The Great Outdoors: A User's Guide

Everything You Need to Know Before Heading into the Wild (and How to Get Back in One Piece)


By Brendan Leonard

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“Leonard’s durable tome (seriously, the cover is rubber) is stuffed with so many tips about surviving in the wild, you’ll be able to leave your smartphone behind.”
Entertainment Weekly, Best New Books

This easy introduction to outdoor life will ensure that even a novice won’t get lost in the woods while finding an activity he loves to do in the great outdoors–whether it’s hiking a 14er or camping on ice. With 400 strategies for engaging in the outdoors, and expert tips and tricks, The Great Outdoors: A User’s Guide makes Mother Nature easier to understand than ever before. Brendan Leonard, writer, filmmaker, and outdoor adventurer, shows the reader how rewarding it can be to live life away from the computer and get outside. From mountain climbing, to skiing, sledding, and sailing, Leonard shows that you don’t need to be a risk taker to enjoy the outdoors. And if the reader does find himself at the point of man vs. nature, Leonard shares survival skills from how to bandage a wound and read a topographical map, to how to drive on sand and remove a tick from your skin—all organized thematically and written in short takeaway entries with helpful line drawings. Bound in a uniquely rugged (and waterproof!) PVC cover material, The Great Outdoors: A User’s Guide is a friendly way into the outdoor lifestyle, whether you're looking to dabble or go all in.






So you've got an idea that getting outside more might be fun—not outside your office or your apartment but outside your city. There are so many activities to choose from, so many places to go, and so many different pieces of gear and equipment to buy and/or rent for those activities that it can all seem a little complicated and confusing.

So where do you start? This chapter. It'll give you some basic knowledge about what activities might be right for you, in what season each is best, gear items that would work well for your pursuits, how to get into nature, guidelines of where you can and can't go, and a few ideas for adventures to put on your wish list, as well as some straightforward principles for surviving in nature—and not ruining it for everyone else. You don't go from neophyte to the summit of Everest in a couple of weeks, but a little knowledge and some basic gear are all it takes to get you off the couch and into the wild.

Why should I go outside?

There are plenty of studies showing that time outdoors is good for your physical health and mental well-being, that being in places that inspire awe makes you a more generous and happy person, and that camping for a week and avoiding non-natural light is enough to reset the body's clock to natural sleep patterns. But one of the best reasons is that the outdoors can be like a gym, only better: if you find something you like to do that makes you work hard (like hiking, skiing, surfing, biking, or climbing), you begin to have fun first and gain fitness as a side effect. You can lose weight, build muscle and cardiovascular fitness, and have a good time (maybe getting a little dirty in the process, which is a different kind of fun). Not that riding a stationary bicycle while watching CNN on a gym television for an hour isn't a good use of your time, but most people would say mountain biking for an hour (or hiking, or trail running, or cross-country skiing) is a more rewarding experience.

I live in the city. How can I spend more time outside?

"The Outdoors" isn't only big things like national parks and sprawling wilderness areas, or weeklong backpacking trips and ski vacations. If you live in a major city, you can find plenty of what are now called "microadventures" within a few minutes of downtown—after-work mountain bike rides, short hikes and trail runs, and kayak routes. If you want to find people to get outside with, check out your local bike shop, climbing gym, outdoors club, and outdoor gear shop for event postings, bulletin boards for people looking for climbing or hiking partners, or announcements of group bike rides.

If you're efficient about your planning and time management, you can take advantage of the sixty-four hours between the end of the workweek (5 p.m. Friday) and the beginning of the next workweek (9 a.m. Monday). Plan your weekend adventure throughout the week, pack and shop for food on Thursday, and have the car loaded and ready to go the minute you get home from work on Friday.

Do I need to be fit?

A good base level of fitness helps, but Olympic-athlete-level stamina isn't required to start your outdoor adventures. A sense of humility is probably more important at the beginning of anything. If you haven't tried to do a pull-up since you were a teenager, rock climbing will probably be a little challenging when you first try it. No matter how many hills you bicycle up on a regular basis, the steep climbs on a mountain bike ride will probably test your lungs and heart on your first ride. If you don't do a lot of squats or lunges, skiing will probably tire your quads out at the beginning of the season. The outdoors will challenge your body in ways that you can't replicate in a gym—carrying a thirty-five-pound backpack, sitting on a bicycle seat for miles and miles, hiking up steep trails of dirt and rocks. It all takes a little getting used to, and it might make you feel as if you're out of shape at first. You're really just out of shape for that specific sport, but if you stick with it, your stamina will improve. Climbers develop finger and grip strength with practice; hikers develop strong stabilization muscles from moving on uneven terrain; backpackers' hips and shoulders learn to deal with the weight of a backpack waist belt and shoulder straps; and cyclists build up tough skin in the right places from clutching handlebars and sitting on seats for hours.

