What impacts does technology have on outdoor recreationists? photo credit © Josephine Lepp

The Cognitive Costs of Distracted Hiking


December 2019 | Volume 25, Number 3

by Daniel Dustin

by Kensey Amerson

by Jeff Rose

by Andrew Lepp

In a recent study of the interrelationship between time, smartphone use, and place attachment along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the western United States, Amerson and colleagues (2019) found that 97% of the thru-hikers sampled (N=514) spent an average of 3 hours and 23 minutes on their smartphones each day, and that their smartphone use increased with the number of days on the trail. The primary uses of smartphones were for navigation, listening to music, and taking photographs, none of which required cell phone service. Social media, texting, and email were also used by the thru-hikers, but to a lesser extent. This strong connection to their smartphones raises a number of questions related to the future of long-distance hiking as well as the future of outdoor recreation in general.

In this article, we focus on the costs of the increasing technologization of wilderness recreation (Beck and Dustin 2016; Dustin, Beck, and Rose 2017). While acknowledging the perceived benefits of carrying smartphones into nature, and conceding that smartphones are likely here to stay, what concerns us is the possible negative impact of smartphone use on outdoor recreationists’ higher order cognitive functioning. Recent research has shown that immersion in nature can increase higher order cognitive functioning whereas smartphone use can exhaust higher order cognitive functioning (Atchley, Strayer, and Atchley 2012). When you put nature and smartphones together, it seems plausible to suggest that increasing use of smartphones might detract from the higher order cognitive benefits nature otherwise provides. To the extent this is the case, we believe smartphones are antithetical to what long-distance hiking and wilderness recreation ought to be about.

Cognition Gone Wild

It is estimated that 85% of US citizens reside in cities and towns, which means most outdoor recreationists are likely city dwellers. They visit nature for a variety of reasons, but as B. L. Driver and associates found over decades of research, one of the primary benefits of outdoor recreation is stress reduction (Driver, Brown, and Peterson 1991; Driver, Nash, and Haas 1985). Yet smartphone use has been associated with increased anxiety (Lepp, Barkley, and Karpinski 2014) and a blurring of the work/leisure boundary (Chen, Huang, Gao, and Petrick 2018; Son and Chen 2018). The frenetic pace of urban life, coupled with constant demands on our ability to direct our attention to meet the requirements of city living, make an escape to the out-of-doors a highly restorative experience. Among our concerns is that this experience could be compromised by the siren song (e.g., push notifications) of the ever-present smartphone, making escape from the stressors of daily life all the more difficult to achieve – even in wilderness settings.

Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan (1989; Kaplan 1995) have captured this understanding in Attention Restoration Theory (ART), demonstrating that our exhausted directed attentional capacity can be replenished by periodic doses of nature. Rooted in our species’ long evolutionary history of being “at home” in nature, ART is well tested and commonly accepted as a reasonable explanation for nature’s restorative power (Berman, Jonides, and Kaplan 2008; Berto 2005; Hartig, Mang, and Evans 1991). Research on ART further indicates that higher order cognitive processes such as selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multitasking are refreshed through immersion in nature (Atchley, Strayer, and Atchley 2012).

In the Atchley and colleagues (2012) study, creative problem solving improved among hikers by 50% after a four-day wilderness experience. The researchers attributed this dramatic improvement in higher order cognitive functioning to the positive emotional state that typically accompanies time spent outdoors, coupled with soft fascination and low arousal characteristic of encounters with nature. These encounters restore our higher order cognitive capacity in a way that allows for deeper introspection and self-reflection. To the extent these immersive nature-based experiences do indeed engage and refresh our brains’ higher order prefrontal cortex processes, they are arguably one of the most important sources of benefits derived from outdoor recreation. Yet nature, with all of its restorative benefits, may now be in competition with smartphones for hikers’ attention.

Distracted Nature-Based Experiences

What makes the Atchley and colleagues (2012) study particularly intriguing is that the four-day wilderness experience was, by design, absent of smartphones. This was significant because smartphones are known to drain focused attention, resulting in what Strayer and Drews (2007) call “inattention blindness.” In other words, smartphones distract our attention from the immediacy of our surroundings to the smartphone itself, and we miss much of what is going on around us while ensconced in our smartphone technology. As a demonstration of this, Hyman and colleagues (2010) hired a brightly colored clown to unicycle about their university’s quad. Students crossing the quad while using their smartphone were less likely to notice this conspicuous feature than their smartphone-free peers. For our purposes, it is important to consider that in wilderness settings, far more important features may go unnoticed by hikers preoccupied with their smartphones.

