Nicholas Kristov in the New York Times has a column describing a wilderness backpacking trip he took with his daughter and articulating the importance of actually visiting nature in order to care about it:
This trip, even more than most backpacking slogs, was a reminder that we humans are mere bricks in a vast natural cathedral. As we tumbled in snow pits, as rain fell on us, we mused that we’re not landlords of our planet, or even its prime tenants. We’re just guests. In short, the wilderness humbled us, and that’s why it is indispensable. In our modern society, we have structured the world to obey us; we can often use a keyboard or remote to alter our surroundings. Yet all this gadgetry focused on our comfort doesn’t always leave us more content or grounded. It is striking how often people who are feeling bewildered or troubled seek remedy in the wilderness.and
For decades, youth programs have found benefit in sending troubled adolescents to drink from wilderness streams and lap up truths about themselves. Outward Bound takes a similar path, for everyone from at-risk kids to returning veterans to corporate executives. Perhaps wilderness is an antidote to our postindustrial self-absorption. It’s a place to be deflated, humbled and awed all at once. It’s a window into a world larger than ourselves, one that doesn’t respond to a remote. It’s an Olympiad for all of us.In the column, he references these stats from the National Park Service (looking at the "Back Country Overnights" which seems likely to be a decent proxy for overall backpacking levels). Kristov writes:
Yet, increasingly, it’s for only a tiny minority of us. Getting lost in the wild used to be routine for generations raised on hunting and fishing, yet those pastimes are becoming less common. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the number of Americans who fish dropped by 15 percent between 1996 and 2006. In that same period, the number of hunters dropped by just over 10 percent.I was sensitized to this issue since I was hiking in the UK on vacation this summer and the mountains seemed quieter and the paths harder to find than when I was doing the same thing as a teenager.
Likewise, the number of backcountry campers in our national parks has fallen by nearly 30 percent since 1979.
I wanted to see a fuller picture of the drop in US backpacking, so I made a graph of all the available National Park Service data (from 1979 to 2012):
Firstly, it does appear to be correct that there has been an overall secular decline since the 1970s - particularly when you consider that the overall US population is increasing. I also detect the hand of macro-economics here: backpacking is a very cheap way to vacation, and it appears that there is something of a tendency for it to increase during and following recessions (grey boxes), and decline during booms.
Still the response to more recent recessions has been more anemic. This is consistent with the idea that the secular decline is due to competition for leisure time from virtual activities:
Hunting’s popularity has waned across much of the country as housing tracts replace forests, aging hunters hang up their guns and youngsters sit down in front of Facebook rather than venture outdoors.Whatever the cause, it's a worrying trend for those of us who care about the natural world.