Our favorite outdoor obsessions can take years to master, but everybody has to start somewhere. If you've always wanted to surf, dive, or climb and aren’t sure how to start, try going back to school. A week or two of hands-on professional teaching can radically shorten your learning curve. Best of all, these “classrooms” are in bucket-list destinations you're probably dying to visit anyway.
If you choose one of these trips, you’ll come home from your next vacation with more than photos and stories. You’ll bring back the skills to start a lifetime's worth of new adventures.
Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding
JACKSON HOLE AND THE TETON RANGE, WYOMING
Oh, how the times have changed at Jackson Hole. During the 1980s and 1990s, freeskiing legends and fearless locals tormented the patrol by tearing up the area's world-class backcountry offerings, which were then strictly out of bounds and off limits.
Wyoming's world class terrain remains the same, but these days Jackson Hole fully embraces it's wilder side and offers backcountry skiing programs. Their trips and lessons employ renowned guides who teach everything from how to stay safe in avalanche country to traveling more efficiently on skins—the better to earn more turns.
Of course the skiable lines surrounding the resort are truly only the tip of the iceberg. The Tetons are chock full of incredible ski descents and an extensive backcountry hut system. Any number of outstanding local guide services, including the famed Exum Mountain Guides, offer extended programs to teach you the tools to safely go where the snow is blissfully untracked. Teton Pass is a playground of terrific backcountry terrain where intermediate skiers can practice while sporting wide smiles in the process. As your skills and confidence grow, more of these mountains and their stashes will become available. You'll run out of legs long before you run out of fresh powder.
CHAMONIX, FRENCH ALPS
Modern mountaineering began in the Alps. That means the excitement of learning new skills here is steeped in a rich history, and climbers can follow in the footsteps of legends on these world-famous routes.
Choosing a mountaineering base camp here is as difficult as selecting a peak to bag; you're simply spoiled for choice. Aspiring climbers could do a lot worse than France's Chamonix though—in fact, they may not be able to do any better.
Top mountaineering schools from many nations offer extended instructional vacations in Cham, making it possible to sign up for a trip and climb with compatriots. Of course, the earliest climbing tourists learned from the locals, and it's an excellent idea to do the same. The Chamonix Guides Company, an association of some 240 independent guides, has been leading in the region since 1821 and offers an enormous variety of rock, ice, and general mountaineering instructional courses.
After a week or so of learning the ropes, many beginner courses end with the ascent of a classic peak like Mont Blanc. That top-of-the-world feeling may be the crowning achievement of your vacation, but with the skills you've acquired it's likely to be just the first of many future summits.
WHISTLER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
You already know how to ride a bike, but do you know how to choose the right line on a berm or drop a mandatory air? In Whistler, you can learn from the best, and there’s a reason so many of them choose to live and teach in the area.
When it comes to a staggering array of lift-served downhill bike trails, the famed Whistler Mountain Bike Park in British Columbia may be in a class by itself. Classes and camps held here, from basic Bike Park 101 to Elevation Camp for jump lovers, will help beginners and experts alike perfect their downhill skills.
While the bike park is big, the sprawling cross-country mountain biking terrain around Whistler makes it seem small in comparison. These mountains are home to hundreds of miles of the most enticing singletrack trails you'll ever lay eyes on, winding their way through high mountain peaks and glowing green rainforests. By signing up with one of the many local coaches and instructors, you'll leave with memories of the best riding of your life and skills to help you show off on your local singletrack back home.
Dreams of sailing offer escape on many a cold, gray day, and chances are good that such dreams involve hopping from one tropical island to the next across clear, blue Caribbean waters. But the Caribbean isn't just a great setting for your fantasies, it's an excellent place to turn them into reality.
There's more than one way to learn to sail in the Caribbean. You might base yourself on an idyllic island and spend days honing skills on small boats, returning to a resort or beach house each night. Or you could sign on for a “cruise and learn” expedition. This commitment means you'll live aboard a larger craft and learn the ins-and-outs of sailing while exploring the Caribbean with your mates.
Everyone wants a piece of paradise, so there's no shortage of sailing schools available. Where to start? Check out the ones accredited by U.S. Sailing or by the American Sailing Association. There's likely one on whatever island you choose, and they all specialize in getting even landlubbers under sail.
