunately, with a wider population getting outside and higher numbers of people who are not experienced with respectful manners while hiking and such, trails are hurting. In general, I am begging all people to RESPECT the environment especially when outdoors. Try practicing these tips:
- Leave NO Trace (LNT)
- This means do not litter (aka do not leave water bottles, used masks, food wrappers, apple cores, orange peels, pick up dog poo and bring the poo out with you…Leave NOTHING behind. What you bring in, you bring out)
- Ps. I understand that people can accidentally drop things like masks and wrappers without realizing….Solution: Put those items in a zippered pocket so they don’t go missing.
- If you are walking on a designated trail, do not leave the trail. Trails are there for a reason. Leaving the trail creates further disruption in the landscape and can cause erosion.
- Ps. because there is a pandemic…I feel it is okay to let people pass, by slightly stepping off the trail (especially if you are not wearing a mask); however, do so lightly and try not to disturb the area you are standing on.
- This has less to do the with environment and more to do with being thoughtful and polite…BRING A MASK. I completely understand that hiking with a mask is not at all ideal and can make breathing challenging; nevertheless, everyone should feel comfortable to experience the outdoors and feel safe.
- EX: When I hike, I always bring a mask with me. If there is no one around me, I keep my mask in my zippered pocket. When I see another hiker approaching, I put my mask on until I am about 30 feet away. From doing more hikes since the pandemic began, I’ve recognized that a general rule is if you are not wearing a mask, you go off trail and face away from the hikers. Hikers who are wearing a mask, pass and continue along the trail.
- Moreover, if you are someone who has trouble breathing with a mask while exercising, I understand and you should also be welcome to enjoy the outdoors…however, try going in the mornings or on trails less populated for the safety of yourself and your fellow hikers.
- Sorry for the mask rant…it’s just a BIG problem I’ve noticed on trails
- If there are any other tips you think would be helpful, comment below 🙂
Now that you have all that down and you’re going to wear a mask while hiking and LNT, let’s talk about gear! This is one of my weaknesses…I love shopping (let me put it this way: I want to shop so badly I’ve started buying Christmas presents for people so that I’m at least being productive with my buying…It’s only September.)
Anywaaaay. Let’s talk about Gear!
When experiencing the outdoors, there is no question that you want to be prepared, right? Usually when someone appreciates nature, they also want to protect it, so how can you be prepared and environmentally friendly at the same time?
There are many great resources like Goodwill, ThredUp, gear/clothing swaps with friends, and more. Recently, I chose to try out Patagonia’s Worn Wear. I have been obsessed (I don’t know, maybe I’m brainwashed but I LOVE them), with Patagonia gear and clothing for almost ten years now. It has started getting cooler here in Maryland, but not quite chilly enough for my heavier layers. I decided I wanted to get a light vest for these “in-between” summer and fall days. Of course, I immediately went to Patagonia’s website because as I said, I’m obsessed….but I was also looking because I uh really like their new special tag.
As I was looking for the perfect vest with the hilarious tag, I realized that there was a better option. In general, Patagonia is a more environmentally friendly company to buy from when looking for sustainable and tough outdoors gear, compared to other brands. However, I didn’t have the financial means to buy a brand new vest with that beautiful tag. I still wanted a vest and I prefer Patagonia because I know it is a durable brand…that is when I decided to look into Patagonia Worn Wear. This branch of Patagonia is a wonderful resource for outdoors people. Not only are you able to buy used items at basically half the price, but you can also send in your Patagonia gear for repairs!
I was able to find the perfect vest. I was super happy because it’s made from their better sweater line which is material made from recycled plastic bottles. When looking for gear on Worn Wear you are able to set how “worn” you are okay with it being: Excellent condition, Great condition, Good condition. By shopping at Worn Wear, I am buying something used rather than wasting raw materials and I’m saving money. Classic: Win-Win
As outdoor enthusiasts, we should want to protect what we love with all our hearts, but we can’t do it alone. Keep educating yourself with resources like the information above, encourage your friends (outdoorsy or not) to join the fight, and vote like our future depends on it…because it does.
How to register to vote:https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote
I wish you all peace, joy, and time for the outdoors.