Pick Your Passion: What’s The Best Outdoor Activity For You?
“I need to get out more,” you tell yourself every time you volunteer to pick up the slack at work, or (like some people in my household) pick up a video game console controller. If this resonates with you, or you don’t consider yourself an outdoorsy person, you might be wondering how to get your feet wet, or dirty.
Time constraints, access, and fund availability will influence your options – that is, if you behave like a grown-up. If you’re looking for more social or family-oriented activities, you don’t want to end up being the only one you know with appropriate gear.
I totally get it. I was raised as a city girl, and while I spent as much time outside as I could growing up, I was a tag-along for most of my outdoor adventures. No way is ocean sailing an option for me now, my knee has seen its last downhill mogul, and my boyfriend is flat-out terrified of horses.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with new outdoor activities as I moved to different regions in the U.S. and joined friends in experiencing their own passions. These are many of the sports I’ve “tried on,” and I think they make great jumping-off points for those just getting acquainted (or reacquainted) with adventure sports based on access, affordability, and social activity.
I’ve thrown in some advice for choosing and gearing up for the outdoor activity that’s best for you. It’s information I wish I had back when I had more pocket change than common sense and more free time for trial and error.
Hiking and trail running
Think of hiking as the gateway drug for outdoor enthusiasts. It has the lowest cost threshold, you can hike pretty much everywhere, and it’s easy to find a buddy to join you.
Wherever you live or travel, there are online or in-print trail guides and reviews to help you choose the terrain, distance, and scenery best for your physical condition and available time. As your outdoor skills and fitness improve, you can scale up your activities; take overnight or multi-day backpacking trips; and adapt your new passion to other activities like snowshoeing, fishing, hunting, nature photography, and foraging.
You might already have a decent mountain bike in your garage. Or, maybe you’re interested in cycling to work to beat traffic, reduce your carbon footprint, and earn those conference room maple bars. In spite of the break-in price for adequate safety gear, comfortable cycling clothes, accessories, and – of course – a new bike or upgrades to your existing beater, mountain biking is a popular entry-level outdoor sport with ever-increasing access to public and private parks that maintain single track-friendly trails and engineered courses.
Kayaks, canoes, and stand up paddleboards (SUPs) give most everybody a shot at experiencing the outdoors on their own terms. All paddle sports help improve core strength and cardio fitness, and SUPs are gaining favor for their entire-body workout and calisthenics.
Those who struggle with upper-body mobility can try pedal-assisted open-deck kayaks, and people like me with little storage space or who like to hike to remote alpine lakes can choose hybrid inflatable/rigid models or fully inflatable pack rafts.
If you’re heading up a family, you won’t have much trouble picking up inexpensive new or secondhand recreational kayaks or canoes. These are perfect for the introductory phase, or if you have a summer home near a beach, river, or lake where you can keep them ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Sea and whitewater kayaking require more skill and better quality gear, and it’s a bad idea to launch your first rapid run or open-water route without first taking some Eskimo roll and self-rescue classes at the local community pool. They’re often offered through local clubs or outfitters who supply the boats, PFDs and equipment. Remember, you can’t have just one boat: Paddlers are often looking for new boat-equipped buddies, and sooner or later you’ll invest in a second ‘yak or paddle board so you can bring along your bestie. That’s why canoes are great for small families, though my boyfriend will warn you: If you’re a couple just starting out with small watercraft, tandem kayaks (and bikes!) can test a relationship.
I could have thrown this into the paddling category, but I know many people who never pooped in the woods or slept under the stars until they signed up for a day or overnight trip with a rafting outfitter. These trips are a big deal among church groups, corporate retreat organizers, and singles clubs, and my own grandma’s Daughters of the American Revolution chapter took a two-day trip down the South Fork American River, blue hair and all. If you can follow simple instructions shouted out by your guide, you can get started with no special equipment or skills whatsoever.
