What are we missing by taking our devices on the trail?

Writer: Carly Terwilliger

With smartphone GPS and emergency signal functions gaining sophistication, people headed into the backcountry are increasingly thinking of their mobile device as a must-pack for outdoor adventures. And “better safe than sorry” is indeed a good reason to stay plugged in on the trail.

But it’s when safety and communication are not an issue when the persistent presence of phones among hikers comes into question. If you’re on a well-marked trail and you scoped out the route before going, you shouldn’t need a digital trail map. On a popular trail, especially on the weekend, you’re unlikely to be stranded even if you are incapacitated in some way. And unless you’re training for a race, your pace and heart rate don’t really need to be digitally recorded.

The most recent Outdoor Recreation Participation Report released by the Outdoor Foundation listed “the opportunity to spend time with friends and family” as the second biggest motivator for participating in outdoor activities (the first was exercise). This alone is a compelling reason to leave your phone in the car – or even at home – and focus on what you’re doing

To see if this theory held any water, I conducted a one-person, unscientific experiment last Saturday morning on the Mt. Galbraith loop hike near Golden, CO. And when I say “near,” I mean that you can see the city from the hike. The trailhead parking lot regularly fills up on the weekends, even in winter, and the hike itself is a moderate 5 miles that takes a little less than two hours to complete.

Although when I hike alone I frequently wear earbuds, this time I eschewed all electronics and focused on what I was doing, which today included watching other people interact with their devices on the trail. I left my phone, my camera and my watch at home. (Note: although the photos are of the same hike, they were taken on a different day.)

Helpfully for this article’s argument, the first two people I saw on the trailhead were women who exited their vehicle clutching their smartphones, continuing to hold them in their hands as they hiked. A 2013 Mobile Consumer Habits study found that 12 percent of smartphone owners use them in the shower, while 50 percent text while driving even while understanding the danger. The individuals at Mt. Galbraith were apparently unwilling to relinquish their grip for two hours on a sunny day outside, complete with hummingbirds zipping around and a fresh piney smell due to recent rainfall.

Overall, 12 people were using their smartphones on the hike – about half of the hikers I saw. Three were having a conversation on them, and one was playing music using the phone’s speaker. One popular and frequently defended utility is photography, and I’ll admit that smartphones take very nice photos. However, there’s an argument to be made against the value of taking a hiking selfie for the express purpose of Instagramming it.

The social element of exercise is also cited as a reason to digitally track a hike or trail run, especially as Strava continues to gain in popularity. In this case, the appropriateness of using a wearable and phone to track your workout depends on the reason you headed for the hills in the first place. If it’s to do it faster than you did last week – or faster than your friend did it – then yes, it’s the best way to record the salient information. Otherwise, all it does is detract from the mental and physical health benefits of being outside, which according to an article on the Business Insider website include improved short-term memory and restored mental energy.

Personally, like many people who spend their work day in front of one, I enjoy the time I spend away from screens, as well as under-appreciated auditory pleasures like the breeze blowing and birds singing. From an exercise standpoint, I found that without earbuds, getting away from loud people on the trail turned out to be a pretty good motivation for kicking it up a notch. The lack of digital distractions also encouraged me to focus on my heart rate and breathing.

Admittedly, there’s plenty of reasons to take advantage of the multitude of helpful outdoor apps available, and if it’s the only thing getting more people outside then I’m not one to quibble. The National Park Service, for example, made use of the Pokemon Go craze by placing digital creatures around the park system and encouraging players to “catch ‘em all,” in the parlance of the game. And it worked – a lot of people spent time in National Parks while searching for Zubats and Squirtles.

However, as reported by National Geographic, it wasn’t an unqualified success, as “players have been hurt after falling or walking into obstacles while cruising for critters.” The lesson in this case has to do with looking up from time to time – a compromise we all can hopefully live with.

Photos by Carly Terwilliger