Much of this “distraction” research has been carried out in the context of people talking on cell phones while driving a car (Strayer and Drews 2007; Strayer, Drews and Johnston 2003; Strayer and Johnston 2001). This may be because the costs of distracted driving are obviously high. But researchers have also investigated the costs of distracted walking. Walking while using a smartphone has demonstrable costs, including a significantly slower gait (Barkley and Lepp 2016; Parr, Hass and Tillman 2014) and a greater risk of injury – even walking into traffic – when distracted by a smartphone (Nasar, Hecht, and Wener 2008; Neider et al. 2010; Schwebel et al. 2012; Stravrinos, Byington, and Schwebel 2011). Consequently, it is interesting to ponder the possible implications for people talking or texting on smartphones while hiking a trail, listening to music with earbuds, searching their apps for the next water source or campsite, taking a snapshot of a panoramic view, identifying unknown flora and fauna, or any number of other related outdoor activities. (Remember Amerson et al. [2019] found that PCT thru-hikers reported being on their smartphones an astounding 3 hours and 23 minutes a day, with smartphone use increasing with each additional day on the trail.) If smartphones distract and distance drivers from the road they are speeding along, and pedestrians from sidewalks they are walking along, it is reasonable to suggest that smartphones may well distract and distance hikers from the natural environment they are trekking through. It is further possible that smartphone use, because of its demands on directed attention, diminishes recreationists’ ability to engage their higher order executive faculties with the natural world enveloping them.

The Cognitive Costs of Distracted Hiking

A review of the literature on the perceived impact of smartphone use in the out-of-doors reveals both costs and benefits. The benefits are typically related to perceived safety, convenience, and comfort (Martin 2017; Martin and Pope 2012; Moreira 2017; Noble 2017; Pope and Martin 2011). Smartphones are perceived to make it easier to call for help when needed, pinpoint nearby water sources and camping spots, look up and learn about unknown flora and fauna, communicate with others up and down the trail, check in with those back home, and otherwise eliminate many of the question marks that Aldo Leopold (1949) once characterized as “blank spots on the map.” Global positioning systems, Spot Locator Beacons, and navigation apps are all perceived to make it easier for a wider range of outdoor recreationists to venture into the wild with less trepidation (Martin and Blackwell 2016). Given our nation’s general obsession with safety (McAvoy and Dustin 1990), and recreation land managers’ corresponding sense of responsibility to ensure safety (McAvoy, Dustin, Rankin, and Frakt 1985), it is hard to imagine smartphones ever being outlawed in outdoor recreation settings. Having said that, some protected areas, such as Yellowstone National Park, have approved cell phone management plans in hopes of limiting the intrusion of this technology into backcountry settings. Such plans typically attempt to limit cell phone service to developed areas within parks and protected areas. It is telling, however, that despite a cell phone management plan, Yellowstone is finding the spread of smartphone technology difficult to contain – due, in part, to congressional pressure to expand cell phone service throughout the country via the Public Lands Communication Act (Brown 2016).

At the same time, ART has taught us much about nature’s restorative power, and recent research has alerted us to the potential deleterious effects smartphones might have on that restorative power. In addition to its distracting effects, heavy reliance on technology in the backcountry has been shown to threaten other aspects of higher order cognitive functioning.

