“…but I’m not looking for anything hardcore, yet.”
I’m often asked for advice about outdoor trips, and every once in a while, the person ends the question with the above statement. I find this interesting, especially the “yet” part. The inference is that there’s a hierarchy to the camping world; your first trips start with a trailer full of propane tanks and a chainsaw, then you go to a campsite just outside of the suburbs, then you drive a canoe out to a nice little lake, and so on, until eventually, you’re dropped out of a helicopter into some rapids in the middle of winter with a knife in your belt and a wool blanket, to emerge six weeks later wearing a three-piece birch bark suit.
I find it amusing because there is no such hierarchy, of course. We invent levels and achievements, but in reality, we go outside because it makes us happy. Full stop. If it doesn’t, you’re probably on the wrong site. Saying canoeing to a site in the backcountry is better than driving to a site doesn’t make sense. It’s like saying, “Green is better than Red.” A better approach would be to say “Green makes me happier than Red,” or “Green means something different than Red,” and that starts to give us context. The more context we have, the better the advice we can give.
My outdoors is not the same as yours.
I love to canoe and spend time in the woods (indeed, every fall I try to spend more time in the backcountry than I do in the city), but I’m not in any way comparable to someone who lives his or her life in the country, or living off the land. I’m perfectly ok with this. I have, however, learned much from those people, despite the fact that I end up using that knowledge in different ways. There are aspects of cultures and skills that make sense for me, and I pick and choose what works.
If we are perfectly honest with ourselves, most of us are tourists out for a dip in the woods. Yes, I know I have readers that don’t fit that bill, but they’re the exception to the rule. The passion we have for the outdoors can define our lifestyle outside of the woods, and can inform and influence other areas of our life, but some people start to see their way as the better way, or even the only way.
While it’s understandable to have pride in one’s particular approach, balance and respect are your friends when comparing differing philosophies of outdoor pursuits.
I don’t mind the work and relative discomfort that some would shun when it comes to getting deep into the woods, but at the same time, I like the structure and safety of some modern equipment. The skills I try to build are meant to complement what is reasonably available, not replace good planning or common sense. This works for me, for my sense of safety, and for my comfort needs. It also can change, based on my surroundings, my companions, and my situation. Although I don’t often camp near a car, or in a campsite, I do so for my own reasons. I’m not superior because I canoe for a day to get to my first bed, I just happen to enjoy the journey and the destination more than I do a parking space and a spot near other campers.
Granted, some trips require more planning and experience than others, but does that make the first-timer’s experience any less valid? No. If anything, those with more experience have a responsibility to make sure that every bit of camping/canoeing/outdoor advice is tailored as much as possible to the person receiving the advice. Take a page from the advertising world, and put yourself in your audience’s shoes. You might love portaging through bogs in late spring, but it’s probably not going to work for someone’s first trip.
When you bring in a piece of clothing to be altered, the tailor doesn’t start cutting and sewing right away. The first thing they do is start to measure.
The next time someone asks you for advice, think of the way you’ve put your knowledge to work building a custom experience for yourself. Your first response should probably be another question. To give good advice, you need to build up a better understanding of what they want out of the experience. Find out why they’re going, what limitations they have—mental, physical, emotional, financial, geographical—the time constraints, the level of seriousness. Chances are they won’t have the inclination to devote as much time to planning as you would, and won’t have the gear that you would. The priority that you place on an outdoor experience is likely a lot higher than they would, but that’s why they’re coming to you. Be aware that they might not be sure what they like, yet, and might be hesitant or easily turned off by some experiences. Many people don’t worry enough about things they should address, and worry too much about things that are benign. Find out what those fears are, but also find out if they’re well-grounded. Education and preparation helps to alleviate a lot of fear based on uncertainty, so don’t just tell someone to do something, or even how—take the time to explain the ‘why’ as well.
Your first responsibility is to assemble a picture of what works for someone before you give any advice, because without that picture, you, your knowledge, and your advice are wasted. Like a puzzle, the more picture you reveal, the easier it is to place the remaining pieces. That’s where your advice needs to go, to sit snugly in the context of the picture around it. The more you understand context, the better you can guide others to their own appreciation of the outdoors that we all love.