Do you find yourself reading stories about adventures in outdoor magazines and websites and feeling down about what you did on your summer vacation? Maybe you’re slightly disappointed that your mountain climb or weeklong backpacking trip was just fun, challenging, and/or the “trip of a lifetime”—for regular people.
Would you like to ramp up that trip, both in your mind and the minds of people you communicate with? Would you like to turn that “trip” into an “adventure”? Great. Here are a few ideas on how you can do that when telling the story.
The first thing you must have is some sort of outdoor outing, anywhere from 30 minutes to months long. Here’s one example, a mountain bike trip I did with my friend Chris a few weeks ago.
The real version, which I told my mom when I got back from the trip:
Chris and I bicycled across the San Rafael Swell, from north to south. It was a little under 60 miles, and we took a couple days to do it. It was more gravel-grinding than actual mountain biking, but I thought it was fun. I ran out of water a couple times on the second day before we found more, but Chris had enough and gave me some of his. My rear brake also completely fell off my bike near the end of the second day, but I was able to jimmy-rig it with some baling wire and it worked just fine for the last 25 miles. I think I would try to find a different route next time, and take more water for the middle segment. It was a really pretty ride.
Some adventure that was, huh? Sheesh. Where’s the danger, the uncertainty, the “no shit, there I was”? Well, here are a few ways to increase that.
1. There must be tension.
A good catch-all for tension, if there wasn’t really any, is to use the phrase “if we made it back alive” into the narrative, preferably as early as possible. I mean, really, you can die anytime you start walking down a trail—dehydration, lightning, exposure, heatstroke, rattlesnakes, bears, drowning, falling off a cliff, whatever. It’s a scary world out there. Let people know that.
I had a slow leak in my front tire the whole time, which I had to pump up every morning because I was too lazy to change the tube before the trip (would it hold?). It was hot (how much could we take? Was it safe?). I ran out of water when we were probably five miles from the next water source (how much longer could I make it?). We rode until dark both nights (would we make it to a campsite in time, or would be be exposed to the elements all night?). Chris abstained from beer the entire trip, more than 44 hours (what is the human capacity for suffering?).
2. Your adventure should be singular.
For example, “My friend Chris and I set out to transect the San Rafael Swell by bicycle, a feat that, to our knowledge, hadn’t been done.” It’s a mere sidenote that you can transect the San Rafael Swell in a sturdy 4WD vehicle, or if you take the graded dirt road, probably a Honda Civic. But no one needs to know that.
Has someone done it on a bicycle? Well, has anyone done it on a fatbike? What about a singlespeed? What about a singlespeed fatbike?
Also, “transect” sounds a lot more epic than “pedal across.”
3. Start with the most tense moment of the whole trip.
“I squeezed my rear brake lever. Nothing. I stopped and flipped my bike over to have a look. Chris rode up as I pulled the rear wheel out and we both peered into the gap between the disc brake pads. ‘Your pads are so worn they … you don’t have any brake pads,’ he said. The cotter pin holding the brake in place was missing, and the brake pads had fallen out somewhere. Shit. I pulled the caliper out and held it in my hands. My dream of being the first novice Colorado mountain biker to transect the San Rafael Swell by bicycle was in jeopardy. Twisted metal. Where were the brake pads? Why were we doing this?
I had maybe 12 ounces of water left. It would be dark in two hours. My front tire was slowly leaking air. I was not that excited about the rest of my snack food. We were 30 miles from the shuttle car, or almost 30 miles away from where we’d parked the van that morning.
I walked back up the trail, retracing my tire tracks, scanning the dirt and rocks for my brake pads as the sun dipped lower.”
4. Then leave the reader hanging.
“Could I figure out a way to fix my brakes? If I did, would it hold up for the 25 miles back to our shuttle car?”
5. Maintain tension throughout.
This can be done by repeatedly mentioning the source of the tension—in the above case, the makeshift brake fix—throughout the rest of the story, basically whenever you want to bring the reader/listener back to the epicness of your situation. i.e., “We began the descent, rattling over loose rock at 25 mph, towards Temple Mountain. Would my brake hold? My palms sweated through my gloves and I tapped the brake levers, paranoid.”
If you have other sources of tension, you can use the Old Country Western Song Approach, where one thing after another seems to go wrong. Remember, it’s OK to amplify slight difficulties until they become gripping plot points.
- “We were low on gluten-free, dairy-free options.”
- “We were lost.” (doesn’t matter if you were lost for hours, or just needed to turn the map around so it was facing the right direction)
- “Our rope was hopelessly stuck.” (OK to use even if the rope was only stuck for a few seconds)
- “Was that noise a bear?”
- “We did not agree on the best backcountry coffee setup.”
- If you had 4G cell service your entire trip, don’t mention that.
- Rain sounds a lot worse on a tent fly than it usually is. Basically anytime it precipitates, say or write, “A storm pounded our tiny tent.”
- The “middle of nowhere” is relative, so make the most of it. I heard a lady say into a cell phone that she was “in the middle of nowhere” while she was standing 100 feet from a National Park visitor center in the desert a few weeks ago. Thusly, to some people The Middle of Nowhere is miles from a paved road and/or potential rescue, and for some people it’s anywhere more than 100 miles from a Chipotle.
- For a less complicated approach, just go have an actual epic somewhere. A country without rescue infrastructure, where you don’t speak the language, in a place where you’re far from medical facilities in case of an accident, with not enough gear and/or food, possibly at an altitude where your body begins eating itself, or far out in the ocean. This is still an option, but might be harder to survive.
[photo by Chris Reichel/Instagram @dirty_biker]