Becoming a competent outdoorsperson

Discretion may be the purview of a gentleman but hyperbolic modesty is not something to be proud of. I am a competent outdoorsperson, having spent decades and lot of time and effort becoming one. Cast your net across the broad enough range of outdoor pursuits and do them all long enough to learn more than a little and you’ll see that they have a lot in common. People who do them well, whether it’s backpacking or climbing or boating, have figured this core skillset out at least well enough to see the full picture, and can thus cross-apply skills from one to the other. If you’re starting from scratch and have set as a destination the point where the necessary skillset for any given outdoor adventure is both not a mystery and reachable, then read on.


1) Learn to rock climb

Experience ice climbing is handy but the technical, physical, and mental aspects of rock climbing are the best starting point for anyone seeking outdoor expertise; even if climbing itself holds little interest and especially if you’re acrophobic.  Secret: everyone is afraid of heights, just like everyone is afraid of death, failure, and grizzly bears.  Learning to manage rational, foundational fears is not a basic outdoor skill, it is a basic life skill, and I know of no better way to do it than while climbing.  Not sport climbing either; proper, traditional climbing.  A good goal would be to become a solid 5.9 climber before you retire, solid meaning you could onsight 95% of the climbs given that grade in the US, be they offwidths at the Creek or in the Valley, runout eyebrow slabfests at Looking Glass, or sandbagged thuggy roofs in the Gunks.  Take moves you know are at 80% of your capacity, assume that estimate is 10% short, then put those moves at the top of pitch four 35 feet out from a blue alien and #5 stopper, and you’ll figure out how to function well, even (especially) when you really don’t want to.  Over the years quite a few people have gotten annoyed with me when, upon being faced with a chossy traverse at the end of a stressful and tiring day, I tell them not to slip or kick any rocks loose.  How do you guarantee that, they ask?  The same way you don’t drive into the ditch in the way to work everyday: you don’t fucking do it.  Humans have an amazing capacity to get the job done when it needs to be done, and being able to flick that switch at will is vital to every outdoor pursuit I can think of.

Mastering the various knots and having a couple thousand hours of mechanical practice at properly weighting bad flakes and wet moss smears are good, too.


2) Learn to walk

A good second step, because while most climbers get pretty good at some aspects of walking while carrying heavy packs up poor approach paths, the I-won’t-hike-unless-it’s-to-a-cliff mentality endemic to climbing will not teach you to embrace walking for the glorious, instinctual activity which it is.  Thankfully the educational perscription here could not be simpler: get good at walking by walking a lot.  The particulars of Gladwell’s 10000 hours thesis may be pop rubish, but the raw math works out in his favor.  Learn what a 30 mile day on good trail feels like, then what a 40 mile day feels like.  Then learn how a 15 mile day across slickrock and sand is way harder than either.  The end result should be an intimate knowledge of fatigue, how far you can push beyond certain levels, and what it will cost you in the days after, as well as a bulletproof 2.5-3.7 mph trail autopilot and a good injury-preventing foundation of strong connective tissue.


3) Learn to navigate

Proficiency at navigating cross country is akin to learning to write poetry like Emily Dickinson or e.e. cummings; first you painstakingly learn all the rules in exacting details, then you ignore as many as possible.  For the beginning map reader topo lines are little more than a printed jumble, just as for a beginning writer the effects of words and sentences are random.  When you’ve correlated enough lines on paper with terrain, you can keep the compass in your pack almost all of the time, and bring fewer and less detailed maps.  Just keep in mind that being able to shoot a close bearing, just like the ability to write a sonnet, never goes out of style. 

Map and compass work is one area where good instruction really makes a difference, as does field practice, and is money well spent.  Running orienteering courses in Boy Scouts, looking for numbered milk jugs in thick mid-summer Ohio woodlands, is a fond childhood memory and was time very well spent.  This foundation will blossom into deep knowledge when repeatedly tested year after year on trip after trip, ideally in as many different terrains as possible.

