Digital Detox: Applying Backcountry Principles Off Trail

The other weekend, I was joking with my good friend Matt over a couple beers about my shortcomings with navigation. You see, I’m not the best at navigating a city by map, despite my dad’s early attempts to teach me how to use one. I’ve always defaulted to the GPS in my car or on my phone and, even then, I frequently get lost. My navigational shortcomings have even caused a couple brief squabbles with ex boyfriends, who really really couldn’t understand my lack of direction. Really — I’m that bad.

So how then, you might wonder, do I navigate when I’m alone or with friends in the backcountry? Simply put — I’m just better at navigating in the outdoors. Give me a map, and I’ll find the best backcountry route to our destination. I’ll even find us a beautiful detour that winds past an overlook. For me, it’s relatively easy to navigate in the backcountry. Why then, is it so hard for me to navigate in the city?

The answer isn’t that I’m just “so in my element” in the outdoors. Nor is it that my brain magically begins firing differently the minute I lace up a hiking boot or slip on my pack. But there is a major difference in how I function in the city versus on a trail — in one scenario, I have a phone. In the other, I don’t.

In the backcountry, I’m present in a way that I’m not in my off-trail life. At home in Portland, I wake up to my email or a podcast or an audio book. I am guilty of scrolling through online books, online news sites and social feeds while walking home from work. My head is often down, fingers scrolling, eyes moving quickly up and down a page.

Outside, I don’t do that. I pay attention to what’s around me. I survey the trail in front of me for the crunchiest leaves to step on. I listen to the sounds of birds chirping and rodents scrambling past branches. I keep my head up, my eyes searching for a gap in the trees that provides a sneaky view of mountains or a rushing stream. Though I’m already a pretty devout reader of physical books (call me old school), I typically always have two or three audio books on my phone at all times. In the backcountry, though, I don’t listen to them. I conserve my phone battery for more important things, and instead read only my physical books. When I read in the backcountry, that’s all I’m doing. I’m not walking and reading. Or working and reading. I’m just reading. That’s it.

It’s no surprise, then, that my ability to navigate is 10 times better in the backcountry. I don’t have the distraction of my phone at all times. I’m just, you know, in the moment. I’m paying attention to my surroundings and cacheing them in my memory. I’m not constantly sharing and talking and responding. I’m just being and living and listening and thinking. The backcountry has long been my favorite antidote to an anxious mind. But I’m resolving to bring more of my backcountry habits into my off-trial life because this is really the way I should be living full time, not just when I’m outside.

First, I’m resolving to not look at my phone for the first two hours of each day. I don’t want to wake up to emails. I want to wake up to a healthy breakfast, hot tea, meditation and a good book. Maybe even a sunrise walk or stair sprints. My next resolution is to only look at my phone once throughout my work day. My cell phone isn’t super essential to my day. I can check my email from my computer. I can streamline how people contact me. I can set new expectations for my response time. I can still be available while also setting boundaries.

I want to enjoy my days and welcome the flow of creative ideas. I want to execute on those creative ideas. I don’t want to choke them with overstimulation. I don’t want to live on my phone. I want to slow down, take a deep breath and chill the f*ck out sometimes. I want to welcome the flow of creativity and originality by using the natural — not digital — world as my muse.

And who knows … I may even improve my city navigation skills.