When it comes to picking the ideal outdoor buddies, it doesn't matter at all
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I recently joined the outing club at my college, and I like the other students, but it feels like everyone else has all these big outdoor accomplishments. There’s the guy who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the girl who rode across the country with her parents, and the brothers who do canoe trips—stuff like that. Even my closest friend in the club is a serious birder. I’ve been hiking my whole life but just on day trips at home in Arizona with my younger siblings, so I don’t exactly have a claim to fame. I can’t help feeling like I don’t belong and that the other students might prefer to hang out with each other rather than someone like me. How do I show them I have what it takes to be a good outdoors buddy, whether or not I’ve crossed Antarctica on skis?
First off, “outdoors buddy,” like “friend,” isn’t a position you need a résumé for. I’d turn down an accomplished survivalist any day to travel with my friend Sarah, who had virtually no outdoor experience until last year but is down for anything, finds the humor in discomfort, and can perform a dramatic reenactment of Titanic scene by scene. The best Outdoors Buddies are people who can turn a stroll into an adventure, who get excited about seeing animals and bugs and cool views, and can laugh about getting caught in a rainstorm. People who are down for taking off their socks and rock-hopping instead of completing the day’s scheduled 15-miler if rock-hopping seems more fun that day.
In fact, when I think of my favorite outdoors pals, it’s hard to remember what their “accomplishments” are. Instead, I think of when we got the truck stuck in a massive snowbank and my pal and I dug for three hours, laughing so hard we lost our balance. Or when my neighbor and I explored a cranberry bog and got stuck on a floating island of moss. Or when my friend and I went winter camping by dogsled and woke up every hour because one of my sled dogs, Grinch, was determined to dig an enormous hole and cover us with kicked-up snow.
I realize, of course, that winter camping by dogsled might sound intense to you. But I don’t say that to brag; I say that because you and I are examples. Because you know what sounds intense to me? Hiking in Arizona. With javelinas and Gila monsters, and a sun that will turn you into jerky if you’re not careful, and flash floods, and rattlesnakes, and actual freaking lions. I wouldn’t dare jump into a long day hike in Arizona without some pre-trek research and the company of an experienced friend (like you). In fact, I would love to hike in Arizona with you. I bet you’d be able to show me all sorts of things I wouldn’t notice on my own.
And that’s how it is with your club buddies, too. Try to see your classmates’ experience not in terms of competition but as an opportunity. Those brothers who do canoe trips? Maybe you could join them for a weekend sometime. I bet you’d do great on a daylong bike trip. And I can almost guarantee that your birdwatching friend would be thrilled to share her knowledge with someone around campus.
You should also know that, as in so many situations, there are major class dynamics at play here. I don’t know your family’s financial situation, but anyone who can take cross-country bike trips or climb Kilimanjaro as a teenager is coming from a place of privilege and may or may not yet realize that their privilege is rare. Because class is often invisible, especially on college campuses, I’m guessing there are far more people in your situation than you’ve realized; it only takes a few people talking about Kilimanjaro and a whole lot of silent smiles to make Kilimanjaro the dominant narrative.
The good news is that college outing clubs are often designed to make the outdoors accessible and welcoming. Members can usually get gear rentals, access to cabins, and cheap or free classes and trips throughout the semester. Have you ever wanted to try cross-country skiing or stand-up paddleboarding or go on a multiday kayak trip? This is a great chance. And if you’re worried about being invited on someone else’s trip, try organizing your own. Maybe you’re not the guy who crossed Antarctica, but that’s okay. Maybe you’re the guy who always remembers the snacks. Or the genderqueer student who can do killer owl impressions. Or the girl who tells the best scary stories around the campfire. And you know what? Those are the people I’d rather go camping with, every time.
Finally, pretentiousness evolves in inverse proportion to confidence, and nature is indifferent, and the wilderness is not a human competition—but these are concepts that can take years to internalize. In the meantime, here’s my pro tip for an immediate confidence boost: If you have a safe area nearby, go solo camping for a night this weekend. For all their adventures, few people have spent a night alone in the woods. Do that and you’re untouchable.