5 Questions to Ask Before Trying That New Outdoors Adventure

By Michael Lanza

We shuffled silently up the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail in the last hour of a 42-mile, over 21,000-foot, one-day rim-to-rim-to-rim run across the canyon and back. Following the beams of our headlamps—night had fallen a few hours earlier—exhausted but knowing we had the gas to reach the South Rim, my friends Pam, Marla, and I trudged upward in the darkness, heads down.

Suddenly, we stopped in our tracks, startled by the unexpected sight of a young couple sitting beside the trail in the dark. Shining my headlamp on the two of them, who had not yet said a word, I asked, “Are you okay? Don’t you have headlamps?”

The guy tapped the tiny light on his forehead, which I hadn’t noticed, and replied, “It died a couple hours ago.”

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“Do you want to walk between us in our light beams?” I asked. They nodded and rose shakily to their feet. As we continued slowly uphill—the two of them clearly physically spent, the woman stopping to sit beside the trail repeatedly in the last mile or so before we reached the trailhead, where our ride was waiting—I got their story from the guy.

A hiker on the upper South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon.
David Ports hiking the South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon.

They had arrived at the park that morning and sought a walk-in permit to backpack overnight but none was available. So around mid-morning, they decided to dayhike down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River and return up the South Kaibab—a 16.5-mile hike with over 9,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss that park management warns hikers against attempting.

While people like Pam, Marla, and I obviously choose to disregard the park’s official warnings against attempting ultra-runs and hikes in the canyon, we trained for it and came prepared to finish. This couple had undertaken a hike for which they didn’t have the fitness, proper gear, or enough food and water, starting it far too late, which exposed them to the day’s wilting heat. And if they had made it to the South Kaibab Trailhead on their own—and I’m not sure they would have—they’d have gotten there hours after the last park shuttle bus departed and found themselves stranded miles from their vehicle, without enough clothes for the cool, windy night. We gave them a ride to their car.

There’s an old saying that “good experience comes from bad experiences.” We learn through mistakes—hopefully. I’ve learned over nearly four decades of backpacking and dayhiking, including 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, that the key to keeping everyone safe—whether it’s a blend of adults and kids, experts and beginners, or even a small party of very fit and experienced people—is to avoid putting ourselves in situations where mistakes become large, with severe consequences.

To fall back on another old pearl of wisdom: “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”

Read “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

A backpacker crossing Eliot Creek on the Timberline Trail around Oregon's Mount Hood.
Jeff Wilhelm crossing Eliot Creek on the Timberline Trail around Oregon’s Mount Hood. Click photo to read “How to Safely Cross a Stream When Hiking or Backpacking.”

We make ourselves safer outdoors through acquiring new skills and experience, and that necessitates trying new things. It’s also fun and rewarding to pursue new challenges. Don’t be afraid to do that. Just remember that the outdoors can be unforgiving.

Whether you are new to hiking, an experienced backpacker looking to visit a new environment (the desert, Alaska, maybe a Third World country like Nepal), trying a new activity like kayaking, climbing, or backcountry skiing, or a parent thinking about taking her family on an adventure that will be new for them in some way, consider the five questions below when deciding whether you are ready for some new adventure.

Most of all: Make conservative decisions. The small regret of abandoning some exciting plans, or postponing until another time, is far preferable to the very large regret of making a decision that goes badly awry.

Please share your thoughts, tips, and questions in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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A backpacker descending a rope ladder at the north end of the Goodman Creek overland trail on the southern coast of Olympic National Park.
My wife, Penny, descending a rope ladder at the north end of the Goodman Creek overland trail on the southern coast of Olympic National Park.

1. Have You Done Anything Like This Before?

Is the activity itself, the difficulty level, the environment you will enter, the season and weather conditions you expect, the remoteness, or another factor new to you? Is there anything about the situation you will enter that is unfamiliar?

If so, do your homework. Learn all you can in advance about that activity or that destination. Ask yourself honestly whether your experience base prepares you for any and all new circumstances you will likely face on this trip. Mitigate your risk level by increasing the challenge, difficulty, and degree of unfamiliarity in small increments, or recruiting companions (or a guide) who have the skills and familiarity you lack.

An example: When I wanted to take my family (our kids were age nine and seven) sea kayaking in Glacier Bay, Alaska, my wife and I decided to take a guided trip—even though I was told that beginners often rent kayaks and guide themselves there—because we’d never been there and didn’t know how difficult it would be to navigate or deal with tides, finding campsites, etc. Since that trip, I would now feel comfortable repeating it with a group of families who are ready for it. But I still believe we made the right decision in hiring a guide the first time.

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2. Do You Understand Everything That Can Go Wrong?

Young boy and man in a slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.
My son, Nate, and guide Steve Howe in a slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.

What could happen and what are the consequences?

People fall off ledges and cliffs, get swept away by fast-moving water, get hit by rockfall, and suffer frostbite or worse in severe cold not because they’re stupid, but because they did not understand the hazards of the environment they were in. That may be the most common reason behind accidents in the backcountry, and those incidents usually involve people just out for a hike.

If you’re new to an environment, talk to someone who’s more experienced to learn what the hazards are. If you are taking less-experienced adults or kids out, don’t assume they know everything that you have learned over the years: Explain to them about the hazards that they need to be aware of.

On any trip I take, I want to know not just how to do everything right—I also want to know everything that can go wrong.

