A recent op-ed in the L.A. Times proposed a new reason why Americans don’t spend as much time outdoors as they once did: fear. Gary Ferguson identifies the recent line-up of nature shows, “which have become something akin to horror movies,” as both a cause and symptom of America’s larger unease about being outside. Ferguson argues that the risks of being outside—from extreme weather to unfamiliar critters—are overblown and that to overcome this fear, we should collectively remind ourselves that the likelihood of being bitten by a snake or attacked by a wolf is “infinitesimal.”
Unfortunately, fear, especially fear of the unknown, isn’t always subject to the laws of reason. As a teenager, I worked at a YMCA camp in the northern Sierra Nevada. Most of the campers had grown up in the central valley, and many had never been further outside than their backyards. When the buses arrived each week, I was greeted by predictable terror about the mountains I’d come to love. These terrors ranged from fear of sitting on the ground (“my shorts will get dusty”) to fear of ants (“it’s crawling near me!”) to fear of the pit toilets (“there’s no way I’ll go in there, no, never”).
One of the greatest pleasures of the job was watching these fears evaporate. After the first day, the realization sunk in that no matter how assiduously you avoided the ground, your shorts were going to get filthy. Soon, the ants were a minor annoyance, the pit toilets were truly more convenient than walking all the way down the hill to the flush toilets, and then, all of a sudden, the rest of the mountains came into focus. I watched as kids threw back their heads to stare at the blanket of stars in the sky, inhaled the vanilla scent of the Jeffrey pine bark, and sat (in the dirt) by the river, transfixed by the current flowing over the boulders. They didn’t overcome their fear of the outdoors because I calmly told them their fears were unreasonable; they overcame it because after a week sleeping under the stars and throwing rocks into the Stanislaus river, it simply didn’t matter whether they were dirty or if there were ants or even if there might be a bear in the nearby woods.
Ferguson suggests we should address fear of the outdoors by appealing to reason. But the fear of nature, often a fear of the unknown, isn’t based in reason, so it’s unlikely to be assuaged by reason. What’s the solution, then? It’s something far less practical than memorizing statistics about animal attacks. From my experience, the best way to de-fang the fear of the outdoors is simply to be outdoors. Better access to front country areas like urban parks, state campgrounds, and day-use areas, is one important way to increase how often people interact with the outdoors. And the prominence of movies Wild and a surge of outdoor-positive social media like Wilderness Culture and The Clymb also has a role to play in making outdoor recreation more appealing to wider audiences.