Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
Whether you’re expanding your outdoor skill repertoire, recently moved to Washington, or are new to the outdoors as a whole, these eight tips can help bolster your self-confidence, bring you closer to your companions and create space for maximum fun. By Linnea Johnson.
In the past year, I tried three outdoor activities — backpacking, skiing and snowshoeing — all for the first time.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t been interested before. I grew up in the northwest…of Ohio — a region that’s flatter than a pancake and has increasingly unreliable snowfall with each passing year. My parents and I hiked and biked all the time in local parks and took multiple unforgettable camping trips together. But skiing? To my younger self, that was the thing my wealthiest classmates got to do on spring break in Colorado while I sat around at home. Snowshoeing? How folks in Michigan’s U.P. probably got around in the olden days. Backpacking? Probably too expensive…and, well, there wasn’t much backcountry in my corner of the midwest.
I moved to Washington in 2018. During my first two years here, I was in grad school (an era of scant free time and disposable income). Then, well, we all know what happened in 2020. Finally, 2022 was my year to boldly go where no Linnea had gone before.
I learned a lot on my first backpacking, skiing and snowshoeing trips about trying new things.
Being new to an activity can be exhilarating, humbling, joyful, and can strengthen your connections to your co-adventurers. The way the experience turns out for you is less about your technical skills and more about the stories you tell yourself before, during and after the experience.
Whether you’re expanding your outdoor skill repertoire, recently moved to Washington, or are new to the outdoors as a whole, this is for you. I hope these insights will help you adopt a beginner’s mindset in ways that bolster your self-confidence, bring you closer to your companions, and create space for maximum fun!
Trying something new is vulnerable. We experience vulnerability during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure (thanks, Brené Brown!), all three of which are not just possible, but likely, outdoors. You’re going somewhere far away from the creature comforts of home and doing something that carries some risk of discomfort, injury and (perhaps the scariest of all) embarrassment.
Here’s the thing, though. It takes guts to show up and try something new when there’s no way to control how the experience will feel. So, as you embark on your excursion, remember that you are brave for doing so. Your adventure buddies will see it, too.
Think of preparation not as homework, but as a gift to your future self. The more thoroughly you prepare, the more worries you’ll assuage, creating mental space for you to be present and have fun.
Here are some tips for preparing for a day (or longer) of a new activity:
If you’re hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing or cross country skiing, you can learn all about the trail with WTA’s Hiking Guide — either on wta.org or on the free mobile app, Trailblazer. When you know the trail length and elevation gain in advance, you can pace yourself, both physically and mentally. Not sure how long it’ll take you to go a certain number of miles? Check out recent trip reports to find out how long the trail took for folks with different group sizes and experience levels. Trip reports are reassuring, because you get to hear from a variety of real humans who just did what you’re about to do.
My first backpacking trip was to Gothic Basin with my partner, Chris. Reading recent trip reports helped me get an idea of how long I could expect the hike to take, how often I could expect to scramble up rocks, and how early we would need to make it in order to secure a campsite. With those unknowns out of the way, I was better able to focus on our conversations and the beautiful surroundings on the trail.
How do you walk in snowshoes without tripping over yourself? Where do you set up your tent in the backcountry? How do you get off a ski lift? (Side note: I learned this last one the hard way on my first ski trip with my friend, Ashlea. On our first lift ride, I didn’t slide off the chair soon enough and the operator had to put the whole lift in reverse to let me off. The second time, I jumped off a little too enthusiastically, faceplanted in the snow, and struggled to stand up as other skiers maneuvered around me. You may now see point 5, “Laugh.”)
To ensure your safety and fun, learn about your activity before you head out. WTA offers a wealth of Trail Smarts resources, with Hiking How Tos on everything from hiking with dogs to avoiding injuries. If you learn well by observing, watching YouTube videos can be a great way to learn dynamic skills like snowshoeing with poles, fitting your pack or, yes, getting off a ski lift. The internet is your friend. So are your actual friends. Lean on them both!