There are many towns and metropolitan cities near rapids and riffles, and I’ve dug up an old Outside article on the subject: “The Best River Towns in America.” Reading it might compel you to pack up and move to pursue your paddling passion, whether you level up to a Class V river rat or want to commute over the tranquil, glassy water. I happen to live near Missoula, Montana where you’ll always see oar boats, kayaks, and pontoon rafts stacked on trailers, just ready for a spur-of-the-moment happy-hour run through the middle of town on the Clark Fork River.
Whitewater rafts are configurable for single, double, or multiple users, and most models allow you to set them up according to the size of your party.
Getting set up for outdoor sports
Before you go “all in,” I’ve got some sage advice that will save newly-minted or aspiring outdoor junkies money, time, and frustration.
1. Build an outdoor adventure wardrobe
Before you dump hundreds or even thousands of dollars into sporting gear, invest in well-made outdoor clothing that’s suitable for most activities. Classic designs will serve you for years and optimize your experience by keeping you comfortable when you’re out and about. I’m a fan of Merino wool for its soft texture, durability, and ability to keep you warm when it’s damp or wet. Down vests and jackets pack well and provide matchless warmth for its weight. A breathable, water- and wind-proof shell is essential. A few pairs of hiking pants with articulated knees and gusseted crotches reduce trail rash and provide optimal range of motion – pants like KÜHL Radikl. Think layers!
2. Test the waters by renting your equipment
Rent or borrow your snowshoes, skis, watercraft, packs, and tents until you decide you’re all in. Practical experience will give you more context when it’s time to choose your own gear.
3. Learn from (other people’s) experience
Consider joining group outings or guided trips so you can develop proper techniques and rack up valuable advice early on. Skilled outdoor companions can save you from a lot of trial and error, and help you avoid unnecessary and costly purchases.
4. Commit to get out and enjoy your new sport
It’s too easy to say, “I’m too busy to go outside and play!” While you’re still in the tire-kicking phase, set a goal for how many outings you’ll have each season. If work deadlines make you feel guilty about taking a Saturday off, remind yourself that having fun while pursuing healthy activity is essential to a balanced life, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have friends or family eager to join you.
If the activity feels like an obligation at the end of the season, it’s not for you. And if you’ve followed my first three pointers, you’re not caught up in the sunk-cost fallacy. Bailout, and find something else!
5. Buy the best you can afford
Once you’re ready to commit to one of the outdoor activities, purchase the best quality equipment and supplies your budget allows. You’ll have fewer breakdowns and malfunctions when you’re in the middle of a trip, and when you decide to upgrade, you’ll appreciate the sustained resale or hand-me-down value.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to invest in top-of-the-line equipment. Read up on gear reviews and find the sweet spot where cost and quality intersect, prioritizing durability and function. Seek out used gear, but only if the bargain doesn’t undermine the right fit, experience requirements, and usefulness. By now, you’ve done your homework and saved up some cash, so hold out for the right match.
If you’re buying new, look for brands that give back by supporting outdoor education and conservation programs. Find good used gear at swap meets organized by outdoor clubs raising funds for similar projects. As if you needed to feel any better about getting outside!
Find your passion!
“What about fly fishing? How about kiteboarding? Hey, lady, you totally forgot about snowboarding!” Calm down, Dear Reader. You made your point, and mine, too. I’ve shared just a few easy-entry, versatile outdoor activities. If I were to tackle them all, I’d have to cancel my plans for a nice afternoon hike. My current location is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, but I’ve made mistakes when exploring new pursuits. I have more bass fishing gear than I need since I’ve decided that I prefer chasing trout. The hybrid folding kayak was great for me when I spent more time road-tripping, and now a rotomolded model would be ideal. And I’m still unsure if I’m leaning toward Nordic skiing or snowshoeing. My budget’s modest, and my free time’s sacred.
So my last word of hard-earned wisdom is this: Get out there and try out as many activities as you can and pick those that you feel you’ll have the opportunity and motivation to enjoy on a regular basis. Don’t alter your lifestyle (or your family’s, if you have one) for your new obsession. Pick something that dovetails nicely with your lifestyle and established interests.
And when you do, share your experience and insights with the world, and help others find their own way outside.