The Best Seasons for Each Sport

  • Cross-country skiing: Winter, early spring
  • Downhill skiing: Winter, early spring
  • Snowboarding: Winter, early spring
  • Sledding: Winter, early spring
  • Snowshoeing: Winter, early spring
  • Ice climbing: Winter
  • Mountaineering: Late spring, summer, early fall
  • Hiking: Late spring, summer, early fall
  • Backpacking: Late spring, summer, early fall
  • Canoeing: Late spring, summer, early fall
  • Sea kayaking: Late spring, summer, early fall
  • Whitewater kayaking: Late spring, summer
  • Whitewater rafting: Late spring, summer
  • Surfing: Spring, summer, fall

The Different Types of Public Land

For most people, outdoor sports take place almost exclusively on some type of publicly accessible land. That public land is managed by a variety of agencies, and there are a few differences between what you can and can't do on each type of land.

State parks and what they have to offer vary widely from state to state, but generally they have infrastructure like campgrounds with designated sites (and often running water) and well-marked and well-signed trails. State parks are also generally smaller than national parks. You'll almost always pay an entry fee to visit a state park and usually an additional fee to camp there.

National parks/national monuments are generally large tracts of wild land with lots of infrastructure built in—paved roads, campgrounds with designated sites, visitor centers, sometimes bus shuttle systems, and even hotels. Many national parks and monuments can be very popular and even feel crowded, but solitude is usually easy to find if you hike a mile or more into the backcountry. National parks almost always have an entry fee and always have an additional fee for camping. Backpacking in national parks is usually regulated and requires a permit and a fee; usually it is allowed only in designated backcountry campsites.

National forest is land managed by the US Forest Service and is regulated but has much less infrastructure than a national park—visitor centers are more sparse and usually located in the nearest town, and trailheads are often accessed by dirt roads. Campgrounds tend to be less cushy than in national parks, and trails have less signage. National forest land usually gives users more freedom to roam—backcountry camping is less regulated, and dispersed car camping is allowed in many areas, meaning if you find a nice spot you can camp there, usually for free.

Wilderness is roadless land, often inside national forest land but sometimes inside national parks. Wilderness is managed and regulated by US government agencies: the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Motorized, or mechanized, vehicles are not allowed on wilderness land, including motorcycles on trails; somewhat more controversially, mountain bikes are not allowed either. Camping is allowed on wilderness land.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land is primarily located in the western United States and has few restrictions. This often means you can drive a van or truck along a dirt road in the desert, pull off to the side, and camp wherever you want—which makes it a favorite for itinerant climbers and travelers. But it also means that commercial mining and drilling are allowed on the same land, as well as livestock grazing. BLM campgrounds are common and are usually fairly bare-bones, with vault toilets and self-issued camping permits.

Gear: How much do I need?

Here's the thing about gear: you can always have better gear. But top-of-the-line equipment doesn't mean you'll have a top-of-the-line experience. Even the most expensive, best-designed, most technologically advanced backpack on the market will be heavy when you fill it with your stuff. Your legs and feet will still be tired at the end of a long hike no matter how much money you spend on boots. That said, proper gear is nice to have, but you don't need all of it to get started. If you want to try mountain biking before you drop $1,500 on a mountain bike, you can try one out at most bike shops for $100/day or less. If you want to go hiking, all you need is a sturdy pair of shoes, a waterproof jacket, and something to carry your snacks and water—if you like it, you can buy hiking boots and a backpack later. Most popular recreational areas near rivers and lakes have nearby outfitters that rent canoes and kayaks. You can rent camping gear at many outdoor stores, and you can rent skis and snowboards at or near any ski resort. So don't worry about how much a particular activity is going to cost up front—you don't need to own all the gear before you try the sport.

Ten Best American Towns for Outdoor Adventures

1. Asheville, North Carolina: Its proximity to world-class rock climbing, whitewater, and mountain biking makes it a destination for many outdoor adventurers.

