If you’re well prepared for adventure and can find the humor in things not going according to plan, you’ll never stop exploring. To understand just what will get you to that place, we spoke with endurance athletes, gear gurus, and elite climbers about how to physically and mentally ready yourself for your next great journey—whether it’s a multi-day trek, afternoon bike ride, or overnight camping trip.
Here are the 15 skills every adventurer needs to know.
Wear the Right Layers
Appropriate clothing can be the difference between singing in the rain and struggling to survive. When it comes to braving the elements, the base layer is most important. You want resilient fibers that efficiently manage moisture and body heat, and wool is Mother Nature’s original performance fiber. “It does everything naturally that many of today’s synthetic fibers try to match,” says Smartwool’s Molly Cuffe. “Wool warms in the winter, cools in the summer, and it even warms the body when it’s wet.”
In addition to being naturally biodegradable, wool is antibacterial, so you can continue to wear the same layers without worrying about body odor. Steer clear of cotton, which stops insulating when wet and can lead to hypothermia. Opt for a versatile, well-insulated, and compactable down jacket like the water- and wind-resistant Evertherm from Eddie Bauer or Ghost Whisperer from Mountain Hardwear.
Avoid Getting Lost
“Every outdoor enthusiast should be able to read a topographical map and know how to use a compass,” says Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mashawn Butler. While it’s easy to rely on your phone’s map or GPS, it’s also a dangerous dependency. When your phone dies or you lose a signal, it’s vital that you can get your orientation, take a bearing, and navigate yourself in the direction you want to go.
Ahead of your trip, buy a topographical map and study the terrain or download a map of any area in the country on the U.S. Geological Survey’s website. If you need to refresh your skills, REI outdoor school instructor Paige Guthrie recommends reading Be an Expert with Map & Compass, getting a Suunto M3D Leader compass, and taking REI’s nationwide map and compass navigation class.
Avoid easy yet potentially fatal mistakes when going to the bathroom in the wild by telling a “pee buddy” where you’re going and tying a long string to your pack so you can reel yourself back to the trailhead when finished.
Safely Travel Solo
Before any trip, create a safety checklist. Start by telling people where you’re going. Consult the State Department’s travel advisories and read up on the policies of the local government. Use common sense, avoid calling attention to yourself by dressing conservatively, and learn important key phrases in that country’s language. When traveling to a remote region or less-developed country, always have your transportation arranged by a reputable company ahead of time and carry that organization’s contact information. Consult resources like Solo Traveler, download safety apps like RedZone Map and TripWhistle, and remember that it doesn’t hurt to take extra precautions.
Pack a Backpack
Make a packing checklist and lay everything out on the bed. Distribute the pack between light, medium, and heavyweight items, putting the lightweight items and things that should stay dry, such as a sleeping bag, tent, stove and cooking supplies, on the bottom and the heavy stuff in the middle close to your spine. Keep items you need to access throughout the day—snacks, water, a hat, map and compass, sunglasses, toilet paper, headlamp, sunscreen, bear spray, and rain jacket—on the top and in side pouches.
Staying organized will make your adventure more manageable. Use different colored bags for toiletries, tech items such as back up batteries and a phone, and miscellaneous necessities like a first aid kit, lighter, and hand sanitizer.
If you pack only essential items, you should have no problem keeping your pack weight under 40 pounds. (So nix the pillow and multiple outfits.) It’s important to get fitted in person at your local outdoor store then test out the fully loaded backpack on a local hike to make sure it feels right. Look for lightweight durable backpacks like Thule's 65L Guidepost or Farpoint 40 Osprey, and check out this handy infographic for more packing tips.
If you don’t have a proper hydration game plan, you’re asking for trouble. Get a map, research the destination, and familiarize yourself with the area’s rivers, lakes, and streams, so you’ll know where you can refill. Be aware of any common water-borne viruses in the region, like hepatitis, so you can get vaccinated ahead of time.