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A backpacker descending a short cliff on the Grand Canyon's Royal Arch Loop.
Kris Wagner descending a short cliff while backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop.

3. Is Everyone In Your Group Good With the Plan?

In almost any group, a classic dynamic can easily develop in which the most-experienced person makes the plans and decisions and everyone else follows like sheep, trusting the leader without fully comprehending what they’re getting into. That can be a formula for trouble, for a couple of reasons: The leader is human and capable of flawed judgment; and someone highly experienced who perceives an activity as relatively “easy” may not always appreciate the skill, fitness, and mental-comfort level of everyone else.

As a de facto leader in a group, even of friends or in a family, always talk about your plans with everyone to get their buy-in; at the least, that will be far preferable to hearing everyone grouse later if the trip does not go as they had expected. As a beginner or anyone following a more-experienced person, make sure you understand and are comfortable with the plan. Most of all, don’t hesitate to ask questions or object to anything you are not comfortable with.

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A backpacker hiking below a rainbow in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Mark Fenton backpacking through a rainstorm in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

4. Are You All Prepared For Every Possible Scenario?

“Every possible scenario” does not necessarily mean that you have to carry clothing for a snowstorm when the forecast promises summer-like weather, just because snow has fallen in those mountains at that time of year sometime in the past. But “every possible scenario” does include having clothing to handle weather somewhat worse than predicted. It includes everyone being ready physically if you discover that the trail is rougher (and slower) than expected. It includes knowing in advance whether a creek crossing may be too high to be safe for everyone in the party.

Your group will only do as well as the least-able and least-prepared member. So make sure everyone is prepared for whatever you’re doing.

Get the right shell for you. See “The Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking
and “The Best Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking Jackets.”

Two teenage girls hiking 13,528-foot Kings Peak in Utah's High Uintas Wilderness.
My daughter, Alex, and friend Adele Davis hiking 13,528-foot Kings Peak in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness.

5. What’s Your Backup Plan?

There are a couple of reasons for having at least one backup or bailout plan and agreeing on it with everyone. First of all, it makes you safer by preparing you to respond to problems that arise.

Secondly—and arguably most importantly—it inserts into everyone’s thinking process that Plan A may not unfold as expected and you may choose to abandon it. Too often, accidents result from people continuing to blindly follow their original plan, despite the warning signs, simply because they are focused on getting through it—their brains are simply not considering alternatives.

When things go wrong, stress and chaos can make it very difficult to think clearly. Knowing in advance what you’ll do in that event will help you choose the smart course.

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9 thoughts on “5 Questions to Ask Before Trying That New Outdoors Adventure”

  1. Thanks for that informed input, Ted. I would add that, if you go through my 5 questions above, your answers should help inform your choices about how to specifically prepare for any outing–including whether you should be prepared to spend the night. For instance, I don’t prepare to spend the night on every trail run in the mountains, but if I’m on an especially long dayhike, I bring a 4-oz. emergency bivy sack and enough layers to survive the night, if necessary.

  2. As a search-and-rescue volunteer in the Colorado Rockies, I would add one more caveat to this list: if you are headed into the backcountry on a hike/snowshoe/ski etc., always plan on spending the night, whether or not that is your intention. That means carrying: extra food and water, a headlamp, an insulating (non-cotton) layer of clothing, a waterproof layer of clothing, appropriate footwear (no sneakers!), a first-aid kit, the means (and knowledge) required for starting a fire even in wet conditions, a rudimentary shelter (space blanket is preferable, but could be as rudimentary as a large plastic trash bag), a back-up battery for your cellphone. It is amazing how many rescues ensue simply because a hiking party set out on a day hike, and something happened that kept them out past darkness and because nobody in the party carried a head lamp, they were unable to hike out, and everybody was miserable/scared/etc. because nobody was prepared to hunker down for the four+ hours it takes to muster a nighttime wilderness rescue (unless it is the most dire of circumstances, rescue helicopters do not fly nighttime missions). Be responsible, be respectful of the wild nature you are about to experience, be prepared to self-rescue or suffer the consequences of poor decision-making!

  3. #4 really made me appreciate my father. 🙂 We did a lot of camping and backpacking together through Boy Scouts, and as an adult and father, I realize just how much he planned and through through this list. When we did our Philmont trip and the trails or weather threw us a curveball, his pack always had what was required, from blisters to batteries and all points in between, he had you covered. I am memorizing this list to help live up to his reputation.

  4. Great set of questions to ask yourself before doing any sort of adventure. The military has put me in the mind set to go out and just do it. However, if anyone else is going on a trip with me, I do a much more detailed plan.

  5. As a guide/seasonal ranger, I can second your first point. Skills are certainly handy, but first-hand knowledge of the place is extremely important in some situations as well. The river we guide here in Florida in the winter has complex and intersecting mangrove tunnels, a plethora of physical obstacles, and the occasional 12ft alligator. I see rentals all the time, and have rescued more than one from bad wildlife situations/canoe flip-overs in the tunnels. It may be expensive, but there is no replacement for experience sometimes. Thanks for sharing this, we could all use the reminder to be safe as we have fun. As I tell my guests, be aware, not afraid!


  6. An excellent, well written piece. Lots of great points to think thru when planning a new adventure. Thank you.

  7. Excellent article. There is a great book out called ‘Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why.’ Many times those who think they are most prepared are the ones who die when things go badly, for many of the reasons you mention above. Thanks for your insight on this topic.