You Have: Rowed your buddy’s raft on mellow rapids. You Want: To lead your first float trip. The Trip: To guide a multi-day Class III trip, you have to know how to read and navigate moderate whitewater, avoid obstacles like strainers, communicate with other boats, and self-rescue in the event that you flip. You want your first expedition to have a few fun rapids but nothing too hairy. Which is why we recommend the four-day, 44-mile trip through the Gates of Lodore, on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. It features seven Class III rapids and sandy, preassigned campsites surrounded by high red-rock walls. (A park ranger will direct you to your site when you pick up your permit; $15 application fee; $185 for a multi-day permit.) Side adventures include a trip to Jones Hole Creek, a 1,200-foot-deep canyon with cascading waterfalls and Fremont Indian petroglyphs. Essential Gear: A trip like this requires sturdy, self-bailing boats (14 to 16 feet), a few kitchen boxes and coolers, an extra oar and life jacket for each raft, a groover or ammo can as a portable toilet, rescue kits, and drybags. The beauty of the Gates of Lodore, though, is that you don’t need to actually bring anything except your tent and sleeping bag. River Runners’ Transport, based in Vernal, Utah, sets you up from the get-go (that includes shopping for, pre-making, and packing meals in coolers) and arranges the shuttle between the put-in at Lodore Ranger Station and the takeout at Split Mountain (rafts and other gear are $75 per person per day; meals are an additional $20 per person).
You Can: Confidently ski the sidecountry. You Want: To break into the backcountry safely. The Trip: When first tackling 35-degree faces and chin-deep powder, it helps to be able to turn. Set your sights on the really, really light (and forgiving) snow that blankets Alta, Utah, where Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG) runs day trips on 900 acres of glades and chutes behind the resort (from $155). AMG will teach you how weather and terrain affect the snowpack, how to dig snow pits and perform other stability tests, what to do in the event that you’re caught in an avalanche, and how to locate and rescue somebody using beacons, probes, and shovels. Guides also show you the safest places to skin up and ski down as much as 11,000 vertical feet in a single day. Bonus: sign up for an overnight trip, during which guests camp atop Grizzly Gulch, a 9,500-foot-high wooded area, and, if the moon is bright enough, take midnight runs down wide-open chutes ($380). Essential Gear: A beacon like the Mammut Pulse Barryvox ($490), a sturdy avalanche probe, and a shovel, preferably one with a large metal blade (we like Backcountry Access’s A1 shovel-and-probe combo; $95), all of which AMG will loan you free of charge.
You Have: Done a few multi-day hikes. You Want: To trek through one of America’s most rugged wildernesses. The Trip: This 53-mile trek—scouted for us by local ultrarunner Jeremy Humphrey—is everything your first multi-day backpacking trip should be: navigable but isolated. “You can go days without seeing another person out there,” says Humphrey. It’s also home to plenty of bears; go with a group, which diminishes the chance of an encounter. Day one: Catch a shuttle flight from Salmon Air in McCall to the Indian Creek landing strip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River ($100). Hike northeast, crest a small ridge, and drop into the lush Indian Creek drainage. The trail then climbs upward as the canyon narrows. After ten miles you’ll reach the Kwiskwis hot spring. Set up camp in nearby Kiwah Meadow. Soak. Day two: Your most scenic day of trekking is also your toughest: you’ll gain and lose 8,500 feet of elevation while covering nearly 15 miles. The trail leads southwest past Pistol Rock, a 700-foot granite spire, and up to the top of Big Baldy Ridge. From there hike eight miles at 9,705 feet, taking in views of the Salmon River Mountains and the Gospel Hump Wilderness. Camp at Buck Lake. Day three: The ridge continues climbing toward Big Baldy’s summit, where you’ll find a lookout tower. (Climb it for views of the Sawtooths, the White Cloud Peaks, and the Middle Fork itself.) Retrace your way back to the Big Baldy Ridge Trail, then head on to the Garden Creek Trail before making your final descent back to the landing strip. Essential Gear: Going light and fast is the name of the game. Long-distance backpacking guru Andrew Skurka’s new book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools and Techniques to Hit the Trails($20), is packed with hundreds of tips on everything from how to choose the best maps to how to take care of your feet to how to bear-proof your campsite. Packing a rescue beacon like the Spot ($170) is a good idea.
You Have: Regularly ridden 30 miles three days a week, mostly on rolling terrain. You Want: To tackle some professional-grade climbs. The Trip: The USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a seven-day stage race billed as the American Tour de France, is based in Colorado for a reason: it’s the only place in the States that can rival the climbs in the Alps. Your goal is Independence Pass, just outside Aspen, a 12,095-foot switchbacked monster where Lance Armstrong occasionally rides. If you’re on a recession-proof budget, drop your bags at the Little Nell (doubles from $565), which offers cyclists complimentary GPS units and helmet cams. Or save cash at the Hearthstone House (doubles from $149). Warm up on these three rides. Day one: Ease in. Acclimatize on the mostly flat, 42-mile Rio Grande Trail, which runs the length of the Roaring Fork Valley. Feeling strong? Connect the ride with the Glenwood Canyon Recreation Trail for another 16 miles through a spectacular canyon along the Colorado River. Day two: Ramp up. Spin from Basalt to Ruedi Reservoir, a 16-mile route along the Frying Pan River, including a steep mile-long ascent just outside the town of Basalt. Extra credit: once you get to the reservoir, extend the ride another 14 miles to where the pavement ends at Hagerman Pass for a 60-mile out-and-back. Day three:Short climb. Aspen to Ashcroft, a 15-mile moderate climb (with a couple of steep sections) up Castle Creek Road to the ghost town of Ashcroft, will build strength. To extend the ride, descend back to the Aspen roundabout, then climb a 5 percent grade for seven miles up to the Maroon Bells. Day four: Tackle Independence Pass, a 20-mile climb that starts just outside of town and gains 4,200 feet while passing snowfields. Pack a good shell—your sweat will freeze as you zip down. Essential Gear: Riding in the mountains, where afternoon showers and temperature fluctuations of 30 degrees or more are normal, is all about micro-adjustments. Midweight arm warmers like Pearl Izumi’s Thermal Lite Arm Warmers ($20) are great because you can roll them down on the fly when you start heating up. Even if the forecast is good, you’ll want an ultralight wind-and-rain-resistant shell like Hincapie’s Pocket Shell ($90).
A mash-up of carbon fiber, aspen, bamboo, and Paulownia wood make this ski lightweight and versatile for the backcountry. A fat tip and an all-terrain rocker shape give the Wayback control and predictability in everything from powder to crud. Plus, K2 built the Wayback with backcountry-only touches like flat tails, concave notches for skin clips, and holes in the tip and tail for rigging a rescue sled.