It’s Totally Normal to Be Clumsy
Getting hurt outdoors means you're exploring your limits
Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m 40 and grew up being very un-outdoorsy. My parents almost never took me in nature. In retrospect I think they were afraid of it, so we mostly stayed inside and read. Yeah. Fun times.
Anyway, in recent years I’m trying to change that, as I find myself enjoying nature. I’ll never do the Pacific Crest Trail, but I enjoy the time in my garden, I enjoy the woods while orienteering (I took a course on it last year), and I enjoy the sea, the islets and visiting them on our little boat.
The problem is that I feel like I keep hurting myself. I fell on the boat and hurt my knee and shoulder. I managed to get sea urchin spines in my hand—for the second year in a row. And one of my fingers is hurt, swollen, and inflamed, and I have virtually no idea why.
I understand that stuff like that happens, but I’m really frustrated by just how often it happens to me, compared to, for instance, my boyfriend.
Is there a way for a natural klutz like me to take control of my body outdoors and stop hurting myself? Or is the skill I should focus on mastering getting used to the fact that I will, in fact, constantly hurt myself and consequently be in pain? I’m sure it happens a lot to you, as someone who’s outdoors a lot. How do you deal with such inconveniences, aches and pains and small (or larger) injuries?
When I was little and my dad taught me to ski, he told me it was good to fall down. I never believed him. I saw falling as failure. If I was really learning, if I was good at this, I wouldn’t fall over, right? It took me years to understand: if you don’t push until you fall, you’ll never learn the outer reaches of your own balance. You’ll never learn how to catch yourself at the last minute. Sometimes the best way to identify your limits is to tiptoe past them.
It sounds like you’ve gotten past the mental hurdle of trying new things, which is fantastic. But I’m not surprised that you’re finding yourself with bumps and bruises as you start to use your body outdoors. You haven’t learned your limits yet. Some of that just takes time and practice, which you’re already doing. But the question is, how do you fall—how do you mess up, make normal mistakes—without getting hurt?
First off: make sure that you’re using the right clothing and gear. Outdoor pros know the importance of sharp knives, well-fitting backpacks, and appropriate shoes. They know when they can skimp on supplies and when to go all-in. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune, but do some googling and seek out specialized clothing. Are there shoes you can wear that are less likely to slip on a wet boat deck? Gloves for gardening (and, um, sea urchins)? When in doubt, go for coverage: long pants are more protective than shorts, and boots are more protective than sandals. Remember to carry water, snacks, warm layers, and sun protection. Determine your limiting factors (Bug bites? Sore feet?) and prioritize gear that addresses those concerns. Later on, you may decide that some of this stuff is unnecessary, but it’s best to start by erring on the side of safety.
Keep in mind that your body’s needs will be different from your boyfriend’s. He might rock hop barefoot while you’d prefer ankle support; you might be able to bushwhack for hours straight, while he needs frequent rests. If you’re exploring together, plan your day around whoever’s needs are greater.
Even with precautions, you’ll almost always be at risk for more injuries as you use your body more. Runners get shin splints; climbers get blisters; thru-hikers lose their toenails. In my experience, the more I’m outdoors, the more minor injuries I have: bruises, scrapes, occasional frostnip. But I’m also stronger, happier, and more confident. My body feels better overall; the benefits cancel out the pain.
But of course, I’ve also had decades to figure out my limits—which is the work you’re doing now. Some activities make me happier than others, and some make me more sore than others, and I tend to gravitate toward the ones with a greater joy-to-pain ratio. Or to put it another way, I’ve learned which kinds of pain I mind (thirst, mosquito bites) and which ones I don’t (cold).
Maybe, with time, you’ll find out that certain outdoor activities aren’t worth it to you. Maybe you’ll find one or two things that make you feel like the luckiest human alive. But for now, what you’re doing is perfect. Exploring and experimenting, putting yourself out there. Just make sure that you’re protecting yourself along the way.