This author speculates if new adventurers should be required to educate themselves before getting out there.
I climbed my first mountain in Walmart runners, a cotton tee and jeans.
The common outdoor sayings—"bear aware,” “cotton kills,” “Leave No Trace,” “switchback”—weren’t in my vocab.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
During a recent interview, Adrianna Skori, founder and CEO of Kids Who Explore, told me that while at a backcountry campsite with her young children, another group of campers asked where the garbage can was. We exchanged mind-blown emoji expressions knowing this was a pack-in and pack-out site, but on reflection, I realized I once was in their shoes. Except, unlike many who want to get outdoors, I was lucky to hit the trails with people who did know.Sylvia Dekker
Shannon Head was in the backcountry in Waterton with her family when she “mentioned [to someone that] he needed to put his food in the bear cache. He said he only had oatmeal and fruit, and bears don’t eat that.” When she told him everything needed to be stowed away, including toothpaste, he didn't believe it.
“There are so many people starting to get into [recreating outdoors] that have very minimal knowledge about it,” says Head.
Josée Bergeron met a tourist at a backcountry site without any appropriate outdoor clothing. “He was freezing, I don’t think he had a tent.” Luckily for him, “for the most part, people who are out in the backcountry are thoughtful and kind, so people lent him a coat and helped him out.”
The problem: “People are so inexperienced, they show up and are unaware tents aren’t provided [and] don’t realize it can be cold in the mountains,” even in the summer, Bergeron says.Sylvia Dekker
There are no nature-loving, outdoor skilled prerequisites gatekeeping the use (or abuse) of our natural spaces. But should there be?
Bergeron tells me Nordic countries don’t need to ask this question. Outdoor etiquette, for example, is free and intertwined into the education system from a young age. Nature knowledge is simply a part of the culture. Until that’s possible here, could we take the opportunity to educate people while issuing parks or backcountry passes?
Think of it as a video on wildlife safety, a checklist on preparedness or a document outlining outdoor ethics. It could be something everyone needs to read—terms and conditions style—before they can register. It could be something sent to your email or a webpage that loads once the booking is confirmed.
Bergeron says she thinks it would be most effective as a welcome package, with the information presented in a way that encourages building a connection with nature. This way, it would put the necessary information in the hands that need it without being intimidating.
The approach would have to vary by scenario as well: front-country camping may already be covered by the existing signage. It may be appropriate for backcountry passes though, where the risk potential is higher, to talk about planning and preparation, proper clothing, what a cathole is and basic wilderness survival skills.iStock
While requiring a checkmark in the “I read this” box, making us watch an informative video before issuing a pass or sending out a welcome package would cover those buying passes directly from the park’s website, it wouldn’t cover passes purchased at outdoor retailers or roundabout ways, such as from other people.
Plus, it wouldn’t include people getting out into nature in places where there aren’t passes or other requirements. Most of the places I’ve gone hiking have been unrestricted to passes, registrations or even paid parking. Even if this had been a thing back when I began my mountain education, it wouldn’t have made it into my hands.
Overall, “it would be tough to do,” Head says, and expensive to roll out, needing to be in different languages—accessible.
The discussion has some merit, but I’m not completely convinced there should be prerequisites to be allowed into nature. We don’t need more barriers to getting outdoors. While more folks are getting into nature, there is still an incredible disconnect. Restricting or clogging up the door could increase fear and frustration rather than the awe and wonder necessary to turn outdoor visitors into nature lovers. Complicating the booking process, for example, could be another reason for families not to get outdoors, Bergeron says.Sylvia Dekker
Nature Shouldn’t Be Exclusive
Yet, ignoring ignorance lets the responsibility of personal, public and nature’s safety slip through everyone’s hands, crystallizing into stories of unprepared hikers, oblivious campers and busy search and rescue teams.
The idea could “ha[ve] its place if done well and thoughtfully,” Bergeron says. Instead of catching people right before they intend to go out, we could shift our focus to financially accessible mentorship, “outdoor stores providing educational opportunities for the public with government funding,” and building a multi-layered approach.
For Canadians, outdoor education could begin in grade school, so nature goes from an abstract concept into a part of our lives and culture, turning what is common sense for me now into common knowledge for everyone. For international tourists and Canadians in the interim, reducing what we don’t know might require another strategy.
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