I was pedaling through a green tree tunnel in Ohio on my cross-country bike trip this summer, when one of my fellow riders asked me a question: What are your three favorite outdoor activities? 

It was a simple question, the kind you might use as an ice-breaker… or as a way to pass the time when you’re biking eight hours a day with the same group of people all summer.  But I had to stop and think before giving my answer.

There are so many things I love to do outdoors: running, hiking, canoeing, building fires, rafting, slack-lining, biking and playing sports.  I love being active and seeing what my body can do in a variety of natural settings.  I mean, here I was riding my bike across the country — for fun. But what did I love the most about being outside?

Trees zoomed past me and gravel crunched under my tires.  Finally, I was ready to answer: “sleeping, eating and swimming.” 

I don’t think this was the list my friend expected.  Unlike activities like running or playing sports that are about me getting enjoyment by performing learned skills, sleeping, eating and swimming give me more than just a good time.  

I grew up camping with my family, but sleeping outside by myself is something I picked up in the last few years.  There’s nothing quite like stretching out on a not-so-perfectly-flat bit of ground with plants on all sides and nothing but the night sky above me.  It’s exhilarating and scary and incredibly calming all at the same time.  My walls fall down — literally — and I feel like I am part of the landscape, at least for a night.  

Eating fruits, berries and other edible plants I gather myself  has always thrilled me.  I remember the excitement I felt this summer when my group entered the midwest and encountered our first mulberry trees, just beginning to ripen. I had to get off my bike and fill my mouth with the sweet berries.  Eating fruit from the land reminds me of my dependence on this planet at the most basic level: for nourishment. 

Finally, jumping into a natural body of water provides an immersion into the natural world more complete than any other experience I’ve had.  Ask anyone who rode with me this summer, and they will tell you I am always down for a spontaneous dip, no matter the time of day, the body of water or the fact that wet bike shorts inevitably lead to painful chafing.  My body is 60% water, and when I’m submerged in a river or lake, I feel a deep sense of being part of something bigger than myself.  

My three favorite outdoor activities give me what I really want when I’m in nature: the feeling that I belong. In the face of pervasive environmental degradation resulting from human negligence, I believe that connecting with the natural world is not only important but crucial for our survival as humans. 

Instead of viewing the “outdoors” as a place to perform our favorite activities, I think we would all benefit from returning to the basics.  Sleep, eat and swim outdoors, and see how the experience changes you.