The history of outdoor recreation

For most of the history of humankind, and still for huge numbers of people, the main goal of life has been to ensure the survival of themselves and their families. At the same time, civilizations have developed, allowing elites to arise who provide priestly, leadership or royal functions. Such individuals and their families can pursue other activities, as they are largely relieved of the task of obtaining food. Hunting and hawking have been important forms of recreation for the monarchy, from ancient times until the present. Thus it is obvious that civilizations must reach a certain level of economic and cultural development (usually quite advanced) before concepts such as ‘recreation’ or ‘leisure’ can be entertained.

Following the agricultural and industrial revolutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in Britain, wealthy landowners and industrialists could afford to pursue outdoor recreation in field sports: hunting, shooting and fishing. Many also ventured on sightseeing tours, as an interest in scenery developed and became fashionable, especially with the ‘picturesque’ movement in Britain. Poets and painters celebrated nature, and philosophers pondered on ‘natural’ law and the ‘noble savage’. Arduous tours were made across the Alps to view the scenery. Later, the English Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, the German Black Forest, the Finnish Lakeland, Niagara Falls and numerous other places became fashionable resorts, made more accessible by the advent of the new railways.

In North America, John Muir began to spread the message about the dramatic landscape of Yosemite and other wonders of nature, to campaign for their protection as places not just of beauty but also where the spirit might soar and where people might commune with nature. His efforts eventually bore fruit, and visitors made their way to the many new national parks of the USA founded in the later years of the nineteenth century.

In Canada, at a similar time, the railways across the Rocky Mountains were developed in close partnership with the resorts of Banff and Jasper. Mountainous scenery, wildness, thermal springs and modern amenities provided by resort hotels helped to promote the national park system of that country. Visitors to such areas were essentially nature tourists—as are many today, driving to see the marvels of Yellowstone in Wyoming, the Grossglockner Pass in Austria, the North Cape of Norway or Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia.

During the Industrial Revolution a new kind of recreational demand arose among the middle and lower classes. Urbanization of former rural populations provided the labour to operate the new industries, which hugely influenced the development of Europe and the eastern USA during the nineteenth century. Britain was one of the first and still remains one of the most urbanized countries in terms of the percentage of its population living in cities. Later in the century, working people began to question the quality of their lives in grimy, smoky slums, and to desire some freedom to escape from this poor environment. In cities such as Manchester or Sheffield, which expanded close to wild moorland landscapes, groups of people formed clubs to walk or bicycle into the countryside at weekends. These people wanted the freedom to roam about the countryside, and this was perceived by private landowners to conflict with their interests. By the 1920s and 1930s outdoor recreation in Britain, Europe and America had become an established pastime for many people. Day trips on the train or bus or by charabanc, picnics and walks, boating, swimming and nature study became common.

In America, pioneering settlers living off the land are an important aspect of the nation’s folk history. Technology—paved roads, electricity, automobiles and radio— increased the nation’s well-being, and put people closer to each other because of better communications. As this developed, parts of the pioneer way of life became nostalgic and important as recreational activities to reinforce and maintain the old connections with the land. Hunting, hiking and trail-riding converted survival activities into leisure pursuits.

The demands for recreation stimulated the designation of national parks, where scenery and to some extent wildlife protection were combined with opportunities for recreation. The work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s to restore degraded areas like Shenandoah as parks in the USA, the establishment of national parks in Britain in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and similar developments elsewhere in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all reflected similar demands.

The next major impetus for recreation was the increase in car ownership. The availability of mass-produced cars and good roads to drive them on was pioneered in the USA. In the 1950s and 1960s the Interstate system of freeways and major highways put previously remote areas within easy reach of a wide range of people with cars or trucks to go hunting, fishing or hiking. Camping was a cheap way of staying in an area, and it remains popular.

In Europe, mass car ownership took longer to develop, although a road system already existed. By the early 1960s places like the New Forest in England began to disintegrate under the pressure of cars and visitors. Traffic jams became common in the Lake District, and convoys of trailer caravans—a favourite means of holiday transport in Britain and Europe—became regular sights during the summer months on many roads.

As access to the outdoors has become easier, and people have become more adventurous in what they can do there, so a plethora of different activities have developed. Some, such as all-terrain bike riding, were unknown a decade or so ago but are now very popular. A whole host of specialist, often seasonal markets has been developed by enterprising people. These include whitewater rafting trips, outfitting for guided back-country trail hikes, and heli-skiing, where skiers are flown to remote mountain locations and dropped off to ski back to base.

Now that outdoor recreation is a well-established regular activity for millions of people every year, what precisely do they get out of it? What are the benefits of the great escape from the city? What does this tell us about the kinds of settings, sites and facilities that need to be provided?

Updated: September 23, 2015 — 1:31 pm