Theresa Garza suffers from depression. The 53-year-old Chicago resident says she often feels trapped inside her office as a conference services worker and that her condition worsens in times of gloomy weather. However, Garza finds relief in being immersed in nature and uses it as a way to cope with her troubles.
“Going outside and hiking cheers me up,” Garza said. “I go hiking when I feel overwhelmed with daily life and need an escape.”
Many other people are participating in various forms of outdoor recreation as well, for reasons such as improving health, saving money on vacations and feeling in touch with nature.
The total number of nature outings in America, which include activities such as camping, skiing, fishing and more, reached an all-time high of 12.4 billion excursions in 2012. This was a 6.8 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Participation Report of 2013.
The director of marketing and communications at the Outdoor Foundation, Stasia Raines, states that she was not surprised by the findings of the study.
“If we look at the trend, it was very gradual over time, not a drastic increase,” the 33-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas said. “The participation rate overall was pretty expected based on what we’ve been seeing.”
As of 2012, 49.4 percent of Americans participated in outdoor recreation and Raines believes the percentage will continue rising gradually.
Experts believe that one of the main factors that contribute to the increase in outings is the unstable state of the economy. The Outdoor Participation Report of 2013 states that 60 percent of outdoor participants are from households with incomes less than $75,000, meaning that the majority of participants are members of the lower and middle classes.
“Outdoor recreation tends to increase when the economy hits a bump,” Raines said. “With the downturn of the economy, people tend to stay close to home to avoid spending money and do things close to home like car-camping, fishing, or hiking.”
More people are also taking advantage of outdoor recreation as a way to improve their physical and mental health.
“It’s shown through scientific studies that spending time outside lessens the risk of children developing A.D.H.D., helps develop creativity, helps people relax and recreates a sense of peacefulness,” said 24-year-old Tom Georgevits, the director of partner projects at the American Recreation Coalition from Boston. “Going outside has a host of emotional and developmental benefits.”
In order to unite people with a common interest in outdoor recreation, many individuals have organized groups to go on outings together. The Chicago Hiking, Outdoors, and Social Group was founded in 2010 with over 6000 members and organizes outings such as hiking, rock climbing, skiing and more, free of charge.
“The meet up is great because I get to meet other people who love hiking as much as I do,” said Rita Rumiano, a 45-year-old housewife from Lima, Peru. “None of my friends like to hike and I don’t like hiking alone so this group is perfect.”
The group met to go on a three-mile hike at the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve in Highland Park, Ill. on Monday, November 11. This particular hike was aimed toward beginners because it was relatively short and flat; the group’s hikes range from two to 11 miles with various levels of inclines.
There were about 30 people in attendance, who were mainly middle-aged individuals who discovered the group from the social media website Meetup.com.
The hike started out on a main bike path, but after about a mile, the group went through a crevice in the trees to a narrow trail covered in dried brown leaves about 50 feet above a ravine. The trail ultimately led to the rocky shore of Lake Michigan.
“The lake was without a doubt the best view of the hike,” said 47-year-old real estate salesman Frank Schnitzler from Grayslake, Ill. “I felt like I was on the edge of the world.”
Many activist and non-profit groups have been created to engage the community in outdoor experiences. One such group is Chicago Wilderness, which promotes environmental conservation and outdoor recreation in the Chicago area.
Emilian Geczi, the youth and community engagement manager of Chicago Wilderness, believes that these groups have been successful in engaging the community in outdoor recreation.
“I think five years ago there were a lot of initiatives doing what we’re doing today and making our case important, which is probably why the recent numbers around outdoor recreation is higher,” the 35-year-old from Romania said.
Although outdoor participation rates are increasing, the demographics are still skewed, with 70 percent of participants identifying as Caucasian.
“Our research has found that minorities are vastly underrepresented in nature programs,” Geczi said. “There’s definitely room for improvement. We’re paying special attention to engaging more Latinos and African-Americans.”