Someone climbs El Capitan in Yosemite – 3,000 feet straight up – without ropes or safety gear. Someone else climbs Everest without guides or oxygen – twice in six days. The outdoors-related headlines that make it into our cultural consciousness are always feats of extraordinary skill – or mistakes of deadly consequence. What’s covered in the news can make us believe that all time spent in the outdoors is comprised of the highest highs and the lowest lows. But as an estimated 144 million people – and climbing – get outside every year in the US, all of the amazing and awful things that we hear about make up a tiny fraction of people getting outside. The majority of folks who spend time in the outdoors have quieter successes and mishaps – and it’s the triumphs from these amazing everyday folks that make the outdoors worth experiencing.
A focus on the extraordinary can be intimidating. Most folks who go outside aren’t trying to break backpacking speed records or attempting to walk 7,000 miles in a calendar year. But if feats like this are the only ones we hear about, it’s easy to start comparing ourselves to everyone else – and finding ourselves wanting in some way. Whether it’s focusing on how much “better” others are at outdoors activities than we are or thinking that we should be further along in our outdoors journey than we are, self-comparisons put internal pressure on us to excel rather than enjoy.
External pressure can come from others, who often have a focus on the darker side of outdoor experiences. Plenty of people, experienced and inexperienced, have gone into the wilds and never made it home. Most people are concerned with animal attacks – of both the four-legged and two-legged varieties – than they are with the more common ends resulting from falls from heights and overexposure to the elements. But like a focus on the extraordinary, this focus on infamous outdoor occurrences also paints an unrealistic picture of what’s likely to happen when we go outside.
Going outside is never all good or all bad, but always an and experience. Outside, we let go of what control we have in our indoors life and open ourselves to possibility, controlling only our reactions. Outside, there are certainly moments that feel like perfection, like finally reaching that mountain pass or hitting the finish line of our first orienteering race. But there are also terrifying moments, like needing shelter in a lightning storm; uncomfortable moments, like dealing with chafe with miles left to go; and moments where we feel foolish, like finding the batteries in our headlamp are out. Folks with a lot of experience sometimes call the latter moments Type-II Fun. They’re definitely not fun in the moment, but they make great stories after the fact because we’ve lived through them, we’ve learned from them, and we’re more prepared for the future because of them.
This constant adapting to circumstances in the outdoors – and having to live with our imperfect reactions to them – can be a difficult concept to get comfortable with. Perfectionism is a thread that runs through much of indoors life. There’s this idea that if we’re not immediately good at an activity, we’ll never be good at that activity – which is patently untrue. It takes time and experience to learn to be better, and with outdoor activities, the more experience, the better. Even people who do extraordinary things can find things about their performance to improve on – but they benefit from intense preparation and extensive experience that allows them to make the best of the conditions they’re given. They’re constantly making adjustments, both in the moment and after the fact, to make their experiences better. Rather than being about perfection, success in the outdoors is tied to practicality.
Most of us aren’t experts, but all of us can seek to focus on practicality over perfection in our outdoors pursuits. Whether we’re just getting started or have been outdoors for a lifetime, we all want our outings to go as smoothly as possible, but we have to be willing and able to adapt to our circumstances. This can mean seeking support in an outdoors group meant for the purpose, starting in a drive-up campground before camping in a wilderness area, or even becoming more mindful of yourself and your needs before heading into a more physical outdoors experience. The more time we spend outside, the more practical experience we’ll have to face whatever comes our way – in our outdoors lives, but also in our indoors lives, too.
We don’t have to be world-class climbers or hike thousands of miles at a stretch to get outside – or to be proud of what we’ve done in the outdoors. None of us will be perfect, even if we practice for the rest of our lives. All we need to do is to learn as much as we can, be prepared as we can be, and be willing to learn from our experiences when, inevitably, life isn’t perfect. Living an outdoorsy life is, practically speaking, about the inner and outer journeys, not an idealized destination.