By Nick Italiano
For many, outdoor life is a great unknown full of intimidation, confusion, and fear. To embrace the outdoor lifestyle these things must be overcome, but before one can overcome these challenges they must first understand where they come from. Everyone’s situation is different, but I’d like to talk about some of my own personal experiences and observations over the years and hopefully they resonate with someone who is having trouble finding their way to the great outdoors.
I grew up in fairly urbanized and heavily developed suburban areas in New York. Natural environments were not something that I got to see or experience on a daily basis. Despite this I always had an interest in the wild places. I enjoyed watching documentaries and nature based programming on TV. I enjoyed when I would go to parks or little hikes with my parents, and my favorite vacations were the ones where I got to experience nature first hand. Through lack of regular access to the wild places, I did not develop a good knowledge base or skill set regarding the outdoors. The result of this was getting terribly lost while hiking with my family when I was 12 or so at Olympic National Park. Not only did I get lost, I also drank bad water, had no gear on me, and no skills to help me find my way to a safe place. I fortunately found my way out to a road and got picked up by a passing ranger.
This is a very scary experience for any one; the unknown, the loss of all modern convenience and safety. This is, in my opinion, the greatest fear of all those who are not familiar with the wild places. This situation was a defining moment for me, I said to myself never again. For me “never again” meant that I would never again be unprepared, under skilled, and under equipped for an outdoor adventure! Despite the extreme fear I experienced while lost, I also remember the amazing sites, sounds, and smells of the forest and I wanted to experience even more of it. It wasn’t just about making sure I was safe, it was about overcoming the fear of it! As I got older I spent more time gravitating to outdoor places, learning skills, and obtaining the proper equipment I needed. Short trips to outdoor places became 2 mile hikes, and then 5 mile hikes, and then 10 plus mile full day hikes. Hikes became weekend camping trips, and those became week long adventure vacations. Eventually my wife and I packed up our kids and left over developed urban New York and moved to a heavily wooded part of Connecticut, where I spend almost every single day exploring the woods, hills, rivers, and lakes.
While It seems brief on paper, it is important for those who are looking to get into outdoor living to understand this process was 2 decades in the making. I didn’t wake up one day with a large knowledge base, a ton of gear, and an adequate skill set. I learned through trial and error, I learned from mistakes, injuries, and total failures. The best way to learn how to exist happily, safely, and comfortably in the great outdoors is through getting out there and doing it! Books, classes, and the experiences of others are very helpful, but ultimately meaningless if you don’t put yourself in those situations, practice, and overcome numerous failures.
There is a social factor that can also be a major source of intimidation for the outdoor novice; and that comes from the media, particularly social media. Social media platforms such as Instagram offer people access to a robust and thriving outdoor community, with many experienced and highly skilled outdoors people with extensive collections of gear and equipment. These folks prominently display their outdoor prowess, the amazing places they visit, and the cool gear they possess. While this is incredibly helpful to the neophyte outdoors person, it can also be very intimidating. Fear of inadequacy is a very real thing for many people, and they feel it is hard to live up to the standards that these social media personalities have set. In addition, there are always toxic people in every community that spend their time putting down those who lack experience, do things differently, don’t have the big fancy gear that they have, or the means to travel to the places they go to.
Keep in mind, social media is a reflection of people’s best experiences, very few people are posting their failures. They are not showing you dozens of failed attempts to make fires, broken ax handles from over strikes, rusty knives accidentally left in the rain, blisters from improper footwear, or that pack that was too small to fit the the gear they needed. Even the most talented and the largest social media personalities started exactly where everyone else is with no skills, knowledge, or gear.
My advice in this area is to use social media as a place to learn, see what others do, and develop ideas. You are not there to compete with any one or prove yourself to anyone. Avoid toxic people and gravitate to those who truly want to help others learn. As for the gear, I’d be lying if I said that outdoor gear is inexpensive. Hiking boots, tents, tools, backpacks, water purification, etc all comes at a price. Buy within your means and get what you need slowly. While some people will make it feel this way, it is not a competition of who has the best, most advanced, or high priced gear; it is about getting outdoors and living in the moment!