How much outside time do you need?

One night a couple weeks ago, I ate dinner with my back to a 180-degree view of Titcomb Basin, one of the most spectacular mountain valleys I had ever seen. I suppose when you think about it, it was like going to a restaurant and asking for a table with an ocean view and then turning and sitting facing the door.

During our five days in the Wind River Range, a friend said to me, “This is just what I needed.” She had worked nonstop for months, not getting much time outside, especially not five consecutive days. I’ve been in that situation before, gotten so busy with life that I feel like a soccer ball someone keeps hitting in the air, out of control but never coming down — and five days of backpacking is the perfect pause button for life.

“How about you?” she asked me. This is incredible, I said. But, I’m at the end of a five-week road trip, and I feel like I’m not excited enough about the Winds, that it’s been diluted by five weeks of my experiencing some of the most beautiful places in the West: the Sawtooths, City of Rocks, the Wasatch, the Bitterroots, Cascades, the Oregon coast, and Tuolumne. At the end of it all, I was ready to to sit down and process it, to write about some of it, and get the experiences out of my head and onto paper.

I go into the outdoors to recharge. Climbing and being in the mountains is what I do, maybe one of the most important things I do. But it’s not everything. Most of my life is periods of intense work punctuated by one day in the mountains on the weekend, and maybe a half-day somewhere during the week, playing on rock, getting some chalk on my hands, breathing non-city air for a few hours. A few longer trips throughout the year, visiting the desert, getting some long hours behind a steering wheel and letting the scenery fly by to a soundtrack. And that’s usually enough.

Or is it? I feel creative if I spend one day out in the mountains, and can work out some good stuff in my head during short road trips. I try to spend 30 nights a year sleeping outside. This year felt like way too much work than play. From January 1st until August 1st this year, I’d only spent one night sleeping outside. Then, in five weeks, I spent another 29 nights sleeping under the stars. At first, I had to re-learn how to get comfortable on a sleeping pad, and then later in my trip, friends would offer me their couch, and I’d instead drag my sleeping bag out to their back porch and zip myself up in it, sleeping like a baby. Inside was too warm.

In between towns or climbing destinations, I frantically wrote notes on scraps of paper on my steering wheel, churning out enough ideas and bits of essays to someday build a book around. Things were flowing. I was completely recharged after spending a few weeks on the road and walking miles and miles of trails, climbing dozens of pitches. And after the trip to the Winds, I didn’t feel like I needed to tie into a climbing rope at all. I just wanted to write.

How much of the outdoors do you need? Maybe you’re content with a couple weeks a year, if that’s what you can squeeze in. A ski vacation for a week, maybe a backpacking trip in the summer. Some people need far more — outdoor instructors and climbing guides, or the folks who live in ski towns so they can get in 100 days of skiing a year. Do you have to spend a day hiking or skiing every weekend, or you get grouchy? Even more, how much do you deserve?

I’m somewhere in the middle of the couple-of-weeks-a-year people and the 100-days-of-skiing folks. Maybe it’s not so much the number of climbing pitches — I can get in 3 or 4 in Eldorado Canyon before work, then work 8 hours, so that’s not so much of a reset button — but moreso the nights I spend sleeping under the stars. Thirty days is a solid month of nights in a sleeping bag every year, whether it comes all at once or one or two nights every couple weeks. That’s about one night every 12 nights of your life, out of town, sleeping on the ground, hopefully somewhere quiet, probably waking up with the sun. Seems to work for me.


15 replies on “How much outside time do you need?

  • Bill H.

    I’m definitely a week-ender. Sometimes by choice… Sometimes otherwise. During the week you can find me at the office knee deep in one project or another for 10, 12 or more often than not 14 hours a day, so the weekends are a welcome relief. It is my time to unwind… To decompress… To just breathe.

  • Adam

    Amen! I started tracking my nights slept outside 5 years ago, often shooting for a goal of 52 nights (average one night a week), but rarely succeeding. More than the number of nights, it’s the refreshing feeling of sleeping out in clean air with a breeze blowing through the trees and cold nights. So often I slept better out there than indoors (those 30mph+ windy nights excepted). Whenever I’m feeling run down I figure I just need a night sleeping outside. Even if it’s just a post-dinner drive to a trailhead followed by a short hike to immediately crawl into a sleeping bag. In the morning maybe brew some coffee and take down the tent, hike and drive home. The whole outing was just to sleep out.

