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Here’s why we can’t stop getting lost in national parks

Friday, 26 June 2020

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As national parks and trails across Australia spring back to life post-pandemic, new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has revealed the risky behaviour of visitors is placing their safety in danger.

Lead author, Dr Edmund Goh, surveyed visitors at the Blue Mountains National Park in New South Wales and found one of the leading causes of people straying from designated trails was witnessing others doing it.

Dr Goh, from ECU’s School of Business and Law, believes this ‘copycat’ mentality gave people a false sense of security.

“We were surprised by how much people are influenced by the behaviours of others, regardless of if they believed walking off track was unsafe or detrimental to the environment,” Dr Goh said.

“Wandering off designated walking and biking trails has many risks such as injury, becoming lost, falling and snakebites, not to mention the impact on native wildlife and flora.

“Visitors getting lost or injured takes significant resources away from emergency services and parks, which are better spent ensuring everyone can enjoy the outdoors.”

In Australia, 11 people have died in national parks since 2012.

Do as I say, not as I do

Dr Goh said the research demonstrates how human behaviour is heavily influenced by peers.

“It seems the age-old parenting analogy to not to follow our friends jumping off a cliff has fallen on deaf ears. The lure of venturing off trail is just too great,” Dr Goh said.

The road less travelled

The research also revealed other motivations for people taking alternate routes in national parks, including:

  • Limited signage leading to difficulty knowing where to go
  • Finding an easier or shorter route
  • Getting a closer look at nature or a beauty spot
  • Seeking a toilet stop.

Dr Goh said regular park visitors were more likely to venture off trail than those less experienced.

“People who frequently visit a national park believed there was less danger in going off-trail, most likely because of a sense of familiarity with the area,” Dr Goh said.

“This is particularly dangerous as even seasoned park visitors can be injured or become easily disoriented in bad weather, so the risk to their safety and those around them is quite high.”

Not so green

The research also discovered people’s pro-environmental beliefs did not deter them from walking off-trail.

“Interestingly, we found those that considered themselves ‘eco-friendly’ would wander off paths if they saw others doing it, regardless of the impact to flora and fauna,” he said.

“This is something national parks will need to consider in their communications to visitors, because clearly the message isn’t getting through.”

Staying on track

Dr Goh said there were a number of ways national parks could help reduce visitors straying from paths, including:

  • Increasing signage and information about trails and the dangers
  • Capping park capacity at peak times to avoid crowding
  • Building safe infrastructure to provide views of potentially dangerous spots
  • Increasing bathroom facilities.

The research paper was published in Leisure Sciences.

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