Determine whether you need a water filter or a water purifier. Filters are sufficient for most places, but in less-developed countries or anywhere the water is likely to be contaminated by human waste, a water purifier is necessary to kill viruses too small for a filter to stop.
Listen to your body. Signs of dehydration include altitude sickness, exhaustion, headaches, thirst, chapped lips, and dry skin. “Pre-hydration is key,” says Lifestraw rep Lucy McNamara. “Drink one bottle before the hike and one bottle on the way there with electrolyte tablets like Nuun. You need to be as strong as possible if something goes wrong.”
Eat for Fuel
Bring food that serves as long-lasting fuel and is easy to prepare. “Before you go, plan out snacks and meals that provide good sustenance while considering the type of weather you’ll encounter, the mileage, elevation, terrain and local wildlife,” says Dirty Gourmet co-founder Emily Nielson. “Foraging for food can be dangerous, but if you’re forced to survive in the wild, only eat edible plants that you can properly identify. When in doubt, leave it out,” says Nielson.
Most importantly, ensure that you have the essential food groups: carbs for energy (like parboiled rice, quick-cooking noodles, or instant mashed potatoes), protein for recovery (nuts, seeds, or cured meats), dehydrated veggies and fruits for fiber, and foods to keep you hydrated and your sodium levels up like peanut butter, bananas, apples, and jerky. (And remember to cook with clean drinking water!)
Handle Unexpected Wildlife
Research which species you may encounter on the trail and how best to defend yourself in the unlikely event an animal charges. For instance, know what kinds of bears are common in your area; if you’re attacked by a brown bear you should first play dead, but if you’re attacked by a black bear you should fight back. Yellowstone National Park’s Morgan Warthin says, “Stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards away from all other wildlife. The best way to avoid a dangerous encounter with any wildlife is to keep your distance.”
If you’re camping in bear country, remember to hoist your bear bag over a 12-foot-tall tree before going to bed. Everything that smells—food, deodorant, sunscreen, chapstick, tampons, toothpaste—should go in the bear bag.
A lot can go wrong in the great outdoors, but it doesn’t take much to prepare for a dire situation. Following the golden backpacking rule that every item should serve more than one purpose, be sure to prepare for a few essential hacks.
Foil can be used as a wind-blocker for a fire, for cooking, and as a sun-reflecting signal. Rubber bands (try the heavy-duty ones on heads of lettuce) are great for tying a cloth around a wound or closing off pant legs to keep bugs out. Dental floss is useful for sewing holes, mint toothpaste and deodorant soothe bug bites and burns, and a tent stake works well as a splint for a broken finger. Other tricks include Type A Tear Aid, a strong and stretchy waterproof patch that can permanently fix a puncture hole in a tent or apparel and Fix-A-Zip for when a zipper breaks on a jacket or sleeping bag. Become a whiz at using a multi-tool like Leatherman’s Signal, so you can comfortably saw wood, quickly blow a whistle, use the fire starter, and mend a tent or hole in your shoe with the sewing awl.
Build a Fire
Always abide by Leave No Trace principles and use someone else’s fire pit if you see one. Never cut off branches, but rather look for what’s “dead and down.” If the wood is still alive, it won’t burn as well and will also create a smoky fire. Whether you opt for the teepee, log cabin, or pyramid method, you’re going to need three things: oxygen, heat, and fuel. Scour the grounds for your tinder (little sticks, pine needles), kindling (sticks and branches that are easy to break into pieces and burn longer), and fuel logs. Bring waterproof matches, a flint fire striker, and a Ziplock bag of dryer lint or Vaseline-coated cotton balls, which will help ignite the fire more easily.
When you’re ready to put out the fire, pour water on it (or use dirt or sand if you’d rather conserve your water), then stir with a big stick until it’s cool to the touch. If it’s steaming, it can still cause a fire—and given that humans cause approximately 90 percent of wildfires in the United States, be absolutely sure it’s safely out before leaving the campfire.