  • Josh

    Great question. My gut tells me I get somewhat less than your 30 nights outside, but I think that’s a great bar to set. In the past my goal has been “get outside as much as possible,” but I think you’ve made a good case for setting a goal and working toward it! There’s still plenty of 2011 to rack up outdoor points!

  • Patrick

    It’s really hard to say how much time one needs. I too just finished up a 5 week stint on the road. The final days included climbing Otto’s route on Independence Monument, then a pretty tough day of mountain biking in Winter Park. I was certainly ready to go home after that and recharge, but I found myself within 2-3 days of my return wanting more, needing to get back out, It really gets worse every time I leave. So I am temporarily fixing this by backpacking for 6 days in Central PA next week.


  • Craig Rowe

    Whatever the number is for me, I’m not getting it. Granted, a wrecked knee hasn’t helped. (Stupid soccer habit.) But come November, on my first test of the new knee in the Grand Canyon, I’m hoping that will trigger my need to be outside into high gear. My goals is to get at least month of nights outside once healthy. If I need more than that, I’ll work for it. Nice post.

  • Kim Kircher

    Nice post. My life has always been a balance of the indoor writer-me and the outdoor adventure-me. Sometimes the scale tips too far in one direction. Lately, I’ve spent far too much time at my desk. Usually it’s the other direction.

  • Nick

    It’s amazing how the outdoors can have that effect.

    I attribute it to a lack of clutter. Space gives the mind space. Freedom to roam.

    Typically I’m a weekender person with a week trip once or twice a year but haven’t hit that “too much time” wall before. Guess that means I need to get out more often!

    Getting outside doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to be on the move all the time. Sitting in the outdoors with a pen and pad or a good book works wonders.

  • Jeff Moser

    I’ve spent the last 16 years working in basements and windowless buildings. Getting outside is VERY important to me. Luckily I work in a small city, so I’m able to use my bicycle for transportation. This gives me a little outside time every day…even presents fun challenges in the winter months. I also have the option to ride fun singletrack on my lunch hour(ish), just a couple miles from the office. 1,000 ft climb and screaming descent makes the second half of the day spent underground seem not so bad!

    I still crave the weekend out of town adventures though, and it seems there are never enough.

  • Bob D

    I work a lot. I mean, A LOT. Like two weeks between weekends, lately. So my outdoor time is often measured not in days or weeks, but in a couple of hours during the day. It’s not nearly enough, but getting outside, finding a trail and going on a run a few times a week keeps me sane. Hopefully soon life will rebalance to where I can plan those longer backpacking trips. You photo at the top of the post looked like a nice place to squat down for awhile.

  • Korpijaakko

    A great post! +1 on this: “but moreso the nights I spend sleeping under the stars”. But for me 30 nights per year starts to be the minimum, around 50-60 would be better. Never had a chance to try the 100 nights a year but maybe later…

    For me the daytrips just don’t do it. It has to be an overnighter or preferably 5+ days trip. But there is also an upper limit for consecutive trips. I don’t know if I would enjoy more than two separate one-week+ trips in a row. Civilization in between the trips somehow spoils the feeling… But on the other hand, I can enjoy one solid 3-week expedition and I’m dreaming about longer expeditions to come.

  • Matt

    I’m a law enforcement park ranger at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Natl Park in the summer and a security officer for Telluride ski resort in the winter. I’ve skied 67 days straight this season. Getting paid to play is the way to go!

  • doug moore

    Hey Brendan,thanks for brining up this subject. I’ve found that I need a daily dose of outside just for starters. It’s just another ingredient that keeps me alive. Food, sleep, coffee and some outdoor time. I work in a windowless basement office – which I endearingly call my “fluorescent cave”. Like a diver who needs to take a big gulp of air to make it to depth, I must intake the outside to make it to at least lunchtime – which I re-emerge, taking a stroll to the local market for a bit to eat. Rain or shine 🙂

    Yet still, this is not enough. On weekends I Mt. bike or hike or even rake leaves in the yard. My wife and I spend most of our vacations in the Sierra’s, west coast beaches or the deserts of So. California. All of that is usually enough. Usually.

    But the daily dose is the bare minimum to keep me from becoming Mr. Grouchy living in his well lit cave.

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