In order to get the satisfaction out of risk-taking, feel pride in your achievements, and strengthen your social connections during the trip, you’ll need to take care of the basics first. So, pack your bag with the Ten Essentials. Bring/wear layers so that you can stay comfortable, no matter the temperature. Pack more water and food than you think you might need, so that neither you nor your companions must experience you being hangry. If backpacking or hiking, pack toilet paper and resealable bags so that you can do your business when and where you need to.
And bring yourself some treats — whether that’s a chocolate bar to share, your favorite hat or a tasty iced or warm beverage. It’s amazing how delightful a little treat can be on a day when you’re exerting your mind and body. On that first backpacking trip, we brought a little jar of sundried tomatoes to add to our pasta. It was a bit of an indulgence to add that extra weight to our packs, but after a full day of hiking ending in a chilly rainstorm, the tang of those tomatoes was one of the most delectable flavors imaginable.
As long as you are being safe and not disrupting others, exist in the outdoors as you please! Especially with the standards set by outdoor influencers, it’s understandable to worry that you’ll be judged for wobbly beginner’s technique or that you won’t “fit in” without brand-name gear.
I myself felt a bit of this uncertainty before my first snowshoe trip to Gold Creek Pond. I hadn’t done any snow activities since I was a kid, so I had neither snow pants nor a puffy. My outfit was a hodge-podge of layers (leggings and sweatpants and hiking pants, oh my!) that I just had to hope would keep me warm.
Turns out that my friends Natasha and Corey and I were there with countless people who were new to snowshoeing and Sno-Parks in general. Plenty of other folks had rental snowshoes and nobody seemed to pay any mind to our outfits (or, for that matter, to the time I tripped and fell over my own snowshoes while standing still). In fact, everyone we interacted with was friendly and welcoming, and seemed to be equally enchanted by the sunlit winter wonderland around us.
As I write this, I’m preparing to take my second (!) backpacking trip, this time in Utah with Chris and his sister (expert outdoor folks from Montana, of all places!). It’s a whole different ball game, not only because the desert is totally new terrain, but also because we may do some rappelling. When I read through the itinerary, I admittedly got pretty nervous. (What’s the deal with water in the desert? Don’t people fall into canyons a lot? Eek!)
Here’s how I responded: “To be completely transparent, I'm a total beginner when it comes to canyoneering and desert camping. BUT I'm also always down for adventure/trying new things and I know I'll be with two amazing guides with literal lifelong experience. I just might need to ask for your patience from time to time.”
Your friends and/or family are planning an adventure with you because they enjoy spending time with you and want to have fun together. When you’re having fun, they’re having fun too! If you have concerns about the trip, voicing them before you go will not only give your companions the opportunity to assuage them, but it’ll also help clear the air of worries so that you can fully enjoy your trip together.
As kids, we try new things every day — but as adults, we’re under a lot of pressure to just “already know” things. But unless you are an omniscient being (if this is the case, congrats!) there will always be things you don’t know how to do.
If you’re traveling with a friend who is well-practiced in the skill you’re trying, they’re likely delighted to have the opportunity to share their knowledge. On the backpacking trip, Chris was practically giddy to demo A+ bear bag placement, share his favorite trail snacks (PB&J tortillas pack a punch!), and give lessons in water filtration and stove-lighting. Letting go of any pretense that I knew what I was doing and asking endless questions created space for me to enjoy being a learner AND for Chris to share his knowledge with unapologetic enthusiasm.
If you’re adventuring with a fellow newbie, they probably have the same questions as you and will be relieved that you asked.
Just as being vulnerable is a sign of courage, not weakness, asking questions is a sign of confidence. You simply can’t know what you don’t know — so make your quest one that’s full of questions.
The last thing you want to do when trying something new is take yourself too seriously. You may feel or even look awkward when walking for the first time with a full backpack. No matter what you’re doing, it’s very likely that you’ll fall (if you’re skiing, I’d say that’s a 100% chance, unless you’re a wizard).
On that first ski trip, I fell a lot. A comical number of times, in all the ways a person can fall with two planks attached to their feet. But the thing that made those falls bearable was that my ski buddy Ashlea and I soon got comfortable falling then promptly laughing at ourselves. We’d fall flat on our faces then strike a pose. One time, I fell onto my poles, then Ashlea snapped a selfie with me still horizontal (but smiling) on the ground in the background.
