Surviving the Outdoors and Appreciating it Too

June 23, 2024

Heidi Collie (she/her/hers), Low Entropy Volunteer Writer

When people speak about “the great outdoors,” what comes to mind? 

Perhaps it’s the lives and work of survival experts and outdoor aficionados such as Ben Fogle or the Special Air Service’s Bear Grylls. Maybe your mind wanders to dedicated researchers, such as primatologist Jane Goodall in the forests of Tanzania, or extreme athletes like world cyclist Mark Beaumont, or Russ Cook, who recently ran the length of Africa. Potentially, this topic transports you to the cinematic world of extraordinary survival biopics, such as Wild, Adrift, Soul Surfer or 127 Hours.

Whatever comes to mind, we can all agree that discussion of “the great outdoors” comes hand-in-hand with the narrative of survival. World media perhaps plays a part in this, exposing us to the aforementioned survival stories from the comfort of our sheltered, late-stage capitalist armchairs. However, the connection between nature and survival runs deeper than that. After all, every known religion teaches a flood story.

For many of us, surviving the outdoors relates to personal experience as well. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel widely and recall without hesitation that the moments when I have been most afraid have been when face-to-face with nature—pulled under four-foot waves in South Africa, hiking Mt. Snowdon in horizontal hail, crouching under my seat in an exposed boat near Istanbul, sheltering from thunder and lightning in Mexico, battling dust and dehydration in Death Valley’s 100°F desert climate, and similarly sunburned out from an excavation near Jerusalem.

Unfortunately there’s no one survival hack for navigating the individual challenges of a planet and climate that are more varied than ever. Read, research, prepare, respect and—if you’re a religious person—pray that it respects you back.

With that said, the past two decades have certainly seen a shift in perception across Western culture. Spearheaded by the work of human biologists like Gary Brecka, modern research preaches the many health benefits of being outdoors. Brecka simplifies this to magnetism, oxygen and light—that we need to be exposed to the oxygen levels of fresh air, the vitamins of sunlight and the alkalinity from being barefoot directly on earth. There are also complex psychological benefits associated with all five senses in the outdoors, with the recent introduction of nature-based therapy programs as a way of managing PTSD. With a greater understanding of biophilia—our innate human instinct to connect with the outdoors— some say we have come full circle, seeking out an understanding of—and connection with— the natural world in a way that many Indigenous communities famously never lost.

Here we may consider another connection between survival and the outdoors: our survival depends on nature.

Finally, it would be wrong to talk about the connection of nature and survival without addressing the (critically endangered) elephant in the room. Since the dawn of the geological era we have come to refer to as “the anthropocene,” the question is not of us surviving nature, but of nature surviving us. 

With Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports exposing tangible threats from climate change like famine, drought, heat and pollution, among other things, we are beginning to understand that this planet will be completely unrecognizable by the year 2100. Only yesterday my elderly neighbor was chatting to me about how she loves to bring her grandchildren to the coastal spot that she grew up visiting. With sea level rises on track to cause complete submersion of all beaches, it struck me that—if granted the privilege of old age—I simply won’t be able to bring mine.

My hope is that, as a society, we may regard the outdoors with reverence and respect, with an appreciation of its necessity, but an acknowledgment of its fragility. Scientifically, we have all the tools we need to keep our planet liveable. At this point, the challenge is political.

It doesn’t matter whether you are reading this as an “outdoorsy” person or not, we all need to get behind this movement. Identifying as someone who has never hugely connected with nature or the outdoors, journalist David Wallace-Wells articulated the challenge aptly in the introduction of his 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming:

“I may be in the minority in feeling that the world could lose much of what we think of as ‘nature,’ as far as I cared, so long as we could go on living as we have in the world left behind. The problem is, we can’t.”

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