2. Bishop, California: Located at the foot of the Sierras, Bishop features nearby bouldering, rock climbing, hiking, and hot springs.

3. Boulder, Colorado: Boulder has thousands of rock-climbing routes within a 1-hour drive, plus close access to Rocky Mountain National Park and Colorado skiing.

4. Chattanooga, Tennessee: This southern part of the state has whitewater rafting and kayaking, mountain bike trails, and some of the Southeast's best rock climbing.

5. Duluth, Minnesota: Head to Duluth for great mountain biking, hiking, skiing, and paddling on the shore of Lake Superior.

6. Flagstaff, Arizona: You'll find Arizona's best rock climbs here. You can also mountain bike in nearby Sedona, and the Grand Canyon is about a 90-minute drive away.

7. Jackson, Wyoming: Skiing at Jackson Hole is not to be missed, plus the hiking and climbing in Grand Teton National Park are unforgettable.

8. Leavenworth, Washington: Some of the best rock climbing in Washington is near this gateway to the Cascades.

9. Moab, Utah: Located between two national parks, Moab offers opportunities for nearby desert mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, and off-roading.

10. North Conway, New Hampshire: Surrounded by national forest land, North Conway is close to prime skiing and rock- and ice-climbing locations.

The Top Eight Adventures Worldwide

1. Climb Mont Blanc, France: Take a three-day guided snow climb of Europe's 15,781-foot crown jewel.

2. Ski the Haute Route in Switzerland: The classic seven-day hut-to-hut ski route travels from Chamonix to Zermatt.

3. Trek Torres del Paine, Chile: A four-day backpacking trip winds in and out of Patagonia's sculpted granite peaks and glaciers.

4. Hike the Inca Trail/Machu Picchu, Peru: A four-day, 20-mile hike leads to the ruins of the famous fifteenth-century Incan city.

5. Climb Mount Fuji, Japan: Popular, but not easy, the trek to the summit of Japan's most famous mountain goes up 4,500 feet.

6. Annapurna Circuit trek, Nepal: See Nepal with a 128-mile backpacking trip around the giant peaks of the Himalayas.

7. Ski Portillo, Chile: South America's oldest and most famous ski resort is 100 percent above treeline.

8. Trek Routeburn Track, New Zealand: New Zealand's most famous trail features 20 miles of hut-to-hut trekking.

What should I carry in my vehicle in case of emergency?

If you're headed into the backcountry, you don't need as many items in the emergency kit in your vehicle, since you're likely carrying many of them in your fully packed backpack already: sleeping bag, food, water, headlamp, multitool, and some duct tape. In addition to those items, though, you should have tow straps, a set of jumper cables, and in winter some kitty litter (for traction if you get stuck in the snow or ice) and a small shovel. When buying a shovel, consider purchasing the type of avalanche shovel that backcountry skiers use—although a little more expensive, it collapses or breaks down to stow away without taking up as much space as a regular shovel, and for car-related emergencies it works just as well (if not better). For travel on bumpy or sandy roads, a small piece of wood can be great to shove under a wheel if it's spinning above a hole—or to place under your jack if you get a flat tire in sandy or muddy soil.

Do I need a Jeep/four-wheel-drive truck to get into the mountains?

If your primary objective is hiking, climbing, or mountain biking, not necessarily —as a quick survey of all the Honda Civics and other passenger cars in Colorado trailhead parking lots will tell you. A regular-clearance, two-wheel-drive car can get you to where you want to go most of the time, especially if you're willing to push what you think are its limits. Plenty of off-road experts will tell you that the line you pick on a rough road is way more important than having a lifted vehicle or four-wheel drive (although those things obviously help). Drive slowly, examine angles before committing to a line, roll over rocks with your tires (as opposed to your oil pan), and if you're really in doubt about a section, park your car wherever you can and walk the rest of the way to the trailhead if it's only a mile or two extra—the goal of your excursion is to exercise anyway, right?

How do I keep my vehicle from getting stuck in sand?

If you're on a sandy road, deflate your tires to 20 PSI before driving on it—the lower pressure will widen your tire and give you better flotation. This of course leaves you with the issue of putting air back in the tires when you're done with the sandy portion of the drive. Off-road enthusiasts carry an air compressor in their car to deal with this, but if you don't want to buy/carry one, a standard bicycle tire pump will work (just be warned that it will take much longer and burn a lot more calories than the compressor). If you're driving a road and spot a sandy patch, don't slow down through the sand; keep your foot on the gas until you're out of the sandy spot—you don't have to floor it or drive dangerously, but keep power going to the drive wheels. If you get stuck, don't spin the wheels trying to get out—your wheels will just dig holes for your heavy vehicle to sink into. Get out a shovel and scoop out the sand from in front of your tires, and then rally your friends to push the car to help you get out. If you're still stuck, you'll probably need a pull from a friend in another vehicle.