GREAT BARRIER REEF, AUSTRALIA
The Great Barrier Reef should be on every adventurer's bucket list, but truth be told it's hard to see colorful fish, turtles, dugongs, and the rest of its teeming menagerie of marine life from above the water's surface. Luckily the greatest reef of them all also caters to beginner scuba divers. Cairns, Australia, is a popular center for diving activity, with numerous SSI and/or PADI-certified schools to choose from.
To maximize your time in some of the world's best diving waters, tackle classroom certification requirements locally or via eLearing before your trip.
It will soon become apparent that Cairns is merely a jumping-off point—the reef's network of submerged corals and islands is well over 1,000 miles long after all. Extended learn-to-dive courses involve living on a cruising dive boat to better access remote sites away from the crowds. Choose trips that last from a few days to a week or more. And err on the long side, if you can, because once you're on the reef and able to breathe underwater, you likely won't want to leave.
Backpacking and Wilderness Travel
BROOKS RANGE, ALASKA
To really get away from it all, you need to know more than how to pitch a tent and boil ramen. National Outdoor Leadership School, better known as NOLS, has been teaching those skills, and changing lives in the process, for more than half a century.
Learn wilderness savvy by signing on to an expedition like those exploring Alaska's Brooks Rage, a roadless, remote stretch of true Alaskan backcountry. NOLS trips here are geared toward working adults (the average participant age is 32) and offer an incredible opportunity to become a self-sufficient wilderness leader for life.
The NOLS folks say it best—they don't offer a guided tour. Instead they provide a golden opportunity to learn wilderness navigation, practice safe travel on ice or river crossings, avoid (or handle) grizzly or wolf encounters, cope with unpredictable weather north of the Arctic Circle, and employ wilderness medicine. All the while you'll experience life in a place that's increasingly rare on our planet, a genuine wilderness where nature, not humans, remains the dominant force. A few rewarding weeks here will give you the essential skills for a lifetime of your own explorations.
NICOYA PENINSULA, COSTA RICA
Learning to surf isn't easy, but the experience of chilling at a laid-back surf camp should be. Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula is tailor-made for that kind of trip. While Playa Tamarindo is internationally known for both its surfing and its nightlife, the vibe changes quickly as you move south along the coast.
Here, long stretches of pristine beaches, green forests, and relaxed beachfront communities make it easy to live La Pura Vida for a while—and leave as a legit surfer ready to tackle waves anywhere in the world. The Nicoya's relaxed pace of life is well-matched to the rhythm of reliable swells that roll in for hundreds of days each year.
Sign up for one of the surf camps in Montezuma, Mal Pais, or Santa Teresa and string together day after day of expert instruction. You'll enjoy reliable, mellow breaks where wipe outs don't involve nasty consequences like rock and reefs. And avoiding wave-hogging crowds is easier in this part of the peninsula because paved roads are few and far between. That means getting here is a bit tougher, but being here is that much more rewarding both in and out of the water.
You can learn to kayak on many different rivers, but there's nowhere quite like Chile's Patagonia. Seasoned kayakers dream of running the region's wild, clear rivers as they plunge through mile after mile of almost otherworldly scenery. And because Patagonia South Kayak School is hosted by Chris Spelius, a U.S. national champion, Olympian, and early pioneer of river descents in this remote region, the instruction you'll find here is as outstanding as the water.
You won't be running the Futaleufú River during the school’s Learn to Kayak Multisport Week program, though on an off day you can join a raft trip for hours of roiling the river’s Class V mayhem. Instead you'll learn to roll in the balmy waters of volcanic hot springs and take to mellow tributaries to work on strokes, turns, edge control, and other techniques. With more experience, or more time, you can move on to courses like Playboating 101 and Intro to Big Water.
"Give us one week and we will change the sport of paddling for you,” Spelius's school claims. Combine that teaching philosophy with immersion in Patagonia's unique natural and cultural attractions, and even newbies are likely to become hooked for life.
Brian Handwerk is a New Hampshire-based writer covering travel, adventure, and science. Follow him on Twitter @HandwerkBrian.