Shameless plug: my on-trail route finding article remains (in my opinion) the best technical thing I’ve ever written.  I’ve learned a lot since I wrote it, and there’s hardly anything I’d change.


4) Learn water

Waterways are, rightfully, regarded with fear by many backcountry travelers.  Achieving expertise in wilderness travel, even if you never use a boat, requires becoming informed enough to know what to fear about water and why. 

Take stream crossings as an example.  These can generally be broken into three levels: easy ones, scary looking ones which aren’t actually that hard, and dangerous ones.  Being able to cruise through most of the second category has more to do with confidence than anything else, which in turn has mostly to do with familiarity.  Spending a lot of time wading and boating is the key here, and of all things fly fishing has done the most to build my abilities.  So get out in the water on foot and in a boat, learn to read water in both circumstances, and build a body of experience from which the least fear-based decisions can be made.


5) Learn the system

Outdoor activities take place in the modern world, and all the knowledge and skills which can fit into one brain are of purely academic worth if they don’t get out and help shoes get muddy and eyes see astounding things.  Familiarity with what makes a good route and a good trip, everything from planning with maps and sat photos to getting applicable permits and finding the best post-trip eats, is as much the hallmark of experience as not making wrong turns through densely forested valleys.  Finding good camps, hitting the rivers at the best levels, and bringing close to the right clothing and shelter all make a good trip into a great, and there is no higher satisfaction than going to a brand new area and nailing a creative, varied, new route.

Lastly, I would counsel patience with all of these things.  Outdoor adventure is a discipline, in that intelligent shortcutting of the learning is only possible and desirable to a limited extent.  Beating your head against the wall with the same mistakes year after year is no good, but the effort in/reward out correlation is a pretty damn linear one, regardless of discipline.  Adventure is a lifelong enterprise; better to learn things well the first time, given how much there is to see.

13 responses to “Becoming a competent outdoorsperson”

  1. Good post. I agree pretty much, though as I don’t come from climbing background I’m not sure if it’s the best place to start but I do see the benefits. But I’d also see it working for exampel coming from ww kayaking background (say solid clas IV) and then replacing the “learn water” by “learn rock”. But I’m not sure about this…

    But how would this competent ourdoorsperson fair in winter conditions? Of course most (or all) of the basic skills apply and can come handy but for me this set seems limited and applies only to 50-75% of the year.

    1. I do think switching whitewater and climbing would work, especially insofar as the judgment piece is concerned. I hope I didn’t just start there because of my own experience; as I think the climbing stuff applies more broadly.

      I think most of the general stuff applies to winter, with “learning to ski” down in the #5-#10 of more specific skills.

      Craig, I know very little about the ocean. Definitely a hole in my knowledge.

      1. I think I agree with you on the climbing. I didn’t start from there so can’t be sure but it makes sense to me.

        I’d emphasis the winter more but I’m probably biased there.In my opinion it’s more than just to learn to ski. More like “learn snow and cold” + learn to travel in winter. But as the title suggests, this is about process and the five points create an excellent base for building winter skills.

  2. Poor Montanan, you forgot to mention The Ocean. Though I suppose learning “what to fear about water and why” sort of counts.

    1. I’m sure you would if you lived closer to it, you’ve got the spirit to get out and get after it. Running rivers and skiing powder are totally alien to me. But I agree with your premise here, especially the idea that people proficient in certain areas can rather quickly learn to transfer that knowledge base to others.

      1. My one and only time surfing I recall crawling as dead from the ocean after 90 minutes. That and paragliding are the only things still on the Big List.

