Millions of Americans enjoy the outdoors each year on vast holdings of public lands, including national, state and local parks, wildlife areas as well as millions of acres of private lands.
A common denominator among the hordes of American explorers is the desire to step out into the unknown.
Fear is one of the oldest of our survival instincts. Facing the unknown brings an immediate fight or flight reflex, which affects all of us and how we react to situations in the outdoors.
Psychologist Shankar Vedantam says that people commonly exaggerate fears of unusual happenings like plane crashes, earthquakes, or lightning strikes more so than common occurrences such as car accidents or hypothermia.
Fear systems are triggered more quickly when we can associate some kind of “malevolence” to the cause such as crime, terrorism, snakes and bears. Fear is triggered far less when there is no enemy, such as inclement weather or a loose rock, which causes us to fall.
Fear is a great survival tool which helps us face immediate dangers and react in a manner which will help us survive. However, fear is a poor tool for slow and incremental risks, such as the onset of heart disease or climate change.
These changes happen so slowly that our bodies do not respond with the same intensity of quick fear as when we are surprised by a snake or see a bear in the wild. In the outdoors, we may face greater dangers from the slower developing risks such as storm clouds slowly building up or fatigue that gradually sets us up for a larger accident.
The very fears of the unknown in the outdoors are a major factor that attracts so many people to the outdoors. Our ancestral history of having to face the natural elements on a daily basis programmed our genetics to house fears of what is out there, or more so, the fear of what is not known is out there.
Facing those fears and overcoming them is a common desire among outdoor enthusiasts. Most refer to it as a desire for adventure.
In reality, the chances of being injured in the outdoors is much higher in the most dangerous activity we face every day of our lives: driving home. The chances of dying while participating in activities such as skydiving or white water rafting are 17 times less than driving.