Why Being Outdoors Makes Us Want to Help Strangers
Despite the frontier trope of the rugged individualist, getting help from strangers is actually the more common experience
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In the summer of 2019, Tomas Quinones, a Portland-based artist, quality assurance engineer for the mapping app Ride with GPS, and enthusiastic long-distance cyclist, was undertaking a seven-day bikepacking trip, covering some 360 miles of remote high desert country in Southern Oregon, not far from the Nevada border.
His trip had been punctuated with the usual minor random setbacks and sketchy moments that bedevil the adventurer. He’d lost his shoes, and was riding on a pair of Bedrock sandals. He’d heard a low growling outside his tent one night—a mountain lion—and gripped his only defense, a small fixed-blade knife. His water supply was sometimes uncertain. But there had also been those moments of unexpected grace: a couple parked on the side of a dirt road that offered to share their lunch; or the guy in the pickup truck who pulled up alongside Quinones and quizzed him about his sandals. “He was like, ‘hey are you doing a mountain bike ride, cool!’” recalls Quinones. “Then he said, ‘Here, have a beer!’ And I thought, it’s ten in the morning, but sure, a nice early beer.”
On the penultimate day of his trip, he was riding down a dusty track when he came upon what he first thought was a cow, sprawled across the ground. It turned out to be a man, slipping in and out of consciousness on the desert floor. The man was clearly dehydrated; Quinones had a hunch he might be diabetic. He tried to give him some water, with little success. A cursory examination of the man’s nearby campsite turned up a pistol in a pillowcase. “My mind went to some pretty dark places,” he says. “Like, was this a drug deal gone bad?”
Quinones, who had done a bit of training as a volunteer in a search-and-rescue group, tried to rationally sift through his options. The nearest paved road was a good bike ride away. He thought about climbing a nearby ridge in the fleeting hope of getting a signal, but wondered if his sandals would be up to the task (he’d also been hearing plenty of rattlesnakes). He thought about trying to flag down whatever was kicking up dust on the horizon, but it turned out to be just cows. Finally, he decided to send an SOS—his first ever—on his SPOT location tracker. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” he says. “I knew from experience that when the SPOT has to send up any notification, it can take 20 minutes.”
On that day, the fates spun a propitious web of geosynchronous orbits, terrestrial emergency response, and a particularly prepared cyclist, and an ambulance arrived within an hour. As Quinones would later learn, the man whose life he saved, Greg Randolph, was a 72-year-old retired Air National Guard technician and keen backcountry explorer whose Jeep had gotten wedged in a hole in a dry creek bed. He’d been in the desert for five days. He was out of food, water, and was, in fact, diabetic, without medicine, and in the early stages of a coma. Quinones says for all the strangeness of the situation—“it’s such an unlikely scenario to come across a person laying in the middle of the road”—he never had a doubt about what he would do. “There was no hesitation, I had to do something. There’s literally no one else out here that’s going to find this guy,” he says. “Within the next 24 hours, he’s going to be jerky—the buzzards will be eating him.”
Quinones, who’d received little gestures of help over the course of his trip, paid it forward, with interest.
Odds are, if you have spent any time in the wilderness, you too will have experienced these gestures of kindness from strangers, or given them yourself—even if they were nothing so dramatic as the aid rendered by Quinones. As a keen and longtime cyclist, I have always been amazed that when I have had some mechanical issue, or simply been stationed on the side of the road to check my phone, alone or even in a group, another passing cyclist will almost inevitably ask: “You alright?”
Once, in California’s Marin County, I was out on a bike ride, in a fairly remote area, when I got a flat tire. I realized I’d foolishly forgotten to pack my tools and tubes. My cell phone showed zero bars. Soon though, a woman pulled up in an old Ford pickup. “You need help?” She gestured for me to throw my bike in the back, and drove me to the nearest town. It later struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten a ride from a stranger; in fact, it may have been the first. The woman, it turned out, was a native of Denmark, and I remembered wondering if this was more common behavior there.
Hitchhiking is one of those things, notes sociologist Jonathan Purkis in his book Driving with Strangers, that is presumed to be obsolete, killed off by sensationalistic reports of highway violence, so-called “litigation culture,” as well as neoliberalism’s ethos of, as Purkis writes, “favoring of individualistic and consumer-driven attitudes toward social problems.” Even Lonely Planet, that original Bible of the hippie trail, now posts disclaimers like: “hitchhiking is never entirely safe and we cannot really recommend it.” Indeed, very little in this world is ever entirely safe. For that pickup driver, I might have been a harbinger of violence; less statistically likely, she might have been a serial killer with a fetish for lycra. Both of us agreed, in that moment, to put these thoughts aside and engage in what Purgis, quoting French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, calls “the power of the gift without return.”