Javadi and colleagues (2017), for example, found that relying on GPSs for navigation purposes diminishes the brain’s hippocalmic function, an important process in memory creation (Konishi and Bohbot 2013). Relying on technology to make our way in the backcountry means our brains do not have to do the work of creating our own internal cognitive maps. Offloading cognitive function to our smartphones is appealing to some, particularly those less inclined to effortful thinking (Barr, Pennycook, Stolz, and Fugelsang 2015). This may help explain the negative relationship between smartphone use and preference for leisure challenge (Lepp, Li, Barkley, and Salehi-Esfahani 2015). Yet challenging leisure pursuits such as backcountry navigation are a source of great benefits. Quoting O’Connor (2019), “Practicing navigation is a powerful form of engagement with the environment that can inspire a greater sense of stewardship. Finding our way on our own – using perception, empirical observation and problem-solving skills – forces us to attune ourselves to the world. And by turning our attention to the physical landscape that sustains and connects us, we can nourish “topophilia,” a sense of attachment and love for place” (n.p.). Substituting “the brain in our pocket” (Barr, Pennycook, Stolz, and Fugelsang 2015) for our own cognitive functioning may well affect our memories of the experience (Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner 2011; Tamir, Templeton, Ward, and Zaki 2018). As Resnick (2015) speculates (quoting Templeton), “It could just be that we’re using these devices, distracting ourselves from the experience, and because of that distraction, we don’t remember the thing we’re supposed to be paying attention to” (n.p.) In sum, relying less and less on our own cognitive abilities in outdoor recreation environments by supplanting them with quick and easy technological answers to our pathfinding questions may fundamentally diminish both our experience of nature and our memories of those nature-based experiences.

Whether the “good” of smartphone technology for perceived safety, convenience, and comfort reasons outweighs its “bad” effects on higher order cognitive functioning as well as creating “inattention blindness” raises an important policy question for outdoor recreationists and wilderness land managers to consider. That question is: What is the appropriate balance between smartphones’ costs and benefits in wilderness recreation? And if we cannot adequately manage smartphone technology in wilderness, are we not at least obliged to educate outdoor recreationists about the potential negative impact of smartphones on higher order cognitive functioning and the potential hazards associated with smartphone-induced “inattention blindness”?


Joseph Sax (1980) proposed that the highest use of the United States’ “crown jewels,” the national parks, is to “exercise the contemplative faculty,” a form of engagement with the natural world that requires higher order cognitive functioning. Extend that logic to the spectrum of outdoor recreation opportunities available in the United States, and you begin to better understand why smartphones do not bode well for this essential aspect of wilderness recreation. Wilderness has always been an antidote to modernity, a place, as Henry David Thoreau (1992) described it, “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if [we] could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when [we] came to die, discover that [we] had not lived” (p. 86). Wilderness is that place where we take refuge from the relentless advance of civilization. Smartphones are part of that advance.

Recall as well that Sax (1980) viewed anything that distanced recreationists from nature as unwelcome. He argued against concessions and cars and anything else that buffered people from experiencing the closeness of the natural environment surrounding them. Like Thoreau (1992), Sax, too, wanted to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that is not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms” (p. 86). Unfettered, untrammeled, primeval nature does that for people. A smartphone does not.

In the end, the larger question to ponder is whether we will allow advancing technology to fundamentally alter our relationship with the natural world (Pergams and Zaradic 2008, 2006). What do smartphones, global positioning systems, Spot Locator Beacons, navigation apps, and other technological innovations mean for the future of outdoor recreation, and, especially, the future of wilderness (Pohl 2006)? Should we embrace advancing technology uncritically and accept the inevitable changes it will bring about to our very conception of wilderness? Or should we pledge allegiance to what the Wilderness Act’s framers had in mind more than 50 years ago when they described wilderness as a place for “primitive” and “unconfined” types of recreation (Dustin, Beck, and Rose 2018)? Roderick Nash (2002) reasoned that the existence of wilderness in America is an expression of our species’ ability to exercise restraint, to not do something we can do. Wendell Berry (2003) questioned, in turn, whether we have it within ourselves to actually do that over time. Given the smartphone’s potential for distancing recreationists from nature, and thereby diminishing their sense of stewardship, how we deal with smartphones in outdoor recreation in general, and wilderness in particular, is a good test of both Nash and Berry’s propositions.

DANIEL DUSTIN is a professor in the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Program at the University of Utah; email: daniel.dustin@health.utah.edu.


KENSEY AMERSON is an outdoor leader with A Walk in the Woods Great Smoky Mountain Guiding Service in Gatlinburg, Tennessee; email: bakerkensey@gmail.com.


JEFF ROSE is an assistant professor in the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Program at the University of Utah; email: jeff.rose@utah.edu.


ANDREW LEPP is a professor of recreation, park, & tourism management at Kent State University; email: alepp1@kent.edu.


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