National Geographic’s October 2016 issue featured an article that explores the Millennial generation’s declining attendance at National Parks, due in part to an upbringing that put less emphasis on experiencing the outdoors than previous generations, and also in part to their ever-present need for a connection to the outside world. It explores the idea: can the “selfie generation” truly unplug in nature?

If I take a hard look at myself, I have to raise my hand and be counted as one of the Millennials that spends more time on a screen than seeking out real-life experiences in the outdoors. I live in the middle of a big city, work a full-time job, and don’t have easy access to a car – and I let that stop me all the time. Instead of doing my own exploring, I follow dozens of people on Instagram who post “nature porn” on a regular basis (see moonmountainman and sterlingptaylor for two examples of wanderers who bring the glory of the parks directly to your iPhone screen).

But in many ways, my  inability to unplug coupled with my appetite to see beautiful images of the world has actually inspired me to seek out more experiences in nature. It has opened my eyes to some of the most awesome places in the world – many right here in the United States – and this greater awareness has directly impacted my travel decisions.

As an example, my trip to Yosemite National Park in 2015 was largely informed by Instagram feeds and stories from friends who had gone. Just this summer, after finding an amazing flight deal to Sri Lanka, a combination of Instagram and travel blogs gave me the information and confidence I needed to plan a two-week long nature retreat on the other side of the world. Without having the world literally at my fingertips, I expect that my travel decisions would have fallen back on old standbys – cities around the U.S. and the world – that I had learned about growing up.

My Recent Experience in the Outdoors Without Technology: Camping for the First Time in Six Years

Most recently – and on a much smaller scale – I was reintroduced to camping when I roughed it for two nights near Shenandoah National Park with a group of friends. I hadn’t camped in at least six years, and I was nervous about what I would take away from the experience. Would I enjoy it, or had I gotten too used to the ease and comfort of my daily life? I certainly enjoy hiking, but I also appreciate taking a warm shower at the end of the day.

We arrived at the campsite late at night and were immediately greeted by damp grass and swarms of gnats. Great. Thankfully, my friends had brought tarps to put beneath the tents to keep any water out, and the gnats largely left us alone as long as we didn’t have light near us. This might be ok, I thought.

Then somebody told me to look up. As soon as I lifted my head I stared in wonder at millions of bright stars dotting the sky. The characteristic cluster of of the Milky Way galaxy was a thick brush stroke cutting across the darkness. The night was so clear that we could see virtually every single star in the sky.

After hiking Old Rag Mountain the next morning, we spent the rest of our time at the campsite cooking meals over the fire, wading in the river, playing yard games, and catching up. I sank my feet into the muddy river bottom, watched a snake skillfully cut across the top of the water, roasted marshmallows over the campfire, lost myself playing bongos, and escaped to look at the stars alone until my fear of a bear pouncing on me and eating my face scared me into getting up (hey, I’m still the same girl I described at the beginning of this post).

My phone was buried deep inside of a bag inside of my backpack inside of the tent. Time seemed to stop. I vowed to myself that I would buy my own camping gear and escape into nature as much as possible in the future, because this was the life.

Campsite in Shenandoah National Park

Our campsite near Shenandoah National Park.

The Tension Between Technology, Nature, and Increased Tourism

I was recently talking to a friend about the complicated relationship between technology and nature. In some ways, there’s great tension between the two ideas – the need to be plugged-in deterring people from visiting places without a signal – but also complementary aspects, like gaining a greater awareness of the world. She cautioned that there’s also the danger for nature to be used for the purposes of technology; where people visit for the sole purpose of “getting the photo.”

I’ve been there: You make it to Taft Point in Yosemite, only to wait in line while people walk out on the ledge to be photographed by a buddy the next rock over. See Exhibit A below.

Taft Point, Yosemite National Park

The obligatory Taft Point photograph.

The fact is, the accessibility of some of these great sights is an unbelievable asset, but it can lead to a culture of people not actually spending time in nature and instead using it to for their next Instagram capture. Timothy Egan, author of the NatGeo article, points to evidence of this: “The number of people who camp overnight in park backcountry is down significantly from 35 years ago—which the service attributes to millennials being less enamored of roughing it than earlier generations.”

The same friend I was speaking to about technology and nature made an observation during a recent hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies: The highly-trafficked shorter trails leading to great vistas had significantly more litter than those that were longer, lesser-known, or in the backcountry.

In other words, the impacts of mass tourism were evident. The volume of visitors to these trails coupled with greater ignorance or disinterest in preservation guidelines created an environment where the natural space became trampled and littered. It’s a dangerous consequence of greater awareness and visitation to outdoor spaces.

This was our campsite before we picked up every single piece of trash, down to the tiniest scrap of paper, before leaving.

A recent example of vandalism occurred in Oregon, when the famous Duckbill formation was caught on video being toppled by vandals.

This video by National Geographic perfectly sums up the debate of whether technology technology is an asset to get people to explore natural parks, or whether it detracts from the experience and leads to a culture of people using (and often abusing) nature for “the shot.” Personally, I have this debate with myself all the time.

The truth is, it’s both.

The reality of technology is that it isn’t going away, so our challenge is to find a way to use it to enhance the park’s experience and to inspire people to visit and have authentic experiences.

So how do we reconcile our desire to attract people to appreciate the gift of nature, while limiting our overall impact? I certainly don’t have the answer, but I believe that will be the challenge of our generation.

What’s your take? Add your voice to the conversation in the comments!