  3. I agree with korpijaakko about the Winter (or Cold). One of the things you harp on when hiking, but is not mentioned in this post, is knowing your gear and using it efficiently, and a lot of that is clothes and shelter… also – food. When you talk of walking you talk of knowing your endurance limits, what it will do to you the next day, and I think nothing pushes you to the limits of food, shelter and clothes like doing longer trips in the cold. Some winter trips in nice weather don’t really push anything, but getting gear dialed for winter helps you understand your body, your metabolism, and what your body can and cannot handle with a certain amount of down and a certain amount of calories, and how that effects sleep, and all the attendant mental capacities that a lack of sleep can effect.

    I think getting comfortable with Cold is equal to getting comfortable with Water.

  4. Thoughtful article. I enjoyed it.
    I keep trying to improve on this: face the unexpected calmly. Adapt. Keep calm and carry on, I know it has become a comedic cliche, but it is one of the vitals. Because you simply cannot preplan for everything and learn everything about every system and skill that there is out there. That’s why brave and knowledgeable experts die all the time.
    I once got trapped on top of a Colorado peak with a lightning storm. I thought I prepared for everything and so was my more experienced guide, but it wasn’t so. Just something that popped into my head as a past example.

  5. Nice list. I’ll throw “bivying” out there as a good one as well. A surprising number of self-professed outdoorspeople struggle with sleeping outside, period, and there’s no better way to put the relative comforts of shelter, pad, and bag in perspective than spending the night in a huddle with a puffy / spruce boughs / space blanket.

  6. Great post. Besides that we all can agree that “the more skills and disciplines the better”, I think that what skills is necessary to become a competent outdoor person depends very much of where you interest lies and what landscape you want to explore. Though climbing is fun, it only makes sense from a outdoor perspective, if your outdoor affection tends towards mountaineering and you live near the mountains.

    A couple of year back while planning my next outdoor trip I took a choice between taking a glacial course or buy a packraft. I choose the packraft because I thought I would get more adventures from learn to packraft when taking were I living into account. From where I am living in Copenhagen, Denmark it is so much easier to get to a river, a lake or the sea than get to a glacier.

  7. I agree with Meredith 100% Exposing oneself to as many initially uncomfortable environmental variations is the foundation to becoming a competent outdoors person. Environs where one is subjected to extreme cold, heat, rain, winds on a regular basis quickly teach an individual about their physical and mental capacities to thrive, survive and enjoy those conditions. Perceived punishment by the environment is lessened when one’s comfort level increases due to regular exposure. Self-awareness increases the mental/physical comfort range also educates one on what clothing and gear is necessary for each situation.

    I would also add – ‘Spend as much time above the alpine line as possible’. I have learned more about fluid movement in the alpine as I have rock or ice climbing. This would be applicable and extremely beneficial to a lot of backpackers who have no intention of roping up as I have often heard many backpackers who are intimidated by the idea of peak-bagging. A little knowledge would easily get them to the top of many a summit.

  8. what you don’t realize is that for a city person (especially a loner like me) whose trying to get outdoors more, we don’t think like you do. googing “how to become an outdoors” person yields lots of articles by people who say “go learn this” but don’t go into the particulars. How do you pick a good school or compare one to the other? What resources do you recommend for planning these walks? I’m looking for a website meant to guide folks who don’t have any paradigm within which to think about these things to be able to realize what questions to even ask!

    1. A fair point Donna, if one can’t (due to circumstance, socioeconomics, etc) easily access terrain then establishing a context for learning is going to be a slow process. My point in the first paragraph is that in this realm competence is a pretty huge thing to achieve, and is going to require a serious investment in time.

      As for specifics, “not thinking like you” is a point well taken. Almost any city in the US has a climbing gym with classes, and while it might be socially daunting a gym is a great, safe environment to learn in. Also a great jump start on the mental game which becomes so crucial for all outdoor stuff at higher levels.

      Nav is something that you can start learning at home. Skurka is releasing a great video series on the Sierra Designs youtube page right now. REIs often have basic classes as well. Beyond this, a topo map of even a very modest wooded area can give you some great practice orienteering.

      For starters.

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