I’m starting a series of posts today about beginning at the beginning in all kinds of outdoorsmanship. I write a good deal these days on relatively complex nature-related themes, topics that assume a certain breadth of knowledge and experience of my audience. I write on these things because I’ve been immersed in wild places for most of a lifetime now and maybe it’s just the right time in life to explore the more weighty ideas behind wild places, conservation and natural sciences.
In so doing, however, I may be leaving a lot of people behind, in a sense. Young people nowadays don’t often grow up the way I did, running wild in free and open places. Exploration is more likely to take place in front of a screen than under the open sky, wearing boots and mosquito repellant. More online, less fishing line seems to be the way of the world.
So, I’m turning over a new leaf today, at least for a while, and writing a series on the basics – how to get started outdoors from square one, from venturing out your back door to pursuing fish to survival. My hope is that this will be of benefit to some who’ve dreamed for years of getting out of the urban/online lifestyle so prevalent nowadays or maybe to simply inspire some young people to run wild a bit more. My hope is also that it will be a joy to share all this – drawing on much from my younger days and perhaps helping the author to recapture the sheer joy of exploration, of finding trails and diverging from the highways for a bit.
I know the woods of western Pennsylvania better than I know anywhere else so I’m going to write all of this as though I’m talking to people who live here in Pennsylvania. Most of this material, by far, will apply equally well to the rest of the eastern forest, some of it to the western forests and maybe even some to the broad plains in between.
Don’t Leave Home Without These
When you first come to realize that you really ought to be spending more time outdoors, for whatever reason, it’s likely that you’ll quickly turn to the internet to seek advice on how to do this. Here you will find A) advice on the best places to go and B) advice on the gear you just can’t do without. I’m not likely to ever direct you to a particular place or tell you about particular pieces of brand-name gear you just can’t get by without. There are just some more basic things to think about as you get ready to enter the forest.
What comes first? Purpose – don’t leave home without it.
What is it you want as you venture outside? What are you looking for? Maybe you want to learn some type of woodland skill. Maybe you want to become more familiar with some type of plant or animal (or mushroom). It could be you just love to explore – to find new places and some of the things that make each place special. Maybe you want to dig into natural history, to have a look at the rocks that underlie certain places or to learn something of the history of each place from its trees. It could also be that you go out looking for opportunities to learn history from the odd bits of human refuse: old bottles, buried dump piles or things scrawled on beech trees a century ago.
If you don’t take a little time to figure out what it is you are doing, you will waste time, choose the wrong gear, fail to appreciate the significance of details all around you and generally derive less satisfaction from your time outside, maybe even becoming bored with it all. In this sense, venturing into the wild is much like all the rest of life – we’re directionless if we haven’t decided on purposes.
Consider a walk around a new piece of woods adjacent to the town you live in. You venture in, find it refreshing and relatively quiet except for the noises of birds and maybe the alarm call of a squirrel up in the pines. You skirt around something that seems to be an old pile of some kind of blackish industrial refuse and while doing this realize that you’re on a deer trail which you continue to follow, somewhat aimlessly. You pass through thickets and more open groves of broad-leaved trees, puzzling over the many types of plants unfamiliar to you and wondering what kinds of creatures live here. It’s enjoyable and you certainly somehow feel better than if you’d just stayed inside.
But now, change the purpose. Now enter the same forest but with the thought that you want to find fish.
Entering the forest, you note that things seem dry here, as much as the forest can really be “dry.” You understand the basic principle that water flows downhill and so you need to look for a lower place. Circling the first hill, the one with the refuse pile from mining, you’re still going up at first but then the woods drops away into a distinct valley and there’s a deer trail running downhill here as well. In a moment you can hear flowing water and you can see below and thicket of very broad-leaved, vibrantly green trees. Struggling into this thicket, a place not even visible to anyone hurrying past above, you’ve found the water, a clear but tiny brook rushing downhill back toward town. As soon as you set your eyes on the water, a lithe torpedo-like shadow, not more than the length of your finger, darts below an overhanging rock and you’ve found a fish and a place that fish live.
On both walks, you had access to the same place, had the same time and started from the same place but these were two far different explorations and purpose made all the difference. Maybe tomorrow you’ll arrive wondering what can be found around the old mine site.
Curiosity – don’t leave home without this either. Having curiosity means that you like to learn and you realize that wild places have much to teach. Curiosity has to accompany exploration. Curiosity has to come before inspiration.
As you begin to venture out, you’ll surely encounter people who will demonstrate how not to be curious. These are the people with all the answers, the people who’ve seen and done it all, the people more than eager to tell you where to go, what to do when you get there and what you’re already doing wrong. The truth is that these folks usually haven’t ventured very far or had very expansive adventures. Those who have, appreciate how little they really do know and are probably content to let you follow your own path into the wild. Learn to recognize the know-it-alls and how to politely ignore them.
The way of curiosity is the way that will encourage you to try things for yourself and to make mistakes, always open to learning from these. Curiosity will not only encourage you to go out and learn though, it will inspire you to read as well, laying a broad groundwork for further and more fulfilling adventure.
Map, Shoes, Backpack , Matches and Knife
These are the essentials, needed for almost any excursion to wilder places.
Carry a topographic map to find your way to what you want to get to as well as to see obstacles in the way and other ways to get out if things go wrong.
I prefer well ventilated shoes to boots most of the time simply because they’re light and dry quickly in forests that are normally wetter places than people imagine.
A backpack of some kind is normally the best way of toting the other things you’ll discover you want to have along, depending on your purposes.
Matches are a fundamental of survival, a far easier means of starting fires than any of the techniques involving natural materials.
A knife is just the most broadly useful tool you can take along.
With these few essentials, or perhaps even less, you could enter the woods tomorrow, broadening your horizons, opening your mind and beginning a much longer journey.