What is it about being outside, in nature, that seems to prompt people to want to help? The first, and perhaps most obvious, explanation, is that in the wild there may not be any other help. In what psychologists term the “diffusion of responsibility,” or the “bystander effect,” the more people who are in the presence of someone needing help, the less likely any of those people are to actually provide it. They might think others will help, they might be unsure of what to do, or the mere fact of others not doing anything provides a modeling cue for them not to do anything. When Quinones found Randolph, there were no bystanders. “If I had seen this guy in downtown Portland, where there’s a lot of homeless people, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eye,” he told me. “Because I see it all the time.”
But another idea, one that has been receiving an increasing amount of research attention, is that there is something about nature itself that seems to promote what psychologists call “prosocial” attitudes. As a 2021 paper in The Journal of Environmental Psychology suggests, exposure to nature can prompt feelings of transcendence—a sense of connection to other people, to the world around you, to the cosmos. “Experiencing transcendence,” the authors write, “is associated with less of a focus on the self as a distinct and uniquely important individual, while simultaneously increasing focusing on entities outside the self, including nature and other people not necessarily part of one’s immediate social groups.” In that study, researchers interviewed subjects in a parking lot, before or after they set out on a hike. In exchange, they were given the chance to enter a drawing for an iPad or to make a small donation to charity. People were more likely to make the donation after they hiked than before. There was one exception in which charitable giving shrank: when people, in a separate study, were asked to first write about a time they felt distinct from others.
These findings have been replicated elsewhere. In another study, people who watched a five-minute clip of Planet Earth were more generous in an experimental economic game; in still another study, people gazing up at tall trees were more likely to provide help than people looking at a tall building. To sum up all these experiments: when you feel cosmically small—standing in front of a vast gorge or in the middle of a silent forest—you are more likely to act big.
Altruism is often underplayed in narratives about humans in nature, which have privileged notions of frontier self-sufficiency or Emersonian self-reliance. But the first thing Thoreau did when he went to build his cabin in Walden was borrow an ax from his neighbor—and the land he built it on belonged to his buddy Emerson. It is tempting to read books like Into the Wild as homages to rugged individualism, but viewed through another lens, the story of Christopher McCandless is one of repeatedly getting help from, or giving help to, the myriad strangers he meets (the last person he saw gave him a pair of rubber boots—and wanted to give him more).
Perhaps the greatest concentration of kindness from strangers in the wild is the “trail magic” experienced every year on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. “Trail magic, in its most basic sense—random acts of kindness from strangers—has been going on since people started hiking the trail,” says Justin Kooyman, Associate Director of Trail Operations at the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). “Everything from the ride into town, to paying for a hiker’s meal, to offering someone a place to stay.”
Hikers helping hikers, in light of the previous arguments about nature and prosociality, makes sense: when you’re one of a relatively handful of people in the midst of trying to get through a hard task in challenging wilderness, it would be hard to resist someone’s direct appeal for help. But what about the many non-hikers who participate in trail magic? “From what I’ve seen on the trail,” Kooymans says, “there just seems to be a pretty genuine appreciation, respect, and desire to support people who are in the middle of a pretty hard endeavor.”
Troy Glover, a professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Canada’s University of Waterloo, has examined the phenomenon of trail magic on the Appalachian Trail. One theme he kept seeing repeated in hiker’s accounts, apart from the surprise of receiving what he calls “nonnormative kindness” out of the blue, was the almost utopian sense of community that emerged on the trail, one that was often hard to leave behind. Many of those former thru-hikers, Glover noted—often experiencing a post-trail letdown—became trail angels themselves. “The hikers’ gratitude for their receipt of trail magic,” he says, “led them to contribute to an already established norm of upstream reciprocity.”
As thru-hiking has increased in popularity, including on the Pacific Crest Trail, there has almost been an overabundance of helping behavior, which has led to challenges for the PCTA. Unattended food, for one, and the bears it brings. But there are also reports of large encampments stationed at the trailheads—equipped with lawn chairs, solar showers, food and drink, and what Kooymans calls a “party-type atmosphere.” This, he says, “can really detract from the more natural, undeveloped environment that many people are going out to experience.” He’s wary, he says, of “finger wagging,” but the idea is there: keep the magic in trail magic.
When we venture into the wild, we become vulnerable. “Being in a vulnerable position,” writes Purgis in Driving with Strangers, “makes you look at the world differently.” It can also change how people view you; to admit or reveal vulnerability can bring out the best in others. In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit chronicles how people living through natural disasters, contrary to falling apart, actually come together, strongly. “In the suspension of the usual order and failure of most systems,” she writes, “we are free to live and act another way.” Similarly, in the wild, where we are stripped of our normal possessions, surroundings, and identities, we seem more willing to go that extra mile for someone; it’s in nature, ironically, that we can learn new things about humanity.