On a gray December afternoon, Stacie Foster walked her dogs Bowie and Archie along the leaf-studded trails of Seattle’s Discovery Park, holding tight to their leashes as the dogs padded along the matted, brown path. The stroll is a daily routine for the threesome. Each weekday, Foster pops in her earbuds, turns on an audio book and leashes up the pups.
“It gets me out of the house,” Foster says, looking down at an eager Archie. “We live so close to Discovery Park. It seems like a shame not to come out here.”
Because 61-year-old Foster rows every morning before the sun peeks over the horizon, she uses these afternoon jaunts with her dogs to enjoy the final hour of winter daylight. To make the most of her time, she brings her smartphone and turns on a book or the day’s news—something she can’t easily do when her arms are cranking paddles in the morning.
“If I’m going to be out here walking for two hours, I like to listen while I walk,” she says.
Foster isn’t unique in her decision to take technology to the trail. These days, recreationists use their phones to do everything from snapping photos of red-orange sunsets to mapping their trail mileage or tuning in to a podcast. Though many use outdoor time to unplug from social media and email, some like to use their phones as a camera, a map or a portable library, finding these purposes different from the others.
A few even bring a device when forest bathing, a Japanese practice of connecting with nature through the senses that’s traditionally tech-free. Foster says she doesn’t consider her trail time forest bathing, but, like those who do, she finds her walks rejuvenating, even with her phone.
Still, she has her limits. She won’t text on the trail (she says she can’t text and walk, and doesn’t find it relaxing), but she’s OK with listening to an audiobook. “I think everybody gets to make their own choices,” she says.
Combining technology with recreation is something of a modern-day paradox. While spending time outside is linked to reduced stress levels and even decreased nearsightedness in children, smartphone use (or rather, overuse) is often credited with the opposite: It can increase anxiety, stress and depression. But is there a certain amount of device-use—like, say, using a phone as a map—that still allows for that mental post-hike high?
According to the experts: It all depends on the person and the technology.
Does technology disrupt the benefits of forest bathing?
For Samantha Porter, tech is part of navigating the trails safely: The 28-year-old used a popular hiking app to help her navigate a 1,200-mile trek from the Mexican border toward northern California in 2014. She’s used it several times since then while hiking stretches of trail back home in Washington state.
But she takes a more traditional approach to forest bathing, typically leaving her phone at home. She thinks of forest bathing as distinct from a casual forest stroll, even if the intent is to unwind and de-stress.
“I think some folks have heard bits and pieces of what forest bathing is, and they think if they’re going out and meandering a bit of trail ... they think that’s forest bathing,” she says. “It [isn’t] just going up and touching a tree. There [are] processes behind it.”
Porter supports using tech as a tool outdoors, but she thinks it can interfere with the mental benefits of forest bathing.
“Forest bathing doesn’t lend well to technology unless it’s an app that walks through the meditation process,” she says. “Otherwise, it deters from that experience.”
A fairly recent Japanese tradition dating back to the 1980s, forest bathing focuses on interacting with nature using all five senses. It differs from a daily walk or hike in that it’s not meant to be an exercise, but rather a slow, meditative stroll through nature.
Research suggests the practice can reduce stress, increase energy, improve sleep and stimulate the activity of certain cells that defend against bacteria, viruses and tumors, says Dr. Qing Li, president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine and one of Japan’s leading forest bathing researchers. His book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness was translated into English and published in the U.K. and North America in 2018.
Forest bathing can also ease “technostress,” a term coined in the 1980s to describe the unhealthy behavior of overusing new technology, Li says. This form of stress has been shown to contribute to anxiety, headaches, insomnia and depression.
Despite this, Li says there is a gray area to technology use in nature. People don’t have to be forest bathing purists to reap the rewards of time outside. While he doesn’t have specific data to support it, he says limiting smartphone use to snapping a photo won’t decrease the mental benefits of an outdoor reprieve. However, people should avoid using a phone to text, call or scroll through social media—all things that can detract from the experience.
“When it comes to [enjoying] forest bathing, there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” he says. “It differs from person to person.”
But using a phone as a camera comes with a caveat: The person needs to understand their own tech limits and usage habits. For some, even the presence of a phone can increase levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and dopamine, a feel-good chemical that plays a part in motivating people to check their phones, regardless of how (or if) the device is being used, says Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.
So whether someone is forest bathing in the traditional sense or simply retreating to nature to relax, Christakis says it’s OK to bring a phone to use as a camera. The key is knowing yourself. Some people can hike with a phone in their pack and not feel an urge to check notifications. Others will crave it, which shifts their focus from the trail to their device.
Ultimately, a person’s attachment to technology is a major factor in determining whether a device will disrupt their outdoor escape. Phone addiction is not entirely uncommon in the U.S., with between 5 and 10 percent of American adolescents and adults addicted to their smart devices, Christakis says. Compulsive behavior (think checking your phone habitually even when you haven’t been notified) is more common, but there aren’t statistics to say how much.
The average user spends about two hours per day on social media and related messaging services, notes Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, in his book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. The apps, Newport writes, are designed to encourage behavioral addiction by providing intermittent positive reinforcement (think likes on Instagram and photo tags on Facebook) and the drive for social approval.
Beyond a degree of self-awareness, it’s a good idea to keep your outdoor partners in mind when using technology outside. Even if your cellphone isn’t bothering you, the noise of your music or phone calls could disrupt another’s experience, says Judy Beaudette, a forest bathing guide at Friends of North Creek Forest in Bothell, Wash.
Beaudette began forest bathing about four years ago after reading about it in a book. Intrigued, she began practicing on her own before eventually deciding to lead trips. “I’m someone who doesn’t need the research [on forest bathing] to prove it works,” she says. “It’s so obvious to me.”
Like Li, she supports taking photos if the intent is to simply document. Beaudette occasionally takes photos when forest bathing herself. But she refrains from snapping images when she’s with others because she wants to respect their experience. And when she’s alone, she draws the line at photography. This includes listening to music.
“You want to have all of your senses connecting with what’s out there,” she says. If you’re listening to a pop song, for example, “you’re not going to hear the rain falling on the leaf … If you have something in your ears, you’re not going to experience that magic.”
Michael Stein-Ross, owner of and forest bathing guide at Cascadia Forest Therapy in Burien, Wash., compares time in nature to forming a relationship with a new friend. “For some people, they don’t have a relationship with nature yet.”
As a guide, he asks people to leave their phones in the car, but he’s also aware that he needs to meet some people where they’re at. In those cases, that means allowing them to bring a phone in their pocket or pack.
“I don’t think people necessarily understand how [technology] gets in the way, which is why we need a guide for this type of work,” he says about forest bathing.
But like others, Stein-Ross acknowledges the gray area. If someone more easily relaxes in nature when listening to a guided meditation, for instance, he doesn’t think it’s wrong.
Ultimately, people have to understand themselves, their relationship with technology and their goals for time outside when deciding whether or not to pack a phone.
“It’s not a black-and-white issue,” he says.