When enjoying the outside becomes a “job”

By Bix Firer

I have a habit of setting ambitious goals for myself. And not just professionally. As I sit here typing on a Monday morning, my legs ache. This weekend I ran 24 miles (preparation for an ultra-marathon and biking 30 miles – just for fun). Usually, these goals bring me joy, a sense of accomplishment, and something to keep myself motivated, even when work or life keep me busy. Sometimes, though, I find myself straining for goals I can’t reach. I occasionally get overwhelmed by trips I want to do and goals I set for myself: climb this peak, fit in this backpacking trip, and stay in shape for it all. It’s then I have to slow down, remember being outside is joy in itself.

The best way to do this is to see the places and activities you love through a beginner’s eyes.

This winter, I was adjusting to a new job as a director of outdoor programming at a local college, learning a new area, and generally not focusing on my own personal goals. One day, for work, I was taking a group of students snowshoeing in the Boise Mountains of Idaho. The day trip was on the tail end of a few days of heavy snow and on the van ride up to the trailhead, I learned that most of the college students I was leading had never even seen snow before.

At the trailhead, I instructed everyone on how to use snowshoes, we had a brief safety talk, and hit the trail. I had planned a 3.5 mile loop through some rolling hills. I knew at the crest of the loop, through some old burned areas and past an abandoned miner’s cabin, there should be stunning views of the Sawtooth Mountains. Our group’s energy was high, as my students saw snow for the first time.

We walked a short ways down the trail, and rather quickly we stopped. The group took pictures, several students ditched their snowshoes for a momentary roll down a snowy hill, and another group threw snow into the air and even tasted it. I was worried we wouldn’t finish the loop and that we wouldn’t get the great views I had promised my students.

We slowly progressed, stops were frequent. Photo opportunities, snow angels, and dives into snow banks added up much more quickly than miles. I remembered our conversation in the van up to the trailhead. When I asked the students what they hoped to get out of today, no one said great views or to cover miles, they wanted to do something new, have fun, meet new people, and learn they could take care of themselves and others in a brand new environment

As I looked around, I realized we had done all that. We turned around and headed back to the van as everyone was getting cold and the beautiful sunshine began to disappear behind looming snow clouds. We made cocoa and soup and headed back to campus. We had done all we set out to do.

Rather than deciding what our goals should be, or applying my expectations to the experience, by listening to beginners, I remembered why being outside is important and so fun. We go outside to have fun, not cover miles; to connect to people and places, not just to accomplish goals; and to learn about ourselves, not just to test ourselves physically.  

I am lucky to have a job where I often get to experience places with beginners. If you’re interested in introducing rookie outdoors people to your favorite activities, here are some tips:

  1. Start small: Plan conservatively and remember how things felt when you started. Plan a short hike and make it easier than you think. This will ensure a confidence boost for the newbie and make certain they are ready for more adventure with you.
  2. Have options: If your hike is too hard or the weather is too much, make sure you have something else planned – hot springs, an overlook, a picnic – so that you keep your outing fun.
  3. Don’t use jargon: Everything we do in the outdoors is full of specialty words. Make sure when you’re explaining things, you’re using simple and clear language even beginners could understand.
  4. Don’t forget the snacks: Nothing ruins an outing quicker than hunger. Bring snacks and offer them generously.
  5. Meet a beginner where they are at: What do they want out of the experience and how can you help them do that?