It’s a vulnerable thing to fall in front of another person, so it’s understandable if you feel nervous about that inevitable moment. But taking a risk with another person and laughing through the struggle together is hilariously fun — and can only make your relationship stronger.
Practicing mindfulness, or focusing your awareness on the present moment, will enrich the experience of trying a new outdoor skill. Taking conscious breaths, listening to your body, and exercising gratitude are just a few ways to practice mindfulness whether you’re on your first or 1,000th adventure.
Bringing your five senses to the here and now opens up possibilities for joy and discovery that are less likely when the mind is mulling over the past or planning for the future. On that first snowshoeing trip, it wasn’t until I had been on trail for about 10 minutes that I let go of the revolving door of thoughts about work and my weekend to-do list and turned my awareness to the physical and emotional sensations of the present moment. As I felt the satisfying crunch of snow under the snowshoes’ crampons, appreciated the sparkle of ice-encrusted cedar boughs, and inhaled the crisp mountain air, a sense of contentment and mental clarity washed over me. Mindfulness allowed me to enter a flow state of full focus on and enjoyment of my new activity.
Mindful awareness of your body in space can also help you identify ways to improve your technique in a nonjudgmental way. By the afternoon of the ski trip, I was falling constantly. Every time I tried to turn, I’d end up in the snow. Earlier, during our Ski 101 class, we had learned the essential lesson to lean into the outer leg when you turn — but as daylight started to dim, my mind stopped telling my legs to do just that and instead drifted toward thoughts of post-slope dry clothes and warm drinks. But when I realized I had lost focus, I brought my awareness back to the present, observed the way I had been moving, and consciously told myself to lean into the outer leg again. I stayed vertical for (almost) all of the remaining corners.
“Hey, I’m gonna need a bathroom break.” “Could we stop for a sec? I need to catch my breath.” “Snack break, anyone?” “I’m feeling really depleted. Would you be ok with turning back for the day?”
Asking for what you need is hard. And it involves acknowledging that you are a human animal with limitations. But chances are, your companions are human, too, and they want you to be comfortable and have a good time. They’ve been there, and may have similar feelings about expressing their needs. So, checking in about their hunger, energy levels, and bathroom break needs is a great way to show that you care and ensure everyone in your party can enjoy the trip.
If you’re concerned about catching your buddies off guard or disappointing them, providing status updates is a great way to keep everyone on the same page. “I’m starting to get hungry and will probably need to stop for lunch within an hour.” “My energy is waning. Want to head back to camp after we reach the first lake?”
After you’ve returned from your adventure, ask yourself a few questions to determine whether you’d like to return to that activity.
Remember your mindful moments on the trail or the slopes. If you felt joyful, present, connected with your companions, and/or challenged in a rewarding way, those may be signs the activity is worth trying again. If you were in pain, felt socially excluded or wanted the experience to be over, you may or may not want to try again (or find a different adventure group!).
If you felt proud, satisfied, blissed out or “good sore” afterward, that may be a sign that you’d enjoy getting back out there—even if the activity itself was a slog. If you were left feeling drained, disappointed or in an unpleasant amount of pain, you may want to think twice before returning. It never hurts to give something a few tries before deciding once and for all whether you do or don’t like it—however, if you truly had an awful time, do not force yourself to do it again.
It can take a lot to get outside for a new activity: time, energy, gear rentals, pass fees, transportation, and more. So, ask yourself: Given that I’d need to invest the same amount of resources in order to do this again, would I do it? If the answer is yes, AND you have a feeling you’d like to return more than once, you may want to consider investing in your own gear and a seasonal or annual pass to the place you want to frequent.
When trying something new outdoors, you’re venturing into the unknown — a courageous thing to do indeed. No matter how technically skilled you are, you have the power to shape your experience by embracing a beginner’s mindset with open arms. And regardless of whether you end up an avid snowshoer or never want to put on a backpack again, your first go is bound to be an experience you won’t soon forget.
Inspired to try something new? Sign up for our Trail Smarts Bootcamp to get emails with everything you need to know to plan adventures, pack your backpack and hit the trail with confidence.