Top 10 Towns for Adventure around the World

1. Chamonix, France: Located at the foot of Mont Blanc, Chamonix has long been the adventure capital of Europe, with limitless climbing, skiing, mountaineering, and hiking opportunities.

2. El Chalten, Argentina: El Chalten is near Patagonia's famous granite towers. It is known as the trekking capital of Argentina and is considered one of the best alpine climbing destinations in the world.

3. Squamish, British Columbia, Canada: The granite at Squamish is as famous in rock-climbing circles as Yosemite, and the mountain biking, windsurfing, and kayaking combined give it the title of Canada's outdoor recreation capital.

4. Cape Town, South Africa: Close proximity to the ocean and the backdrop of Table Mountain make Cape Town a well-known destination for surfing, hiking, rock climbing, windsurfing, caving, and mountain biking.

5. Interlaken, Switzerland: Just down the valley from the north face of the Eiger, Interlaken is a quick drive to some of the best mountaineering, skiing, rock climbing, BASE jumping, and hiking in the Alps.

6. Turrialba, Costa Rica: Turrialba is known for two whitewater rivers, but it's also got world-class mountain biking, hiking, and surfing, not to mention year-round warm weather.

7. Voss, Norway: Tucked into the fjord lands in western Norway, Voss is most famous for whitewater rafting and kayaking, as well as BASE jumping. It's also got great hiking and is the largest ski destination in western Norway.

8. Queenstown, New Zealand: At Queenstown, New Zealand's unique Alps drop almost right into the ocean. Whitewater, heli-skiing, climbing, jet boating, and mountain biking are available—and the town has the unique distinction of being the birthplace of bungee jumping.

9. Kathmandu, Nepal: Kathmandu is the gateway to the Himalayas, including famous long treks through the world's highest mountain range, not to mention Mount Everest.

10. Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy: In the winter, Cortina is known as one of the best ski towns in Europe and as a chic gateway to skiing in the Dolomites. In the summer, it's just as appealing: hiking, rock-climbing, and protected-climbing routes (called via ferrata) abound.

Do I need to carry a big knife for camping, hiking, and cooking outdoors?

Probably not. Think about what you would need a knife for before you buy the knife: as macho as you'd like to think outdoor pursuits are, your knife is likely to be used for small repairs and for cutting cheese or food wrappers. Big knives are bulky, and if they're heavy they're likely to get packed away where you can't access them. A small knife that fits in your pocket will prove to be more useful in the long run.

How do I get my vehicle out of mud?

The best way to get unstuck from mud is to avoid it in the first place. If you're driving on a muddy road, be cautious of ruts left by taller vehicles—your Subaru Outback might not make it through the same path as someone with a lifted Jeep. When driving through mud, keep your speed up and keep the power going to the drive wheels as much as possible (i.e., keep the gas pedal depressed). If you do get stuck in mud, you may be able to get unstuck by turning the steering wheel back and forth while pressing the gas pedal—but don't spin your tires, as this will only dig you deeper. If that doesn't work, your passengers will have to push you out, and if that fails, it's time to get out your tow straps (see here) and hook your car up to another car that's not stuck in the mud.

What's the difference between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive?

Despite their similarities—both all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) propel your vehicle using both the front and rear axles (or front and rear wheels, if that makes more sense)—they're not the same. As opposed to your standard two-wheel-drive car, in which all the propulsion goes to the front wheels and the rear wheels just roll along obediently behind, an AWD or 4WD vehicle will be more responsive on icy or snowy roads or on extremely bumpy roads because all four wheels can grip the driving surface. If you live in a mountain town, choose AWD or 4WD: you'll get stuck less often. A vehicle with 4WD is generally a two-wheel-drive vehicle with the option to switch into 4WD when necessary. An AWD vehicle essentially has 4WD all the time, with no ability to switch out of it. Although they sound the same, 4WD is generally better than AWD if you're doing a lot of off-roading, and AWD is generally better than 4WD for on-road mountain driving, since it's always on. So if you're driving an AWD vehicle to go skiing and you hit a patch of ice or snow, you don't have to turn on the 4WD (but you would if you were driving a 4WD vehicle).


