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Impacts of technology in outdoor recreation and adventure

This is an excerpt from Outdoor Adventure Education by Alan Ewert & R. James Sibthorp.

Technology plays an increasingly influential and important role in outdoor recreation and adventure.

Technology plays an increasingly influential and important role in outdoor recreation and adventure. The last 10 years, in particular, have seen a virtual explosion of technological developments in the outdoors, ranging from clothes to equipment such as signaling devices and protective gear. There are five areas in which technology has played a significant role in the realm of outdoor and adventure recreation:

  • access and transportation,
  • comfort,
  • safety,
  • communication, and
  • information.

Each of these areas has resulted in greater use of the outdoors, differing expectations, and changes in public policy.

For example, technology has increased access and transportation through improvements in overland travel such as snowmobiles and off-road vehicles (ORVs). These machines have allowed visitors to get further into remote areas faster and with less effort. Likewise, comfort in the outdoors has been substantially improved through lighter weight, more effective clothing, tents, boots, and so on. This reduced weight coupled with greater effectiveness has resulted in more people, within a greater age range and across ability levels, to get into extremely remote or challenging areas.

Technology has worked in two ways that relate to safety. First, improved technology has increased the level of safety available to both individuals and groups. By and large, equipment is stronger, lighter, and more versatile, though in some cases higher levels of skill and expertise is necessary to use it. For example, dive computers have essentially replaced dive tables for diving. Although reliable and extremely useful, they also require divers to understand how to use them with enough competence to capitalize on the safety features they provide.

Second, communication is the area experiencing the fastest technological growth. With the advent of GPS units, 36-mile radios, PLBs and EPIRBs (personal locator beacons and emergency position indicating radio beacons), satellite telephones, smart phone apps, and increased cellular coverage, technology now allows outdoor enthusiasts to know precisely where they are, how fast they are moving and in what direction, and how to signal for help—all at the press of a button. The potential danger of these technological advances lies in two areas. First, knowing what direction and exactly how far you need to go to reach a particular point might make you more likely to go for it, but there's no guarantee you will actually reach your destination. Ravines, canyons, mountains, steep slopes, avalanche areas, and severe weather may all conspire to make sure you don't get where you want to go. Second, technology sometimes does not work. Just as helicopters cannot always fly to your location, a GPS or handheld radio might not be in operation for a variety of reasons, such as dead batteries, remote location, or exposure to elements such as rain.

Historically, information was often obtained through word of mouth, asking the area ranger, or finding a map or brochure. Now, within the context of outdoor recreation and adventure, information is usually accessed via the Internet, automated telephone exchange, or guidebooks. Again, this ease and convenience of accessing information generally leads to increases in use, particularly in areas that have not seen much use because of their remote or difficult location.

This increased use, however, does not come without a price, namely in visitors finding themselves in situations far more challenging than their skill or knowledge levels can accommodate. Added to this, they are often in locations so remote that no one can easily get to them. Technology can also create a deceptive “bubble of safety.”

That is, when substituted for skill or expertise, technology can create an illusion of safety or security that allows people to become complacent, only to discover, perhaps at a critical moment, that no such safety mechanism exists (Ewert and Shultis, 1999). For example, an avalanche beacon can be a lifesaver, but no beacon ever prevented an avalanche from occurring, and if you are buried by one, your chances of survival are automatically decreased by 50 percent.

In sum, technology has contributed a number of benefits to OAE activities and participants. It has increased comfort and safety, improved access, enhanced communication, and enlarged the information base from which we make decisions. It has also been known to create illusions of safety and might create a different set of expectations in relation to outdoor settings. Underskilled participants can find themselves in situations that require search and rescue (SAR) or other forms of assistance from managing or government agencies. In such cases, technology serves to increase demands on the environment and land resources rather than decreasing them.

More Excerpts From Outdoor Adventure Education