Somewhere between Thoreau building his cabin at Walden Pond and Bass Pro Shop angling to buy Cabela’s, what it means to “be outdoors” has gotten twisted.
Thoreau famously went to the woods to live deliberately and to try to live his life fully and essentially.
But if Instagram and catalogs featuring super-fit looking models sweating it out on the trail are to be believed, being outdoors has become mostly all about pain, survival and self-improvement. And, naturally, buying all the gear you need to accommodate this pain, survival and self-improvement.
This commodification of being outdoors is bad for mostly everyone who cares about the outdoors (except of course the folks who are selling you stuff). When people are new to outdoor activities like hiking or camping and they start to explore their blossoming interest, they are typically presented with two ways of being outdoors:
No pain, no gain: usually represented by some emaciated, dirty figure with sinewy muscles wearing expensive gear talking about through-hiking epic trails or avoiding an avalanche.
Kill or be killed: represented by one of those folks who need to turn every walk in the woods into a Bear Grylls spin-off and can’t imagine walking the manicured trails of his local park without carrying a 10” survival knife.
These two ways of being outdoors are super-profitable for places that want to sell you outdoors gear. But what if you want to turn to the outdoors for relaxation and to de-stress? Neither of these two ways is particularly suited to the idea of just “being” outdoors. Perhaps because just being outdoors doesn’t really require any gear?
Recent numbers show that tent camping is on a decline and less than half of Americans participate in outdoor activities. I think this is because sometimes marketing neglects what is best about being outdoors.
The fact is that for most of us who enjoy spending time outdoors, life is made up mostly of short walks through the local park, not multi-day backcountry trips. Stopping to eat a sandwich on a local trail while you listen to the birds is not somehow less outdoorsy than some epic trip.
If you break down “being outdoors” it is simply about “being” in a spot that is “outdoors.” That does not sound like it requires a whole lot of effort nor does it require a whole lot of equipment.
Being outdoors doesn’t need to be yet another self-improvement project and it doesn’t need to be about pushing yourself or testing your limits. Like Thoreau, you go to the woods simply to live deliberately. That can mean being outdoors so you can breathe deeply, notice things and maybe eat a sandwich.