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Is Spending Time Outdoors A Basic Human Need?

In their outdoor experiences, are people just looking for a temporary escape from everyday life, without pressure and stress?

It’s usually when I’m outdoors on my own that my mind turns to thoughts about the meaning of life. I’ve taken my own enjoyment of the outdoor environment as a given since I was a child and it’s more of an emotional process than an intellectual exercise. My learning curve regarding skills was steep and built on a succession of ignorance, poor judgement, inadequate equipment, wishful thinking and fun. It worked for me.

However, what does it really mean to be outdoors and what is its significance for people? Commissioned by the OutDoor by ISPO trade fair team at Messe München, the market research specialist institute rheingold searched across Germany for answers to the questions about what it really means to be outdoors and its significance for people. The participants in this ‘Outdoor as a human need’ study were asked about their inner desires, longings, fears and ideals when it comes to outdoor activities.

There was nothing really surprising in the results but they do give a framework in which to consider our own activities and the rewards they bring. Here is an overview of their key findings regarding what is at the heart of being outdoors.

Outdoor is a process

All outdoor moments are created over a number of stages, from the desire to be out in the open and planning the activities through to realisation and returning home. Each of these stages is connected to emotions: fears and uncertainty combined with curiosity are replaced by euphoria when the goal that has been set is reached – be it conquering a mountain top, riding the perfect wave or building a lakeside campfire. What remains afterwards is a feeling of strength when returning to everyday life. 


Outdoor dimensions

Outdoor activities could be ordered into four main interconnected categories:  the civilised safe bet in well-cultivated surroundings, the humble entry level, the natural untouched wild and the gutsy survivalist adventure. Thus, one person might find their inner peace by hiking through the countryside or fishing at their local pond, while another relaxes by climbing steep cliff faces with rope and hooks.

This means that there are different ways to approach defining the term ‘outdoor’. While ‘getting back to nature’ is the traditional outdoor approach, which can be taken to the next level with ‘survival and adrenaline’, other new fields have opened up with names like ‘controlled escapism’ and ‘urban warrior’. They have become generally accepted as fitting into the ‘outdoor’ scene.

Gear as a way in and advertisement 

The right equipment enables access to certain outdoor activities. It supports, provides protection, and, in some sports, can save lives if something goes wrong. This is at odds with the idea of going without and the getting back to nature that many associate with the term outdoor.

Generally speaking, while functionality and quality take priority over fashion aspects, the latter serve as a decisive differentiating feature when it comes to making a purchase decision. Even after returning from the great outdoors, the equipment can continue to do its job, such as the functional jacket worn when commuting to work. It also brings a bit of that outdoor feeling to everyday life and serves as an advertisement for an active lifestyle – something at the very heart of the urban outdoor concept.

Outdoor in everyday life

Outdoor means taking a piece of sophistication into primitive surroundings, this being more or less pronounced depending on the item of equipment. Technical equipment, in particular, offers a certain level of comfort. Instead of maps and compasses, we have GPS devices with pre-loaded routes, and instead of campfires and torches, we use gas cookers and head torches.

The right equipment enables access to certain outdoor activities. Is this at odds with the idea of going without and the getting back to nature that many associate with the term ‘outdoor’?

On the other hand, outdoor in everyday life brings the wild to civilisation – and thus the feeling of strength gained from outdoor pursuits manifests in daily life, whether through small challenges such as a new route on the way to work, through memories, or the crossover of outdoor clothing, equipment, and food into day-to-day life.

Emotional need and barriers to entry

In their outdoor experience, people are looking for a temporary escape from everyday life, without pressure and stress. However, in a comment that resonated with me, the study noted that many outdoor brands convey something quite different in their visual language. They use images of professionals, creating the impression of performance orientation and competition. The fear of losing control due to lack of knowledge and skills, as well as external influences, can also scare off potential outdoor enthusiasts.

And, last but not least, location can be a hurdle. Not everyone has the right outdoor environment on their doorstep. Historically, the community that can help overcome these difficulties has often been perceived as exclusive and also performance-oriented. Happily, that is changing with initiatives such as the Its Great Out There Coalition leading the way.

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