Fix a Flat
It’s a sound no cyclist wants to hear, but that deafening pop! doesn’t have to mean defeat. Fixing a flat is a crucial skill for any rider. Before you hit the road, watch online videos and practice fixing a flat so you don’t panic in the moment and waste precious time and energy. Always carry a multi-tool, tubes, patch kit, tire levers, and small pump. Before inserting a new tube, try to determine (and remove) the cause of the puncture by inspecting the old tube, tire, and rim. If the hole is in the tire sidewall, you can boot it by using a sock, folded dollar bill, or Clif bar wrapper to block the hole (if you don’t, the tube will be forced through the hole and explode). If you’re renting a bike, make sure the bike comes with everything you need to change a flat, or bring it yourself.
Gear Up Responsibly
If you’re following Leave No Trace principles, but the apparel and gear you’re sporting isn’t responsibly made, you’re still doing a disservice to the environment. As for trusting the right company, sustainable apparel brand Nau’s general manager Mark Galbraith says there are three key things to look for. “Is what they produce sustainable at the core? Does the company focus on social good with programs that support people and the environment? And does the company have factory labor standards?” The more transparent the company is about its eco-friendly materials and ethical practices the better.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Consider Patagonia, Fjällräven, Big Agnes, BioLite, Merrell, Klean Kanteen, Eagle Creek, Hydro Flask and Toad & Co., which have all engaged in open dialogue about the environmental impact of their products. “Designs should be high quality and durable and the raw materials should be as sustainable as possible,” says Galbraith. “Organic, recycled and renewable materials and a strict chemical screening will ensure the lowest impact to the supply chain and to you as an end consumer.”
Stay Mentally Strong
The secret to any successful outdoor journey is simple: be well prepared physically and mentally. “Do your homework, do the training, know what could happen, be self-reliant and prepared for the worst-case scenario,” says Diane Van Deren, a professional endurance runner and 2009 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. “I visualize what I would need so I won’t be worried. Mental fatigue will create physical fatigue. You’ll have your best performance and will enjoy the adventure more when you don’t have to think.”
Bad weather, injuries, and other unforeseen events will inevitably try to rattle your willpower, but if you keep a positive mentality and practice turning a negative into something useful, you’ll get in the zone and persevere. Before any big adventure, American mountaineer Melissa Arnot micro-organizes her trip by travel, approach, destination, and return—and plans separately for each. “This allows me not to overly stress on only one part of the trip and remember that you’re prepared, you’ve got this.”
Be Tech Savvy
Taking advantage of the latest innovations in outdoor technology doesn’t mean spoiling the pure vibe of the natural world. On the contrary, using off-the-grid apps and portable, lightweight solar chargers like Goal Zero and BioLite can serve to enhance the journey.
A renewable power source will charge your GPS, phone, camera, and gear in an emergency situation, not to mention allow you to play music and read a book at night. Make sure to familiarize yourself with any tech products before heading out into the wilderness and always have a non-tech back up.
Leave No Trace
You’ve probably heard the hiker mantra, “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time,” but it’s important to remember what actions that motto requires. To comply with the guidelines, you’ll need to respect wildlife and natural objects, stick to established campsites and trails as much as possible, avoid areas beginning to show human impact, and be responsible when putting out fires.
Know When to Quit
Succumbing to conditions you can’t control can be the most challenging part of an adventure. Whether it’s an avalanche, a lightning storm, or a partner suffering from heat exhaustion, things happen that might cancel a summit or cut your trip short and that’s okay. “Live to climb, ski, bike another day,” says adventure guru Brooke Froelich. “Humility and a willingness to adapt to unforeseen circumstances will be your strongest tools.” If the moment comes when you have to turn back, be fully prepared to let go of the goal and yield to Mother Nature.
A hiker stands inside a glacial cave in Vatnajökull, Iceland.