Taking Up a New Outdoor Activity When You Have No Experience

Sunday April 14, 2019

You’ve got an image in your head of someone who loves the outdoors. They own special boots that cost them a small fortune, nicely weathered now. Everything they wear is waterproof.

They can tie seven kinds of knots from memory. And, most importantly, they learned how to do all those cool outdoor things they do as a child.

You’ve got an image in your head of someone who loves the outdoors, and it isn’t you.

You agree with everything you’ve ever heard or read about how healthy, how important, how good for the soul it is to spend time in the wilderness. But, since you weren’t taught as a child, you’re a little intimidated…and, in the end, a little more likely to spend your weekend indoors than you’d like to be.

What if we told you it’s easy, fun, and not embarrassing at all, to learn these things now?

If you’ve never been in a kayak, but want to; if you’ve never rock climbed, but want to; if you’ve never gone backpacking, but want to be good at it, there are easy and inexpensive ways to learn without feeling like a fool. You just have to invest a little time, and Google a bit.

We’ll walk you through learning four of the most classic and rewarding outdoor activities, cheaply and easily.

One quick note before we dive in – classes are everywhere.

Non-profits will teach you. Outward Bound has classes in 40 locations. The National Outdoor Leadership School has classes. The American Alpine Club has classes.

Retailers have classes as well. REI has classes at more than 150 stores. Bass Pro Shops has classes at some of its locations. Cabela’s has classes, including perhaps the best way to learn fly fishing. Patagonia endorses and lists its favorite guides. And local outfitters nearly always have classes and an advertising board where local groups and guides post their latest offerings.

But classes aren’t necessary.

Here are ways to get started on four outdoor activities, easily and inexpensively, as an adult with no idea what you’re doing.

Learning to Rock Climb

Rock climbing may seem like the hardest and most extreme of outdoor activities to pick up, but it only seems that way.

It’s not nearly as hard as it looks. The rope carries more of your weight than you’d expect, so you don’t have to be in superhuman shape to do it. Most of the hard work is in the legs, so you don’t need as much upper body strength as you might think. There are plenty of opportunities to rest on the rock. And the sense of accomplishment and the view from the top are hard to match.

The easiest way to learn is indoors.

Indoor climbing gyms are found in many cities operating as businesses, and sometimes in colleges and public recreation centers. They use artificial rocks designed as hand- and footholds, which they can move around to create routes varying from very easy to difficult. There are always – always – beginner routes.

Climbing gyms rent equipment, so you don’t have to lay out much cash to learn. Most offer lessons almost every day. They’re filled with beginners, just like you, learning to climb.

Once you’ve got the hang of it, and know whether it not it’s something you want to learn more of (you do), the trainers there can point you to expeditions to local outdoor climbing spots that are perfect for your skill level.

Learning to Paddle a Kayak, or Canoe

Paddling is one of the most rewarding outdoor experiences. Time on the water settles almost everyone’s spirit, and few things remove you from your everyday stresses like leaving solid ground.

But it’s expensive, right? I mean, kayaks cost thousands of dollars. Canoes require several companions. And how do you get those things to the water? Don’t you have to buy an expensive roof rack for your car? Don’t you have to have a car? And paddles and personal flotation devices and maybe helmets, and special waterproof bags to keep your lunch in? And don’t you have to be in shape to do any of it?

Nope. None of those things.

Odds are very good that the city nearest you has a rental service. Cities, almost by definition, are built on water (Nevada excepted because American history is weird). And someone in nearly every city has built a business centered on helping people access that water.

These rental services are designed for beginners, will provide you with all the equipment you could need to make paddling safe and easy (the last thing they want is for you to lose their equipment), and you don’t have to move the boat to the water. It’s already there.

Like with climbing gyms, rental boathouses are staffed by people in love with paddling. If you’ve enjoyed a great day on the water and want to explore waterways further out of the city, just tell them. They’ll point you to planned trips and groups that can help you.

As for being in shape, if paddling is hard work, you’re probably doing it wrong. The rental provider can give you the basics, but we’ll offer this one tip – pushing is much easier than pulling.

You don’t want to pull the paddle through the water. You just want to dip the paddle in and push the top away from you. Gently.

Do that, and you’ll find yourself making good time on the water without much effort.

(Side note, and forgive us for indulging in traditional gender roles for a moment. One GoApe’er was a kayak instructor in school and notes that, in a group of newcomers to the water, it’s always fun to watch how the men and women differ. Men who are new to this tend to pull the paddles, working their biceps, as though it’s a strength competition. They tire.

Women tend to get the concept faster, less focused on proving their strength and have more energy left for the long haul. Half an hour into a float trip, they start to pull away from the men. It’s a lesson the men only need once).

If you find that you love it, paddling is an expensive hobby…unless you know about Craigslist. You’ll be delighted to see how much good used equipment is for sale near you.

Learning to Fish

Since cities are built on water, fishing is also an easier option than you might think.

Sure, long trips to gorgeous mountain streams or ocean charters to catch fish that outweigh you are major undertakings for anyone. But pulling a few catfish out of a river and releasing them back into it is an option for almost everyone.

GoApe’s headquarters is near the Washington, D.C. metro area. One GoApe’er likes to head out with his kids on weekend mornings, take the Metro (the local subway) to any station near the Potomac River, and spend a few hours fishing within sight of the Kennedy Center.

It’s always amusing to see the other city folks mystified by the fact that you can fish in the middle of a city where 12,000 people live in every square mile.

Rental fishing gear is an option some places, but it’s not as easy to find as the equipment for most of our other activities here. Thankfully, fishing basics are cheap.

You can pick them up on Amazon or at local sporting goods stores. Just keep in mind that serious anglers love to spend big money on equipment, so stores are full of expensive carbon fiber rods, reels with complicated mechanisms and exotic materials, and more lures than anyone could carry. Almost none of it is necessary.

The cheap sets that come with everything already assembled are fine when you just want to spend a weekend morning relaxing near a local waterway and maybe catch a few smaller fish.

As for where to go, check the paper. It seems antiquated, but most local newspapers still have a small fishing report in the back of the sports section that will directly tell you where they’re biting lately.

One thing you probably will need is a license, but they’re usually under $20, and can easily be bought online.

Learning to Backpack

A backpacking trip is for the hardcore outdoorsman or woman, right? It requires an expensive pack, a sleeping bag, a pad for that sleeping bag, a costly tent, special food and the equipment and skills to make it in the woods, knowledge of wildlife and how to avoid bears, and quads of steel. Oh, and vacation days.

Not really.

Much of that equipment can be rented or borrowed. Outdoor stores in your area often have a rental counter, where you can get all the basics for a small fee without needing to buy.

As for the physical conditioning…can you walk? If you can walk, you can backpack. If you’re traveling with a veteran who does this 20 days a year, you might need to be able to cover ten miles a day. But if you’re going alone or with a companion who’s learning, too, you can set any pace you’d like.

And long, multi-night trips might require those vacation days. But why would you want to start with a long, multi-day trip?

So, pick an easy, local destination. Pick a weekend. Rent your gear, and plan your food and water carefully (keeping in mind that constant snacking on the trail actually tends to work out better than planning big meals that require lots of stove work, anyway). And bring a friend.