Most of us want to make our wilderness trips fun and relaxing. But the reason I go out there is not purely based on fun. I'm also interested in the depth of experience. Every time I plan a trip I think about how I can make that trip a little more engaging. Maybe I’ll hike a few hours at night, or climb a local peak. Here are eleven ways to make your wilderness trips deeper and more intense - just plain better.
Go Faster. Faster travel requires more preparation, and more minute to minute thinking than slower travel. Concentration and focus on efficiency puts you more in tune with your surroundings. Sure, as with most of these ideas, you will also miss some details if you go fast. But it is a trade worth making at least some of the time.
Stay Longer. Big, long hikes are a special breed. Your goal is to make your trip so long that you can’t feel the start or the end. Your home is on the trail (or off the trail). It takes a trip of about 3 weeks or more for me to get into this groove. If you haven’t experienced that feeling, make a plan to take a long trip. It could change your life, as it has for so many people.
Get Off the Trail. There may be no single step in this list which will more quickly change your experience than getting off the trail and finding your own way. When we rely on trails to negotiate the terrain, we separate ourselves from the wilderness. Off trail you must pay attention to navigation, topography, vegetation, game trails, rivers and lakes in ways that are very different from the trail experience. You will probably travel much more slowly, and you will quickly learn to turn a map into a visual picture of the terrain. Most importantly, when you are done with your trip, your feel for that location will be more intense and more part of you.
See New Cultures. Much of our experience is grounded in the relationships we develop with other hikers and the communities that surround wild places. Traveling to a different culture - usually a different country - will open your eyes to the different ways that people dress, how they cook, how they camp, local towns and languages. Go far away, as far as you can. When you get to that faraway place, buy local foods, ask questions, stay in huts.
Explore new seasons. Go out in winter, with short days and cold nights. Wander into deep desert canyons in summer. New seasons will focus you on the challenges or dangers of winter cold or summer heat. Try hiking at night in the desert summer, with a full moon. Breathe the hot, dry wind. In winter, learn to use an ice ax and build an igloo. If you are from the north, visit the south. If you are from the mountain west, visit New England in the fall.
Make Your Own Route. Try getting out a map and making your own route. Don’t get all of your plans from the internet or from guidebooks. Hiking established trails or routes is great fun - but once in a while try creating a route from a combination of trails and natural weaknesses. When you make your own route you will learn more quickly about the value of planning and skills of route finding. Sometimes your routes will be disasters, choked with thorns or filled with swamps and boulders. Be prepared to backtrack or go to Plan B. Other times they will be new gems, and the thrill of picking a good one will be all yours.
Travel in Multiple Modes. Ski mountaineering and packrafting are probably the two most popular ways to use multiple modes of wilderness travel in one trip. This requires more complexity and gear, but can reward you with ability to cover a lot of terrain very rapidly. Mixing up the travel modes is also great fun, plain and simple.
Try New Techniques and Different Gear. Change up the way you do your daily routine. Camp without a tent. Cook on a wood fire. Go stoveless. Drop the water filter. Go fishing.
Go to the Big Wild. Save up your cash and get out to the most remote places you can find. Some big wilderness is surprisingly accessible. Huge chunks of Canada are incredibly wild. Most of Alaska. Russia. Greenland. Some parts of the Himalaya. African deserts. Do your homework. There may be some great wild spots in your neighborhood, especially if you get off the trail.
Go Alone. If you usually travel in a group and lean on others for companionship or wilderness skills, try getting out by yourself. When you are alone, all the sounds of night talk just to you.
Go Slow. Quite intentionally, this is the opposite of the first suggestion on the list. Going slow can be fantastic. Especially if you go really slow. Use your time to look closely at what is around you. Take a swim. Study plants. Take lots of pictures. Make a video. Write a letter (with paper and pen maybe!). Finally, take a nap and cook a great meal.
Now, some common sense. Work your way into these. Don’t try them all at once. Many of them can be experienced on short local trips where you can focus on learning, and not be stressed or extended too much. Try them with a friend (except for the Go Alone suggestion, which sort of gets spoiled if you take a friend). Have fun and be safe. If you try these things, don't abandon all that you've learned before - but open yourself up to new ideas, and squash a few of those old fears.