Eleven Tips for Driving Bumpy (Nonsnowy) Roads

Sinuhe Xavier, professional commercial filmmaker for off-road clients like Land Rover and Toyota

Xavier has driven thousands of miles of gnarly roads throughout the world in his film work and as creative director for Overland Journal. He shares his tips for navigating bumpy, rutted, rocky roads in the backcountry:

1. Go as slow as possible and as fast as necessary when navigating difficult terrain. Don't be afraid to take your time getting over an obstacle, because doing it right once slowly will take less time than hurrying through it and getting stuck.

2. Lower the pressure in your tires to 20 PSI for a smoother ride and better traction on washboard roads.

3. Use your floor mats as traction devices when nothing else can be found.

4. Travel with another vehicle when possible, in case you become stuck and need a tow out of a situation or just a small pull or push.

5. Never cross a body of water without knowing how deep the water is all the way across.

6. If you are unsure of what lies above the horizon or around the bend, get out of the car and walk it first.

7. Turning around is not failure.

8. Put your tires on the highest point of an obstacle. This will lift everything up, giving you more clearance.

9. Know the following numbers about your vehicle: approach angle (the maximum angle from the ground of an incline or obstacle that the front of your vehicle can clear), departure angle (the maximum angle from the ground of an incline or obstacle that the rear of your vehicle can clear), and break-over angle (the angle between the bottom of your tires and the midpoint of your vehicle's underside).

10. Four-wheel drive does not give you superpowers.

11. Four-wheel drive only gives you the skills to get stuck farther away from help.


How to Take a Great Photo Outdoors

Forest Woodward, photographer

Adventure photographer Forest Woodward has shot adventure photos all around the world for publications like National Geographic Adventure, Outside Magazine, Esquire, Climbing, Alpinist, Rock and Ice, Surfer Mag, Afar, and Forbes, and he understands what it takes to make a quality image when you're up against Mother Nature.

1. Get tough. The best outdoor photographs don't come from having the most expensive equipment or even going to the most beautiful places. They come from being tough, from sucking it up, and from pulling out the camera in those moments when the human experience of wild places is most raw and exposed to the elements—battling mosquitoes, fording a river, or taking shelter in a rainstorm. If you are exhausted, uncomfortable, and at odds with the elements, chances are there's a good adventure photo in the making.

2. Invest in good lenses. The camera is important, but just as important is the lens you choose. A 24mm to 70mm zoom is a great lens to start with, but the next lens to get is a 50mm with a large aperture (f1.8 or lower). With one of these you can begin experimenting with depth of field and low-light shooting. The 50mm most closely replicates what our eyes see and thus is a good challenge—eliminating the trickery of a wide angle or telephoto and forcing you to move your feet to get the shot.

3. Shoot during the "golden hour." The golden hour is the first hour after the sun rises and the last hour before it sets. The vast majority of landscape photographs are taken during this time. It's called the golden hour because of the golden warmth to the light—it is the most dramatic and descriptive light. If you want to create beautiful landscape photographs, get a tripod and be ready to hunt during the golden hour.

4. F8 and be there. The street photographer Weegee has been oft quoted as saying, "F8 and be there." This applies not just to street photography but to outdoor adventure photography as well. Set your camera at F8, be in the right place at the right time, and let the camera do the rest. The F8 setting will allow a wide range to be in focus, so when you find your shot, your camera will be ready to capture it.

What's the best camera for shooting in the outdoors?


On Sale
Mar 21, 2017
Page Count
256 pages

Brendan Leonard

Brendan Leonard

About the Author

Brendan Leonard has completed more than a dozen organized ultramarathons and marathons, including three of the most difficult 100-mile trail races in America. In 2019, he set out to complete 52 marathon-distance runs in 52 weeks, and survived, while having fun part of the time. Leonard is a columnist at Outside, and his writing has appeared in Runner’s World, National Geographic Adventure, Climbing, and Alpinist and on and in dozens of other publications. He directed the 2017 short film How to Run 100 Miles, which screened at film festivals in more than 20 countries and on six continents and was viewed more than 5 million times online. He is the author of Surviving the Great Outdoors and the coauthor of The Camping Life. He lives in Denver, Colorado. Find him on Instagram at @semi_rad.

This author is represented by the Hachette Speakers Bureau.

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